Film Noir: An Introduction

[A portion of an introduction originally published in They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres, Mercury House, 1994]

Whichever way you turn, Fate steps out a foot to trip you.
–Tom Neal’s Everyschmuck in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

Film noir may be the hottest genre in American filmmaking these days—a strange development when you consider that, until comparatively recently, few Americans knew the term “film noir” at all.

That includes the people who created the breed. The classic period of film noir extended from the early Forties into the mid-Fifties, but no director of that time ever passed a colleague on the studio lot and called, “Hey, baby, I hear they’re giving you a film noir to do next.” It was French audiences of the late Forties, catching up on the half-decade of Hollywood films they had been denied during the war, who noticed a decisive shift in tone from the prewar American cinema: a color shift, a darkening—stylistically and spiritually—manifest in films as otherwise diverse as Citizen Kane and I Wake Up Screaming, Shadow of a Doubt and Mildred Pierce, The Letter and The Killers, Gilda and Detour. The world of these films (from a variety of genres and budgetary levels) was bleaker, yet more dynamic for all that. Shadows were deeper, angles sharper, camera movements and depth of focus more aggressively peculiar; stories had a way of beginning at a dead end and winding back to show how they had arrived there, with no last-minute reprieve for the hero and/or heroine; indeed, in these films hero and villain were harder to tell apart, sometimes even cohabiting in the same character—especially when it came to heroine and villain. There was a new bloom in the Hollywood hothouse—lush, poisonous, fragrant with corruption, fascinatingly exotic even as it somehow took movies closer to imperfect real life than they were wont to go. No one had consciously planted it, but there it was. Having recognized the phenomenon, the French knew what to call it: film noir: black film, dark film.

Not that the term became current on this side of the Atlantic till much later, when English-language critics began to account for the fact that some of the most disreputable movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age now looked like the era’s richest and liveliest films (whereas many “prestige pictures” seemed like so much overstuffed furniture in a dusty attic). In his definitive Spring 1972 Film Comment article “Notes on Film Noir,” critic and filmmaker-to-be Paul Schrader characterized noir as “American movies … in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk.” That funk had its origins in a welter of historical, sociopolitical, and cinematic influences. Suffice it now to echo Schrader’s point that film noir was not a genre (à the Western, the screwball comedy, the gangster picture) so much as it was a style, a climate of mind and soul, a moment in history. Around 1953 the moment ran out; the dominant tone of American movies changed again; even cop films and crime films and movies about hard-luck heroes (Brando, Newman, et al.) no longer gave off the air of fatalism and the visual reek of the noirs. But noir is nothing if not perverse. Only after the bloom was off the belladonna did this nongenre cast up, in Schrader’s opinion, “the masterpiece of film noir”—Robert Aldrich’s corrosive Kiss Me Deadly—in 1955, and in 1958 “noir’s epitaph,” Orson Welles’ nightmarishly phantasmagorical Touch of Evil.

But if film noir has been over with for three decades and counting, what is it that has been on view lately in the multiplexes of the land? For “film noir” is a household phrase now. Not only moviemakers and movie fans but also journalists, fashion mavens, rock aficionados, and other trendoids love to bandy it about. Music video directors have found noir an eminently appropriatable “look,” even slipping into anachronistic black and white now and again; TV producers take notes from it to pump up the “cinematic” value of what was long a visually dull medium. Sometimes the results are exciting (say, the first seasons of Michael Mann’s TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story). But too many aspiring noirs of our day deserve to be labeled not film noir but “designer noir.” It’s not a vision, it’s attitude. You don’t make it, you put it on and wear it.

Even honest filmmakers are self-aware about noir as classic noiristes never were. They live in a fallen, postnoir world, in which film noir is now a genre, with forms and conventions explicitly understood by the people who operate in it. But within this self-awareness, there’s room for legitimate attempts to reinvent film noir, reimagine it in terms relevant to changed times and a changed film industry.

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Please give in to the darkness by donating to the Film Noir Foundation for the restoration of Cy Enfield’s 1950 Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury), one of the many orphans of independently-produced film of the classic studio era.

“For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon” is hosted by Ferdy on Film and The Self-Styled Siren, who are compiling the contributions from all participating websites and blogs. For information on the Blogathon, see Ferdy on Film here, and for information in participating, see The Self-Styled Siren here. The official Facebook page is here.

And again, don’t forget to donate.


2 Comments

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  • Tinky

    February 14, 2011

    Nice summary! I’ve never been a noir girl, but the blogathon is converting me.

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