Re: RARA-AVIS: Film Noir Style, Noir Content

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 16 Feb 2003

"But I can't think of any film with noir style but not noir content. Can anybody out there think of an example?"

Given how much noir style draws on German Expressionism, I'd say several of those predecessors, such as Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, contain most of the same stylist traits, but in service of horror, not noir. I'm not very familiar with horror films, but I wouldn't be surprised if they still overlap noir in style, both going for that sense of foreboding.

I'd also call Fight Club, by the same director of Seven, noir in style, but not in content. Same for Coppola's adaptation of Rumblefish (which pretty slavishly apes German Expressionist style, down to painting shadows on walls).

And while I agree with Jim that film noir once referred only to a visual style, I'd say its common usage has expanded well-beyond that, in much the same way that "pulp fiction" is no longer limited in most people's mind to the literal meaning of that term. Language evolves (and I'd say that hardboiled/noir, with its heavy use of vernacular helps fuel this).

And in the neo-noir film movement, the word definitely refers to content, not style. While many present stories like those of Jim Thompson (in many cases direct adaptations), David Goodis, Jim Cain, etc, few recreate the mise-en-scene of Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang or Robert Aldrich.

I asked just this question in a movie review of Wild Things in the latest issue of

Film noir. Does "noir" refer to the darkness of the setting or the darkness of the human soul? In most classic films noirs, you didn't have to make a choice. Gloomy people did shady things on dimly lit streets of dark cities. . . .

But can a film be noir if it's set in bright, sun-drenched Florida? . .

Wherever there are people with large sums of money, there will be other people trying to take it away from them. And no matter how bright the sun, it still can't cast away all of the shadows within the darkness of the human soul.


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