What is Film noir?
The idea of studying film genres exists since the dawn of literature. The concept of genre—and the analysis of it—transcends a specific medium, whether a book or film and pinpoints its inclusion or exclusion from a criterion (Zuska, 2000). However, there is a difference between literature and film when it comes to defining genre. In literary studies, the idea of genre tends to get ignored and does not assist with the analysis of understanding the specific book (Solomon, 1974). Film genre studies, on the other hand, are more hands-on due to the visual nature of the medium. They are involved with formal matters in content and themes since they imitate life and concepts (Sobchack, 1975).
Thematic undertones of film genres predominate around the style of the specific film. What makes them essential for genre theory is that they can provide different directions of analysis (Carroll, 1998). It is possible to analyze film genres not only by their themes but also through other conventional perceptions such as settings and costumes. Due to the different analyzing methods, grouping films into genres is an important scholarly (Staiger, 1997). A western can look the same way as a comedy film but would have different themes not shared by the comedy genre. However, it is not easy to establish common themes for films.
Figure 1. Lewis, J. H. (1955). The Big Combo [Still]
(Retrieved from: www.themoviebuff.net)
For the genre of film noir, scholars studying the topic have, at times, difficulties in determining what films constitute film noir. For decades, films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Third Man (1949) have defined the genre. Film historian Jeremy Arnold highlighted these noir films as essentials stating Sunset Boulevard as “a darkly comedic, film-noir take on the underside of Hollywood fame” and The Third Man as “one of the most off-kilter of film noirs” (Arnold, 2016). But what defined those films as film noir? To look at films defined in this genre, one needs to look at the history and its associating aspects. There are three specific aspects that connect films to the film noir genre: a character's guilt that differentiates itself from prior crime films, the fascination with psychological nihilism, and the femme fatale. These features are vital to representing the story aesthetics that move the narrative.
Film noir’s history assists with why these specific themes define the genre. Film scholar Eddie Muller, known as the "Czar of noir", in an interview, stated, “film noir was an organic artistic movement in Hollywood” and that “it is beneficial to understand the factor that created it” (Anderson, 2021). The origins of film noir and its themes arose in the U.S. after the end of World War II. Soldiers returning from the war found their places in society different from those before the war. In the peacetime economy, the U.S. found housewives staying in the workforce, small businesses closing up, and a fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union (House, 1986). These gloomy times formed a psychological reaction in the population’s psyche. The economic changes led citizens to find any method to provide the necessities they needed to survive. Paul Schrader, no stranger to the genre himself with writing credits including the neo-noir Taxi Driver (1976), stated that the film noir was essentially a delayed reaction to the 1930s depression years and the literature that came from that era (Schrader, 1972).
Figure 2. Unknown. (1976). Taxi Driver [Poster]
(Retrieved from: www.imdb.com)
Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain drove most of the narratives produced as noir films. Characters like Philip Marlowe steered the narratives with their cynical attitudes, empty romanticisms, and narcissism (Schrader, 1972). These traits were the antithesis of the books and films from this era. So to speak, film noir was the anti-film. The stories rejected the classic Hollywood tropes of romantic love, happy endings, and its expressive visual style (Fluck, 2001). French film critics picked up on this rejection and coined the term, with film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton giving these films the title film noir (Broe, 2003). The central singularity for these critics was that noir films had a unique and conflicting relationship between the underworld and the indictment of the American suburban setting (Dussere, 2006). The underworld setting, synonymous with film noir, came from the lighting and effects of German Expression films (Naremore, 1995-1996). Filmmakers such as Fritz Lang made multiple noir films when he emigrated to the U.S. The themes of German Expressionist films shared commonalities of noir films, one of which is guilt.
The main characters of film noir share the thematic identity of guilt in different aspects of everyday noir life. With the gritty urban settings they cannot escape from, ordinary citizens commit crimes and come close to joining organized criminality (Fluck, 2001). Due to the guilt of the main characters, film noir contrasts itself with crime films from the 1930s and 1940s. Films such as Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931) provide a representation of the main characters feeling no guilt, nor transforming into a criminal. They are both criminals from the beginning to the end of the film. While a crime film in its essence, film noir shows the transformation of a person from an ordinary citizen, to a criminal, to a guilty person seeking absolution. A representation of this is in Edgar Ulmer’s film, Detour (1945), which has its main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), taking money from a dead person after his death only to have his guilty paranoia take over his life. This identity of Robert’s guilt makes him return to where he started, as a hitchhiker.
Figure 3. Ulmer, E. G. (1945). Detour [Still]
At the end of noir films, characters also get punished for their crimes. There was no escape from the law. The citizen becoming a criminal is not a person that grew up and joined an organized gang. On the contrary, they feel remorse for their actions (Fluck, 2001). The guilt of the character also does not apply to a specific crime. Characters close to criminality who escape official charges can also feel remorse for their actions. In Out of the Past (1947), Jeff Bailey, played by Robert Mitchum, blamed himself for his fate (Fluck, 2001). In the film, Bailey double-crossed his ex-lover, ultimately leading to her death. While he could have helped her escape, he let her die instead. The guilt of noir characters represents one of the main themes of film noir, but it is not the only one.
Nihilism seeps through the character’s intentions in this film genre. The focus of nihilistic trends in film noir comes through psychological factors. Ideas of crime, obsession, and fascination of either women or materialism provide methods of psychological study (Lott, 1997). Psychological effects of social and sexual anxieties embody these nihilistic characters through the settings they live in and through chiaroscuro lighting (Harris, 2003). Throughout all noir films, directors used chiaroscuro to provide the psychological symbols of nihilism. Characters are slightly lit and provide only a partial showing of their faces. Interpreting the lighting of a character defines their nihilistic and fatalistic traits. Their intentions are often unknown but narcissistic. The lighting provides a lens of the character's psychological desires within a psychological mindset. A film that offers this representation is The Lost Weekend (1945). In the movie, Don Birnam (Ray Milland) goes on a bender and pawns sentimental items to continue his drinking binge. The nihilism that Milland shows is a representation of America’s fissured psyche (Osteen, 2010). Birnam's desire is alcohol, and he will do everything in his psychological nihilism to obtain his goals. One of the ways that Billy Wilder showed psychological nihilism was through the chiaroscuro lighting.
Figure 4. Wilder, B. (1945). The Lost Weekend [Still].
City settings also provide a demonstration of nihilistic film noirs. Cities are pictured as gritty and dire, and not with the vibrant colors of melodrama and musical films. The grittiness provided a sense of claustrophobia, the pessimistic vision of dread, despair, and the paranoia that nihilism elicited (House, 1986). Films such as White Heat (1949) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) have these characters and show their lack of care toward others without having moral codes themselves. These characters also show a lack of human compassion and cruelty in their dialogue. However, not all noir films exclusively have male characters showing nihilistic traits.
Women who demonstrate nihilistic sensibilities tend to be foils for the lead male characters. The females in these films are called femme fatales. They are as cold, greedy, ambitious, and selfish as the male leads (House, 1986). While not applied to all femme fatales, one aspect of these characters is their sexual appeal. In this sense, they use their sex appeal to coerce others to commit crimes on their behalf (Hales, 2007). Double Indemnity (1944) is a perfect example of a femme fatale using others to get what they want. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) seduces Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) and convinces him to kill her husband for his life insurance policy.
Figure 5. Wilder, B. (1944). Double Indemnity [Still]
(Retrieved from: www.la.curbed.com)
Even though film noir ended roughly around 1958, film noir’s themes continue in present films. The era of the New Hollywood film directors grew up watching film noir in theaters. Films like First Reformed (2017) and Blade Runner (1982) are love letters to original noir films like The Maltese Falcon, Detour, and Sunset Boulevard. While others might think that the black and white imagery, voice-over, and flashbacks are the actual indicators of noir films, they forget to realize that other films of the original era shared these elements. What brings film noir together as a genre are the contrast of crime films, the fascination with psychological nihilism, and the femme fatale.
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Cover Image: Unknown. (1947). Out of the Past [Poster]. https://movieposters.ha.com/itm/movie-posters/film-noir/out-of-the-past-rko-r-1953-half-sheet-22-x-28-/a/694-28186.s
Figure 1: Lewis, J. H. (1955). The Big Combo [Still]. https://www.themoviebuff.net/2020/03/the-big-combo-nr/
Figure 2: Unknown. (1976). Taxi Driver [Poster]. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075314/
Figure 3: Ulmer, E. G. (1945). Detour [Still]. https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/movies/detour
Figure 4: Wilder, B. (1945). The Lost Weekend [Still]. https://geekvibesnation.com/the-lost-weekend-blu-ray-review-billy-wilders-best-picture-winner-offers-unflinching-look-at-alcoholism/
Figure 5: Wilder, B. (1944). Double Indemnity [Still]. https://la.curbed.com/2019/12/16/21019466/film-noir-definition-meaning-best