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Keturah Sarno

FTV 465
Final Paper
Francis Ford Coppola and Film Noir

Film noir has been seen throughout the ages of film and can be understood in

a historical or contemporary context. It is also argued in todays society if film noir

can be considered a genre or a style. Many directors may use this form of style or

genre to create dark and interesting cinematography on a low budget or to make

scenes more mysterious. One directors work where this style can be shown is

Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola implements film noir styles with evident use of dark

toned lighting cinematography, the city, and femme fatales throughout his two films

The Conversation and The Godfather to create a unique and obscure environment,

which can similarly be seen in past film noir genres during the 1940s.

Francis Ford Coppola is a director, writer, producer, and businessman who

emerged as one of the 20th century's leading directors in the 1960s. Coppola is

famously known for his film, The Godfather, released in 1972 based on a novel by

Mario Puzo. This analytically praised saga centered on an Italian American family

involved in organized crime starts off Coppolas rise in the industry, which further

allows him to focus and produce his art Film The Conversation released in 1974.

Both films have a similar feel and style that is commonly used in Coppolas work.

However, in Hollywood this Blockbuster mentality led to a financial risk in

filmmaking and led the industry to pursue a variety of risk reduction strategies
whose net effect was to take production finance out of studio hands, (Brenner).

This was critical because filmmaking was not considered an art but a business and

Coppola changes these critics with both his creative and artistic directing style.

In film noir elements of cinematography, displaying darkness of tones, casted

shadows, and low-key lighting, further portray; a certain style, technique, theme,

and narrative in a story. In Coppolas Film The Conversation, the filmgoer is able to

see these styles that involve heavily on dark shadow effects. In the scene when the

audience is first introduced to the main protagonist Harrys girlfriend, the shot is

engulfed in shadows casted on Harrys face. Showing these lighting techniques

allows for an interpretation about how Harry is scared to show affection and this is

further complimented by the staging of dark shadows on his face which permit the

background to disappear near the back of his head. This effect can help the audience

infer Harrys fear of opening up and shows his secretiveness brought upon by his

insecurities and anxiety.

The next scene that captures the effects of film noir that Coppola is able to

accomplish with lighting is the ending scene of Harry going crazy in his apartment.

This ironic scene exemplifies the use of darkness and shadows especially with the

implementation of Venetian blinds changing how the light is cast on Harrys face.

This shot creates a trapped atmosphere and manipulates the scene to reflect Harry

feeling like he is is trapped in a cage, which is all concurred through what is going on

inside his head. Not only is lighting an important element in this scene but also off-

screen sound brings a more dramatic slant and goes well with the increase of

destruction of Harrys home and well being. Using the solitary music of the
saxophone along with the background sound of the repeating melancholy piano

motif allows a perfect staging of cinematography that ends the film, leaving the

audience with a classic film noir open ended ending.

In Hollywood using these certain lighting cinematography effects can build a

characters persona for the audience but can also violate a number of convictions

when shadows get too dark. For example, creating flat planes of darkness that

betray the illusion of roundness, obscuring information that is important to the

narrative, or producing strong contrast that destroy the stars glamor, (Pg. 247

Keating) can be seen as expressive and allows a more experimental approach to the

style of a film. In The Godfather, Coppola uses an excessive amount of this dark

lighting with shadows to show a characters personality and develop that character

as being a bad guy or even showing what their motives may be.

In the beginning scene of The Godfather the scene starts with the lines I

believe in America this is suggestive when involving style because the line is said in

the dark before the audience sees picture. With this connotation, it can be

interpreted as false hope of the American dream. The scene then fades from

darkness and shows the character where the voice was coming from. The shadows

casted on his face make him seem weak and suggest to the audience that the

environment the character is in is a negative one. Thus, cutting to the Godfather, the

audiences reflections are correct. What the character is about to request to the

Godfather, again all simply done with dark cinematography, dim shadows, and low-

key lighting, can give a feeling of fear and mishap. We also can notice a prevalent

lighting angle that leaves the characters facial characteristics in those dark shadows.
Thus, the effect of scaling light on only one side of the face portrays the altering of a

character from the side of good to the side of evil.

Not only is cinematography a strong asset that Coppola uses throughout his

films that connect to noir settings but also his way of incorporating the city and

stylized framing. In The Conversation the opening scene, set in San Francisco,

immediately brings the audience into an establishing shot overlooking a large mass

of people. As the camera slowly zooms into the park it makes the audience focus on

a mime that interacts with people passing by until we are introduced to Harry who

is then followed by the mime. The way the scene is shot gives a distinct landmark

and shows how citizens will make sense of an urban environment while also

allowing a claustrophobic setting. Throughout the rest of the film there are many

districts and landmarks that can give the audience a certain understanding where

the characters may be in a scene. Furthermore, exemplifying how the constant use

of city in noir films adds to the type of style and genre that film noir and Coppola

proceeds to use.

Similar to The Conversation and its involvement with a noir city The

Godfather also has a Polyethnic city environment setting. Throughout the saga,

centered on the Corleones, the city reveals a vast amount of noir elements to it. For

example, this film has elements connected to film noir in its connections not only to

just the city but also cops vs. gangsters, crime, and anti heroes. This exploits the true

gangster style and settings in the opening scene and art of double-crossing that is

further shown in the film. Furthermore, the city in Coppolas film the Godfather

represents different modes of passages similar in film noir that gives essential
component of the films cycle representation of a metropolis and the close

connection of the experiences of nostalgia of absent space, which confirms the

significance of the urban walk, (Pg 112 Dimendberg). Again, this can be shown in

Coppolas films and add importance of having a city because by using it, one can

eliminate the gathered mass of people who bring comfort and once those people

dispersed, the scene will switch and instead have a suspense and fear in to it. This

effect works exceptionally in the Godfather by allowing it to cue danger when

isolation occurs. This example can be shown when Sonny Corleone leaves in his car

by himself to help his sister and as the scene goes further from the city and becomes

empty from cars and other people, Sonny is brutally attacked and gunned down to

his death.

Coppola has demonstrated so far how a lot of his styles with his films have a

strong correlation to film noir style and genre. Therefore, the next thing that

Coppola uses in his work is the classic femme fatale. Having these genres of crime or

erotic thrillers, such as The Conversation and The Godfather, create an intense plot

twist in a story. Thus, femme fatales can be described as striking female characters

that are mysterious, ambiguous, often entrancing, and at times duplicitous, (Pg. 1

Tasker). These females have unique roles in noir films, which can include

underlining the necessity of avoiding reductive assumptions in any attempt to

encapsulate as broad a topic as that of women in film noir, (Pg. 1 Tasker). In

Coppolas films femme fatales are an opposition between good and bad women

who manipulate men into doing vindictive tasks or even murders.

In The Conversation, femme fatales can be picked out in several scenes

throughout the film. Harry, the main protagonist, is a closed off character who is

afraid to let anyone in emotionally, especially women. In the scene where he is in his

apartment and spends the night with his tempting female guest, Harry makes the

mistake in trusting her and ends up getting all the surveillance tapes he was trying

to keep hidden and safe, stolen by the call girl who becomes our first femme fatale.

Not only was this a disaster for Harry and his trust issues but also later on in the

film the woman, Ann, who Harry was originally trying to protect with the tapes,

ends up double-crossing her husband, for her other lover, Marc. Thus, ending the

scene with Harry witnessing the death of Anns husband. Again, this is a classic

narrative for femme fatale women who betray their husbands and try to kill them in

attempts to gain money and use another lover to accomplish the task.

Woman in film noir repeatedly tend to appear weak or nave and make men

unconscious of the damage that they are truly capable of. Thus, in foregrounding

and valuing noirs imaging of female strength and determination these noir films of

women show a harsh and uncomplimentary look on American life. This is obscure

because men would truly believe that woman in real life have evil intentions and

make men develop distrust towards women, due to the overemphasis on the femme

fatale characters in films. Not only has this resulted in a misreading of noir films but

it has fed into cultural and critical obsessions with the bad, sexy woman, which

inevitably becomes prescriptive and influences cultural discourse about female

agency in counterproductive ways, (Pg. 5 Tasker).

In Coppolas film, The Godfather, one can say that there isnt a specific femme

fatale but instead women get taken advantage of and beaten for not listening to the

powerful gangsters. However, I believe that the femme fatale in the film is the Statue

of Liberty. With the opening words of I believe in America, the audience realizes

that for many of these people in the film, the American Dream will never truly be

fulfilled. Thus, the Statue of Liberty is a femme fatale, muse, and seductress of The

Godfather. Throughout the film, it concludes that there is no fair justice in the

American system and this leads to corrupt nature, betrayals, and murders, which

show the true perception of the way of life necessary to accomplish the American

dream. Hence, in film noir the femme fatale has become the key reference point

in neo-noir and other forms of noir nostalgia; and her perceived centrality is due

both to the way in which certain films have been privileged over others, and a more

general conflation of very different female types, (Pg. 3 Phantom).

In short, Coppola uses a variety of film noir styles that allow him to capture a

certain tone in his films The Conversation and The Godfather. By using distinct noir

styles of dark lighting cinematography, Coppola uses these effects of low-key and

high contrast lighting to capture stylistic tones of fear and mystery. Likewise, the

use of shadows becomes apparent in Coppolas work through the use of dark

shadows to create character personas and allow the character to develop hidden

intensions. Next, Coppolas utilizes the city to illustrate landmarks and to establish

barriers of fear when characters become isolated. This effect is important in both

films because it allows the audience to feel the emptiness of an environment, thus,

further adding suspense to the scene. Lastly, Coppolas use of femme fatales in The
Conversation and The Godfather creates a plot twist, which is a technique utilized in

past noir films. Having femme fatales in these films builds suspense and allows the

director to take the audience on a journey as the character develops malicious

intentions. Using these film noir styles of cinematography, the city, and femme

fatales, Coppola was able to create masterpieces of film art with criminal Italian

gangsters and suspenseful detective pictures to continue his rise to success.

Works cited

Cook, David A. History of the American Cinema. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Ettedgui, Peter. Production Design and Art Direction. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Jancovich, Mark. "Phantom Ladies: The War Worker, the Slacker and the femme

Fatale." New Review of Film and Television Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May


Kracauer, Siegfried. "Walking Cures." Taylor and Francis Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 07

May 2017.

Schatz, Tom. "The War Era." Film Noir Case Study. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 223-39. Web. 05

Mar. 2017.

Tasker, Yvonne. "Women in Film Noir." Wiley Online Library. Wiley, n.d. Web. 05

Mar. 2017.

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