When we think of film noir, we mostly think about it is a genre, right?
Well… this is trickier that one would think.
A genre is typically defined as a code of narrational processes familiar to both the creator and the viewer. This is the first significant problem in defining film noir as a genre. When these films were produced in the 1940s, no filmmaker ever set out to make a film noir and no spectator ever expected to see a film noir – because the concept of film noir didn’t even exist.
The term film noir (literally ‘black film’) was coined in France after WWII when French critics first had the opportunity to see the films that had been produced in Hollywood during the war. They noticed a certain new feel to the crime movies of the time, which tended to be grittier, darker, more obsessive than before and to have all very unique communal visuals. They called them film noir, and the term became familiar in Europe throughout the 1950s, especially after Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumenton published their book-length study on the subject in 1955. At that time, almost no film noir was produced in Hollywood anymore. In fact, the term film noir entered the common usage in Anglo-American film critique only in the 1960s/1970s with the surge of neonoir.
So we have two problems here:
- The term film noir was coined outside of the phenomenon, in a different continent and by critics who had a limited understanding of the film production in Hollywood and could do only unsystematic observations on the subject matter.
- The term is retroactive. At the time these films were produced, the term (and so the concept) film noir didn’t exist, and so no one could use a recognised generic codification to produce that specific result.
The definition of film noir as a genre has also always been problematic because of its association with 1940s Hollywood. Genre tends to cross periods rather than been bound by them. A western film will be a western whether it is produced in the 1910s or the 2010s, because the elements that characterise that genre are definite, recognisable and independent.
But there has always been little agreement on what are the noir characteristics that make a film that specific kind of film, and therefore, there has always been little agreement on what films can actually be considered noir. For example, can Casablanca be considered noir, or rather a drama with noirish elements?
Indeed most of the writing on film noir stresses its trans-generic manifestations, identifying noirish elements in films of another, recognised genre.
It has then being proposed that film noir could be considered a style. But this definition is problematic as well because it tends to be highly generalised, highlighting sets of features which are by no means specific to film noir. Even if we consider the body of characteristics that do turn a film into a noir, these seem to be a generic series of stylistic marking. Elements such as compositional imbalance or chiaroscuro lighting can be seen as noir when they occur in conjunction with a specifically noir sets of narrative and thematic conventions. In isolation or even when combined together, they are not specific to film noir, nor to crime cinema, not even to the 1940s.
What exactly is film noir then? This film form that was occasioned by a series of coincidences and historical circumstances in a particular part of the world, at a very specific time – what is it?
Critics are hard-pressed to agree on a definition. But then, we don’t need a definition to enjoy the result.
Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a world-weary ex-freedom fighter, runs a nightclub in Casablanca during the early part of WWII. Despite pressure from the local authorities, notably the crafty Capt. Renault (Claude Rains), Rick’s café has become a haven for refugees looking to purchase illicit letters of transit which will allow them to escape to America. One day, to Rick’s great surprise, he is approached by the famed rebel Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Rick’s true love who deserted him when the Nazis invaded Paris. She still wants Victor to escape to America, but now that she’s renewed her love for Rick, she wants to stay behind in Casablanca. (Fandango Synopsis)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947) by Orson Welles
A seaman, Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is hired as a crew member on the yacht of the wealthy Banister (Everett Sloane). His beautiful but mysterious wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) has met O’Hara earlier, when he saved her from a mugging. What ensues is a complicated and bizarre pattern of deception, fraud and murder, with O’Hara finding himself implicated in a murder, despite his innocence. (AllMovie synopsis)
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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
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It really is difficult to define film noir, isn’t it? It’s one of those cases where we know what it is, and we know it when we see it. But actually defining it, and using that definition to include or exclude books? That’s a different matter.
Indeed. I think defining neo noir it’s easier, because these films were produced having an intentional result and a model in mind, but the classic film noir spontaniously emerged, without a strategy.
It’s quite intriguing, actually 😉
Very interesting, yet again! This is like taking a class…
A to Z Challenge Letter F
Happy you’re enjoying it 🙂
That’s a good point, I’d never thought of that. It definitely seems more of a style to me than a genre!
The definition as style is tricky too, though.
It’s all quite intriguing 😉
Gosh, I thought defining science fiction as a genre was tough. Film noir sounds like a much more complicated thing to pin down.
It was quite a surprise for me, because when I think to film noir I have a very distincrive feeling in mind. But the very history of film noir makes it complicated.
Thanks for stoppin by 🙂
There are an exploding number of genres so it doesn’t surprise me at all that ‘film noir’ is included. I enjoyed this post.
I find the retrospective definition of noir so intriguing. Basically, this kind of films (whether it is a genre or not) spontanously rose from that culture and society, without anybody realising it.
That is really interesting stuff, especially how a set of common elements emerged in films made by different people. With things like this, I think there is something in the atmosphere that filters down to artists and it’s only later it starts to get analysed and a label attached. Great post.
You said better than I could. And that’s so interesting, the way arts depict, but also comment and analyses life.
Ah – Casablanca! I love that film.
Shame on me, I haven’t watch it yet. But I will soon 😉
Heidi Kneale (Her Grace)
I adore Film Noir and am happy to call it a genre, for if someone described a film as “Film Noir”, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get. And yes, I’d consider its limited time span to be a characteristic of the genre, for there is a certain feel about them that didn’t exist before the time, and we haven’t been able to faithfully recreate since then. (Possibly have something to do with the quality of the film stock of the time?)
Well, actually, I understand the reasons why a clear definition is problematic. Not that I care as a viewer 😉
That was a detailed and insightful post, Sarah. Thanks for enlightening me 🙂
Happy you found it useful 🙂
Interesting points about genre and ‘Film Noir’, especially the 1940s time frame. which doesn’t affect other genres. I would consider ‘Casablanca’ a drama with noirish elements.
I read bits of the debate online and there are arguments in favour of both thesis.
Good points about genre and style, and how such definitions are often applied retrospectively. I wonder if the film goers of the time knew they were watching something that would become such a distinguished body of work.
The Quiet Writer
I doubt it. Firt of all, most of film noir were produced as B movies, so nothing that even people who made them expected to be particularly impactful. And second, they were produced as thrillers just like other thrillers were produced in Hollywood before. They were just trying to produce decent films with little budgets, going after the same kind of films that had already proved successfull.
It took outsider’s look (the French critics’) to notice that something ‘special’ was happening.
Reading your post on Film Noir, my first thought was ‘Casablanca’, but Googling it I then saw the debate you mention. Well, as you say, it certainly has noirish elements. I adore this film!
“Female Scientists Before Our Time”
To be honest, I haven’t watched it yet. But I will soon. Researching this topic has been a disaster: now I have a huge TBW list!
I never thought of Film Noir as a genre but more of a style. Casablance is a Romance/war/adventure thriller that has the style of film Noir whereas The Lady from Shanghai is a thriller but, again, has all the style of a noir. I think the style is based mainly on the look of the film and the writing. Excellent write up:)
The point that I’ve found interesting about style is that it was pointed out that the mere visuals aren’t enough to make a noir. You can have all the chiaroscuro and the weird camera angles you want, but if you don’t also have a damaged hero and a femme fatale, if you don’t have a crime plot destined to fail, you don’t have a noir.
Noir needs the style AND the themes to be a noir.
On a storytelling perspective, this is quite interesting 🙂
Sara C. Snider
I imagine any new genre will often be applied after-the-fact, to books/movies/whatever that happen to fit into it whether or not the creator intended it. But the other points are very interesting. Makes noir film sound kind of like a phenomenon, impermanent and defying explanation or description. 🙂
That’s true, labels will always be applied afterwards. The particularity of noir is that when the lable was finally applied because a common thread was detected, film noir was not produced anymore.
Normally, when a thread is recognised, creative people start working consciously inside that thread, producing new work that strengthens the characteristics of the new ‘lable’. This didn’t happen with classic noir. It happened – but after a gap of nearly twenty years – with neo noir, which anyway is a different thing in many respects.
It’s a very strange story 🙂
Humans are funny old creatures, wanting to know what we’re getting before we buy it! Film noir makes sense as a label retrospectively applied by that need for order and categorisation. I wonder if it’ll stop, if things will pare back to simplicity, as we’ve had such an explosion of labels.
I shall have to google to find that discussion vis-a-vis genre/style, sounds interesting.
Bunny and the Bloke
So, don’t you find it interesting that, when classic noir was produced, those filmmakers acted spontanously in seemingly concerted way, in responce to what worried people back then?
I find it so intriguing 🙂