Noirvember Day Seven: What is Film Noir? (According to me.)
The era of film noir is one that disdains absolute definitions, flaunts exceptions, and welcomes interpretations. The movies that comprise this category of filmmaking were released approximately between 1940 and 1959, but were first identified as “film noir” (literally “black film”) in 1946 by French critics who became aware of a dark, cynical tone that was prevalent in a growing number of American motion pictures. These films depict a world of pessimism, corruption and hopelessness, and are distinguished by their dim, shadowy appearance and dark overtones.
Movies from the film noir era are notable for a number of recurring visual characteristics, including rain-swept streets, murkily lit rooms, mirror reflections, looming shadows and foggy nights. In terms of style and technique, these films abound with interior and exterior night scenes that suggest dingy realism, and feature unique lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and emphasizes the mood of fatalism. These films also commonly contain specific elements of plot, setting, and characterization, including urban locales, the commission of crimes, the use of flashback and narration, and both heroes and villains who are cynical and disillusioned, inextricably bound to the past and ambivalent about the future.
Despite its commonalities – and unlike such screen genres as westerns, comedies, or horror – film noir cannot be absolutely defined or succinctly described, and countless exceptions exist. For example, while nearly all of the features from this period are filmed in black and white, several Technicolor films fall into the category of film noir, including Leave Her to Heaven (1945), House of Bamboo (1955), and Slightly Scarlet (1956). Films noirs are typically set in large American cities, but the titles of such features as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Calcutta (1947), Berlin Express (1948), and Macao (1952) clearly reveal their deviation from this standard. And while many of these films depict a duplicitous and often deadly female character who leads to the downfall of the male protagonist, numerous film noir features contain no such individual, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Crossfire (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), and Touch of Evil (1958). Yet, while each of these films represents a departure from the norm, all are, nonetheless, film noir.
This gripping era of filmmaking is perhaps more passionately and extensively discussed than any other, particularly with regard to which films are actually considered to be film noir. Because of the era’s widely encompassing denotation and frequently subjective nature based more on tone and mood than setting, the classification of the films is sometimes more a matter of personal opinion than irrefutable fact. Not every film with looming shadows on the wall, light filtering through window blinds, flashing neon signs, and stark shots staring down spiral staircases is film noir. Nor is every film that contains a double-crossing female, a relentless detective, or a luckless, misguided family man. But most noirs contain some, if not all, of these elements.
Perhaps more than any other quality, however, it is the feeling that makes the film noir what it is – the atmosphere of hopeless, the ambience of doom, the aura of pessimism and cynicism, greed and distrust. Interestingly, as difficult as film noir is to define, one can clean an understanding of the period by observing the titles of the films themselves. A number of words are used repeatedly in film noir titles – examined collectively, they provide a simplistic, yet revealing and accurate reflection of the era’s overall tone, including “fear,” “kill,” “city,” “crime,” “guilty,” “street,” “strange,” and “cry.” Another effective indicator of the spirit of film noir comes from those features with one-word titles, such as Desperate, Cornered, Pitfall, Conflict, Tension, Nightmare, Framed, Possessed, Convicted, and Caught.
Ultimately, and without question, one can conclude that the world of the film noir – in the words of Raymond Chandler – is where the streets are dark with something more than night.
Join me tomorrow for Day Eight of Noirvember!