Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is Noir?, Part 1

I was going to call this post "What is Not Noir?" before I realized it's the same thing. By explicating certain parts of my definition (see original post on definition here), I was actually re-affirming what fell outside the definition, and vice versa. But I realized that this was too much information for just one post, so I've decided to stretch it out over several, focusing on one point per post. I'm sure I can stretch it out over the long haul.

Point: Film Noir did not exist before 1941.

Actually, this is not even an explicit part of my definition, but something I felt compelled to address, as it is implicit, based upon my research. Borde and Chaumeton outline the beginnings of the film noir movement in France. In this instance, I refer to the critical movement, as this is where the concept originated. To briefly sum up, there was a large influx of dark American crime films to France in 1946, films that were previously not available in the France of World War II. Seen together, it became clear to these critics that a new series had been born.

The earliest of these films, in terms of American release date, is THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). This featured an early appearance of the iconic anti-hero that would become a staple of film noir, especially those featuring private detectives. It also featured a cadre of cruel supporting characters, venerating no life other than their own, and holding nothing above their own prosperity. There was also a realism to the violence, a marked contrast to the bombastic explosions and shootouts of the Gangster movies of the '30s. In FALCON, if you got shot, you died. Maybe not then, but soon.

But it did not feature many of the stylistic touches that would later become signatures of film noir: the low-key lighting, the oblique angles, the eroticism countering and feeding the violence. Yet the French critics saw it as part of the same series. And so, hoping to keep my definition in line with their best intentions, I include it here.

But is this where film noir started? It may be hard to defend, using the genre definition. But noir is a genre like no other. Consider this: A Western can be identified as a Western before a single shot goes in front of the camera. The same with a musical, a science fiction film, or a gangster film. But you cannot identify a noir until it is completed, so dependent is it upon style to create content. And it just so happens that style and subject matter collided in a way that produced an abundance of these films in the 1940s.

The reason the style was used so predominantly was mostly economic, and the reason the subject matter appeared so often was mostly societal, as explained in CROSSFIRE. But it takes both in order to create film noir. There are some who argue that there were examples of film noir prior to 1941. Michael F. Keaney's list starts in 1940. And Alain Silver's encyclopedic reference cites films as far back as the silent era, although only 11 before 1941. But even in 1941, where Silver cites six films noirs, it's difficult to classify them as such based on the definition being discussed. Besides THE MALTESE FALCON, there is HIGH SIERRA (as much as I love it, not noir), THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (strange, oneiric, erotic, but not noir), SUSPICION (by Hitchcock, who often flirts with noir), and CITY FOR CONQUEST and AMONG THE LIVING, which I have admittedly not seen.

Indeed, Borde and Chaumeton only qualify two films prior to 1944 in their original list of ten: FALCON and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). There are then three films from 1944, one from 1945, three from 1946 and one from 1947. And although their purpose was not to go back and find the earliest example of noir, their work certainly indicates a rise to prominence in the mid-40s.

Based on the previously established guidelines of noir and my own research, and combined with the important placement of noir in mid- and post-World War II, I feel comfortable stating that film noir started in 1941 with THE MALTESE FALCON, and ended with the disappearance of contemporary black-and-white filmmaking.

But I reserve the right to change my mind.


Nancy said...

CITY FOR CONQUEST, definitely not noir. Haven't seen AMONG THE LIVING...

Dan Wagner said...

I know we have spoken about this before, but I film teacher form my college days... who I otherwise didn't like.... bookends Noir with Orson Welles. CITIZEN KANE to TOUCH OF EVIL. One of the rare times I agreed with that guy. TOE seems an obvious Noir candidate, but CK is less so. However, if you start to apply all of the loose definitions to CK (the movie... not the androgynous cologne)it is surprising how many criteria CK meets

Jared said...

I think that trying to classify films with this type of "percentage of agreement" with other films is dangerous. First, what percentage is high enough to qualify? Second, if all of the minor points are met and none of the major ones, why should it qualify?
THE FILM NOIR GUIDE identifies 745 films as Film Noir between 1940 and 1959, by all accounts too many. And yet the author had a defense for each entry, based on his own "loose definition."

Dan Wagner said...

I don't want to put words in your mouth... but this is the internet.

So then the definition of Noir is pass/fail? Not only must a film meet all the criteria (whatever they maybe) of Noir but the film must do it in an obvious and conscious way so as there is no way a viewer can dispute that it has met the benchmark?

Jared said...

All definitions are pass/fail. Either it is or it is not. Now, definitions may vary, and we can have discussions about what does or does not define noir, but that prevents us from having comparative discussions about noir films themselves because there is no underlying, agreed-upon noir definition.

Dan Wagner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Wagner said...

Your point is well taken. But when there is no agreed upon consensus about what even makes up a base line model... definitions, agreed upon canon, etc.... then doesn't it render the whole label of Noir moot? The argument then becomes Your Noir vs. My Noir. There is no discussion in an argument like that because your argument about what is or isn’t Noir can be swept way by me simply saying ‘I don’t agree.’ I feel that discussion only really begins once there is a point of agreement. A shared point of knowledge

This is not to say that this is your viewpoint. My point is that for good or for ill there needs to be a binding force. One that pushes discussion past the inevitable I’m right, your wrong bickering to actual discussion about the actual film and its relative merits. Arguments about definitions are secretarial work. Please excuse the slander to secretaries everywhere.

Reading over your last comment again, I see now that we are making the same point except from a different angle.