I started watching film noir seriously about a year ago. It was always there at the back of my mind, but I had never set out to consciously sit down and burn through a stack of DVDs and tapes, educating myself to this group of films. Now, as you might be able to tell by that last sentence, I don't even know what to call it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? I've heard it called a movement, and a series. No one can agree on when it started or when (or if) it ended. Books on the subject are of little help, as each list of film noir I see gets longer and longer. The Film Noir Guide, by Michael Keaney, lists 745 films that qualify, and these are all from the "Classic Period," which Keaney defines as 1940 to 1959.
I'm not even sure if the words film noir have any meaning anymore. Let me re-state that. I went in with the assumption that the term film noir was chosen for its descriptive value. I assumed that "black film" was meant to describe not only the oppressive shadows cast by the German-influenced lighting, but also the darkness that our characters would delve into, their hearts blackened by circumstance and greed. I was even ready to proclaim, in my most didactic archivist voice, that "film noir is not noir without film." But as I'm reading comes the realization that film noir was coined after a series of gothic novels from the 18th and 19th centuries were called roman noir. Now I don't know if my original assumption was correct, or if the term was coined as a mirror to the roman noir, in that it evoked that sort of emotional response in a modern crime milieu. Or maybe it's both.
Panorama du Film Noir Americain was the first book published on the phenomenon (genre/style/series) by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in 1956, directly after the what they saw as the end of the series with the nuclear explosion in the finale of KISS ME DEADLY. The other most often-cited end of the Classic Era is Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL in 1958, making Borde and Chaumeton's tome the only possible book published concurrently with the series itself. It, however, is no less clear in what defines a film noir. In fact, the title of Chpater 2 is "Toward a Definition of Film Noir." Not an actual definition, just a general direction toward the definition. It gives us a few clues: "It's the presence of crime that gives film noir it's most distinctive stamp" (p.5), that the crime is viewed from the criminals' perspective (p. 6), that the morality is ambiguous, the characters ambivalent (p.7). They also offer us some signposts (though they admit them to be simplistic): that films noirs are "oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel." All of this while discussing films that are classically noir (THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLERS, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) alongside films that are either questionably so (THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, THE NAKED CITY) or appear on no noir lists that I've seen (ROPE).
So, then, What is Noir? And how can the merits of these films be discussed without a mutual definition? Well, it's been done for years, and it has bled into literature, primarily with the publication of the serie noire in France, composed mostly of American authors, and unilaterally as a marketing tool for scores of authors writing in the same vein and theme. But I won't feel comfortable discussing it as a concept until I've wrapped my head at least around a definition that I can accept.
There is one fact that everyone seems to agree on as the impetus for the naming of the series: that in the late Summer of 1946 in France, there were a group of American films released in rapid succession that had not been available through the war years, and that displayed a similarity of darkness in tone and content. And that this "series" was continued through the end of 1946 and into January of 1947, solidifying its presence. These are the 10 films: John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), Frank Tuttle's THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), Otto Preminger's LAURA (1944), Edward Dmytryk's MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), Fritz Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), Robert Siodmak's THE KILLERS (1946), Charles Vidor's GILDA (1946), Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP(1946), and Robert Montgomery's THE LADY IN THE LAKE (1947).
Over the next 10 days, I plan to watch each of these titles on DVD or VHS and try to put myself in the shoes of the French critics of the day, distilling the essence of what they called film noir, and pushing myself "toward a definition of film noir." I call it the 10-Day Film Noir Challenge. You can join me if you'd like.
Next time: The Maltese Falcon