RARA-AVIS: Film noir became a genre (was: Top 10 Noir Films... AND MORE)

From: Etienne Borgers ( wbac1203@wanadoo.be)
Date: 24 Aug 2003


I didn't remember it was you who were coming up in the past on R-A with these dubious definitions about noir films, and my remark was certainly not something personal or done with the intention of starting a polemic just for the sake of it. It was more like a warning, because if everybody speaks about something with another concept about the nature of the thing... what is the point? So, I explained where my views are. Especially that I found that Steve (the original provider of this Pandora box) was himself not too sure how to present his question about the best noir films and the periods to check for the selection.

One thing is sure, the traditional, or classic, era of Noir film IS American and stretch from the end of the 30s until approx end of the 50s. No doubt. 100% guaranteed American stuff... And my remark was not something nationalistic and my point was not based on the fact that American Noir in these days was produced with the help of many Europeans (due to the trouble period in Europe -end 30s- and the consequent immigration of a lot of artistic people suitable for the American cinema industry of that time). It was a pure product of the American industry.

But film noir did not come suddenly out of the blue. Another story emerge when you examine the roots of film noir: these roots are NOT only the American gangster films of the 30s, it's also: German expressionism in films (that's for part of the visual style and some ways of editing), the French realism and poetic realism (that's for their visual style and *content* and some ways of editing). There are certainly roots in other foreign cinema, but neither with such an impact nor such a number of films to illustrate the purpose than those two foreign segments. Two French examples: LE JOUR SE LEVE (DAYBREAK-1939) by Marcel Carne is really a film noir in every respect. LA BETE HUMAINE (THE HUMAN BEAST-1938- aka JUDAS WAS A WOMAN) by Jean Renoir is a film noir, close to emblematic
(there are even older examples but I took two films you could easily check out) A *German* film: M (1931)by Fritz Lang

There is where I put my notion of international, in the roots... and continuation.

Should you watch these two French films in an hypothetically English-dubbed version, ignoring from where they come , you could not decide it's not noir. Even following your own "rules".
{In a kind of equivalent test than the one made by some scientist to prove that a true statement coming from a machine (printed output of computer that is) cannot be distinguished from the same true statement typed by a human if you cannot see the machine an/or the human. So you cannot decide which output came from who or what}.

As for the continuation, film noir (after 1955) was rejuvenating under different forms away from the classics of the 40s, and not only in the USA but also in the UK, France and Italy (roughly until mid 70s). And also, film noir was influenced by a literature that was very evolutive
(HB/Noir). During that period, foreign films were more creative and influenced some of the American directors that will work later on film noir in the US. We could name this period Modern Noir. There's where I put also the international side of film noir.

Under this evolution, the formal aspects of film noir varied a lot, but the first of the remaining links between them was a certain type of content, their essence. Not style.

Since mid of the 80s and more certainly all along the 90s, the evolution of film noir is again purely an American process, mainly through films that aggressively explore new grounds in stories and filming. But you could still spot common characteristics in their goals and contents, in their essence, all indicating noir. Not in visual style. That's what we could name the Neo-Noir period.

So that's what links them all, even in different periods: certain types of content and essence, things which explain and proof the existence and evolution of a genre. All things you deny.

Perhaps you should think further about class and hierarchy applied on film genres. Noir has indeed some sub-categories if you segregate them by the *plots*. Not the reverse. And these subs are not the important factor to qualify the film.

And believe me, color does not matter: it's by the story, the filming and the content that you can check out it's noir, or not.

Fortunately for us, this film genre is evolutive... like the literature of the same color we examine here. Noir film became all along the years an important segment of the mystery/crime films category. And even if there is no more mass production of noir films abroad (which explains their present lack of real influence on the US films- also because of the closed system of film distribution in the USA), I saw recent films of high quality from Russia, Norway, Columbia, China (under others) which cannot be qualified by something else than noir, due to their content and filming. They are of the same essence, even if not identical, as films from the US classic period. There's where I put the rest of my meaning about film noir being international.

Could you really pretend that BODY HEAT is not noir? CHINATOWN? TAXI RIDER? GOODFELLAS? MEAN STREETS? and so many more...

Unless in your rules there is some "tongue in cheek" that I didn't get?

 I (re-)saw this afternoon a film that you could test with your own "rules" and views... and discover that it fits perfectly: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) by Sidney Lanfield, based on Conan Doyle's novel. a. it's dated close to the 40s b. it's pure B&W from beginning to end c. it's visually very expressive, with the kind of contrasted expressionist lighting of a lot of films of that period, but accentuated in order to create tension, as seen in Noir classics; it's a crime story: with guns, chases, suspense, murder... et al. There's even police and a PI. The whole thing playing on ambiance and moods to reinforce and support the crime story.

So, my question is: is this really a film noir? If not, why (following your own book)?

A last word: I do not see where I pretended that if classified as noir a film is de facto a good film? I always considered that quality is the only criteria, whatever is the genre, sub-genre, or no specific genre of the film. Noir or not. It's something obvious.

I stop here, it's already a too long message.

E.Borgers Hard-Boiled Mysteries http://www.geocities.com/Athens/6384

At 21:47 23-08-03 -0700, you wrote:
>Re your comments below:
>> I suppose that nobody here will again try to prove
>> that Noir is strictly a
>> kind of expressionist crime film produced during a
>> certain time frame by
>> the American cinema (roughly 40's and 50's).
>Then you suppose incorrectly. First of all, I didn't
>TRY to prove it. I DID prove it. And, having proved
>it, I wasn't going to bring it up again, but since you
>have, I'll be more than happy to go over the old
>ground one more time.
>> That's
>> a false and obsolete view.
>It's a true and valid view.
>> Noir film is a genre. And it's international.
>It may be international. Certainly many of the
>"American" filmmakers associated with the form (Robert
>Siodmak, Fritz Lang, even Edward Dmytrik) were born
>and raised in places other than the US. And crime
>films with noir-type visual flourishes certainly were
>produced in countries other than the US (Clouzot's
>JENNY L'AMOUR, for example).
>But it's not a genre. It's a style. A visual style.
>A visual style that communicates a dark and sinister
>atmosphere. And, in its heyday, a visual style that
>was largely unconscious.
>MURDER, MY SWEET is a private eye picture. It's also
>a film noir.
>HE WALKED BY NIGHT is a police procedural. It's also
>a film noir.
>LAURA is a romantic suspense/whodunit. It's also a
>film noir.
>THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE is a period women's suspense
>film. It's also a film noir.
>MINISTRY OF FEAR is a spy movie. It's also a film
>That's five different genres (or anyway, five
>different SUB-genres). But what they all have in
>common is a visual style that eventually, in
>retrospect, marked them as film noirs.
>There is no such thing as noir content. There is only
>a common visual style that can be used for a variety
>of different kinds of plots and characters.
>In fact the same story could be filmed either as a
>noir or a non-noir, depending on the visual choices
>made by the director. 1948's THE STREET WITH NO NAME
>is a film noir, because it's filmed with the kinds of
>shadowy contrasts between light and dark that marks
>film noirs. The 1955 remake, HOUSE OF BAMBOO, a color
>film in wide-screen with lots of daylight scenes, is
>not a film noir, though it uses the same plot, and,
>with some changes in setting, the same script.
>Here's an easy way to tell:
>1) If it's made before (roughly) 1940, it's not a
>film noir.
>2) If it's made after (roughly) 1963, it's not a film
>3) If it's in color, it's not a film noir.
>Film noir, by the way, is not an indication of
>quality, nor is NOT being a film noir and indication
>of meretriciousness. There are movies that pass
>muster as film noirs, but which aren't particular good
>films. There are all sorts of movies that aren't film
>noir, but which are, nevertheless, very good movies.
>Do you Yahoo!?
>Yahoo! SiteBuilder - Free, easy-to-use web site design software
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