What, if anything, is film noir?

I like film noir, but I agree with Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward——editors of the excellent mid-seventies guide Film Noir——that it’s hard to define.
Unlike a Western, film noir doesn’t have a distinctive setting. It doesn’t have instantly recognizable visual genre symbols such as a six-gun, a sheriff’s badge, Army uniforms or a “meet cute” (the rom-com scene where the leads just happen to bump into each other).
What does it have?
•Corruption. Film noir protagonists operate in a universe where even if they’re not the low-life, corruption is usually taken for granted. And if they’re not corrupt at the start, the protagonists often enough fall into it.
•Doom. As one section of the book puts it, a pure gangster film (Little Caesar, Angels With Dirty Faces, Scarface) is about the American Dream, the struggle to succeed; the protagonist of a noir gangster film (Asphalt Jungle, Force of Evil) is staring failure and death in the face. The same is true of non-gangster noir such as DOA (a man with 24 hours to live tries to find his poisoner) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (a clairvoyant tries to avert a prophecy of death for a young woman——even though he’s never wrong).
•An arbitrary and hostile universe. Film Noir quotes a line from Camus to the effect that “on any given day, the absurd may hit a man in the face.” You make one false step and you’re doomed (Detour). You make no false steps and you’re still doomed (DOA, in which it turns out the protagonist never saw the documents he was killed to cover up). The book also quotes Dark Corner‘s protagonist, who tells his girlfriend that someone’s attacking, backing him into a dark corner but he can’t even see who’s hitting him.
•Isolation. Alienation
•A sexual subtext, such as the femme fatale who leads the hero down the wrong path.
•A visual world of black-and-white photography, shadows and photography that emphasizes the isolation.
Noir also comes with a time-period. Film Noir sees the original cycle of noir-themed movies beginning in the 1940s with Stranger on the Third Floor and running through the late 1950s. The book does emphasize several earlier films with noir themes or elements and some from the 1960s and 1970s (Manchurian Candidate, French Connection, Taxi Driver) that it argues incorporate noir themes without being part of the cycle.
Which brings up another question. While other noir material I’ve scanned agrees on the timeframe of the original cycle, there’s less agreement on when the second wave of neo-noir begins. Some kick it off with Blood Simple in 1984 (though Kung Fu Monkey argues for Body Heat) but other books put it back as far as the 1960s.
There’s also the question what, besides the use of color, differentiates the two cycles. One critic argues noir is distinctively tied to the first cycle, and later films ape the style without the substance (as discussed here). Kung Fu Monkey suggests that classic noir is about corruption, neo noir is about “powerful ambition and poor impulse control.”
And does everything in traditional noir still work? One of the Film Noir sections suggests that the femme fatale is an outdated idea——it just doesn’t have the overtones it did in a forties/fifties context (which may be a good point——the Bad Girl bits were probably the weakest element of Ed Brubaker’s Criminal comic-book series).
Noir is a hard thing to define, and not something I think I could write. But corruption, doom and arbitrary injustice are the sort of enduring themes that make me think some sort of noir will always be around.

6 Comments

Filed under Comics, Movies, Reading

6 responses to “What, if anything, is film noir?

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