Water in Film Noir

In Notes on Film Noir, Paul Schrader notes that “[t]here seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain (even in Los Angeles) and the rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama. Docks and piers are second only to alleyways as the most popular rendezvous points” (586). It is a shame, however, that he skids quickly over the element of water and offers little analysis. I would like to examine more closely and provide deeper explanations: What about the element of water so drew producers of film noir? How was it used, and what was it used to convey?

Schrader’s statement that “rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama” can indeed be observed in the noir films we looked at—Double IndemnityMildred Pierce, and Sunset Boulevard. Scenes of rainfall—or at least its remnants—interestingly only occur where conflict happens or is highlighted.

In this picture and the next, Joe leaves Norma to attend a New Year’s party, which would later lead to Norma’s attempted suicide. (Sunset Boulevard)

Bert tells Mildred that Ray is seriously ill. (Mildred Pierce)

In the above three pictures taken from highly dramatic scenes, the characters are seen attempting to shelter themselves from the rain—Joe by huddling in his coat, and Mildred with her newspaper. The rainfall is visibly heavy enough that it seems almost to be attacking them—it conveys a sense of the heavy, relentless, merciless weight of the dark events that bombard them.

View of Norma Desmond’s mansion shortly after Joe is coerced into moving in. (Sunset Boulevard)
Joe leaves Norma’s mansion against her wishes. (Sunset Boulevard)
Shortly after Walter agrees to help Phyllis Dietrichson kill her husband. (Double Indemnity)

In these shots, rainfall obscures the misc-en-scene, whether scenery or character. It has many effects—creating a bleak or ominous mood, or a sense of uncertainty or moral obscurity.

While Schrader points out elements of water in rainfall, docks, and piers, there is one other inclusion of water in noir films—water coolers. Oddly enough, water coolers appear in all three films discussed here. It might possibly be dismissed as merely a common inclusion in offices, but there are some strange directorial choices in regards to these water coolers—in Sunset Boulevard, for instance, it is foregrounded so consistently and deliberately that it’s almost felt as an awkward intrusion.

In this last shot where a part of Betty is behind the water cooler, the refraction of the water appears to distort her figure or reflection. We observe thus that even the appearance of the water within the water cooler creates a certain mood or emotion.

Mildred leaves happily with Wally to go see a property she wants to buy to start her restaurant. (Sunset Boulevard)

In this shot from Mildred Pierce, for instance, the water cooler is full and its reflection luminous, seeming to reflect the happy emotions at this moment in the film, when the narrative has just begun and Mildred is still full of optimistic hope.

Walter nervously drinks water before carrying out the plan to kill Mr Dietrichson. (Double Indemnity)
At the end of the film, after Walter is found out for the murder and attempts to escape. (Double Indemnity)

The same water cooler here is portrayed differently at different points of the narrative. In the second shot, after Walter has been found out, the water cooler is oddly dark in comparison to the first shot where Walter has not yet carried out the murder, in which the water cooler is bright and clear. The transparent quality of water hence seems to literally reflect the present mood and emotion.

Thus we observe something Schrader did not point out—that the same bodies of water dynamically transform together with the development of the film narrative.

Mildred and Monty play together in the sea. (Mildred Pierce)
Mildred broodingly stares at the sea, before attempting to commit suicide by jumping into the water. (Mildred Pierce)

In the first shot, the sea is shot in bright lighting, with the dominant colours of the water being light rather than dark. It captures the playfulness, the happiness, the optimism in this moment of the very beginnings of Mildred and Monty’s relationship. Yet the bright shot is cut in the middle by the crest of the wave that looms over the couple and appears notably darker than the rest of the water and the picture, seeming almost to foreshadow dark times to crash upon them ahead. In the second shot, chronologically after all the conflict in the film, the sea is portrayed as dominantly dark, moving with a restless and almost vicious energy. The sea had previously been an image of Mildred’s bright hope for life, and now it is an image of death as she desires to use it to commit suicide.

Joe enjoys the pool at Norma Desmond’s mansion. (Sunset Boulevard)
Right after Joe is shot by Norma Desmond. (Sunset Boulevard)


One of the beginning shots of the film. (Sunset Boulevard)

We observe a similar progression in Sunset Boulevard. The first shot positions the pool in bright summer day lighting, reflecting Joe’s comments on the pool as something to be looked forward to. This vibrancy of life is, however, turned upside down in the following two shots where the pool is now the site of Joe’s death—each shot contains a deep irony. In the second of these three shots, Joe’s silhouette is a dark stain on the pool, the only luminous object in the shot, with a shine contradictory to the darkness of the murder. In the third, the water is murky and produces the effect of freezing Joe in time, the very thing he hated about Norma and wanted desperately to escape.

Water is a motif that works in diverse ways in noir films—portrayed in diverse objects, from the sea, to rainfall, even to the most inconspicuous water cooler. Rainfall, it seems, as a force of nature appears to uniquely carry a consistently gloomy, somber, merciless character. Otherwise, however, water is a motif that dynamically evolves throughout the films in congruence with the narratives. All in all, film noir capitalises on the literal transparency and fluidity of water to metaphorically and visually reflect mood and emotion.

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