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Visual Styles of Film Noir and Neo Noir

Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, Chinatown, departed from the use of grayscale or the black and white palette. There were more colors and details to the background which provided a clearer picture of elegance of the upper class and the struggle of the ordinary people of 1937 Los Angeles. The dominant colors in the film were brown, gray and black. There were also scenes where shades of red and green were used. Red emerged forcefully twice — first during Mrs. Mulwray's meeting with J. J. Gittes in a restaurant decorated in red, and in the final sequence when Mrs. Mulwray was shot, her blood splattered on the left side of her face and on the brown leather seat of the car. Dim green and hues of brown and gold gave the realistic picture of a drought-ridden environment. The color theme is associated with the parched, sun-beaten earth surrounding Los Angeles.

The use of light and shadow is another point of comparison. The scenes in film noir are always lit darkly and when light does come in, it is oblique and vertical rather than horizontal, creating a mood of instability and restlessness.  The shadows of venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in noir. Characters' faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness. The strong contrasting of white and black shades added to the suffocating feeling. These elements are still present in “Chinatown”. The slight difference is that this film is colored. In the scene where Gittes was talking to the fake Mrs. Mulwray over the phone, the venetian blinds and the sunlight created oblique gold and black stripes across Gittes’ face.

The lighting effect would appear the same as in Film noir if the movie was done in black and white. It was successful with keeping the same kind of hysteria, crisis, thrill and depth with the kind of golden light adapted for shooting in low-key light. Low-key lighting was intensively used in the later part of the movie. Here are some scenes where shadows were significantly used to convey the dark intentions, secrets and tragedy of the characters:

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  • One was when Private Investigator Gittes was sneaking in the house of Mrs. Mulwray’s butler where she kept her husband’s mistress. He was hiding among the bushes; the light from the window where he peeked slightly illuminated his face. He watched Mrs. Mulwray and the girl identified as the mistress. His expression puts one to think that Detective Gittes was forming conclusions from what he was seeing. He then submerges back into the shadows like he had already proven his speculation.
  • The discovery of the corpse of fake Mrs. Mulwray.
  • Another is the confrontation between Gittes and Noah Cross near the finale. Noah Cross revealed his intentions to own the future. Grim, panic, disagreement and pointlessness was depicted by the darkness of the dimly lit garden.

Claustrophobia is one very significant characteristic of Noir. Chinatown took a different approach to achieve claustrophobia in a colored film. It was through medium close-up shots taking only the view of the actors’ shoulders and up. Even if Polanski and cinematographer John Alonzo were shooting in academy ratio, claustrophobia would still be achieved by this pointed avoidance of the standard medium shot's ability to orient the viewer to the space and to the character's relationship to it. Stretched out to the horizontal proportions, the film creates an almost unbearable tension between the width of its frame and the ways in which the camera seems to be bearing down on the characters and their environment. This is intensified by the shallow sense of space, commotion placed front and slightly off center, occasionally broken by shots of extreme and often quite narrow depth.

The setting of the finale was a night look of Chinatown. Shots of the neon signboards of stores in Chinatown from a moving vehicle gave the impression of hopelessness and foreboding that a tragic end is going to happen on that place. The opening shots of the district are low, with an upwards perspective at the neon lights highlighting Chinatown’s broad skyline against the dark night.

The ending of “Chinatown” is considered to be the most innovative scene. The camera was held at eye level with the aim of making the audience feel as if they are part of the movie. Some shots were framed by characters’ shoulders and the sides of heads, creating a feeling to the audience that they are joining the crowd of onlookers waiting for the next thing to happen. This was portrayed in the last scenes, the part when Noah Cross appeared to Mrs. Mulwray and Catherine. Cross dominated this scene; his imposing figure encompassed much of the frame. Gittes was out of the picture as he was held powerless at distance. Mrs. Mulwray struggled to escape from Cross; Gittes voice was heard making a suggestion to leave everything to the police. The camera turns to the source of the voice. The camera mimicked the reaction of a bystander to the details of the scenario. The scenes proceeded realistically from the perspective of a mere spectator.