I know that I like film noir, and I can tell you how it makes me feel. So why can’t I define it? It’s a genre, of course. But it’s also frequently used like an adjective. Sometimes it’s used to allude to a specific moment in motion picture history, or even to evoke particular fashions. (“A Justin Timberlake fedora would make anybody look like a jerk,” a friend of mine once opined. “But a film noir fedora is okay.” ) What does this phrase actually refer to?
In their oft-cited 1955 essay “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton attempted to explain a movement that had only recently been given its name. “The aim of film noir,” they argued, “[is] to create a specific alienation.” They defined the genre by the emotional response that ambiguity provokes: “The moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir.”
This definition works splendidly for famous Hollywood crime pictures like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Since then, however, the phrase’s colloquial meaning has expanded. When someone says “film noir,” we don’t just think of an emotional state; we also think of the visual style used to convey that feeling. The words conjure high-contrast images of long, skewered shadows; of streetlights cutting through impossibly thick city fog; of wet asphalt and trench coats and cigarettes. No matter how fervently or frequently the noir sensibility is revived, we still identify it with the fashion, filmmaking, and acting styles of the 1940s.
Frederick Knott’s play Wait Until Dark, in which a blind woman must defend herself against a group of dangerous con men in her own apartment, certainly creates “specific alienation.” The story may not be morally ambiguous like many of the classic noir movies, but the heroine finds herself in many ambiguous situations. She must decide who to trust and what to believe. The play was a contemporary thriller when it appeared on Broadway in 1966. When produced today, the mid-60s Greenwich Village setting might feel a bit arbitrary. There’s no compelling reason for it to take place at that time–it just happened to be written then. But prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s new adaptation, which runs through October 5th on the Geva’s Mainstage, moves the action back twenty-two years to 1944. This change doesn’t just add a dash of wartime paranoia or tweak the female protagonist’s social situation; it allows the story’s noir elements to manifest themselves visually.
In the Geva’s production, you will see filmic style reflected in every design element. Before the show even begins, we see Vicki Smith’s unit set, which features very few splashes of vivid color. In effect, it nearly registers as black and white. Dressed in Marcia Dixcy Jory’s period costumes, the men are monochromatic while our heroine pops against the background in her blue dress. Don Darnutzer’s lighting shifts from warm and welcoming to sinister and shadowy. The apartment’s surprisingly significant set of venetian blinds, a noir staple, casts long stripes across the basement apartment.
When combined with the nail-biting script, these visual elements sometimes reminded me of specific moments in classic movies–some crime noir, some straight thrillers. As a duplicitous figure stood at the top of a staircase, staring down at our suspecting heroine, I thought of a famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his own works: Shadow of a Doubt. When I saw a girl cradling an austere doll that that hid something of great worldly value, it triggered memories of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Throughout the play, movie buffs in the audience might take momentary respites from the feverish suspense to think, “I know that image!”
That’s certainly not to say that you need to brush up with a night of Turner Classic Movies in order to enjoy the slow burn that this well-crafted piece of entertainment provides. But if Wait Until Dark does whet your appetite for vintage suspense and noir, there are plenty of great titles to choose from: The Third Man, Out of the Past, and The Big Sleep, for starters. There’s also one classic thriller with a strong link to Wait Until Dark: Hitchcock’s single foray into 3D filmmaking, Dial M For Murder. Hitchcock’s popular film shares Wait Until Dark’s claustrophobic feel and tight plotting. That’s no surprise: it’s adapted from the 1952 stage hit of the same name, which was Frederick Knott’s first play. Knott would only write one other Broadway spine-tingler, 1961’s Write Me a Murder, before finishing his career as a playwright with Wait Until Dark five years later.
It feels right for the Geva’s Wait Until Dark to arrive in September, just as the night air starts to cool. Walking to the theatre put me in exactly the right mood for what I was about to see. Maybe that’s because the classic noir films and thrillers always seem to take place in an eternal autumn. It has always just rained outside, and it’s always just slightly chilly. It’s always trench coat weather.