Photo and story by Hannah Adams / Contributing Writer
Elyce Helford, an MTSU English professor, hosted a lecture on “the Noir Look” on Thursday at the Linebaugh Public Library.
The lecture was a part of Helford’s “Introduction to Film Noir” series, in which Helford hosts a film screening and lecture every first Thursday of the month. The events begin with a brief synopsis of what film noir is and a break-down of the film shown, without giving away any spoilers. The event is held in a boardroom on the second floor of the library. Chairs are lined up to mimic a theater room as best as possible, with the TV screen high on the wall, and popcorn is provided. The series began on Feb. 1 with a lecture on the origins of film noir in World War II and will end with a lecture on May 3.
The Introduction to Film Noir series started due to Helford’s wish to extend her public service work and to teach beyond the school.
“Classic noir seemed an excellent choice for gathering non-students together to enjoy the films and learn more about origins, style and character types,” Helford said. “So far, we’ve had a great and enthusiastic audience.”
After sharing a proposal to host a film noir night at the library, Carol Gattas, the branch librarian, assisted Helford in finding a monthly slot for her event.
For the Noir Look lecture, which was the second lecture in the series, Helford led with a giveaway of the film featured that night, “The Big Combo.” As people walked in, she gave them a piece of paper to write their name down for their chance to win an unopened copy of the movie.
Afterward, she launched into her discussion of what sort of techniques noir films used and some brief history behind the genre.
“I’ve really gotten into film noir,” Helford said. “It’s just become something that I really love, and I like to analyze it. I won’t discuss how much money I’ve spent on films.”
Film noir began in the 1940s and lasted into the late 1950s. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that these movies were labeled as “film noir.” During their popular reign, they were simply dubbed “B-movies” and were played before a big movie screening. They were cheap movies shot under dark lighting to help hide reused sets or missing aspects. Because of their low budget, lighting was conserved for cost-effectiveness.
Helford went on to explain that they used this low lighting to their advantage to direct the audience in a certain way. For example, cutouts were placed over the camera lenses to enhance specific emotions from the characters. These cutouts would consist of “blinders” to emphasize the contrast between light and dark or a thin circle to highlight on a character’s eyes only, leaving the rest of their face in shadows.
Camera angling was also used as a strategy in the genre. Often, the cameras would tilt or zoom in at an awkward angle to make viewers anxious, mimicking what a character was going through on-screen.
For “The Big Combo,” Helford pointed out that it was one of the most visually dark noir films out there and also one of the most underrated ones. The film stars Richard Conte as a crime lord, Jean Wallace as his girl who wants out of the relationship and Cornel Wilde as the cop trying to put Conte behind bars. Wilde’s character is also in love with Wallace.
Helford pointed out a few of the movie’s quirky characteristics after the screening, which included the breaking down of Wallace’s “wrecked femme fatale,” the two hitmen with “obvious gay undertones” and the similarities between the cop and the mobster.
The topic of the next film night, which will be held on April 5, will be “the Femme Fatale,” and Helford will be showing “Double Indemnity.”
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