Museums & the Movies: Investigating Film Noir

March 25, 2013


Ever since visiting the ‘Film Noir’ exhibition at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt last year, my interest in the genre has been kindled. But is it actually a genre? Or a style? Or a movement? That, and more, is what I’ve been learning about in the online course “Investigating Film Noir” that I signed up to on Canvas Network. What possessed me to take on a course with a 6-8 hour per week study commitment on top of my already very full schedule I don’t know, but through the power of multi-tasking it’s somehow working out. And it’s worth it!

The course, taught by Richard L. Edwards – co-author of The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism – “explores the noir aesthetic as it emerged in the post-World War II era” and “brings together many digital projects (…) that involve deepening our critical and popular understanding of film noir.” It’s jam packed full of fantastic resources, including lots of interesting readings and, of course, the films noir themselves. The best thing is that they’re all available in the public domain to view for free, and Edwards has decided to stay clear of the usual suspects so I’m discovering lots of new films I’d never heard of before.

As far a museums go, there aren’t really that many films noir that feature museums in a significant role, unless you include Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but there are a surprising number featuring artists or painters as the main protagonist. One of the set films we watched last week, and my favourite one so far, was Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street from 1945, which includes a couple of great museum-related dialogues. Amateur painter Chris, a cashier going through a mid-life crisis, befriends young and delectable Kitty who mistakingly takes him to be a wealthy artist. Her conniving boyfriend Johnny persuades Kitty to con smitten Chris into putting her up in her own apartment. Chris, whose nagging wife is sick of falling over his canvases everywhere, retreats to Kitty’s new apartment to paint his masterpieces. But Johnny sells them behind his back under Kitty’s name, with disastrous consequences.

Interesting fact: According to the IMDB, “Twelve paintings done for the film by John Decker were sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for exhibition in March of 1946.”

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Kitty: You know those art galleries on Fifth Avenue? The prices they charge! I saw one little pictures that cost $50,000. They called it a…a…Cezanne.

Chris: Cezanne? Oh, he was a great French painter. I’d like to own that painting.

Kitty: You would?

Chris: Uh huh.

Kitty: For $50,000?

Chris:Well, you…you can’t put any price on masterpieces like that. They’re worth…well, what ever you can afford to pay for them.

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Kitty: He may be dumb, but not about art. The day he took me to the museum he explained how everything was done. You should have heard him. People stood around and listened.

Johnny: What museum?

Kitty: The Metropolitan. Yipe, they got pictures there worth a million bucks!


Street Artist: You know it’s a hard business selling pictures. People don’t buy art nowadays. No appreciation, no taste, no perception…

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(All images are screen shots taken from the film ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) directed by Fritz Lang. Available in the public domain at

2 Responses to “Museums & the Movies: Investigating Film Noir”

  1. Adam Says:

    Nice blog Jenni…loved all the “Scarlet Street” screenshots. I’m in the NoirMOOC as well…do you think some of this (really the original story “Des Chienne”) is partly a response to changing tastes in art, or the public’s understanding of what constitutes art.

    Clearly Kitty and Johnny are uneducated and uninterested in art based on comments like “where would you ever find a flower like that?” Even Chris’s coworker who comes to see his paintings seems a little taken aback.


  2. Nanettr Says:

    Wonderful summary of the class, Jenni. I’m also enrolled in this MOOC. You’re right about the work load (more to read and view each week than some of my Masters courses …. even some that coast me +$1900) But definitely worth the time. I’m learning so much!

    Is it me, or is Johnnie a dead ringer (albeit taller) for Willem Defoe?

    A blog devoted to museums? Right up my alley.


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