The Philosophy of Film Noir

The Philosophy of Film Noir

The Philosophy of Film Noir

The Philosophy of Film Noir

Synopsis

From The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958), the classic film noir is easily recognizable for its unusual lighting, sinister plots, and feeling of paranoia. For critics and fans alike, these films defined an era. The Philosophy of Film Noir explores philosophical themes and ideas inherent in classic noir and neo-noir films, establishing connections to diverse thinkers ranging from Camus to the Frankfurt School. The authors, each focusing on a different aspect of the genre, explore the philosophical underpinnings of classic films such as The Big Sleep (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and Pulp Fiction (1994). They show how existentialism and nihilism dominate the genre as they explore profound themes in a vital area of popular culture.

Excerpt

A drifter, driven purely by desire, is convinced by a beautiful woman—a femme fatale—to murder her husband. A whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking detective becomes involved with a gang of ruthless criminals in pursuit of a priceless artifact, for which they’re all willing to kill. An insurance salesman is lured by a restless, avaricious housewife to murder her husband for the insurance money. Another detective, this one sleepy eyed and trench coated, is hired by a gangster to find a woman who tried to kill him and then absconded with his money—except, when the detective finds her, he takes up with her himself, only later to be betrayed by her. The claustrophobic settings are awash in deep shadows, the streets are rain swept, it always seems to be night, and the atmosphere is charged and angst ridden. We know the stories; we love the noir style, at once romantic and pessimistic; we sympathize, maybe even identify, with the doomed antihero; the anxiety and sense of alienation are uncomfortably familiar. All true enough—but what does any of this have to do with philosophy?

Actually, quite a lot, as it turns out.

First, what is film noir? (And immediately we find ourselves on philosophical ground: questions both about the essence of a thing, what makes it what it is, and about definition are philosophical in nature.) Critics tend to identify the classic noir period as falling between 1941 and 1958, beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, two masterpieces of noir. This period, not coincidentally, lasts from America’s involvement in World War II through the postwar era. We can easily identify classic film noir by the constant opposition of light and shadow, its oblique camera angles, and its disruptive compositional balance of frames and scenes, the way characters are placed in awkward and unconventional positions within a particular shot, for example. But, besides these technical cinematic characteristics, there are a number of themes that characterize film noir, such as the inversion of traditional values and the corresponding moral ambivalence (e.g., the protagonist of the story, who traditionally is the good guy, in noir films often makes very questionable moral decisions); the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and cyni-

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