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

Date: 18 Feb 2003


Re your comments below:

> Yes, of course film is a visual medium - you don't
> need a Jesuit
> education to know that. However, it is not
> exclusively a visual medium.
> Why do you feel that script, acting, etc has nothing
> to do with film?

I'm not sure what my Jesuit education has to do with anything, but, I never said that script, acting, etc., had nothing to do with film. I said it had nothing to do with whether or not a film was a film noir. That's exclusively a function of the visual stylistics.

Film noir is what it is, and it's nothing else EXCEPT what it is, and what it is is a crime/suspense film made during a particular era with a partiucalr kind of visual style. If a film isn't that then it isn't a film noir. Period. The same script and performance could exist in a film made either with or without those visual stylistics. In the former case, it would be a film noir; in the latter case it wouldn't. Consequently script and performance wouldn't have any bearing on the question of whether or not a film was or wasn't a film noir.

> Film noir is not exclusively defined by visual
> stylistics . . .

Yes it is.

> . . . - how could it
> be when there is no one look common to ALL films
> noirs.

Yes there is.

> I presume (going
> from the one example given) that you are referring
> to things such as
> chiascuro lighting, odd angles, certain recurring
> images such as
> venetian blinds, wet streets, urban landscapes, etc.
> However, these
> stylistic flourishes are not universal.

Yes they are.

> The term
> "film noir" was coined
> in 1946 (not 1960) by French critic Nino Frank after
> seeing 6 recent
> Hollywood melodramas in one week: The Maltese
> Falcon, Laura, Double
> Indemnity, Murder My Sweet & The Woman in the
> Window. By your
> definition, the first two films aren't noir.

As for who coined the term film noir, and when it was coined, I'll bow to you there. I've always heard it was in an article published in the early '60s. In any case, the term didn't begin to creep into common use until the early '60s.

As for the films you mention, except for THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, which I've never seen and so can't comment on, they're all noirs, because they all share common visual characteristics. They're not all visually IDENTICAL, but, after all, Huston and Wilder and Dmytrik are all different filmmakers, and obviously their different styles will come through. But they all make use of dark, sinister, shadowy images, high-lighted lights, darkened darks, and mostly night-time scenes. So they're all noir because they all set mood (what I might call a "dark and sinister mood") by their use of visual imagery.

> Other
> "Non-noirs" would
> include The Killing . . .

Haven't seen it; can't comment.

> The Asphalt Jungle . . .

Noir because of its use of visual imagery.

> High Sierra . . .

Not noir because it's too brightly lit.

> . . .colour films such as I Died a Thousand Times,
> Desert Fury, Leave Her
> to Heaven, Slightly Scarlet & A Kiss Before Dying.

Absolutely correct. They're NOT noir. Color is close to an absolutely disqualifying factor.

> All these films are
> listed in both Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference
> to the American
> Style ed. Silver & Ward and Paul Duncan's The Pocket
> Essentials Film
> Noir.

Which is precisely why both those books are so seriously flawed. They betray a complete misunderstanding of what a film noir is. They include too many films that aren't noir and exclude too many films that are.

> On the other hand, your definition, based
> solely on visual style
> would include Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,
> the Universal
> horror movies of the 1930's and Citizen Kane.

Well, film noir is generally understood to refer to a crime movie. While it is broad enough to embrace private eye stories (MURDER MY SWEET), police procedurals (HE WALKED BY NIGHT), gangster films (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE), and even romantic suspense (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE), I've never heard horror movies included under the noir umbrella.

However, you are certainly correct in pointing out that the visual stylistics in those films are the same as those in the crime films generally labeled as noir.
 So is Welles's classic newspaper drama, which is, after all, built around the question of the solution to a mystery, if not a crime ("What did 'Rosebud' mean?"). If you want to call them film noir, I'll certainly raise fewer objections then if you include films that DON'T use the defining visual stylistics.

> In short, noir is a mood . . .

It's a mood set by a visual style. Period.

> not a colour (or absence
> of it). Mood can be
> achieved with visual effects but it's not the only
> way.

It's the only way in a film noir. If it's set by something else, it may be a great film. It may even be better than anything that IS a film noir. But it's NOT a film noir.

> I have read pretty widely in the critical literature
> regarding film noir
> and although no two critics agree on exactly which
> films make up the
> noir canon none have defined noir in purely visual
> terms. I'm also aware
> of many "crime films" which have a noir look but are
> labelled as
> "gangster" films by critics because they are not
> thematically noir,
> e.g.Dillinger, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond -
> although being about
> gangsters does not mean it can't be a noir (White
> Heat, Kiss Tomorrow
> Goodbye, High Sierra).

Whether or not a gangster film is or isn't noir isn't dependent on its thematic qualities but on its visual qualities. If it has the defining visual qualities, it's noir. If it doesn't, it's not. The critics who look for "thematic meaning" are missing the point. The point is the look.

> I haven't even touched on the films that have been
> labelled neo-noir . . .

And it's a good thing you haven't because none of them are noir either. There hasn't been a real noir since probably around 1962. Which brings me to the other salient point about noir. Its lack of self-consciousness.

Once the term "film noir" began to creep into common usage and filmmakers began TRYING to make film noirs, they set themselves up for failure, because none of the makers of the classic noirs realized what they were doing.

My favorite story about a bunch film buffs missing the point about noir is the one in which Dmytrik is guest lecturing at a film class. One of the sutdents asks him a question about film noir. "Film noir?" asks the director of MURDER MY SWEET, CROSSFIRE, CORNERED, and THE SNIPER. "What's film noir?" He'd never heard the term before, though he was credited as one of its inventors. But all he, or any of the other noir makers were trying to do was use visual imagery in a way that, first of all, they thought suited the story, and second of all, allowed them to make "A" features on "B" budgets because they visual imagery allowed them to get by on cheaper sets, etc.

Once filmmakers began to self-consciously set out to make a film noir, they set themselves up for failure because part of the essence of film noir was its utter lack of self-consciousness. This doesn't mean than many of the films you label "neo-noir" aren't great mmovies. Many of them are better than some movies that ARE legitimate film noirs. They're just not film noirs because, first of all, they USUALLY lack the right visual stylistics, and, secondly, because they are too self-consciously TRYING to be noir.

> . . .which are almost exclusively in colour.

One of the things that keeps them from being film noirs.

> How could
> you possibly come up
> with a definition of neo-noir that is exclusively
> based on visual
> stylistics?

It's really quite simple. I did it by finding the common, defining element in film noir, the visual stylistics, and using that common defining element to come up with the correct definition.

Happy you asked.


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