Welcome to my steaming pile of Noir. My Noirvana.
But Noirharajah, you say, just what exactly is Film Noir?
Here's the thing – there isn’t really one definition of Film Noir. It’s very mysterious. Is it a genre? A style? A type? Critics and film scholars disagree. You can use up a lot of shoe leather trying to track down an answer.
Most people think of Film Noir as a black-and-white film that takes place mostly at night, with lots of shadows, and a hard-boiled private eye and a femme fatale at the center of the story. But that’s an oversimplification -- and not always the case. The fact is that most films noir feature neither a private eye nor a femme fatale. Many take place mostly in broad daylight.
So what is it?
Most critics and film scholars agree that Film Noir began in the early 1940s, when European directors emigrated to the U.S., bringing with them a certain storytelling sensibility, with imagery often drawn from pre-war German expressionism, and then this sensibility was combined with the screenplays inspired by the cynical, hardboiled American crime fiction of writers like Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett.
French critic Nino Frank, who coined the term “Film Noir” in 1946, said that a film noir isn’t a procedural or a whodunit, but a character study and sociological investigation.
Most “experts” will tell you that, in order to be a "real noir," the movie must be in black and white, and made between the years 1940 and 1958. Noirs that came out after that date are called “neo-noir.”
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert came up with this list of 10 characteristics of Film Noir:
1. A French term meaning "black film," or film of the night, inspired by the Series Noir, a line of cheap paperbacks that translated hard-boiled American crime authors and found a popular audience in France.
2. A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.
3. Locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all.
4. Cigarettes. Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, "On top of everything else, I've been assigned to get through three packs today." The best smoking movie of all time is “Out of the Past,” in which Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoke furiously at each other. At one point, Mitchum enters a room, Douglas extends a pack and says, "Cigarette?" and Mitchum, holding up his hand, says, "Smoking."
5. Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.
6. For women: low necklines, floppy hats, mascara, lipstick, dressing rooms, boudoirs, calling the doorman by his first name, high heels, red dresses, elbow-length gloves, mixing drinks, having gangsters as boyfriends, having soft spots for alcoholic private eyes, wanting a lot of someone else's women, sprawling dead on the floor with every limb meticulously arranged and every hair in place.
7. For men: fedoras, suits and ties, shabby residential hotels with a neon sign blinking through the window, buying yourself a drink out of the office bottle, cars with running boards, all-night diners, protecting kids who shouldn't be playing with the big guys, being on first-name terms with homicide cops, knowing a lot of people whose descriptions end in "ies," such as bookies, newsies, junkies, alkys, jockeys and cabbies.
8. Movies either shot in black and white, or feeling like they were.
9. Relationships in which love is only the final flop card in the poker game of death.
10. The most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.
Thank you, Mr. Ebert. It’s clear, though, that Film Noir crosses genres. You can have noir films that are westerns, period pieces, even science fiction.
Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which preserves and champions films noir, and the host of Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies, is perhaps noir's leading expert now – he’s called “the Czar of Noir,” fercryinoutloud. He defines Film Noir as “the flip side of the all-American success story.”
Film noir, Muller says, is “about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave. So they cross the line, commit a crime and reap the consequences. Or, they’re tales about seemingly innocent people tortured by paranoia and ass-kicked by Fate. Either way, they depict a world that’s merciless and unforgiving.” Muller has also said that, in a Film Noir, the protagonist is doing wrong, and knows it.
To take that even further, Ebert distinguishes between a crime film and a noir this way: "The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in a crime film know they're bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he's a good guy who has been ambushed by life."
I like these definitions best, I think. There’s nothing noirtsy-fartsy about it; it comes from the gut. It tells you that a film like "Casablanca," for instance, is most definitely not noir, no matter how many shadows are on the wall or how many scenes it has with Bogie in a trenchcoat in the rain.
Me, I think Film Noir is just something you know when you see it. It’s like the little man inside Barton Keyes' gut (Edward G. Robinson’s character in “Double Indemnity”) that tells him when something’s not quite right.
I don’t pretend to be a film expert, and I’m certainly not a critic. I’m just a guy who loves movies, especially Film Noir, and I’ve spent a lot of time watching and thinking about them. On this site, among other things, you'll find my Top 100 Noirs, as well as my list of 600-plus movies commonly identified as Films Noir. I’ve watched as many as I've been able, more than 440 so far, and I’ve rated them and offered my “reviews” of some of them (see The Nattering Nabob of Noir page). I can tell you that, for me, some of these films are not noir films, but I've included them because more than one film scholar/critic out there has said they are. I may disagree with them, and they with me -- that's fine. It's not important. What is important is that, hopefully, this will inspire some of you to watch some of these great movies.
Take it all for what it’s worth. I’m just having fun. Hopefully, you will too.
© The Noirharajah