Film Noir the Elusive Genre Is Riding a Wave of Relevance

By William Arnold 1996, Seattle Post-Intelligencer | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

Film Noir the Elusive Genre Is Riding a Wave of Relevance


William Arnold 1996, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A QUICK test: What has been, over the past 20 years, the most revived, written about, and stylistically influential film genre of Hollywood's classic past?

The Western? The musical? The paranoid thriller? Sci-fi and horror? Animation?

Wrong. No single classification of old American movies has gripped our modern sensibility with the force of that body of films that French critics of the '50s dubbed film noir, or black film. Unless you are a die-hard film fan, you may be excused for not knowing exactly what film noir is - though, with a film noir section in almost every neighborhood video store, and the term "noir" a standard adjective in every other movie review, that excuse is getting harder and harder to buy. In the purest sense of the term, film noir is a school of hard-boiled, highly cynical, heavily stylized melodramas that Hollywood put out from 1946 through the early '50s - films with a uniquely downbeat sensibility that made them somehow distinct from the gangster film, caper film, de tective story and murder mystery. That sensibility is easier to recognize than to define. But these films typically dealt with a doomed hero and a femme fatale heroine; took place in a dark urban landscape ("Night and the City" may be the definitive noir title); and tended to have a dream-like visual quality, an undercurrent of twisted sexuality, crackling dialogue and an overscored soundtrack. Every studio in Hollywood cranked these movies out. They were never big moneymakers or Oscar winners, and the bulk of them were B-movies. And they were not made consciously. As Jane Greer, one of noir's icon femme fatales, told me in 1985, "When we made these films in the '40s, we had absolutely no idea we were making anything that a later generation would consider different or special; they were just melodramas to us." It is not clear what created the noir phenomenon. The downbeat mood of the films surely reflects the late '40s, when the victory of World War II had turned to ashes in the mouths of so many returning war veterans. They also show the stylistic influence of both the hard-boiled detective novel and of German expressionism - an influence brought to Hollywood by numerous German Jewish directors who had fled Nazi Germany in the late '30s. While critics dispute the genesis of noir, they tend to disagree even more hotly on what constitutes a true noir. Some critics include films as early as the '30s and as late as the '70s in the canon. Some include on their list almost any B-melodrama of the '50s. Some include Technicolor films, while others insist noir is, by definition, black and white. But there is a consensus that Hollywood's noir cycle in its purest form began to die out in 1955 - the same year it was noticed as a unique body of work by two French critics, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. They coined the term and first tried to define the noir sensibility in their seminal critical study, "Panorama du Film Noir Americain." In 1964, the cult of noir reached the United States when a film series at Harvard University devoted to the films of Humphrey Bogart (many of them film noir) became a campus sensation. The term was first used in an Esquire magazine article about the Harvard Bogart craze. …

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