What is film noir, anyway?

There are seven elements of film noir Raymond Borde and Etienne Chauteton highlight in Panorama du Film Americain (excerpted and translated in the Film Noir Reader edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini). They are:

a crime

the perspective of the criminals, not the police

an inverted view of traditional sources of authority, such as corrupt police

unstable alliances and allegiances

the femme fatale--the woman who causes the downfall and/or death of a good man

brutal violence

bizarre plot twists and motivations

Paul Schrader observes the difficulty of defining film noir in Film Comment (also reprinted in the Film Noir Reader) but limits it to a specific period--from 1941's The Maltese Falcon to 1958's Touch of Evil. He claims that noir is literally black. Scenes at night, high-contrast lighting, and shadows are part of the noir style. Thirdly, film noir deploys disjunctive, non-linear time.

While these two attempts at defining film noir are helpful, they are also limited. Borde and Chaumeton's distinction between film noir and film policier is too narrow. Films such as The Naked City and Crossfire are structured from the perspective of the police, yet this does not limit the brutal violence and perversity of the murders in Crossfire. Borde and Chaumeton also neglect the element of perversity/moral transgression that makes a noir truly dark. Also, Schrader's assertion that noir is dead is premature. Recent films like Bound, Dark City and virtually anything by John Dahl are not mere homages to film noir, but contemporary noirs themselves. The Film Noir Section of the Internet Movie Database lists films from 1927 ("The Underworld") to present (Here's their list sorted chronologically as of Dec, 1999.) A chart of these indicates a primary peak from 1945-1951, and another peak from 1951 to about 1958 with a resurgence in the 1990s.

However, Schrader is correct that defining noir is almost impossible. How many noir elements does it take to make a noir? One? Three? Seven? So a noir may have one noir element, another film have three but not be a noir.

What follows is another attempt to fill the abyss of film noir with definitions in addition to the ones above.

  1. Perversity/moral transgression. A great example is William Bendix using terms of endearment such as "sweetie" and "honey" as he tortures Alan Ladd in The Glass Key.
  2. Fate. Often, noir protaganists get into trouble because of character traits (Double Indemnity and Criss Cross) or circumstances beyond their control (Detour).
  3. Betrayal/the double-cross. All human relationships are at risk in the noir world--the relationship between spouses (Pitfall, Woman in the Window), between bosses and workers ( Phantom Lady), between clients and private investigators (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep), between lovers (Criss Cross) and even between parent and child (Mildred Pierce). Every relationship presumably based on trust and even love has the potential to turn into betrayal for money or sex, or both.

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