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

Date: 22 Feb 2003


Re your comments and question below:

> As I see it, you narrowly define film noir as a
> group of crime movies of
> a certain period that organically developed and
> displayed a common
> visual style. So noir is a way of telling a story
> and not the story
> itself. In addition, once filmmakers became aware
> of that style as
> something distinct and began consciously setting out
> to make films
> within that style, they lost its essence and instead
> made hollow
> imitations, aping the style, but without the
> substance. Some of these
> post-noir (since you reject the term neo-noir) films
> may even be very
> good films, but they are not noir.

I'm not sure I'd say "hollow imitations," or "lost the essence," since I do admire quite a few movies that have been called "neo-noir," and films that are but
"hollow imitations," that have "lost the essence," wouldn't, it seems to me, turn out to be very enjoyable films.

You're quite right when you interpret my comments as defining noir as a visual story-telling style, rather than the story itself. But I'm not sure there ever was any "essence" to lose, in the sense you seem to mean it.

You and Rene are quite right when you insist that the
"essence" of a film is the story it's telling, and the best of recent crime films are the films that tell their stories the best. The essence of film noir wasn't the visual style, per se. It WAS, in fact, the stories that were told. My point was that film noir defined a particular visual style that was used to tell the story. Sometimes that visual style was used for a particular story (as in THE STREET WITH NO NAME). Sometimes it wasn't (as in the remake HOUSE OF BAMBOO). The essence, in both, was the story. The best of current filmmakers DON'T lose the essence, in the sense that they lose the story. What they often do, however, by resorting self-consciously to the visual flourishes that defined film noir, is draw attention to technique in a way the classic noirists did not.
> As I've made clear in several previous posts, I do
> not agree with this
> definition (for instance, I happen to think that
> that last condition may
> be an argument that a film is poor film noir, but
> not that it ceases to
> be film noir). However, I do believe I've been fair
> in presenting your
> take. I hope you agree.

I don't absolutely agree with your take, but for the most part your interpretation of my comments was fair and balanced.
> So let me move on to your definitions of hardboiled
> and noir literature:
> Hardboiled is tough and colloquial; noir is dark and
> sinister. It
> strikes me that these are also ways of telling
> stories, not the stories
> themselves.

True enough. "Hard-boiled" covers a large area of crime fiction. It's been applied, and in my opinion applied correctly, to private eye stories, police procedurals, spy stories, criminal protagonist stories, etc. What they've all had in common is a tough, colloquial way of telling the story.

> So if we follow your reasoning on film
> noir, once writers
> became aware of hardboiled and/or noir as a distinct
> way of telling a
> crime story that they were also guilty of
> self-consciousness and
> therefore could no longer be considered true
> hardboiled or noir?

There was not the same level of self-conscious use of a technique for the simple reason that the expression of a tough colloquial style was a natural way for the writers writing this fiction to express themselves.

Since it was so obviously different from what had gone before, they had to be aware that this was a break from the artifical style that had been the pattern of the traditional mystery, but that's not the same thing as a filmmaker becoming aware of a visual technique long after it's ceased to be used, and and then resurrecting it for the purpose of harkening back to a bygone era of filmmaking. In such a case, the use of the technique drew attention to itself rather than supporting the story. And the story, not the visual technique supporting it, is SUPPOSED to be the point.
> Adding your recent (very convincing) case that
> Hammett (as evidenced by
> his book reviews) and other classic hardboiled
> writers were very aware
> of themselves as presenting a new, distinct way of
> telling crime stories
> very early on (even if some, like Cain, did hate
> being grouped
> together), doesn't that mean that the vast majority
> of what most of us
> consider the canon of hardboiled and/or noir cannot
> possibly be such
> because it was self-consciously tough, colloquial,
> dark and/or sinister?

Again, most of the hard-boiled writers of the '20s and
'30s were, first of all, writing in a style that came naturally to them, and second of all, writing in a way that was completely different from what had gone before. The "hard-boiled" label came to be applied to such stories pretty early on.

Filmmakers who used the visual flourishes that came to define film noir weren't really using techniques that were entirely new. As Rene pointed out, many of the Universal horror movies of the '30s, and, for that matter, many of the silent horror films of the '20s, used similar visual techniques.

The makers of classic noir used, and refined, already existing techniqes to tell stories for which those techniques were appropriate, but for which they had never before (or at least rarely before) been used. It happened that many of these stories were adapted from books that had been published, in France, as part of the famous SERIE NOIR imprint of crime fiction. So, to French film ciritics, familiar with both the films and the source novels from which many of these films had been adapted, the term "film noir" must have seemed natural.

Again, however, film noir covered a wide spectrum of film genres. Private eye in MURDER MY SWEET. Procedural in THE NAKED CITY. Romantic suspense in LAURA. Spy stories in BERLIN EXPRESS. "Everyday guy caught up in criminal doings" in THE WINDOW. Gangster stories in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Sometimes they weren't even particularly hard-boiled as in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

Two things differentiate noir in film from hard-boiled in prose fiction. First, once started, hard-boiled never died out. Indeed, it might be argued that crime stories with a tough, colloquial attitude became far more numerous then gentler, more traditional crime fiction. On the other hand, as black and white films died out little by little, trickling down to virtually none by the mid-60s, film noir died out as well.

Second, "hard-boiled" was almost immediately recognized and labeled. Undoubtedly there were many who jumped on the bandwagon who knew the words but couldn't get the tune, but, since it remained a natural style for guys with working-class roots to write in, it never, at its best, became self-conscious, though at its worst, it could seem derivative.

On the other hand, the term film noir wasn't coined, or at least didn't come into common usage, until after they were no longer being made. References to film noir were inevitably retrospective. When filmmakers started using similar visual flourishes in current films, it couldn't help but seem like a self-conscious exercise in nostalgia, rather than an organic visual choice made to support the story.
> Finally, you say that any expansion of the
> definition of film noir is
> not evolution, but error, that it is what it is and
> is not what it is
> not and there is no room for greater inclusiveness
> (except the "wiggle
> room" you reserve for yourself). However, you have
> long maintained that
> the usefulness of your definitions of hardboiled and
> noir is exactly
> this kind of inclusiveness, that it allows a number
> of different
> approaches, as long as these minimum requirements
> are met.

Film noir was coined to describe a particular visual style. Hard-boiled was coined to describe a more general prose style. A particular definition of a term meant to describe a particular visual style is appropriate. A more inclusive definition used to define a more inclusive term is also appropriate.

Since the visual style of film noir was one that gave those films a dark, sinister atmosphere, it seems appropriate to used "dark, sinister atmosphere" to define noir in prose fiction as well. Since, in prose fiction, a dark, sinster atmosphere must, of necessity, be communicated by means other than visual flourishes, prose being a non-visual medium, a general definition regarding atmosphere, however it can be conveyed to the reader by the writer, seems the best way to define noir in prose fiction.


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