The search for a definition of noir has been abandoned by better minds than mine as an exercise in futility. Some people would tell you that no such definition exists, that to prescribe boundaries is to unnecessarily limit discussion. Which makes me beg the question, If we have no consensual frame of reference, what value does comparative analysis hold? Be that as it may, my naivete allows me to at least discuss the impossible. I have come to realize, however, that there are certain practical limitations to a definition of noir that must be acknowledged before we can honestly and objectively set our minds to it.
The first of these is that the common usage of the term noir has been as a marketing tool, which has obfuscated any meaningful discussion. Advertising and marketing have never been the most trustworthy sources of accuracy, but this transgression seems to be particularly egregious. Any time someone, whether it be an author, a director, a critic, wants to reach an audience perceived to be interested in the edgier, darker side of life, they will tack on the word noir as part of their product's description, leading to such paradoxes as retro-noir, Medieval noir, and cozy noir. Also, I don't think anyone had any objections to the line-up of Warner Bros.' first Film Noir Classic Collection: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, GUN CRAZY, MURDER, MY SWEET, OUT OF THE PAST and THE SET-UP. But when Vol. 2 came out they included DILLINGER, a gangster film, for sure, but noir? Not alongside classics such as CROSSFIRE, BORN TO KILL, CLASH BY NIGHT and THE NARROW MARGIN. It is this proliferation of noir marketing that has caused a shift in the general understanding of what noir is. To the critic, to the academic, who have an understanding, at the very least, of what they view noir to be, the marketing is understood for what it is and, if not accepted as a necessary evil, then supported for furthering interest in noir and creating a market for it. For the uninitiated, it provides definition by context, confusing darkness and evil with fatalistic self-determination.
The second factor we must overcome in defining noir is the apparent cache that the word "noir" carries. For those of us who love and study noir, who speak of it reverently, there is a tendency to lionize our subject, to place it above other narrative forms in esteem. It is an opinion, one shared by an increasing number, especially those confused by marketing teams, but an opinion nonetheless. When this opinion is wielded by talented, persuasive writers, however, one might get the idea that "noir" films are "good" films. Thus, using the law of symmetry, we can also surmise that if it is a "good" film (especially one that has something to do with crime), it must be a "noir" film. This is not true. Not all noir films are good films, nor are all good crime films noir. But until we allow ourselves to let go of our personal favoritism, there will be no consensus.
We also need to understand that there is no way to achieve a Unified Theory of Noir across media. My favorite analogy of the differentiation between "noir" and "hard-boiled" literature apparently traces back to Scottish author Allan Guthrie who said that "the crucifixion is noir, the resurrection hardboiled." This highlights the belief that fatalism is a central tenet of noir, while walking on the dark side is something that is survivable in a hard-boiled novel. In light of this distinction, how do we reconcile that so many of the early films noir were based on hard-boiled sources? Borde and Chaumeton identified 10 films as those that first caught French critics' eyes in 1946, in which at least six of the protagonists survived, including three Philip Marlowes and one Sam Spade. These are clearly hard-boiled narratives, based on Guthrie's distinction, yet they are universally hailed as classic films noir. Can noir mean something different in print than it does on film? And if so, are there still shared similarities between the two forms? And would those similarities still be considered noir? And then what would the differences be called?
Indeed, since film noir is so dependent upon style to create content, there really is no way to accurately translate this content between media. One of my favorite shots in all of film noir comes from THE KILLERS (1946). Burt Lancaster, as The Swede, awaits the fate he knows has finally tracked him down. He is tired of running and is willing to accept his death. He sits, alone in his bed, back against the wall, smoking a cigarette, decapitated by shadow. It loses something in my telling, and I haven't even mentioned the Miklos Rozsa score, or the building tension crafted by the cross-cutting of the shadows created by feet under the door. Each medium has its strengths, but they are not always compatible. Perhaps, in the interest of understanding, we must accept that they each create their own noir, connected by theme, but mutually exclusive.
Thus, once we can overlook the overuse of the word, and our own personal feelings, and understand that literary noir and film noir must stand on their own, we may be able to begin to agree on that which we all thought we understood.