Friday, May 22, 2009

The Definition of Film Noir

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?


Scott Fien said...

Howdy! I like what you've come up with here. I'm a fan of the form too, although admittedly I think I've read more noir than I've seen films. But let me ask this: how would you classify one of my favorites of all time, "LA Confidential"? The reason I like it is because there isn't one "good guy" in the thing - to your point about anti-heroes and heroes made to act like criminals. Would you not consider this film noir because, by definition, it can't be since it's in color?

Charles Benoit said...

I have to agree with that point on color. If color film had been widely available and inexpensive from the start, don't you think the classic noir directors would have used it? Today B&W is a style choice, but in those early years it was an economic/technical reality. Should we exclude any film with stereo sound as well?

Jared said...

The classic era of noir is generally accepted to be 1941 (or 1946, depending on if you're James Ellroy or not) to 1958, beginning with THE MALTESE FALCON (again, unless you're James Ellroy) and ending with TOUCH OF EVIL, whether the films were color or not. At the time, the filmmakers were not adopting a style, per se, they were using techniques that worked well for the content of the film and fit within their budget. Whereas after 1958, the filmmakers were deliberately trying to evoke the feeling of films past that were now classified as something called noir. It is the difference between creating something and apeing something. This does not marginalize the later film, it simply classifies it as something else.

I think this is one of the biggest hurdles facing a true dialogue on film noir: there is cache in the term beyond its definition. There is the possibility that if I tell someone their favorite film is not film noir, they will believe I am devaluing not only the film, but their opinion. Because, if it's good, it has to be film noir, right? Well, let me tell you something. There is a lot of bad film noir. And there are great films that are deconstructions of noir without themselves being noir. See: CHINATOWN and LA CONFIDENTIAL.

There is a very good reason that film noir happened when it did. I watched a DVD over the weekend called CROSSFIRE which perfectly encapsulated the concept for me. And there's a post on that coming tomorrow.

So, beyond being outside the classic era, and being in color, LA CONFIDENTIAL is also not a "contemporary" story. It takes place about 45 years before the movie came out. Again, there is the artifice of creating the look and style of the past. And, again, just because it is not film noir doesn't mean it's not great. In fact, there is another category that this and other similar films are generally accepted to fall into: neo-noir, which grows its own set of themes.

As for the choice to include only black-and-white films in the definition, it is a belief that the stark nature of the contrast within the image is a stylistic counterpoint to the shades of gray explored in the characters, in the situations, and in the narratives. It is a situation that I believe the Technicolor wonder of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN cannot replicate, no matter how vicious Gene Tierney is.

I do have the skeleton of a post called "What is Not Noir?" Maybe I should work on finishing that.