Friday, July 20, 2007

Film Noir by James Naremore

Only that which has no history is definable. - friedrich nietzsche

The past is not dead. It isn't even past. - william faulkner

It has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term. One can easily imagine a large video store where examples of such films would be shelved somewhere between Gothic horror and dystopian science fiction: in the center would be Double Indemnity, and at either margin Cat People and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But this arrangement would leave out important titles. There is in fact no completely satisfactory way to organize the category, and nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a period, a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a 'phenomenon.''

Whatever noir 'is', the standard histories say it originated in America, emerging out of a synthesis of hard-boiled fiction and German Expressionism. The term is also associated with certain visual and narrative traits, which some commentators have tried to localize in the period between 1941 and 1958. Others contend that noir began much earlier and never went away.2 One of the most comprehensive (but far from complete) references, Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedia of the American Style begins in 1927 and ends in the present, listing over 500 motion pictures of various stylistic and generic descriptions.1

Encyclopedic surveys of the Silver and Ward type can be educational and enter­taining, but they also have a kinship with Jorge Luis Borges's fictional work of Chinese scholarship, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which contains a whimsical taxonomy of the animal kingdom: those belonging to the Emperor; mermaids; stray dogs; those painted with a fine camel's-hair brush; those resembling flies from a distance; others; etc. Unfortunately, nothing links together all the things discussed as noir - not the theme of crime, not a cinemato­graphic technique, not even a resistance to Aristotelian narratives or happy endings. Little wonder that no writer has been able to find the category's neces­sary and sufficient characteristics, and that many generalizations in the critical literature are open to question. If noir is American in origin, why does it have a French name? (The two Frenchmen who supposedly coined the term, writing separate essays in 1946, were referring to an international style.) More intrigu-ingly, if the heyday of noir was 1941-58, why did the term not enjoy widespread use until the 1970s? A plausible case could indeed be made that, far from dying out with the old studio system, noir is almost entirely a creation of postmodern culture - a belated reading of classic Hollywood that was popularized by cineastes of the French New Wave, appropriated by reviewers, academics, and film-makers, and then recycled on TV.

At any rate, a term that was born in specialist periodicals and revival theaters has now become a major signifier of sleekly commodified artistic ambition. Almost 20 per cent of the titles currently on the National Film Preservation List at the Library of Congress are associated with noir, as are most of the early volumes in the British Film Institute 'Film Classics' series. Meanwhile, 'neo noirs' are produced by Hollywood with increasing regularity and prominence. Consider the last three American winners of the Grand Prize at Cannes: Wild at Heart (1991), Barton Fink (1992), and Pulp Fiction (1994). Consider also such big-budget television productions as Twin Peaks,' 'Wild Palms'(marketed to ABC as 'TV noir'), and 'Fallen Angels'.

Some of these instances might be described as 'pastiche', but pastiche of what? The classical model is notoriously difficult to pin down, in part because it was named by critics rather than film-makers, who did not speak of film noir until well after it was established as a feature of academic writing. Nowadays, the term is ubiq­uitous, appearing in reviews and promotions of many things besides movies. If we want to understand it, or to make sense of genres or art-historical categories in general, we need to recognize that film noir belongs to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema; it has less to do with a group of artifacts than with a discourse - a loose, evolving system of arguments and readings, helping to shape commercial strategies and aesthetic ideologies.

It seems odd that film theorists did not arrive at this conclusion long ago. After all, the Name of the Genre (or Mood, or Generic Tendency, or whatever) functions in much the same way as the Name of the Author. Michel Foucault has pointed out that the 'author function' is tied to the 'institutional system that encompasses, deter­mines, and articulates the universe of discourses'.4 The author, Foucault says, is chiefly a means of textual classification, allowing us to establish 'a relationship of homogeneity, filiation, authentification of some texts by the use of others' (147). At bottom, these relationships are psychological 'projections,' governed by the belief that there must be 'a point where contradictions are resolved, where incompatible elements are at last tied together or organized around a fundamental and originating contradiction' (151).

Could we not say exactly the same things about the 'genre function'? And could we not ask of it many of the same questions that Foucault asks of authorship: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it (160)? In the case of film noir, one of the most amorphous yet important categories in film history, these questions seem particu­larly apt. As a start toward answering them, the following pages offer a commentary on early writings about noir. Instead of looking for the essential features of a group of films, I shall try to explain a paradox: film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past.

Noir is born: Paris, 1946-59

[...] We can never say when the first film noir was made, but everyone agrees that significant writings on American noir began to appear in French film journals in August, 1946. [...] The term was used in discussions of five Hollywood features made during the war, all of which had just been exhibited in succession on Paris movie screens: The Maltese Falcon; Double Indemnity; Laura; Murder, My Sweet; and - somewhat surprisingly, in light of the fact that it disappears from most subse­quent writings - The Lost Weekend. Another picture released in Paris that summer, Woman in the Window, described by one French reviewer as a 'bourgeois tragedy', was later to become a noir classic.5 The forthcoming MGM production of The Postman Always Rings Twice was mentioned alongside the initial group of five, and Citizen Kane, which was also mentioned, was placed in a class by itself. Critical discussion centred mainly on the first four thrillers - which, even though they were not exactly alike (The Maltese Falcon does not have a first-person narrator or flash­backs, and Laura is not based on a hard-boiled novel), seemed to belong together. These films would become the prototypical members of an emergent category, and they would have an unusual influence on French thinking for over a decade.

In one sense the French invented film noir, and they did so because local condi­tions predisposed them to view Hollywood in certain ways. As R. Barton Palmer has observed, France possessed a sophisticated film culture consisting of theatres, journals, and 'cine-clubs' where movies were treated as art rather than as commercial entertainment.6 Equally important, the decade after the liberation saw a resurgence of Americanism among directors and critics, many of whom sought to refashion the French art cinema along the more 'authentic' lines of Hollywood genre movies. A nouvelle vague would eventually grow out of this dialectic between America and Europe, and the so-called film noir - which was visibly indebted to European modernism - became the most important category in French criticism. [...]

Reviewers in the United States had already seen a vague connection between the pictures [...] but they made no attempt to invent a new term.7 [...] French writers, on the other hand, were fascinated with the noir metaphor [...] Over the next decade, as the category expanded and became the subject of retrospectives and catalogues raisonnes, French critics often praised noir for its dynamism, its cruelty, and its irra­tionality; but they also searched the dark Hollywood streets for what Chartier called 'accents of rebellion' against the 'fatality of evil'. [...]8

French discussion of American film noir was conditioned by the prevailing and sometimes conflicting trends in Left Bank intellectual culture. The importance of existentialism to the period has long been recognized; what needs to be emphasized is that French existentalism was intertwined with a residual surrealism, which was crucial for the reception of any art described as noir. [...] The surrealists were [...] attracted to the cinema of the 'social fantastic', to stories about doomed erotic love, and to Hollywood thrillers with Sadeian titles. Among their particular favorites were movies about gangsterism and murder, partly because such pictures depicted violent, antisocial behavior, and partly because they bestowed an aura of the marvelous upon ordinary urban decor. [...] Not surprisingly, such films were admired and discussed in L'Age du cinema, a surrealist publication of 1951, and in Positif, which maintained strong connections to surrealism throughout the 1950s and 60s. They were also given their first important study in a book that was profoundly surrealist in its ideological aims: Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton's Panorama dufilm noir americain (1955), which has been described as a 'benchmark' for all later work on the topic.9 [...]

Throughout, an 'objective' tone serves as a mask for the celebration of kinky irra­tionality. Borde and Chaumeton have surprisingly little to say about visual style (the French were generally unimpressed by what Bazin called 'plastics' or expressionist imagery); in fact they emphasize that the dark atmosphere of Hollywood crime movies is 'nothing in itself and ought not to be adopted for its own sake (180). On the other hand, they place great emphasis on the theme of death, and on the 'essen­tial' affective qualities of noir, which they list in the form of five adjectives typical of surrealism: 'oneiric, bizarre, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel' (3).'° [...]

But according to Borde and Chaumeton, there are also noir narratives and charac­ters; and at this level film noir becomes a full-fledged outlaw genre, systematically reversing Hollywood's foundational myths. True films of the type, Borde and Chaumeton insist, not only take place 'inside the criminal milieu,' but also represent 'the point of view of criminals' (7). Such films are 'moral' in an approximately surre­alist sense: instead of incorruptible legal agents, they give us shady private eyes, crooked policemen, murderous plainclothes detectives, or lying district attorneys. [...]

It follows that the ideal noir hero is the opposite of John Wayne. Psychologically, he is passive, masochistic, morbidly curious; physically, he is 'often mature, almost old, not very handsome. Humphrey Bogart is the type' (10). By the same logic, the noir heroine is no Doris Day. Borde and Chaumeton never allude to the Marquis de Sade's Juliette, one of the most famous sexual terrorists in French literature," but the character they describe resembles her in every respect save the fact that she is 'fatal even to herself (10). Beautiful, adept with firearms, and 'probably frigid', this new woman contributes to a distinctive noir eroticism, 'which is usually no more than the eroticization of violence' (10).12 [...]

Above all, Borde and Chaumeton are intrigued by the way film noir has 'revived the theme of violence' (10). [...] 'In this incoherent brutality', Borde and Chaumeton remark, 'there is the feeling of a dream' (12). Indeed the narratives themselves are often situated on the margins of dreams, as if to intensify the surre­alist atmosphere of violent confusion or disequilibrium that Borde and Chaumeton regard as the very basis of noir. 'All the components of noir style,' they write, are designed to 'disorient the spectator' (14). [...] French discussion of noir was also affected by existentialist literature and philosophy, which placed emphasis on different matters. Existentialism was despairingly humanist rather than perversely anarchic, and it had a different attitude toward violence; thus if the surre­alists saw the Hollywood thriller as a theater of cruelty, the existentialists saw it as an absurdist novel. For critics who were influenced by existentialism, film noir was especially attractive because it depicted a world of obsessive return, dark corners, and huisclos. [...]

In the years before and after the war, when the French themselves were entrapped by history, several themes of French existential philosophy had been elaborated through readings of such novelists as Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, who were often bracketed with Wright, Hemingway, Dos Passes, and Faulkner; indeed the French 'discovered' several of these talents, just as they later discovered the Hollywood auteurs. [...]

This passion for literary toughness has an interesting relation to the social and political climate after the war. [...] The left had been in disarray in the West since the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the situation in France was complicated by the fact that the country had recently emerged from what the French themselves described as les annees noires - a time of torture, compromise, and collaboration.13 Faced with a choice between capitalism and Stalinism, many French artists tried to achieve 'freedom' through individualized styles of resistance. For them, prewar American novels offered a model - especially novels depicting a violent, corrupt world in which ambiguous personal action is the only redemptive gesture. [...] Sartre claimed that modern life had become 'fantastic', as if it were made up of a 'labyrinth of hall­ways, doors, and stairways that lead nowhere, innumerable signposts that dot routes and signify nothing'.14

Bazin's style of existentialism is everywhere apparent in his 1957 eulogy for Humphrey Bogart, written only two years before his own death. According to Bazin, Bogart was important because 'the raison d'etre of his existence was in some sense to survive', and because the alcoholic lines on his face revealed 'the corpse on reprieve within each of us' (Hillier, 98). Jean Gabin, the star of prewar French films noirs, seemed romantic by comparison; Bogart was a man ''defined by fate', and because he was associated with 'the noir crime film whose ambiguous hero he was to epitomize', he became the quintessential 'actor/myth of the postwar period' (Hillier, 99). Bazin argued that Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade was theoretically equivalent to the almost simultaneous release of Citizen Kane: 'It must be the case', he wrote, 'that there is some secret harmony in the coincidence of these events: the end of the prewar period, the arrival of a certain novelistic style of cinematographic ecriture, and, through Bogart, the triumph of interiorization and ambiguity' (Hillier, 100).

The 'ambiguity' of which Bazin speaks is quite different from the disorientation or inversion of moral norms valued by the surrealists. It has more to do with ethical complexity, and with the cinema's ability to capture what Bazin elsewhere calls the 'structure of reality' in all its phenomenological uncertainty. Likewise, Bazin's 'interiorization' has little to do with the Freudian subconscious. It suggests instead a radical isolation or individuality that forces the subject to create identity out of exis­tential choice. Bazin apparently believes that the 'secret harmony' linking Bogart and Welles is a byproduct of what French literary critic Claude-Edmonde Magny (in a book heavily influenced by Sartre) had called 'the age of the American novel'.15 On a more general level, however, the themes of isolation, uncertainty, and ambi­guity must have exerted a strong appeal to anyone who was wary of collective poli­tics and inclined to treat social issues in terms of personal ethics.

During this period, younger critics at Cahiers began to project Bazin's ideas onto films noirs, which became existential, depoliticized allegories of the white male condition. The favored existential hero, however, was not Bogart but Nicholas Ray, who directed They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, and On Dangerous Ground.[...]

At this juncture, 'film noir' and 'auteur' began to work in tandem, expressing the same values from different angles. (It is no accident that the two terms would enter the English language at the same moment.) Film noir was a collective style oper­ating within and against the Hollywood system; and the auteur was an individual stylist who achieved freedom over the studio through existential choice. [...]

In 1959, Godard's Breathless was released, and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player soon followed. Both films were [...] littered with references to Bogart, Gun Crazy, On Dangerous Ground, etc.;16 and both made film noir available as a 'pretext' for directors who wanted to assert their personalities. [...] The first age of film noir had come to an end.

Darkness everywhere

The discourse on noir was initiated by two generations of Parisian intellectuals who announced the death of the form soon after they discovered it. [...] Eventually, French critical terminology migrated to Britain and America, where it exerted considerable influence and acquired new interpreters. By the 1990s, it had become what Dennis Hopper describes as 'every director's favorite genre'.17

A complete history of noir in America would take into account such things as New York film culture in the East Village during the late 1950s, or the Bogart cult that developed at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in the early 1960s. It would look closely at the role of alternative criticism and college film societies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On a more general level, it would consider the Vietnam war (a structuring absence in Paul Schrader's 'Notes on Film Noir'); the rise of academic film theory; the vast changes in the economics and censorship of Hollywood; and the increasing dissolution of discursive boundaries between high and commercial art.

Today, the 'original' films noirs still circulate alongside new ones. The noir medi-ascape in the late twentieth century spreads across virtually every national boundary and every form of communication, including museum retrospectives, college courses, parodies, remakes, summertime blockbusters, mass-market paperbacks, experimental literature and painting, made-for-TV films (there is a significant B-movie industry known in the trade as 'cable noir'), and soft-core 'erotic thrillers' that go directly to video stores. Why has noir become so important? The answer is beyond the scope of an essay, but it seems obvious that the idea of film noir has been useful to the movie industry, providing artistic cachet and spectacular opportunities for both the 'New Hollywood' auteurs of the 1970s and the sex-and-violence specialists of the 1980s. The more interesting question is whether a category devel­oped by critics to influence what Borde and Chaumeton called 'the occidental and American public of the 1950s' (5) can function in the same way for us. [...]

Quite obviously, a concept that was generated ex post facto has become part of a worldwide mass memory; a dream image of bygone glamour, it represses as much history as it recalls, usually in the service of cinephilia and commodification. Not every recent instance of film noir [...] can be explained in this way, and it would be naive to assume that the classic films noirs were ever free of show business and the consumer economy. Nevertheless, the term now plays a central role in the vocabulary of ludic, commercialized postmodernism.18 Depending on how it is used, it can describe a dead period, a nostalgia for something that never existed, or perhaps even a vital tradition. One thing is clear: the last film noir is no easier to name than the first. [...]


1 Film noir is described as a genre by, among others, Robin Buss, French Film Noir (London: Marion Boyars, 1994); Charles Higham and Joel Greenburg, Hollywood in the Forties (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1968); Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1981); Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds., Film Noir: An Encyclopedia of the American Style (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, rev. ed., 1992); and Jon Tuska, Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984). Noir is a movement or period characterized by 'tone and mood' in Paul Schrader, 'Notes on Film Noir', in Film Genre Reader, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986), pp. 167-82; a set of 'patterns of nonconformity' within the classical Hollywood style in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Clasical Hollywood Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); a series in Raymond Borde and Eugene Chaumeton, Panorama dufilm noir americain, 1941—1953 (Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1955); a motif and tone in Raymond Durgnat, 'Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir', Cinema nos. 6-7 (1970), pp. 49-56; a visual style in J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson, 'Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir', Film Comment, vol. 10, no. 1 (1974), pp. 13-18; a canon in J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989); a phenomenon in Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (London: Rutgers, 1991); and a transgeneric phenomenon in R. Barton Palmer, Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir (New York: Twayne, 1994). For an argument similar to Palmer's, see John Belton, 'Film Noir's Knights of the Road',fing/zf Lights Film Journal 12(Spring 1994), pp. 5-15.

2 The dates 1941-1958 seem to have been first proposed by Schrader, who used The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil to mark the beginning and end of the noir period. Schrader's position is accepted by Place and Peterson, and by a few writers in E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Women in Film Noir (London: BFI, 1980). Several other books on film noir implicity endorse this periodization, even when they do not set fixed dates; see, for example, Telotte and Krutnik. Most recent discussions treat film noir as a genre that begins somewhere in the late 30s or early 40s and continues to the present day; see Palmer, and many of the essayists in Joan Copjec, ed., Shades of Noir (London: Verso, 1993). In the Copjec volume, there are skeptical voices; see especially Marc Vernet, 'Film Noir on the Edge of Doom', pp. 1-31, who questions many of the standard histor­ical and stylistic assumptions.

3 The Silver and Ward encyclopedia omits a number of titles that might logically be called film noir, but as Marc Vernet has noted, one of the beauties of the category is that 'there is always an unknown film to be added to the list'. For a larger filmography, see Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir (Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland, 1984).

4 'What Is an Author?', in V. Harari, ed., Textual Strategies (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 153. All further references are noted in the text.

5 Jacques Bourgeois, 'La Tragedie policier', Revue du cinema 2 (1946), pp. 70-72.

6 Palmer is almost the only writer on film noir to have recognized that movies have different meanings for different audiences. My survey of French criticism differs from his in substantial ways, but I recommend his excellent survey of writings on noir in Hollywood's Dark Cinema, pp. 1-31.

7 One exception to this rule was Siegfried Kracauer, writing in the same month that the French coined the term film noir ('Hollywood's Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American State of Mind?', Commentary 2 (August 1946), pp. 132-36). Kracauer had recently completed From Caligari to Hitler, his book about German expressionist cinema, and he used the same arguments to discuss a recent spate of American 'terror films', including Shadow of a Doubt, The Stranger, The Dark Corner, The Spiral Staircase, and The Lost Weekend. His essay is discussed briefly in Telotte. pp. 4-5, and extensively in Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and Urban Space, Ph.D. Diss., University of California at Santa Cruz, 1992, pp. 116-63.

8 Jean Pierre Chartier, 'Les Americains font des films "noirs" ', Revue du cinema 2 (1946), p. 67 (my translation). Hereafter noted in text. Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), trans. Liz Heron, p. 37.

9 Silver and Ward, p. 372.

10 Onirique, insolite, erotique, ambivalent, et cruel. I have translated insolite as 'bizarre', but there is no good English equivalent. It connotes the Gothic, somewhat like the Freudian unheimlich, hut with a more shocking or horrific effect. Judging from its frequency, insolite is the most important adjective in the Panorama.

11 Compare Sharon Stone's comments to a reporter about the role she played in Basic Instinct (1992): 'I never thought the character really cared about sex at all. That's why it was so easy for her to use her sexuality - it had no value.' Parade Magazine (January 30, 1994), p. 10.

12 Quoted by Roy Hoopes, Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), p. xiii.

13 For a detailed account of the politics of French intellectuals in the period, see Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992).

14 Quoted by Dana Polan, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 252.

15 Claude-Edmonde Magny, The Age of the American Novel: The Film Aesthetic of Fiction Between the Two Wars, trans. Eleanor Hochman (New York: Ungar, 1972). This book, published in France in the 1950s, helped to transmit Sartre's ideas about the novel into French film theory.

16 For a listing of allusions to films noirs in Breathless, and for a useful survey of the French intellectual background, see Dudley Andrew, 'Breathless: Old As New', in Breathless, ed. Dudley Andrew (Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 3-20.

17 Quoted by Leighton Grist, 'Moving Targets and Black Widows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood', in The Book of Film Noir, ed. lan Cameron (New York: Continuum, 1993), p. 267.

18 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991). See also Marcia Landy and Lucy Fischer, 'Dead Again or A-Live Again: Postmodern or Postmortem?' Cinema Journal, vol. 33, no. 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 3-22.