Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Mostly noir (or not noir) on TCM

Date: 16 Jul 2004


Re your question below:

> Not that I don't think you're full of baloney on
> your narrow
> definition of noir. . .

You guys are going to have to make up your minds. I've been criticized because my definition's too broad and I've been criticized because it's too narrow. Really, now, it can't be both.

> . . . but why the specific cut-off
> date of 1964? Film
> historians generally peg the end of the classic noir
> period as
> mid-fifties, usually with the release of KISS ME
> DEADLY, so I'm
> curious as to why you stretch the era eight or nine
> years longer...

It was certainly starting to die out by the mid-50's, as more and more movies that WOULD have been noir began to be made in color (case in point: HOUSE OF BAMBOO a color, wide-screen cop drama in which Robert Stack sort of limbers up for his Eliot Ness characterization a few years later was almost a scene-for-scene, and in some cases line-for-line
[Harry Kleiner received script credit for both films], remake of a noir cop drama released 6 or 7 years earlier called THE STREET WITH NO NAME).

Nevertheless, while film noir, virtually on life-support, was seriously in need of a priest to administer the Last Rites, and examples were less and less frequent, they didn't die out altogether.

In the early '60s, there were Samuel Fuller's UNDERWORLD U.S.A., John Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Blake Edwards's EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, Martin Ritt's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD
(actually that was '65, but filming started in '65; interestingly, at least one critic has complained that the B&W cinematography made the already bleak story TOO downbeat), Val Guest's HELL IS A CITY, and Joseph Losey's THE CRIMINAL (aka THE CONCRETE JUNGLE).

Noir stylistics were also still kept alive on TV in early '60's shows like PETER GUNN, THE UNTOUCHABLES, JOHNNY STACCATO, and NAKED CITY.

By the mid-60's, with virtually all theatrical films being made in color, and more and more color TV's making their way into American homes (compelling all three networks to become "full-color" networks), noir dies out. And that's why I make the mid-60's the approximate cut-off date.

But here's the thing. It not only dies out, it dies out without anyone really being aware that it was alive in the first place because, at least in the US, the term film noir was not regularly used to describe a particular type of film until the early '70's, and then it was almost entirely retrospective.

Eventually, after all that retrospection, a lot of filmmakers deliberately set out to MAKE film noirs, something none of the classic "noir" filmmakers had ever tried to do.

Let me make something clear here. I don't say that there haven't been post-1964 films that have had a dark, sinister atmosphere and that, therefore, are noir in the strict definitional sense.

What I say is that TRUE film noir, during the classic
"noir cycle," was not deliberate, that it existed during a particular period, that it required B&W photography to achieve the dark, sinister visual style that is associated with it, that it died out not because the type of stories that lent themselves to that kind of filmmaking fell out of favor (as films like 1966's HARPER, 1967's TONY ROME and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, 1968's BULLITT, MADIGAN, and THE DETECTIVE, etc., all show) but because black and white movies fell out of favor. Consequently, any
"neo-noir," deliberately trying to recapture that flavor, even if the film is worthwhile, even if it's sometimes superior to the genuine article, always gives the impression of "trying too hard," of
"attempting to recapture a bygone era of filmmaking," etc. And that's why I say they're not REALLY film noir.
> And is there a corresponding start-up point?

A lot of people credit Boris Ingster's THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, which was released in 1940, as the first genuine film noir. So I guess 1940's as good a year as any.

If you don't hold the position that film noir is a strictly American invention (a hard position to hold when you consider how many of the great noir filmmakers were born elsewhere), I think you could make a case that Fritz Lang's *M* is one of the first genuine film noirs. It's a tough, gritty crime film with the same sort of visual stylistics that would come to be associated with noir, and, moreover, Lang, once he emigrated to the US, would be associated with American film noir by helming such great films as THE BIG HEAT, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, CLOAK AND DAGGER, etc., and, finally, it featured one of the great film noir actors, Peter Lorre, as the curiously sympathetic bad guy.

As others on this list have pointed out, though they weren't crime films, many of the Universal horror films used the same sort of visual stylistics associated with noir in the 1930's.


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