Or at least a slightly tested version of it. This has been in my head in one form or another since about halfway through the challenge. I've watched some more films since then to test it, and it feels pretty good. It may be too wordy, but I wanted to be clear, because so much of this subject is not. Even still, there is room for interpretation. Anyway, here it is:
A Film Noir is a contemporary American crime story filmed in black and white, told from the point of view of a criminal, a cynical anti-hero, or a hero that is made to act like a criminal, and treats violence and cruelty in a realistic way, while utilizing a formalistic style.
I have come to the conclusion that film noir is a genre. A sub-genre, really, of what might be called crime fiction, which includes mysteries and thrillers, although noir cuts across both. I can accept it as a movement, as it does seem to have come to an end. I could even accept it as a series, based on Borde and Chaumeton's definition, although I like this less, as the implication is that there is forward progression.
But I don't think film noir is a style. It has a style, a very distinct and easily recognizable style. But this style was not born from the noir genre. It has its roots in German expressionism, the horror films of Universal and Val Lewton, and the set design and deep focus pioneered by Orson Welles at RKO. It is a style that has influenced films in other genres: Westerns (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE), period pieces (GASLIGHT), and science fiction (BLADE RUNNER). But these films usually boil down to some sort of crime story set in a different locale. Thus, this particular style is subservient to the content.
But film noir is not what it is without the style. Indeed, the style creates content on the screen as sure as a turn of phrase creates content on the page. We feel The Swede's fatalsism, decapitated by shadow, as he waits for THE KILLERS. We feel the violence as Raymond Burr's fist hits Steve Brodie in the face and continues straight on to the camera in DESPERATE. We feel the disorientation, deception and claustrophobia in the the house of mirrors at the end of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.
The same story can be told twice, and be film noir only once. Take Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely" as an example. In 1942 it was adapted for use in the "Falcon" series starring George Sanders. Only two years later, it is adapted into one of the quintessential films noirs, MURDER, MY SWEET. MURDER, MY SWEET = noir. THE FALCON TAKES OVER = not noir. So, it is first the subject and then the style that makes a film noir.
Borde and Chaumeton's signposts of "oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel" were helpful in identifying the attitude of a film noir, but were less successful in providing a definition. Indeed, without the presence of crime to anchor the concept, these attributes could be found in hundreds of films in the same combination and concentration as noir films such as LAURA or THIS GUN FOR HIRE. For instance, REBECCA is a very moody and dark film, with a mysterious death at its core, yet it is told from the point of view of the innocent second Mrs. deWinter, thus it is not noir. In order to explore the blackest parts of the human soul, we must experience it through the eyes of a participant and not an observer.
I'd like to hear what you think. Can there be a definition of film noir, and if not, then how do we discuss it?