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A seemingly established consensus about film noir is that it isn’t a movie genre. That it’s a way of classifying gritty crime dramas, thrillers, and adventure movies of the 1940s and ‘50s that share similar stylistic elements and tropes.
Before I began to search for the definitions of others, I had my own definition of what it was.
For me it was a style of movie to be differentiated from movies that were merely crook films, like SCARFACE (1932). A style that was somewhat kick-started by the authors that were successful in the crime pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s.
Geoff Mayer, in the introduction to The Film Noir Encyclopedia calls the fact in the previous paragraph “The Film Noir Myth”. Mayer argues that film noir is “a discursive construction created retrospectively by critics in the period after the first wave of noir films (1940-1959)”.
I’m told that the whole corpus of the 1940s and ’50s noir movies is around 1000 or so movies. It’s pitiable that still there’s confusion and disagreement more than half a century later.
That still there are persons, like Geoff Meyer, that have to go to extreme extents to prove something about noir, annoys me. To write more than 8000 words just to arrive to a paragraph-long conclusion. Still, I liked this definition of film noir that Mayer posits as an aspect of its myth:
“A significant aspect of the film noir myth is its formal style, especially the chiaroscuro lighting with its low key and frontal lighting setups that produced dark areas interspersed by extreme brightness. This style, which was largely the result of restricting the use of full lights, thereby accentuating the harsh effect of the key light, was often associated with the influence of German expressionism on film noir. This visual style, reinforced by the fragmentation of space through set design and camera compositions that produced unstable lines and surfaces, was perceived as suggesting a dislocated world permeated by alienation and human despair.”
The paper by Mayer that works as the introduction to The Encyclopedia of Film Noir is more than 8500 words and it splices outside sources so much, that I wasn’t able to find a clearly defined point being made through most of it.
Anyway, in the conclusion of the paper, he was able to distillate a great definition in the section “Film Nor, Realism, and Vulnerable Interiority”.
In my own words, what I understood of Mayer’s definition: It’s hard to pinpoint noir based in any of its specific techniques. Still, those techniques helped to express the dramatic shift to a more negative polarity of Hollywood melodramatic movies in the 1940s and the 1950s.
I watched around eighty noir movies of the 1940s and 1950s and around twenty neo-noir movies from the the 1960s to around the year 2000.
The definition of Paul Duncan in his essay at the start of his book “The Pocket Essential Film Noir” is a way clearer and straight to the point definition of film noir.
More like what any non-scholar person thinks about film noir, even before making an effort to put it into words. A simple definition like most persons would define it. For me, it’s a definition not based in the definitions of others, but on personal actual experience of the movies. Plus some involvement with the genre, like my small-time enthusiasm about it.
It’s a very concise essay and jumps into the meat of noir from the start. It gives movies names, categorizing them, what makes a very actionable content.
Paul Duncan’s Flavors of Noir
Duncan’s definition de-glossed:
- A Pessimistic tone
- Reflective mood
Noir originated from:
- German Expressionists
- French Poetic Realists
- Hollywood Gangsters
- Tough Guy Writers
Pre-Noir / Proto-Noir
Lady in Distress
To write this post I also read a bit of a book called “Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Noir”, which has a deconstructionist approach to the femme fatale present in many noir movies. It’s a study composed of five essays.
When I read that the author also was involved in deconstructing noir by psychoanalytic interpretation, even if she warns that she will not do it in the book, my interest in this study took a nosedive.
Still, one of the things that attract me the most about noir movies is precisely the book’s subject matter, so I guess that I will read it.
To end this post, I want to remind horror fans that have read this seemingly unrelated post, a kind of misfit post for a
tumblog website about horror, about something that belongs to the noir era and is a must-see.
If you can appreciate the art in noir’s visual style, you should watch The Crimson Ghost. Overlooking this short mini-series, one could say that it’s a low-budget, brawling and shooting crook drama. But it’s actually a science-fiction story with some horror and noir visuals. It’s not long, about three hours in total.
Readings on Film Noir (The Film Noir Encyclopedia) by Geoff Mayer
The Pocket Essential Film Noir by Paul Duncan
Rethinking The Femme Fatale in Film Noir by Julie Grossman
As Horror Fan, Do you Care about Film Noir?
Like I wrote elsewhere, I think that there exists an obvious connection between film noir and horror. Not only at the narrative level, but also (especially) at the aesthetic level. Most movies of the Universal Horror Cycle have a definitely noir approach in lighting, without taking on account that they are in black and white. Still, you might not see it as I see it.
Please tell us what you think in the comments section below.
© Bholenath Valsan 2021 — Short Research Piece on Film Noir