Film Noir
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Film Noir

Ian Brookes

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  1. 288 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Film Noir

Ian Brookes

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What is film noir? With its archetypal femme fatale and private eye, its darkly-lit scenes and even darker narratives, the answer can seem obvious enough. But as Ian Brookes shows in this new study, the answer is a lot more complex than that. This book is designed to tackle those complexities in a critical introduction that takes into account the problems of straightforward definition and classification. Students will benefit from an accessible introductory text that is not just an account of what film noir is, but also an interrogation of the ways in which the term came to be applied to a disparate group of American films of the 1940s and 1950s.

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What is film noir?
Genre and the problem of film noir
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a­ scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
LEWIS CARROLL, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1879)1
Film noir! … I never heard that expression in those days.
What does it mean to speak of film noir as a “problem” when it hardly looks very problematic? After all, doesn’t film noir appear as one of the most obviously recognizable categories of film? Anyone with a basic knowledge of cinema would surely be capable of giving at least a rudimentary account of it. When teaching my own courses on film noir, I often ask students at the outset to jot down their preliminary ideas about what it is. Almost everyone can provide at least some kind of response. They typically talk about crime films from the 1940s, black and white cinematography, urban settings, and characterizations such as the femme fatale and the private eye. When asked for representative titles, they usually come up with a handful from the period, such as Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946). Sometimes, they mention more contemporary titles as well, such as Fight Club (1999), Brick (2006) or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.3 There is also a tendency for particular directors to feature prominently in their examples: David Lynch, for instance, with Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001); Quentin Tarantino, for Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997); and Joel and Ethan Coen, for Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
What invariably emerges from these sessions is widespread disagreement. On the question of periodization, for example, some see noir in terms of a distinct historical period with a beginning and an end. This period is usually seen to run from the early 1940s (sometimes earlier) to the late 1950s (sometimes later). For others, the term describes an ongoing category of film running more or less continuously from the early 1940s to the present. Here, “film noir” operates in contemporary critical discourse to provide terms of reference drawn from the earlier decades to denote a category of films produced afterward, usually designated as “neo-noir.” One of the first problems we have to contend with, then, is whether film noir is what James Naremore calls “an extinct genre,” one that constitutes a discrete historical object of study, or whether it is a more contemporary form of classification with an ongoing existence.4
My students’ responses demonstrate something of the contentious nature of noir criticism and, indeed, they often find it gratifying to discover that their own struggles to account for the term are reflected more widely in academic debates. The term denotes one of the most complicated categories of film as well as the most intellectually challenging and exciting. Even the term itself has a complex history and one of the most useful questions we can ask is why a group of American films should be known by a French name. I’ll return to this question later when I discuss how the term came into being and why it achieved such widespread currency.
Another problem arises from the fact that when these films were originally produced they weren’t known as film noir, a term that was only retrospectively applied by critics. Neither the film industry nor its audiences were aware of the term at the time. It may seem odd for us today to discover that when Billy Wilder was making Double Indemnity (1944)—often seen as the quintessential noir—he didn’t know he was making a film noir and nor did audiences realize they were watching one. Film noir, as a generic category, is unique in the sense of being constituted as a post hoc critical invention. But what kind of category?
Given that this book appears in a series on film genres, we should at least be able to presume that film noir is a genre, but it isn’t that simple. Although some critics have seen film noir as a genre, it has also been described as a cycle, a series, a movement, a visual style, a lighting technique, and a mood or tone. Michael Walker has provided a useful summary of the disparate ways in which critics have defined noir:
The cycle of ‘forties and ‘fifties Hollywood films that retrospectively became known as films noirs seems at first sight to be rather too diverse a group to be constituted with any precision as a generic category. Nevertheless, various critics have sought different unifying features: motif and tone (Durgnat, 1970), social background and artistic/cultural influences (Schrader, 1971), iconography, mood and characterisation (McArthur, 1972), visual style (Place & Peterson, 1974), the “hard-boiled” tradition (Gregory, 1976), narrative and iconography (Dyer, 1977), representation and ideology (Kaplan, 1978), a master plot paradigm (Damico, 1978), conditions of production (Kerr, 1979), paranoia (Buchsbaum, 1986 …) and patterns of narration (Telotte, 1989).5
To complicate the situation still further, Jon Tuska sees noir as “both a screen style … and a perspective on human existence and society.”6 How can we make sense of all these competing claims? Whatever noir is, it isn’t a genre in the generally accepted sense of the term as, say, the western or the musical are.
As Walker’s summary suggests, viewpoints about what constitutes the “unifying features” of noir are so widely disputed that the functioning capability of the term itself can be called into question. Walker also identifies another major problem when he says that the group of films held by critics to constitute film noir seems “too diverse” to be categorized together under the rubric of noir. Most of the surveys on noir literature show an extraordinarily heterogeneous grouping of films. If, for example, we look at some of the entries in one of the standard encyclopedic reference books on film noir, the generic range and diversity appear striking, often including titles that might be thought to require the very widest latitude of definition for inclusion.7 For example, if film noir of the 1940s is assumed to have contemporary urban settings, a Hollywood cycle of period melodramas from the middle of the decade—including Gaslight (1944), Hangover Square (1945), and The Spiral Staircase (1945)—has Victorian or Edwardian settings and is more usually categorized in the female gothic or gaslight genres. At the other generic extreme, and also well represented in the Encyclopedia, is science fiction. Titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Them! (1954) are usually categorized in the cycle of science fiction/horror films of the 1950s. In addition to science fiction, there are several entries for the western in the Encyclopedia, including Duel in the Sun (1946), I Shot Jesse James (1949), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Naked Spur (1953), and Rancho Notorious (1952). There is even an entry for The Black Book (1949), also known as Reign of Terror, a narrative treatment of Maximilien Robespierre’s Paris after the French Revolution.8 How, then, can we account for a category that seems to incorporate all these other genres?
This leads to another complicating factor in the various noir subcategories. There is, for example, the noir western, including Pursued (1947), Ramrod (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), Yellow Sky (1948), and Devil’s Doorway (1950); and the noir musical, including The Band Wagon (1953) and Carmen Jones (1954). According to one critic, there is a category of “noir musical films,” which includes The Red Shoes (1948), a British film with a ballet subject by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Young at Heart (1954), the Doris Day and Frank Sinatra musical; and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1961), an updated version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its rival families transposed as warring teenage gangs in New York City.9 There is also the category of comedy noir, including Lady on a Train (1945) and My Favorite Brunette (1947), together with several comedies by Preston Sturges such as The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948). The British Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) used to be called a black comedy but is now often called comédie noire.
Another of the noir fusion-phrases is “tech-noir.” Tech-noir, a hybrid of noir and dystopian science fiction, is named after the nightclub in The Terminator (1984), “TechNoir,” where Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) attempts to evade the cyborg assassin programmed to kill her. Tech-noir includes such films as Alien (1979) and its sequels, and Blade Runner (1982), itself the subject of a study under the rubric of “Future Noir.”10 Emily E. Auger sees tech-noir as characterized by a futuristic technology that “has become an aggressively destructive force that threatens to transform the environment into a wasteland and forever alter the forms of human individuality, relationshi...