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

From: Rene Ribic (
Date: 18 Feb 2003

> Rene,
> 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.

I brought up your Jesuit education because I thought the REASON that you felt you had to make your POINTS in the literary equivalent of SHOUTING was because perhaps you felt that I lacked the intellectual equipment to UNDERSTAND what you were trying to SAY. You didn't say script, etc had nothing to do with film - it's just the obvious implication:

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

> 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.

Gee Jim, the more you repeat yourself the closer I come to accepting your point of view. Who needs logical argument when you can use dogmatic assertion?

> > 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.

I don't even know why I'm bothering to argue with someone whose main tactics of debate are the literary equivalent of SHOUTING and dogmatic repetition of previously made statements. Although I do note a SUBTLE change of position here - "color is CLOSE (the caps are mine) to an absolutley disqualifying factor". Close to absolutely?

> > 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.

I only referred to those two because they are the only books I have to hand with listings of films noirs. My personal favourite film noir book is "Fast" Eddie Muller's Dark City, which is chock full of stills from noirs that would tend to back up your argument - except that two of the films discussed in depth are Leave Her to Heaven & Desert Fury, both in colour. Or let me quote Arthur Lyons in the intro to Death on the Cheap: The Lost B-Movies of Film Noir: After describing the stereotyped image of film noir, ascribed to by yourself;
"The problem with that analysis is that many films of the 40's & 50's exhibited qualities that were commomn to film noir but were clearly not noir. Conversely, all of those stylistic elements, either singly or in combination, have been absent in many well recognised noirs." He goes on to mention several noirs shot in a "relatively flat style", including High Sierra.(Which is universally accepted into the noir canon. Well, almost universally.) Then he lists a whole bunch of colour noirs
(several more than I listed previously). Also from the intro, let me quote Gerald Petievich:
"Story and only story defines film noir.director tastes and techniques have nothing to do with the archetype noir tale". Undoubtedly, the above quoted books are also "flawed" - i.e., they don't agree with you. Are you aware of any books on film noir that aren't
"flawed"? I can't think of any.

> > 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.

I'm beginning to see the light. Can you dumb it down a bit for me?

> > 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 think I'm beginning to understand, by crikey!
> 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.

 Gee Jim, the more you repeat something the closer I come to believing it.

> > 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.
There's a reason why these films are labelled "neo-noirs". The bad ones are self-conscious pastiches - the good ones use the classic film noir as an inspiration without aping the out-of-date (much as I love them) 40's stylistics.

> 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
> 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.

So in other words, Dymytryk knew what he was doing he just didn't know what other people were calling it. What's your point in (re)telling this slightly amusing but hoary old anecdote? That film critics are idiots? I you believe that, why do you bother using their terminology
(film noir) when you don't agree with how they apply it.

> 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.
So you come up with a definition of neo-noir by finding the
(non-existent) common elements of the (classic) film noir. And anything that doesn't contain these "common characteristics" is, by definition, not a film noir - a nice, circular argument. There is an irony here - some time back someone here got upset with me for mentioning the important influence that European directors & cinematographers had on film noir - they thought I was trying to steal the credit away from Americans. Now I find myself embroiled in an argument with somebody who feels that film noir is completely the product of European expressionists. Did Chandler, Hammett, Cain have no bearing in terms of source material & script writers such as Jonathan Latimer, Steve Fisher, Philip Yordan, Martin Goldsmith & many others. It's been many years since I've seen them but I recall Charlie Chan & Sherlock Holmes movies that had a dark look. Are these noirs in your book, Jim. They are crime films, in black & white & they look dark.


PS - sorry guys - my last word on the subject. Jim, perhaps you want to take this debate to The Blackboard, a noticeboard devoted to film noir. I've exhausted myself on the topic but you'll probably find takers there. I would sharpen up my argumentation if I was you, though - I don't think repeating yourself ad nauseam is going to convince anyone.

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