How do we classify Film Noir? There’s a lot of sound and a lot of fury involved, but is such a definition even meaningful?

Genre Trouble

Definitions are always hard. They rarely capture full exactitude of the entities they are trying to categorise. Genres are always descriptive instead of analytic. Designating a work as being in a particular genre carries with it connotations and indeed expectations of aesthetics, tone, ideology. For instance, to call a film a “Western” is to deliberately place it in the same category as the iconic John Ford films of the 1930s and 40s, complete with all their grizzly politics. Films such as Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946) are defined by their distinct political interpretation of the relationship between the ‘civilised’ American hero (John Wayne himself is of course the quintessential Western hero) and the ‘uncivilised’ and ‘brutish’ Native Indians. They take a fundamentally colonial view of these situations: the white man always wins as it is his job to either civilise or destroy those who are opposed to him. Yet to call, say, Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained (2013) a Western requires us to do so with a certain ironic distance. It is a Western in a sense of the general setting and aesthetics, but it adopts those conventions in order to subvert them. Django Unchained reverses the white hero’s retribution against ‘uncivilised’ natives into a black hero’s revenge upon the supposedly civilised racist south. Blazing Saddles (1974) of course did something similar decades earlier. A Western is thus a cinematic and aesthetic designation yet its true nature is political and ideological.

Genre is also a general, not exact, classification. Yet at the same time, we still want to know what kind of things we are talking about. I do find that the old adage “I’ll know it when I see it” works well with discussions of genre. This same debate occurs in music genres too. In music, there seems to be an endless proliferation of genres that demarcate very subtle differences in style that only expert fans will notice. Nowhere is this truer than the metal genre. Don’t you dare call a ‘Grindcore’ band ‘Deathcore’, or they’ll be hell to pay. The question of the usefulness of these categories is always brought up as many bands are part of many genres.

Film Noir

Film Noir is perhaps one of the trickiest film genres in the 20th century. Not just because its style, aesthetics and narratives often differ wildly (though we will get to that) but because of the way noir was produced and retroactively branded as ‘noir’. Frank Krutnik claims this is not that important, while I agree, I want to go through it all the same. We may start that saying that, quintessentially, Film Noir is an American cultural product. On the one hand, it is a reaction to the Classical Hollywood system (cinematically and often ideologically) whilst also being wholly dependent on that system. Many of the great noir films were produced in ways that necessitate innovative uses of film equipment. Noir’s distinctive use of lighting (not just that it is dark, but how expressive light becomes in noir) is one example. The ergonomic way in which mise-en-scène had to be constructed easily translates its way onto screen. So frequently in noir we are confronted with striking cinematic images that are abundant with detail about plot, character, mood, tone and so forth.

The term ‘Film Noir’ is not an American creation however, but a French one. Coined by Nino Frank in 1946 (the very year such noir classics such as The Killers, Gilda, and The Lady From Shanghai were released) ‘film noir’ – literally translating to “film black” – originally referred to a trend in postwar America cinema – films that peaked interest due to their intersection with the ‘hardboiled’ crime genre. It was the French that tried to legitimise noir artistically. Remember, this was a time where there was a genuine question as to whether films were art or not.

[A quick side note: Hollywood is all about cycles. In the late 30s and early 40s hardboiled detective fiction was extremely popular amongst the public so Hollywood studios bought the rights to these novels en masse in order to release as many hits as they could. Back then, America’s cinema watching was habitual. After the studios had purchased the rights to make these films it became a familiar cinematic cycle, all the films similar, but with slight variations of narrative and rotating film stars kept audiences hooked. One hugely influential noir film – it was included in Frank’s initial list of ‘noir’ films –The Maltese Falcon (1941) was based off the novel by Dashiell Hammett. If you have casual interest in the inner workings and stories of Classical Hollywood I recommend listening to the podcast “You Must Remember This”]

Most directors of films know the particular genres they are working with. Ridley Scott knew that despite its science fiction setting Blade Runner (1982) was partially working within a strain of the ‘noir’ genre. Tarantino knew he was working in the Western genre. This knowledge of a genre and specific conventions allows directors to do interesting things with their material as the film can essentially operate on multiple levels – just as Django Unchained knowingly operates within the maligned racist politics of the Western genre (and America itself) in order to create its commentary about racism and slavery. Noir directors seemingly did not have this luxury as they were only identified as working within noir retroactively.

Since its inception noir was already on rocky definitional terrain. The tissue that connected these films is often so flimsy that the designation hardly seems worth it. Noir may be produced in America but it is heavily influenced by European cinema and culture. For what they are worth, the early French critics were the first see artistic value in American cinema. Directors like Orson Welles were seen as an equivalent to his European contemporaries. One of the elements of noir that is frequently (and to be quite honest, boringly) referenced is its stark use of lighting. Words like ‘sultry’, ‘dark’, ‘mysterious’, ‘fascinating’, ‘seductive’ are all used to describe the aesthetic of noir without meaningfully stating why this is the case. (On a personal note, I would of course recommend casual readers and viewers to seek out noir precisely because it is often the opposite of those journalistic clichés; noir is so regularly fun, playful and inventive in terms of its winding and complicated narratives, its amazing understanding and composition of the cinematic image and so on). The lighting is distinctive because of its European influence. Often recognised as the progenitor of noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (1939) is notable for its harsh use of lighting, both in its weird and surreal dream sequence as well as its more subdued application in the so-called ‘real world’ – the obvious point is that the fantasy dream world is but an extension of the real world unconscious murderous desires of Ward and thus not really separate at all. This style came directly from German Expressionism. Fritz Lang, director of M (1939), moved to Hollywood and directed two noir classics: Scarlet Street (1945) and The Woman in the Window (1944).

Moreover, Hollywood was faced with the arrival of non-American directors. Boris Ingster, a Russian (born in Riga, now Latvia), moved to America to direct Stranger; and the film’s star, Peter Lorre, would go on to be recognisable as a European Other in films such as The Maltese Falcon. Alfred Hitchcock similarly is often associated with noir. His relationship with noir is albeit a strange one as critics prefer to study Hitchcock in isolation. Yet his films (especially those released in the 1940s) generally tend to resemble noir.  Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1946) can all be included into the noir corpus. Noir is therefore an amalgamation of disparate influences; its subject matter frequently collides with conventional hegemonic conservative Hollywood wisdom such as the resolution of the criminal case, and how that resolution coincides with the formation of the heterosexual couple. Noir is as quintessentially Un-American as it is American.

Definitions of Noir

There has been much debate over the classification of noir principally because we are often not even sure what noir is. John Belton provides us a succinct way of looking at the problem. For Belton, we can potentially see noir in three distinct ways: as genre, as style, and as mode. As genre, we are tempted to discuss noir in terms of its iconography (the detective figures, the moral ambiguity, and dimly lit mise-en-scene) and its predictable narratives. However not all noirs contain all these particularly iconographies. Edgar G. Ulmer’s B-Movie Detour (1945) for instance does not contain a ‘detective figure’ as such. Although an ambiguous crime takes place, our protagonist is not the detective.

Style is arguably more important than arbitrary markers. To an extent, we should move beyond viewing noir as a genre in itself but as more of an aesthetic movement. Even so, not all these aesthetic choices are exclusive to noir. The typical noir image (e.g. a lone man sporting a fedora in a dark alleyway, chasing some femme fatale and so on) is so burned into our cultural consciousness it becomes difficult to conceive noir as anything else.

However, every film noir is also a genre film: the detective film, the romance, the psychological thriller etc. One could argue that what makes films ‘noir’ is the way they contort these genres. Belton goes one step further, proposing that noir is more of an emotional reaction, an affective phenomenon. Films ‘slip’ into being noir and are thus not noir all the way through. Noir is trans-generic. As Frank Krutnik writes in his book In a Lonely Street noir also encompasses “‘problem pictures’ like The Lost Weekend (1947)…gangster films like High Sierra (1941)…even Westerns, like Ramrod (1947) and Pursued (1947)”

These definitional problems are precisely what make noir so difficult to talk about. All discussion run the risk of becoming oversimplifications and generalisations; vaguely talking about ‘noir style’ as if that style is only found within noir. Films about androids and artificial intelligence are usually classified as science fiction, horror films are about werewolves and vampires, whereas a film about a detective is not necessarily a noir film. (Indeed, Blade Runner is one such film that is about artificial intelligence and hardboiled detectives). Even ‘noir style’ is difficult to pin down. It has been suggested by Foster Hirsch that noir style is “splashy visual set pieces” – he uses the house of mirror scene at the end of The Lady From Shanghai and the expressionist dream sequence in The Stranger on the 3rd Floor as examples. As we can see, a lot of critics seem to disagree about what noir is. I am certainly not totally convinced by Hirsch’s argument. However it is important to note that one of the problems in defining noir is how that definition has changed over time.

Back From Obscurity

The key aspect of noir for me is its relationship to fascination and history. Krutnik writes that the ‘noir mystique’ resists the ‘imperatives of history’. Film Noir, despite it being produced during one of the largest wars in American and human history, is ahistorical. Rarely is the real world referenced. Gilda (1946) references the end of the war, yet is set in Argentina; O’Hara from The Lady From Shanghai was a wartime spy. These are isolated incidents. History in noir might as well not exist. However the stories that are told are mostly ones in which the past must be reconstructed. This is the barebones framework for the detective story: it is the detective’s job to work out ‘what happened’ and ‘who did it’ and ‘why’.

By fascinating, I am talking strictly about the psychoanalytic sense. How we can be transfixed by an object without every really seeing it as it is. No matter how hard we look we can never relive it and any attempts to do so usually end fatally. The object is always obscured. In Noir the past is the fascinating object par excellence, our protagonists – flawed as they are – struggle with reconciling the past in the present. To do so, for them, will bring harmony to an increasingly chaotic world. Their world remains out of sync, always at odds with the past and never able to fix it.

The Killers for example recounts the story of the Swede, a recently murdered man ‘with a hidden past’. His criminal past literally comes back the destroy him. The Swede looks on with a blank acceptance of his past. He knows his fate when he sees it. To emphasise this, Burt Lancaster sits up from his darkened bed and stares right past the camera, his face filling up the entire screen.  On The Killers Oliver Harris writes:

“Indeed, this is the enigma that drives the plot of The Killers and determines its overt project, which is, precisely, exorcism: to explain, to narrate, and so finally to forget the uncanny sight of the hypnotized look, and with it the fatal force of fascination.”

The story we are told is told by people that knew the Swede throughout different stages of his life. Crucially, we never hear the Swede’s story as we always told about the Swede. This very narration is a process whereby the characters try to forget the Swede, to condemn him to history. The initial task The Killers sets out is to ‘recover’ the past, to understand it and move beyond it. However it lacks the centre, the object, of that story and therefore such closure is impossible. The past is always obscured.

So what is Film Noir? It’s a lot of things really: films produced the period of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, something that attaches itself to already established genres, a French invention, an American convention. It’s also none of the things at the same time. Harris deems it a “conceptual black hole” and as this blog shows we quickly get caught up in our own game. There is no true noir, but I’ll know it when I see it.

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