What is 'film noir'?

"We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel...." This is the first of many attempts to define film noir made by the French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir am

"We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel...." This is the first of many attempts to define film noir made by the French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir), the original and seminal extended treatment of the subject. They take pains to point out that not each film noir embodies all five attributes in equal measure—this one is more dreamlike, while this other is particularly brutal. Despite the authors' caveats (and repeated efforts at alternative definitions), in five decades it has hardly been bettered as a concise description of the noir mode as perceived by a plurality of critics. As they suggest, however, the field of noir is very diverse and any generalization about it risks veering into oversimplification. Film noirs embrace a variety of genres, from the gangster film to the police procedural to the so-called social problem picture, and evidence a variety of visual approaches, from meat-and-potatoes Hollywood mainstream to outré. While many critics refer to film noir as a genre itself, others argue that it can be no such thing. Though noir is often associated with an urban setting, for example, many classic noirs take place largely in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road, so setting can not be its genre determinant, as with the Western. Similarly, while the private eye and the femme fatale are character types conventionally identified with noir, the majority of film noirs feature neither, so there is no character basis for genre designation as with the gangster film. Nor does it rely on anything as evident as the monstrous or supernatural elements of the horror film, the speculative leaps of the sci-fi film, or the song-and-dance routines of the musical. A more analogous case is that of the screwball comedy, widely accepted by film historians as constituting a "genre"—the screwball is defined not by a fundamental attribute, but by a general disposition and a group of elements, some (but rarely and perhaps never all) of which are found in each of the genre's films. However, because of the diversity of noir (much greater than that of the screwball comedy), certain scholars in the field, such as film historian Thomas Schatz, treat it as not a genre but a "style." Alain Silver, the most widely published American critic specializing in film noir studies, refers to it as a "cycle" and a "phenomenon," even as he argues that it has—like certain genres—a consistent set of visual and thematic codes. Other critics treat film noir as a "mood," a "movement," or a "series," or simply address a chosen set of movies from the "period." There is no consensus on the matter. The prehistory of noir Film noir has sources not only in cinema but other artistic mediums as well. The low-key lighting schemes commonly linked with the classic mode are in the tradition of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, techniques using high contrasts of light and dark developed by 15th- and 16th-century painters associated with Mannerism and the Baroque. Film noir's aesthetics are deeply influenced by German Expressionism, a cinematic movement of the 1910s and 1920s closely related to contemporaneous developments in theater, photography, painting, scultpture, and architecture. The opportunities offered by the booming Hollywood film industry and, later, the threat of growing Nazi power led to the emigration of many important film artists working in Germany who had either been directly involved in the Expressionist movement or studied with its practitioners. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Michael Curtiz brought dramatic lighting techniques and a psychologically expressive approach to mise-en-scène with them to Hollywood, where they would make some of the most famous of classic noirs. Lang's 1931 masterwork, the German M, is among the first major crime films of the sound era to join a characteristically noirish visual style with a noir-type plot, one in which the protagonist is a criminal (as are his most successful pursuers). M was also the occasion for the first star performance by Peter Lorre, who would go on to act in several formative American noirs of the classic era. The "original" femme fatale, Marlene Dietrich, complete with noir-regulation cigarette, in a publicity shot for Josef von Sternberg's mordant melodrama Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel; 1930).By 1931, Curtiz had already been in Hollywood for half a decade, making as many as six films a year. Movies of his such as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) and Private Detective 62 (1933) are among the early Hollywood sound films arguably classifiable as noir. Giving Expressionist-affiliated moviemakers particularly free stylistic rein were Universal horror pictures such as Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932)—the former photographed and the latter directed by the Berlin-trained Karl Freund—and The Black Cat (1934), directed by Austrian émigré Edgar G. Ulmer; the Universal horror that comes closest to noir, both in story and sensibility, however, is The Invisible Man (1933), directed by Englishman James Whale and shot by American Carl Laemmle Jr. The Vienna-born but largely American-raised Josef von Sternberg was directing in Hollywood at the same time. Films of his such as Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), with their hothouse eroticism and baroque visual style, specifically anticipate central elements of classic noir. The commercial and critical success of Sternberg's silent Underworld in 1927 was largely responsible for spurring a trend of Hollywood gangster films. Popular movies in the genre such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) demonstrated that there was an audience for crime dramas with morally reprehensible protagonists. An important, and possibly influential, cinematic antecedent to classic noir was 1930s French poetic realism, with its romantic, fatalistic attitude and celebration of doomed heroes; an acknowledged influence on certain trends in noir was 1940s Italian neorealism, with its emphasis on quasi-documentary authenticity. (The Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang [1932] presciently combines these sensibilities.) Director Jules Dassin of The Naked City (1948) pointed to the neorealists as inspiring his use of on-location photography with nonprofessional extras; three years earlier, The House on 92nd Street, directed by Henry Hathaway, demonstrated the parallel influence of the cinematic newsreel. A few movies now considered noir strove to depict comparatively ordinary protagonists with unspectacular lives in a manner occasionally evocative of neorealism—the most famous example is The Lost Weekend (1945), directed by Billy Wilder, yet another Vienna-born, Berlin-trained American auteur. (In turn, one of the primary influences on neorealism was the 1930 German film Menschen am Sonntag, codirected and cowritten by Siodmak, cowritten by Wilder, and codirected and produced by Ulmer.) Among those movies not themselves considered film noirs, perhaps none had a greater effect on the development of the genre than America's own Citizen Kane (1941), the landmark motion picture directed by Orson Welles. Its Sternbergian visual intricacy and complex, voiceover-driven narrative structure are echoed in dozens of classic film noirs. "The Simple Art of Murder" The primary literary influence on film noir was the hardboiled school of American detective and crime fiction, led in its early years by such writers as Dashiell Hammett (whose first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929) and James M. Cain (whose The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared five years later), and popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. The classic film noirs The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Glass Key (1942) were based on novels by Hammett; Cain's novels provided the basis for Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Slightly Scarlet (1956; adapted from Love's Lovely Counterfeit). A decade before the classic era, a story of Hammett's was the source for the gangster melodrama City Streets (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian and photographed by Lee Garmes, who worked regularly with Sternberg. Wedding a style and story both with many noir characteristics, released the month before Lang's M, City Streets has a claim to being the first major film noir. Raymond Chandler, who debuted as a novelist with The Big Sleep in 1939, soon became the most famous author of the hardboiled school. Not only were Chandler's novels turned into major noirs—Murder, My Sweet (1944; adapted from Farewell, My Lovely), The Big Sleep (1946), and Lady in the Lake (1947)—he was an important screenwriter in the genre as well, producing the scripts for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951). Where Chandler, like Hammett, centered most of his novels and stories on the character of the private eye, Cain featured less heroic protagonists and focused more on psychological exposition than on crime solving; the Cain approach has come to be identified with a subset of the hardboiled genre dubbed "noir fiction." For much of the 1940s, one of the most prolific and successful authors of this often downbeat brand of suspense tale was Cornell Woolrich (sometimes using the pseudonyms George Hopley or William Irish). No writer's published work provided the basis for more film noirs of the classic period than Woolrich's: thirteen in all, including Black Angel (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), and Fear in the Night (1947). A crucial literary source for film noir, now often overlooked, was W. R. Burnett, whose first novel to be published was Little Caesar, in 1929. It would be turned into the hit for Warner Bros. in 1931; the following year, Burnett was hired to write dialogue for Scarface, while Beast of the City was adapted from one of his stories. Some critics regard these latter two movies as film noirs, despite their early date. Burnett's characteristic narrative approach fell somewhere between that of the quintessential hardboiled writers and their noir fiction compatriots—his protagonists were often heroic in their way, a way just happening to be that of the gangster. During the classic era, his work, either as author or screenwriter, was the basis for seven movies now widely regarded as film noirs, including three of the most famous: High Sierra (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). [edit] The classic period One of the quintessential film noirs, Out of the Past (1947) features many of the genre's hallmarks: a cynical private detective as the protagonist, a sexy femme fatale, multiple flashbacks with voiceover narration, dramatic chiaroscuro photography, and a fatalistic mood leavened with provocative banter. The film stars Robert Mitchum, one of the foremost male icons of film noir.The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the "classic period" of American film noir. The movie most commonly cited as the first "true" film noir is Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). While City Streets and other pre-WWII crime melodramas such as Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), both directed by Fritz Lang, are considered full-fledged noir by some critics, most categorize them as "proto-noir" or in similar terms. Many claim that there is a significant distinction between the noirs of the classic period's two decades—other than the relative disappearance of the private eye as a lead character there is no consensus on how that distinction manifests, but it often comes down to a view that the noirs of the 1950s tend to be more "extreme" in one way or another. Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) is frequently cited as the last noir of the classic period. Some scholars believe film noir never really ended, but continued to transform even as the characteristic noir visual style began to seem dated and changing production conditions led Hollywood in different directions—in this view, later films in the noir tradition are seen as part of a continuity with classic noir. A majority of critics, however, regard comparable movies made outside the classic era to be something other than genuine film noirs. They regard true film noir as belonging to a temporally and geographically limited cycle or period, treating subsequent films that evoke the classics as fundamentally different due to general shifts in moviemaking style and latter-day awareness of noir as a historical source for allusion. Most of the film noirs of the classic period were low- and modestly budgeted features without major stars (B-movies either literally or in spirit), in which writers, directors, cinematographers, and other craftsmen found themselves relatively free from the typical big-picture constraints. While enforcement of the Production Code ensured that no movie character could literally get away with murder, at the B level of noir especially, one could come awful close. Thematically, film noirs as a group were most exceptional for the relative frequency with which they centered on women of questionable virtue—a focus very rare in Hollywood films after the mid-1930s and the end of the pre-Code era. The signal movie in this vein was Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder; setting the mold was Barbara Stanwyck's unforgettable femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson—an apparent nod to Marlene Dietrich, who had built her extraordinary career playing such characters for Sternberg. An A-level feature all the way, the movie's commercial success and seven Oscar nominations made it probably the most influential of the early noirs; in particular, it led to a spate of what later became known as "bad girl movies." Conventional A films, however dramatic, were ultimately expected to convey positive, reassuring messages; in terms of style, invisible camerawork and editing techniques, flattering soft lighting schemes, and deluxely trimmed sets were the rule. The makers of film noir turned all this on its head, creating sophisticated, sometimes bleak dramas tinged with mistrust, cynicism, and a sense of the absurd, in settings that were frequently either real-life urban or budget-saving minimalist, with often strikingly expressionist lighting and unsettling techniques such as wildly skewed camera angles and convoluted flashbacks. The noir style gradually influenced the mainstream—even beyond Hollywood.