Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: RARA-AVIS Digest V5 #33 - Noir

Date: 15 Feb 2003


Re your response to Miker's comments below:

> > I think that you have pointed out a difference
> between film
> > and fiction noir. Film noir is heavily into
> style. Turn on
> > the smoke machines and turn off the lights that
> don't cast
> > dramatic shadow and, like you said, you don't even
> need
> > characters or a plot. But noir fiction is
> different. It's
> > all about atmosphere, and this atmosphere is very
> dependent
> > upon the characters. There's gotta be that heady
> blend of
> > sweat, fear, and desperation.
> >
> > Take Williams's DEAD CALM. I don't think that
> anybody would
> > argue that the book is juicy noir. But what about
> the movie?
> > The movie content is dark and wicked, and I would
> personally
> > call it noir because of this. But I think that a
> lot of
> > people would hesitate to call the movie noir
> simply because
> > it's missing a lot of the classic noir props. It
> would get
> > the "thriller" tag instead.
> >
> > Thanks to everyone who posted.
> >
> > miker
> miker, I think you're labouring under a (very
> popular) misconception re:
> film noir - i.e. that film noir is defined by visual
> stylistics.

If Miker's laboring under this misconception it may be because of the fact that it's not a misconception at all. Film noir IS defined by visual stylistics. And that's pretty much ALL it's defined by. It's a contemporary crime film marked by partiuclar visual stylistics. Period. Those visual flourishes are what give film noir a . . . wait for it . . . "dark and sinister atmosphere."

Criminy, Rene, film is a VISUAL medium! What else WOULD film noir be defined by BUT its visual sytlistics?

Others on this list are probably sick to death of this example, but it's too perfect to pass up. MURDER MY SWEET is film noir. Some, including myself, would argue that it's one of the quintessential, definitive film noirs. Certainly it was one of the films most commonly cited as typicla of the form when the term film noir was coined in the early '60s. And what makes it a film noir are its visual stylistics.

MARLOWE, featuring the same character and covering a lot of the same plot territory (i.e. "content," to use Eddie Muller's distinction) is NOT a film noir, and what keeps it from being a film noir is its LACK of the visual stylistics that DEFINE film noir.

Maybe you can argue that "content" is the defining element in distingusihing between "noir" prose fiction and "non-noir" prose fiction. I'd still give you a strong argument here, but I'll allow that "dark and sinister atmosphere" is harder to pin down without visual underpinnings, while "content" is a more concrete, easier-to-grasp concept in the prose medium.

To use a new example that's close to my heart, the
'50s episodes of DRAGNET, particularly in the first few seasons, were noir, because Webb used the visual style associate with noir. The episodes from the '60s and '70s were not (and suffer by comparison to the originals as a result), because Webb abandoned, to a large degree, that signature visual style.

But visual stylistics are the heart and soul of FILM noir. I think the fact that film noirs cover so many different plots, ranging from private eye, to semi-documentary police procedurals, from criminal protagonist capers, to "domestic evil" dramas a la Cain, often having little in common EXCEPT the visual stylistics associated with film noir, is the reason that many on this list resist the notion of "noir content" and resist the notion that "noir" and
"hard-boiled" are mutually exclusive.

The variety of film noir storylines proves that it's possible to take a noir approach to many different kinds of crime stories. What sets noir apart in film
(and I, at least, would argue in prose as well) is the atmosphere. And in film, it's the visual stylistics that set the atmosphere.

> While it is true that many films noirs share a
> certain look - I think most
> people here would know what I'm talking about - very
> many do not. Even
> during the classic film noir period, approximately
> 1940-1960, some noirs
> were made in colour . . .

No they weren't. CRIME films were made in color. Film noirs, defined by a particular visual style, were not. The scripts used by crime films that were made in color MIGHT have been used for film noirs if the director had chosen to use the visula style associated with film noirs. Since the director apparently didn't in those films, they WEREN'T film noirs.

> It's the
> writing that made
> these films noir.

No, it's NOT the writing. It's the visual style. MARLOWE and the '60 DRAGNET are clearly NOT noir, while MURDER MY SWEET and the '50s DRAGNET are just as clearly noir. What differentiates them is certainly not the writing, since they feature the same characters, and in the case of DRAGNET occasionally had the same scriptwriters. It's the visual style.

When the term was coined (I think it was in an article in CAHIERS DU CINEMA called something along the lines of "America Has Noir Films, Too," a reference to the fact that many of the books adapted into film noirs had been published in France under the "Serie Noir" label), it was absolutely the visual style that was pointed to as the defining element. That's why cinematographers like John Alton, who did so much to develop that style are regarded, rightfully, as cult figures in the history of film noir.

In some film noirs the good guys won. In others they didn't. In some the protagonist was noble, in others he wasn't. In some the girl was virtuous, in others she wasn't. Most were set in urban areas, but some were set in rural areas. What they had in common, and just about all they had in common (other than being crime stories), was the visual style.


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