Film Noir: 12 Attempts at a Definition

1 High Sierra

I wanted to write about film noir, but found when I looked it up that there is no consensus as to what the term even means, let alone what the films are. As a result, films described as ‘film noir’, especially if they include ones which are a homage to noir (neo-noir) vary enormously in mood, treatment, subject matter and style.

This didn’t do me a lot of good, so I decided to make my own definition and see if I could stick with it when I came to write about the individual films I think of as film noir.

Film noir (“dark film”) started out as a term used by French critics of American movies. They were talking originally about gangster films of the 30s like Scarface and Little Caesar and they had two things in mind.

Firstly, the lighting. Many scenes were night ones, and the cameramen had to come up with studio lighting that would convey this while not obscuring the action. The resulting technique was American Night, la nuit américaine (a term used ironically by François Truffaut for his 1973 film, in which a murky plot matches equally murky off screen action).

Secondly, the mood. Filmed during the Great Depression, these crime films conveyed a powerful sense of corruption in business and government against which violence was the only resort, of both criminals or police. The protagonist struggled unavailingly against their fate, which was often death. This was miles away from the escapism of the feel good comedies of the period.

Film noir then became a literary term. The ‘film’ part was dropped, and the noir was used to describe the fiction of 40s writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. These also dealt with corruption in business and politics, and concerned the actions of police officers and private detectives, some honest, some not, to cope with this situation. The prevailing mood merged with post war disillusionment.

When these books began to be filmed in the 40s, there was therefore a ready made term to describe them. The same characteristics prevailed as had in the 30s. The lighting was an important element. Night scenes were common, but all scenes tended to be lit in a highly contrasting way, so that shadow became almost a character in each scene. The mood continued as one of cynicism, about corruption, about greed and other human failings.

My defining term, then, was a kind of ambience, a combination of setting and atmosphere, of set lighting and mood. The subject varied, but was effectively conveyed in films about crime, criminals and detectives. The point in these films is that crime is not punished, honesty is exploited, love betrayed. No one can escape their fate. There is usually a character who is honest, who is forced to come to terms with this. These are dark films indeed, in which the honest man feels despair. They seem like variations on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in which the god’s will prevails, and Oedipus must meet his fate, no matter what he does to avoid it. The only sign of hope in film noir is in the film’s making. The best of these films have seemed contemporary to generations of viewers who’ve had the shine chipped off their idealism.

Films in which the evil are punished, the criminal put in jail, the straying lover sees the error of their ways and repents, are not therefore film noir but some other type of film. Confusingly these latter films include many called classic film noir. Basically, if there is a happy love affair or the capture and imprisonment of the villain, they should not be called film noir, just as books that celebrate the triumph of justice through the successful deductions of a detective are not noir fiction.

Some films I like that might fill the bill are these. I include accepted classics of noir but also others not usually so regarded, to test my definition:

1941    High Sierra
In some ways this is an old fashioned gangster movie like Little Caesar, showing an outlaw, Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart), condemned by changing times to fight a losing battle with the law. It is this sense of fatality that makes it a film noir. But it is written by John Huston and WR Burnett, and is a whole lot more than just a gangster film. There is some mawkish comedy involving an Ohio farmer ruined by the depression, who is not much of a driver but earns the friendship of Earle. There is a dual relationship between Earle and the farmer’s daughter Velma (Joan Leslie), and between Earle and the girlfriend of one of his gang members, Marie (Ida Lupino). Velma, who is handicapped, reminds Earle of his country roots, and he falls in love and pays for an operation that cures her. But the cured Velma now wants to have a good time, and drops Earle like a hot potato. Meanwhile, slowly but surely, a romance blossoms between Earle and Marie. She’s the victim of a violent home who has made it to a dance hostess but not much further. And she sees something in Earle no one else she knows has: integrity. The two leads, Lupino and Bogart (at this stage her name was above his on the credits) both give such an in depth, layered performance they make the film soar out of the B grade classification the studio had intended. Earle and Marie have both found love when it is too late to make it work. In another time, another place…Earle would have been a hero, Earle and Marie happy as lovers: but not in this time and place. Director Raoul Walsh builds the picture to a gripping climax, as a holdup gone wrong leads to a thrilling chase scene and Earle, defiant till the end, holding out in the last wilderness of the Sierras. Poignantly, it is Earle’s concern about what the police might do to Marie that leads to his death, killed by a sharpshooter. Earle has been searching for freedom, and could only find it in death. A death that took him a little closer to heaven. A film noir and more; a tragedy.

2 maltese falcon

1941    The Maltese Falcon
Released nine months after High Sierra and featuring Humphrey Bogart in the second of his defining roles, The Maltese Falcon seemed to define film noir as well, once and for all. Taking on one of the greatest noir novels, by Dashiell Hammett, the man whose writing Raymond Chandler admired extravagantly, John Huston wrote and directed a film that created the characterisation, method and attitude of the genre for a whole decade. Unfortunately the film has dated badly. Dialog that is mannered and artificial and acting that is wooden and unconvincing mar the film, and Huston’s attempt to take the novel to the screen results in some long, boring passages of explanation that still leave viewers mystified. The women fare particularly badly. The femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, played by the gifted Mary Astor, the loyal secretary Effie, played by Lee Patrick, and the adulterous wife Iva Archer, played by Gladys George, all are saddled with lines from frigid melodrama and have deliveries that lift them only to stereotypes. Sam Spade’s scenes with the police are wooden and unconvincing. But it is fascinating to see Bogart as Spade slowly creating his bitter and cynical screen persona, scarred yet clear sighted, as the film proceeds, and next perfected in 1942’s Casablanca. The film survives on the performances of the three villains: Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film role) as The Fat Man, Kasper Gutman; Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo; and Elisha Cook Jnr as Wilmer Cook. The final scenes between Spade and Brigid are far from convincing, as Spade declares his love for Brigid and his intention to send her to the chair for her deceit (not for her murders, but for trying to fool Sam Spade!). Yet the woman who lies and deceives more than Eve did Adam was to become central to noir films, and the tough, cynical yet romantic response of Sam was seen in film after film of the genre. The film does tidy up, unlike classic noir. Sam outsmarts everybody, the police punish the villainess and we see that Crime Does Not Pay. Yet a foundation film noir despite all that.

3 Murder, My Sweet

1944    Murder My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk’s version of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely in my view has lasted a lot better than Huston’s Maltese Falcon. Script writer John Paxton has preserved much of Chandler’s prose, and the confusing plot elements as two cases collide for Philip Marlowe, as well. DOP Harry Wild creates a dark film that perfectly recreates the rotten underworld of Chandler. But the film succeeds mainly through the characterisations of Dick Powell’s Marlowe and Claire Trevor as the film’s femme fatale Mrs Grayle/Velma. These two are perfectly cast and give defining noir performances. In some ways a poor B grade film of the 40s like many others, Chandler’s original concepts preserved in the script and the acting of the leads make it one of the best of the 40s noirs. In fact it retains more noir characteristics than Hawks’ Big Sleep two years later. Given the time and place it was inevitable that the corruption depicted has been tidied up, and covert references to drug addiction and homosexuality removed. True, Marlowe (and the police) defeat the criminals. The femme fatale is killed as she usually was, and Marlowe has a love affair, a happy one, that ends the movie. But Powell makes you believe he is Marlowe, who is tough, but also sentimental. His presence shows both these qualities throughout the movie. And his voice is perfect, a voice that conveys the sound of ‘hard boiled’, yet lets you know the wisecracks are only a defence. Claire Trevor, playing against type, is sexy, corrupt and treacherous, a woman without a heart who uses others as counters for moves across the board for her own advantage. I think it important to keep in mind that Marlowe is a vulnerable character (why Bogart was not convincing in the role) and his fight against corruption puts him at risk (as Bogart never was), rather than try to work out plot details as the movie moves to its confusing climax. There’s enough character acting ability, set design and lighting wizardry and clever, witty scripting to keep any viewer happy. A noir with a happy ending!

1946    The Big Sleep
This may be the best film on my list, but this adaptation of Chandler’s story by Faulkner, Brackett and Furthman puts the all pervading corruption on hold, confined to the character Eddie Mars, who is soundly beaten by Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe. This is as much like Chandler as WS Van Dyke’s The Thin Man was like Dashiell Hammett’s story. As much as that film, it’s a thoroughly entertaining, expertly made action drama, but you wouldn’t expect Howard Hawks to be a noir director, and he isn’t. The man was just too positive. Marlowe here is a typical hero, able to outsmart, and outfight, everyone he comes across. And all the ladies fall in love with him. It’s quite a queue of cuties: Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Peggy Knudsen, Joy Barlow, Tanis Chandler, Sonia Darrin, Carole Douglas are just some of the names. This was the best of 40s beauty queens, and some of them could act as well! No wonder Marlowe looks so happy through most of the film. The film has the night scenes, the shootouts and the criminals from the 30s gangster film, but it’s really a romance. Hawks was more interested in entertaining an audience than in creating in a genre, and in 1946 Bogart and Bacall were hot property. The marginal part of Vivian Rutledge was expanded from the original book to be the central character in the film and it’s been a favourite ever since. But not a film noir.

4 out of the past

1947    Out of the Past
This is probably the archetypal film noir, even though much softened by the Production Code. Its message is that your mistakes are always with you, your past is something you take with you wherever you go. And it’s a warning against romance. Give your heart and it will be trampled on. It’s hard to fault the production and direction of the film, with its now classic sculpting of shadows to create a mood of fatality, its labyrinthine plot which leaves you uncertain and anxious about what’s going on. Even Chandler couldn’t improve on what writer Daniel Mainwaring (Geoffrey Homes) and director Jacques Tourneur achieved in this film. Despite the plot details it’s not about crime, but about love and friendship. The partnership between former detective Jeff and his colleague Jack that ends in betrayal and murder; the love affair between shady businessman Whit and his girl Kathie that ends in theft and murder; the love between Jeff and Kathie that ends in betrayal and murder; the betrayal of Whit by Jeff, the past of which the title refers to; Whit’s revenge, motivated by hurt affection (and greed); the thwarted love of Jeff for Ann; and the affection between Jeff and his deaf mute assistant. This is the one positive relationship, and the film ends with the boy knowingly deceiving Ann about Jeff’s involvement with Kathie, breaking her heart but helping her forget him. It’s something the boy knows that Jeff would have wanted him to do. Brilliant acting from Robert Mitchum as tough/vulnerable detective Jeff, and Jane Greer as scared, totally amoral and ultimately ruthless Kathie, make the central relationship compelling, and not just plot decoration. Interesting that the woman Jeff loves, Ann/Kathie, presents the two faces of Eve, the wife he can depend on and the seductress he desires. The Production Code made sure that all the villains were killed, and the chief of these, being a woman, was machine gunned. Crime, we learn, Does Not Pay. Luckily they didn’t see what the film said about Romance! A tragic tale, full of despair, and very poetic, a more than cynical take on Romeo and Juliet. A definitive film noir.

1953    The Big Heat
Usually classified as one of the best film noirs, and made by a man instrumental in the creation of this type of film, Fritz Lang. And yet: it veers uncertainly from revenge drama to celebration of an honest police force; from exposure of a criminal who runs the small town where the action takes place to his presentation as a man striving to assume at least an appearance of honesty so as to avoid prosecution. The film starts well, and typically. It is a police procedural drama, and the cop whose exploits we follow, Dave Bannion, played by Glenn Ford in one of his most effective roles, is on the case of a policeman who has unaccountably committed suicide. But his superiors want him to close the case. Could they be corrupt, in the pay of ‘businessman’ Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby)? Along the way Bannion meets Lagana’s chief fixer Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) and his girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame). Those whom Bannion investigates have an unfortunate habit of being murdered before they can talk, and soon threats are made directly to Bannion. He doesn’t like being pushed around, doesn’t listen. And his wife dies, in a car bomb explosion meant to kill him. Here the film changes direction, and is mainly concerned with Bannion’s search for revenge. Ford is terrifying in his depiction of the suppressed violence and anger Bannion feels. Stone’s girlfriend Debby makes an unlikely yet poignant alliance with Bannion. The film changes direction again, towards an exploration of the relationship between Debby the slum child who has never known anything beyond using her charms to ensnare a protector, and once happily married and dedicated to his job Bannion. Debby listens fascinated as Bannion describes his relationship with his wife Katie. Grahame is superb in her ability to add considerable depth to the routine role of ‘femme fatale’. The overall mood is one of hope that Bannion will defeat the corrupt bosses he meets, and he does, even if unconvincingly and cursorily at the end of the film. By my definition this is not a noir (though it may have been before the editor got to work), but an action drama, and a great one.

1955    Il Bidone
This story of a group of post WWII swindlers (‘bidone’) apparently trapped in lives of crime seemed a noir film at first viewing, in that it gave full scope to the characters’ despair. The first thing I noticed was its comparative realism, for all its melodrama. Unlike the American noir, it is set in a recognisable place and time, and depicts the exploitation taking place in Italy after the war and the ruin suffered by both exploited and exploiters by that war. By comparison American noir is more mythic, mannered, artificial and stylised (and on occasion lyrical and poetic). In an extraordinary and moving performance, reportedly created more by Fellini’s directorial skill than the actor’s acting skill, Broderick Crawford plays Augusto, an ageing conman coming to the end of a lifetime of scams he can no longer stomach. Augusto and his friends have had little choice in life: it has been steal or starve. What the film does though is to depict how the thieves steal, and shows them stealing from the poorest strata of society, people their theft will ruin. Augusto cynically plays on his victims’ gullibility, superstition and lack of education to separate them from their life savings in the hope their acquisition of gilt and gold painted lead artefacts will make them rich. More than a side swipe at the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences is meant here, as Augusto and his gang dress as priests and bishops to make their swindle. When Augusto unexpectedly meets the daughter he abandoned when she was a child, and finds her a young teenager now starting out in life, something shifts in his attitude. He starts to think of someone other than himself. True, the immediate effect is another scam. But then Augusto meets another girl, a victim whose family he fleeces, who has been paralysed in her legs since the age of nine. Again, his paternal, compassionate feelings are aroused. As he tells his partner Picasso, one can not afford any attachments in this way of life. And Augusto’s compassion leads to him cheating the rest of his gang of the fruits of their last job. Stealing is all he knows how to do. At this stage he’s tired, troubled by feelings he cannot understand, and doesn’t really know what he is trying to do. His gang turn on him, beat him, and leave him to die on a desert mountainside. Fellini’s point in this film, and in the previous year’s La Strada and Il Notte di Cabiria of 1957, is that no matter how much is lost, something always remains, there’s always a few drops left in the bottle. The films are called ones of redemption, which seems to me overstating the case. But they are films of hope. Here the hope is symbolised by a group of peasants and their children gathering firewood and travelling along the road Augusto cannot reach. In his delirium he calls to them, and in a moving conclusion, feels he has joined them, has attained their state of comparative innocence. No noir film, but an astonishing example of how Fellini created his films from raw materials, of how personal they were, and of how accomplished a director he was. Il Bidone is like the tragic flip side of the Coens’ Fargo. A very great film.

5 macbeth

1971    Macbeth
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is very great Shakespeare, but it’s also a great film noir, not surprising, as Polanski has always worked in the noir tradition. Sets drenched in mist and rain, the castle at night where the would be king plots, the shadows falling on his victims, high and low alike, help create a mood of inescapable doom. Polanski has recreated Shakespeare’s play with wonderful insight, taking the essence, using the original text but also opening out the film to reveal visually some scenes cut from that text. It plays in expertly mounted action sequences climaxing in the final bloody conflict, and is among other things a masterly action movie. Perhaps Polanski’s greatest achievement is with the language, here spoken by the actors in a completely naturalistic diction that conveys the emotion of the scenes in ways often overlooked by the conventional method of enunciating the lines so you know it’s Poetry. As always, we recognise all the famous quotes, here in context. This must be a very quoted play as I recognised lines in half the play, and I haven’t see it for five or six years, and before that at school. For the first time I recognised how good the insights were, how expertly expressed by a master of language. Poor Macbeth is at the mercy of the weird sisters, the Fates, Moirai, who tell him what he wants to hear. Like Oedipos or Croesos, Macbeth receives an oracle which turns out to be true: but in a way very different to what he (and they) imagined. We cannot escape our fate, must act as we are ordained to act. Shakespeare and Polanski, both victims of the Fates themselves, hammer home this message in scene after unforgettable scene. Macbeth’s is a bloody, primitive world, but in it his excess, of ambition, of ruthlessness, leads to betrayal and treachery and more bloodshed, and death. Do what we will, we all come to that. Brilliantly acted, especially by Jon Finch in the lead role, unforgettable photography, action and language seamlessly blended. A noir masterpiece.

6 Long Goodbye

1973    The Long Goodbye
The detective (Philip Marlowe yet!) as a bumbling, unshaven, rumpled incompetent, who tracks down the solution of a murder, eventually, with hardly a break between cigarettes. The villains bamboozle him for most of the film. His best friend, when Marlowe reproaches him for his lies and deceit, says “That’s what friends are for!”. Marlowe murders him out of resentment and baffled rage. Despite the bright Californian sun and local colour, it is the sad humour about lonliness and the way this can give rise to violence that you remember. “That’s alright by me” is Marlowe’s response to all the strange behaviour he doesn’t agree with. Until he comes face to face with dishonesty and the betrayal of a friend. Nope: he won’t put up with that. Some poor acting and dialogue, and groovy, dated 60s humour reminiscent of the Avengers TV series, but very effective performances from Henry Gibson, Mark Rydell and Elliott Gould make it work. The major plot deployment is extremely unlikely given the opening few sequences, but, what the heck, it’s a detective story. They’re all like that. Director Altman and writer Brackett preserve the quintessential noir quality of despair. The honest man sees the problem but doesn’t know what to do about it. This is pretty close to what Chandler was trying to say. A definite film noir!

1975    Farewell, My Lovely
The mood is of overwhelming melancholy in this superb recreation of LA, 1941. Robert Mitchum dominates the film throughout as an ageing, weary Philip Marlowe who has had about enough of lies, deceit and greed, and who is dismayed at the murder of the father of a small boy he has befriended, both Joe Di Maggio fans. All he wants is a rest, a relief from human selfishness and heartlessness. But that’s his job. The action takes place mostly at night, and the shots of the city and its more questionable lairs is beautifully done. Worth mentioning too are the sets and set design, a work of genius. It takes a second look to notice these details. At first view the usual labyrinthine plot interspersed with Chandlerian wisecracks requires the viewer’s full attention. And surely Mitchum at close to 60 was too old for the role? A second viewing reveals all the subtlety behind Mitchum’s famously laid back style. If Altman was skilled enough to play variations on the theme, director Dick Richards and writer David Zelag Goodman have produced, not an imitation, so called neo-noir, but the real thing. The despair here might be post-Watergate rather than that generated by the rule of Al Capone that inspired the 30s crime films, but it gets across what Chandler had to say in a way surely he would have approved of. The whole point of his character Marlowe is that he’s tough, but honest, idealistic and always disappointed by human nature. Mitchum evokes all this without batting an eyelid. The film is a noir classic.

7 bladerunner

1982    Blade Runner
This marvellously subtle exploration of Philip K Dick’s tragedy of the post nuclear near future manages to be both an entertaining thriller and to tease out some of Phil Dick’s meditations, a surprising number of them in fact. It’s also both a homage to the noir thrillers of the 40, and a subversion of the genre.  I’m talking of the original version: the other two versions are much too obvious, mere SF action films. The real star of the film may well be the dark and doom laden sets of a ruined and abandoned city, LA 2019, populated by freaks and leftovers saturated by greenhouse weather and overpowering media advertisements, and ruled by a fascist police force. These are the most powerful and evocative sets in film history. As director Ridley Scott was not happy with the earlier version, perhaps we owe this masterpiece to editor Marsha Nakashima, production designer Lawrence G Paull, DOP Jordan Cronenweth and the soundtrack by Vangelis (credits include almost 200 people for design and artwork).  This is a meditation on the desolation man has made of his beautiful world. Deckard, Harrison Ford, is an ex-cop, a blade runner. His job: to retire (destroy: “we didn’t call it murder”) replicants, robots of such sophistication they are more human than the humans, but whom are not allowed on the home world of earth. Now a group of five of these replicants are reported back on earth. They must be destroyed: those are the regulations, even though they have a short life of four years before becoming deactivated. It sounds like a routine police thriller, and the effect is accentuated by Deckard’s emotionless voiceover as in so many noir films of the 40s. He tells the story, so it is all in the past: a memory. Sean Young, as the latest model of replicant, Rachael, is dressed like a 40s femme fatale, and smokes cigarettes like one. But then the subversion of the genre starts. The replicants have been exploited. They have emotions, emotions that are artificial, created by genetic engineers. They are capable of feeling, just as much as humans, and they have come to earth to ask for just what we ask for: more life. Just like humans, they don’t want to die. They are ruthlessly hunted down by the ‘hero’ Deckard, shown shooting two of them, fleeing women, in the back. Never mind the unlikelihood of needing to shoot robots. He’s good at the job. The humans are cold and savage, behave as though motivated by cruel and merciless regulations, not any humanity. And Philip K Dick is there, asking his unnerving question: what is human? There is a scene midway in the movie showing Deckard musing over the case in his home. He has photos, belonging to one of the escapees, Leon. And others belonging to Rachael. They show both replicants’ childhood and family, and are very precious to their owners. Deckard plays a few keys on the piano: over the top of the instrument are collected his photos, of family and childhood. Ever so subtly the film suggests here that Deckard too might be a replicant, and all three with memories of the past implanted by engineers (this point made too obvious in the revisions of the film). More, that the policeman may be the criminal, that the prosecutors may be just as guilty as the accused. Another terrifying Philip K Dick theme is introduced. Who are you if your memories are all artificial? The replicants are led by Roy, Rutger Hauer, given some of the most poetic lines in the film, and a death scene that recalls the words of Ecclesiastes, ” …and now it is time to die”. By now we are in support of the ‘criminals’ of the film, and wondering about the police officers. Deckard’s colleague Gaff says to him about Rachael, “It’s a pity she’s got to die. But we all do”. And now the barrier between law and crime has vanished completely. The often derided ‘happy ending’, which is really tragic, with Deckard and Rachael, both in love, flying away together, is also subversive. Love, and hope, are often an illusion. Phillip K Dick again: what is real? Deckard is good, but he can’t outrun a whole society dedicated to destroying people who ask questions. As he says, unemotionally in the last voiceover, “We didn’t know how much time we had together. Who does?” a reflection not on robot technology but on human emotional stability, and on human liberty in a totalitarian state. From caveman to spaceman it’s always been the same: life is all we have, and life is indescribably precious. This is a film that looks unflinchingly at how we waste life, destroy it, don’t see its beauty. After it’s gone, there’s nothing. A film noir of genius.

1996    Fargo
I really wanted to classify this as a film noir, so as to have a noir comedy, even though the Coens’ brand of sardonic humour is only bitterly funny. But it seemed more like a gangster film, in which everyone concerned in a kidnapping scam is horribly inept. The moral may well be still: Crime Does Not Pay, to which the Coens have added the rider: because most criminals are so damned inefficient. Unlike most films about a crime, this one features no one central character. It is a film of marvellous ensemble acting, a sign we are watching a take on human nature, not a thrill driven plot based film. William H Macy as Jerry, a man who has made such a mess of his wheeling and dealing that having his wife kidnapped for a ransom starts looking like a good idea; Steve Buscemi as Carl and Peter Stormare as Gaear, the two slightly unstable low lives Jerry hires to do the job; and Frances McDormand as Marge, the Police Chief who tidies everything up; all these give great performances to parts densely written and far beyond stereotype. Another major part is the Minnesota landscape and the Minnesota community, all of which are featured as counterpoint to the obsessives frantically manipulating to make more money, legally, and hopefully, illegally. In a way Marge stands for them all: a stolid, Scandinavian stock who take things as they come but are a warm, close knit group for all their seeming impassivity. And their idea of good weather is extraordinary: Yar! The only noir things about Fargo are the weather, snow white not night dark, and the fate that traps the villains in the toils of their ineptitude. A very great film.

1996    Bound
This is a caper movie with a difference, the first film both written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. It almost qualifies as a film noir, but the central relationship between Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) involves only imagined betrayal, and the two girls remain true to each other till the happy ending. It couldn’t have been made as it was without the example of Quentin Tarantino’s films and that of Thelma and Louise, not to mention Basic Instinct, and the film makers have learned well what Alfred Hitchcock has to teach. For two hours the suspense is racked up skilfully and artfully, and the viewer will wear out the edge of their chair watching it. The central lesbian relationship, while never real (it’s noir territory, and how real is a femme fatale) adds considerably to the suspense. How likely is it two girls can take on and outwit the Mob? Well, it helps if the Mob, as depicted here, are unbelievably obtuse, but obtuse they must be if we are to have our happy ending. In a way it’s like Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s A Funny Story About 6 and 9 of 1999 in relying on a female protagonist being in the midst of a bloody and gore spattered plot to outwit gangsters, and the two films both rely on pretty inept gangsters to pull the story off. So for purists it’s sexist, as the viewer must be shocked to see girls shooting men dead or having fingers snipped off, or sawing off a corpse’s leg as Lalita Panyopas does in 69: girls are too pretty and worried about smudging their makeup to indulge in such foolishness, right? There’s a lot to like in the film. Good acting, especially the not too clever yet still menacing gangsters, clever lighting and photography (love to see the student work of the Wachowskis, as this is just stunning for a first movie) and cunning editing. Manipulation the way we like it. I found Jennifer Tilly’s dialog incomprehensible, and wished the makers had added subtitles for her, and that’s the only fault in the whole movie. The movie enforces the fact that betrayal in a relationship is central to film noir. This is not noir, but a suspense film in the same class as Du Rififi chez les hommes. The Wachowskis are so good they could probably achieve the same effect making a documentary about a sugar refinery.

I have another dozen films to look at, but that will be another time. And others I have access to I should watch again to see if I like them any better than I did. So far this has been a fascinating and enjoyable exploration.

The most important character in a film noir is the femme fatale. A woman who allures by her sexuality, yet is cold and treacherous, and dangerous. One who kills and betrays. Someone the hero loves to his peril, and sometimes to his destruction. Femininity is seen as a seduction, a lure that enables men to pursue a dangerous quest that will assert their strength and bravery, yet in the end too far from male values to be understandable, and so dangerous. She is after all pursuing her own ends, like all the other selfish characters in the plot. Yet her deviousness must be punished more surely than the deceit and treachery of the male characters. In the gallery of femme fatales I’ve mentioned, some stand out. I have fewer than I thought though, only five: Kathie Moffat wins first place, as the most complex, frightening and alluring of them all. Running a close second is Velma Valento (Claire Trevor), a bit contrived, frigid and very merciless. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and Lady Macbeth, are pitiable, but not nearly as frightening, and Mrs Grayle (Charlotte Rampling) is least threatening of all, perhaps because we can’t portray women now as we did in the 40s.

It strikes me that film noir is a modern update of an old story. The hero is given a task by a mysterious woman, a fata morgana for Arthur and his knights, the fair lady of the troubadours, la belle dame sans mercy whom Keats wrote about. The hero enters the world of shadows, where all is not as it seems. The powerful are corrupt, the honest suffer and die, the treasure is not what it seems. His only way to survive is to keep his integrity, his honesty and his faith, in a place where betrayal is the norm. He is a pure knight just as much as Percival was in the search for the Grail. It is a story that is as old as Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, and probably much older. The old mythic patterns rule us and have their purpose still, even when we think we are merely being entertained.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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2 thoughts on “Film Noir: 12 Attempts at a Definition

  1. I think film noir is characterised by despair. War films that are not about crime but very noir are The Best Years of Our Lives and The Lost Weekend. The very definition of film noir in my view is Out of the Past. As you bring up the case of Simenon (I know of your interest in Simenon of course) it is worth pointing out how exceptional Simenon is as a crime writer and as a detective writer. Simply put, for him there is no crime and no detection, and he is often unhappy about the punishment that follows his investigation too. Simenon subverts the whole genre! The films I’ve seen made from his books are more thrillers; plot based stories with more structure. I’ve often thought that the Maigret stories are like Simenon writing a roman dur. Maigret gets into the mind of he criminal as Simenon does into one of his character’s, and ‘feels’ his way to an understanding of what has happened. ‘Understanding’ rather than ‘solution’. As far as I know no-body does this, though I’d love to read a comparison with Dürrenmatt.

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