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

Date: 20 Feb 2003


Re the rest of your comments:

"Are you aware of any books on film noir that aren't
'flawed?' I can't think of any."

Well, that's because I haven't written it yet.

Seriously, though, if Lyons and Petievitch go to such great lengths to debunk the notion that film noir is a function of visual style, doesn't it follow that there's a large body of thought holding the opposite opinion? There'd be no point to their rebutting arguments that haven't been made.

"What's your point in (re)telling this slightly amusing but hoary old anecdote [the Dmytryk lecture story]?"

My point, since you ask so courteously, was that film noir was the result of professional filmmakers trying to find a way to tell stories that was both visually appropriate and economical, NOT the result of a conscious artistic movement.

"So you come up with a definition of neo-noir by finding the (non-existent) common elements of the
(classic) film noir."

I misread the original question (which I guess calls my absolute infallibility into question, but that's another topic). I thought you were asking me how I could possibly come up with a definition of film noir based on the visual elements rather than the content; I missed the "neo" prefix.

But I'd already indicated, by that time, that I wasn't sure there actually was such a thing as
"neo-noir," given that many of the films called by that name lacked the visual qualities defining
"classic" noir, and that there was a self-consciousness to the ones that had it. So why would I even WANT to define it, if I'm not convinced it exists in the first place.

As for the "non-existence" of common visual elements, you, after all, were the one who attributed the coining of the phrase "film noir" to Nino Frank, who, you said, came up with the term after viewing six Hollywood crime films, THE MALTESE FALCON, LAURA, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MURDER MY SWEET, and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. (Where's the sixth, by the way; I only count five.)

I admitted that I'd never seen THE WOMEN IN WHITE, but, inasmuch as it was directed by Fritz Lang, who DID use noir-style visuals in movies like THE BIG HEAT and CLOAK AND DAGGER, I'd be willing to bet that it had the same sort of visual stylistics.

Assuming it did, and putting it together with the other films that led Frank to coin the term, what are the common elements? Aside from their all falling roughly into the broad genre of "crime story," it's certainly not the content. They run a pretty wide gamut. There are two PI films, one romantic suspense
(featuring a policeman/hero, though it's hardly a police procedural), one "doomed criminal protagonist" story, and one "ordinary guy gets swept into suspensful situation a la Hitchcock" story.

So, assuming I'm right about WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, the element common to all five films is the visual quality that enhances the story-telling by setting the mood.

And if it's the visual quality that defines film noir
(and Frank's choice of the definitive examples of the form indicates that this is PRECISELY what it is) it follows that films that don't have this quality
(whatever their merits, which may be, and often are, considerable) AREN'T film noir.

You may disagree with this, but I don't think you can call it a circular argument. It IS a syllogism, which, I guess, is yet another indication of the Jesuit influence (but, after all, Rene, the Jebs only had me for four years; I had eight years of Franciscans before them and a secular state university afterwards, so you can't blame St. Ignatius Loyola completely), but it's not a circular argument.

"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?"

Story is clearly an important part of any film, but if a particular script can be filmed either with or without the particular visual stylistics I've referred to, and if those visual stylistics are what define film noir, then it follows that story isn't the controlling factor.

And, in all probability, they had some impact on what term Frank coined to describe the films he saw, since it's likely he noticed that many of the source novels had appeared in France under the SERIE NOIR logo.

I'll allow that film noir visual approach was particularly appropriate to the film adaptations of books by writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, etc., and to original screenplays by the scriptwriters you mention. And, as I said, filmmakers were trying to find a way to tell a story visually that was appropriate to the material, so it follows that the material had some bearing on the visual choices they made.

But there've also been fine films made from books or scripts by the writers you mention that didn't use those signature visual effects.

Moreover, and at the risk of repeating myself, the story content of film noir, not just the five mentioned by Frank, but the whole body of film noir travels, you must admit, across a pretty wide spectrum.

It's for that very reason that I resist the notion of
"noir content," at least in film (and, to a large degree, in prose fiction, as well). It's a question of mood and atmosphere (I believe, though I may be misquoting you here, that you yourself said, in a prior post, that noir was a matter of mood), and in film, mood and atmosphere are set visually.

Again, at the risk of repeating myself, MARLOWE, though having much in common with MURDER MY SWEET in terms of content, and everything in common in terms of character (at least in terms of its main character) doesn't have the dark, sinister atmosphere of the earlier film. And that lack of atmosphere is not a function of the source material, the script, or the performances. It's a function of the visual style.

"It's been many years since I've seen them but I recall Charlie Chan and SHerlock Holmes movies that had a dark look. Are these noirs in your book, Jim?"

Well, I've never heard of cozies being included under the rubric of noir, but I have to admit that, in terms of visual style, you might be able to make a case here. Certainly CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA and THE SCARLET CLAW establish a dark, sinister atmosphere visually, and, for traditional whodunits, have some pretty hard-nosed elements. Tough mainland cops and a lot of urban grittiness in CHAN, and an apparent vicious serial killer, particularly gruesome murders
(including one child), and Holmes packing a .38 snubbie that wouldn't be out of place in the gun hand of Marlowe or Spade in CLAW.

As I said about the Universal horror films, if you want to include them, I'll raise fewer objections than if you insist on including films that pointedly lack the noir visual elements.


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