Film noir can be seen from several aspects principally a portrayal of a certain aspect as well as a creation of a particular atmosphere. The Dark Night is perhaps no more film noire than other more descriptive films but it certainly has elements which are typical film noire. The argument that a woman has to be present to make a film noire has already been argued extensively before especially in the appraisal of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ which has been described as being a precursor of the genre but not the actual genre. The Dark Night contains several aspects which classify it as film noire and amongst these one may include the setting and the tragic nature of the developments. The music which is mysterious and pensive also plays an important part in creating that atmosphere which is normally associated with the film noire genre. However the film is mainly a character study of the relationship between batman and the evil characters in the famous, nay legendary comic strip such as the Joker and the penguin who duel with Batman and who eventually find their nemesis in him.
The Dark Knight – a critical opinion
The Dark Knight is actually sometimes described as a superhero film, although whatever that genre means is slightly ambiguous to say the least. It is a sequel to the 2005 film batman Begins and is directed by Kevin Nolan who also directed other noire films. It has an excellent cast including Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne (Batman), Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Gary Oldman in the part of James Gordon and finally Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. Heath Ledger plays the Joker who is the criminal mastermind behind all that goes on. In a sense this is the whole crux of the film as the Joker remains terribly important to proceedings and is almost the leitmotif of evil.
Interestingly Nolan based the film on the comic books from the 1940’s when film noire was not yet in abeyance. He also gained inspiration from the 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke as well as the 1996 series, ‘The Long Halloween’. Curiously the ‘Dark Knight’ nickname was first used in connection to Batman way back in 1940 in a story written by Bill Finger. Here one has to compare certain elements of the film with the classic film noire precursor of the genre better known as ‘The Maltese Falcon’.
Tragically for the film, Heath Ledger died on January 22 2008 from a drug overdose leading to an intense refocusing of the film’s marketing campaign which had used Ledger quite intensely previously. In a sense the noire curse struck with greater intensity here actually causing a death behind the scenes.
Comparison with ‘The Maltese Falcon’
Perhaps one of the best known films of all time, The Maltese Falcon is definitely one of the classics of the early film noire age. The film has a lot going for it, especially where the underworld is concerned and where the criminal gangs seem to be going. Paul Coughlin argues that this is not essentially a noire film in the sense of the femme fatale who usually dominates such movies however the dark nature of the film and the sense of thrilling abeyance it conveys is certainly does make it a film noire in my opinion. The comparisons with The Dark Knight are quite obvious here since the main character is a loner and almost transforms himself overnight with Bogart and Bale particularly brilliant in their Chekov like role portrayals
Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the main role is masterly with his nuances and statements extremely well defined and subtle at the same time. Sam Spade is a mystical character well directed by John Huston who brings about the utter brilliance of Bogart in a different light. The scenes which involve guns and violence are also very powerful indeed showing an intensity which has rarely been equaled even in other Mafia films. The power of the interactions between characters is also a positive aspect of the film which expands very well as the story unfolds. Although The Dark Knight is nothing to do with Mafia, the systemic organized crime piloted by The Joker is very reminiscent of a professional criminal organization. Other parallels include the monologues by both main characters and the action scenery which is very much avante garde in The Maltese Falcon while The Dark Knight is more subtle in its use of technology.
The sense of suspense and intensity created around the actual Maltese Falcon is surely something else. One has to admire first time director John Huston who truly brings out the horror of organized crime in a way where everything collapses into a maelstrom of nothingness and hate. So one has to argue that the blackness of the film as well as the black heart of the protagonists make it a film noire in every sense of the word.
Some film critics seem to think differently and base their argument on one principal notion, the fact that there isn’t a woman in the plot who is a sort of femme fatale or bête noir. This thesis however does not hold much water since there are several dark aspects in the film, mostly in the one to one exchanges between the main characters. The low key lighting used in the film is also very much part and parcel of the whole film noire genre and this lends further credence to the theory that this is one of the best film noires of all time. When comparing The Maltese Falcon to The Dark Knight, one does not considerable similarities in camera work and lighting which is subdued and very eerie in both cases
In fact the camera angles and shots are all conducive to the importance of the film in the noire genre. The subtle lighting techniques that are used demonstrate the darkness of certain scenes which also change whenever Spade comes into the equation. The fixation with the Maltese Falcon statue as a leitmotif is also extremely powerful and here once again Coughlin’s thesis disappears into thin air. Women are not present in The Maltese Falcon but their influence is also never very far behind. The Dark Knight does feature some women elements in it but they are quite far away from the main plot in Gotham City.
Huston is described as a moral and ethical director by Philippa Gates who is in turn quoted by Coughlin in his article. However the sense of empathy which is allegedly felt by Spade when he murders his associate is not necessarily different from any film noire. Huston’s direction and Bogard’s acting actually revolutionized the film noire genre in more ways than one and although Coughlin seems to think that this was only the precursor of the genre, a good viewing of the film will prove this to be otherwise. The same goes for The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight is considered one of the best superhero films which were ever made and it is not described strictly as film noire. It had unprecedented success worldwide grossing over one billion US dollars in revenue and received eight nominations for the Oscars.
"As we looked through the comics, there was this fascinating idea that Batman's presence in Gotham actually attracts criminals to Gotham, attracts lunacy. When you're dealing with questionable notions like people taking the law into their own hands, you have to really ask, where does that lead? That's what makes the character so dark, because he expresses a vengeful desire." Nolan, Halbfinger, 2008
This quote by director Nolan is hugely intriguing as it confirms the thesis that the film is truly noire after all. Other similar films include the new Spider Man or perhaps The Godfather trilogy where the organized crime syndicate is also paramount. Spider Man is perhaps similar due to the astounding amount of special effects used in it. However it has to be said that The Dark Knight which is then followed by The Dark Knight Rises surely encapsulates all the elements of film noire in one fell swoop of brilliance.
David M. Halbfinger (March 9, 2008). "A Director Confronts Darkness and Death". The New York Times. Retrieved March 8, 2008.
Jolin, Dan (January 2008). "Fear Has a Face". Empire (Bauer Verlagsgruppe) 223: 87–88. Retrieved July 8, 2008.
Mackie, Rob (October 21, 2005). "Batman Begins review". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved February 20, 2007.
Byrne, Craig (2008) (Hardcover). The Dark Knight: Featuring Production Art and Full Shooting Script. Universe. ISBN 0-7893-1812-1, Print
Nolan, Christopher; David S. Goyer (2007). "Introduction" (Hardcover). Absolute Batman: The Long Halloween. New York: DC Comics. ISBN 1-4012-1282-4, Print