Friday, July 20, 2007

Genre Theory and Film Noir


'Whoever went to the movies with any regularity during 1946 was caught in the midst of Hollywood's profound post-war affection for morbid drama. From January through December deep shadows, clutch­ing hands, exploding revolvers, sadistic villains and heroines tormented with deeply rooted diseases of the mind flashed across the screen in a panting display of psychoneuroses, unsublimated sex and murder most foul.'

This article from a 1947 Life magazine quoted in Hollywood Genres (Schatz, 1981, p. in) is revealing not only for the way in which, at a time when the genre was still young, it manages to touch on many of what were later to be seen as the essen­tial elements of film noir, but also for the high moral tone it adopts towards 'pant­ing', 'morbid drama'. At a time when few popular American films were taken seriously, concern about the explicitness of the sexuality and, curiously in the light of later work, the 'realism' of the violence of noir, amounted to moral panic. Critics' dislike was compounded by economic snobbery: the low budgets and 'B' film status of many film noirs was seen as a priori proof that the films were 'trash'. Within this framework the noir films by émigrés whose earlier work was con­sidered 'art' were seen as particularly lam­entable. As documented in Stephen Jenkins's book (1981), it became an English and American critical truism to decry Fritz Lang's decline into the produc­tion of what Gavin Lambert, for instance, saw as mere 'workmanlike commerce' (p. i).

The major period of noir production is usually taken to run from The Maltese falcon in 1941 to Touch of Evil in 1958. Even after this time, however, British and American critics failed to take film noir seriously. As Paul Schrader comments, 'For a long time film noir, with its emphasis on corruption and despair, was considered an aberration of the American character. The western, with its moral primitivism, and the gangster film, with its Horatio Alger values, were considered more American than the film noir.' Schrader goes on to suggest that the fundamental reason for the neglect of noir was the importance of visual style to the form: 'American critics have been tradi­tionally more interested in theme than style: ' it was easier for the sociological critics to discuss the themes of the western and the gangster film apart from stylistic analysis than it was to do for the film noir' (Schrader 'Notes on film noir', 1972., p. 13).

In France the situation was very dif­ferent. Initially, interest focused on the links between noir films and the writing of the 'hard-boiled' novelists such as Chand­ler, Hammett, Woolrich, Cain and McCoy, who all either wrote screenplays or source novels for noir films. The phrase film noir itself derives from the serie noire books - mainly translations of the above-named American writers. Interestingly, it seems that this examination of writers as one of the sources for film noir became, in Britain and America, a method of ascribing respectability - see, for example, Jenkins's comments on the overvaluation of the role of the literary Hammett in histories of film noir compared with the contribution of, for example, Woolrich (Jenkins, 'Dashiell Hammett and film noir', 1982., p. 276).

" Equally relevant to the French context was the rise of authorship theories known historically as the politique des auteurs. The re-evaluation of noir films by particu­lar directors, especially Lang, Huston, Ray, Fuller and Aldrich, involved a new depth of investigation and, especially, a close examination of mise en scene. The basic aim of such studies was, however, the tracing of continuities across careers rather than the lateral investigation of work produced in particular periods and production contexts. The most interesting questions about noir do not concern the marks of directorial difference. Rather, the crucial issue, as phrased by Silver and Ward, is that of 'cohesiveness': the wide influence of noir across the work of dif­ferent directors and genres. Silver and Ward take a random sample of seven film noirs and note that 'different directors and cinematographers, of great and small tech­nical reputations, working at seven dif­ferent studios, completed seven ostensibly unrelated motion pictures with one cohesive visual style' (Silver and Ward, 1981, p. 3).

Although it is generally accepted that crime and criminal acts provide the basis for the majority of noir films and the noir style (see Durgnat, 'The family tree of film noir', 1974) the influence of noir spreads beyond the gangster/thriller genres influencing melodramas, horror films, detectives, even (although this would not be universally agreed) westerns and musi­cals. Indeed, Schrader has suggested that noir can be seen as touching 'most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 53' (Schrader, 1972., p. 9).

Categories and definitions

Given the potential expansiveness of the term, noir demanded both a theoretical system which could pin down what it was that made noir noir, and criticism which examined its generic marks and investi­gated the structural, thematic and visual systems integral to the whole series of films. Before work on defining the crucial elements of noir and an examination of their workings could begin, however, pre­liminary attempts were made to categorise those films which seemed central to noir.

The first book-length study of noir (Borde and Chaumeton, 1955) began this work by mapping out various recurrent themes within noir (violence, crime, psychological emphasis) and relating these to particular films. This in turn provided the basis for Durgnat's eccentric and amorphous 'Family tree of film noir' (1974) which listed nearly 300 films under headings such as 'Psychopaths', 'Gang­sters', and 'Middle-Class Murder'. The latter category was sub-divided into lists including 'Corruption of the Not-So Inno­cent Male' (e.g. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) ; 'Woman As Heroic Victim' (e.g. Rebecca, Gaslight) and 'Mirror Images' (e.g. Rebecca, The Woman in the 'Window). Durgnat's article, written in 1970, was influential in mapping the territory but it pointed up the need for more rigorous and specific defini­tion - for many, his inclusion of films like 2001 was mere provocation.

Paul Schrader touches on what he sees ' as some of the recurring visual marks of noir - die majority of the scenes lit for night, rain-drenched streets, doom-laden narration, compositional tension rather than "action and a fondness for oblique lines and fractured light. Generally appre­ciative of Durgnat's categorisation, Schrader suggests that the family tree is structured around a halting of the upwardly mobile thrust of the 30’s. 'Frontierism has turned to paranoia and claustrophobia. The small-time gangster had made it big and sits in the mayor's chair. The private eye has quit the police in disgust and the young heroine, sick of going along for the ride is now taking others for a ride.’ Writing more histori­cally than Durgnat, Schrader identifies an intensification of this downward move­ment as the noir period continues and cate­gorises noir temporally by sub-dividing it into three main periods. These are: Wartime 1941-46 (characterised by 'the private eye and the lone wolf . . . studio sets and more talk than action', e.g. The Maltese Falcon, Gilda, Mildred Pierce), Post-War Realistic 1945-49 ('crime in the streets, political corruption and police routine' and 'less romantic heroes', e.g. The Killers, Brute Force) and finally Psychotic Action and Suicidal Impulse 1949—53 (‘the psychotic killer as active pro­tagonist, despair and disintegration', e.g. Gun Crazy, D.O.A., Sunset Boulevard) (Schrader, 1972, pp. 11-12).

Both Durgnat and Schrader state that they do not see film noir as a genre. Instead, Schrader suggests that it should be seen as a period or movement similar to German Expressionism or Italian Neo-Realism. Critics of this use of the term claimed that unlike the quoted movements noir did not involve an overt, or even implicit, commitment to a political/ aesthetic programme and that to imply that it did misrepresented the divergent attitudes of noir film-makers and noir's precise industrial production context.

Janey Place (with Peterson, 'Some visual motifs of film noir', 1974; 'Women in film noir', 1978) also uses the term 'movement' and justifies her use of it in some depth.

She claims that 'unlike genres, defined by objects and subjects, but like other film movements, film noir is characterised by a remarkable homogeneous visual style with which it cuts across genres' (Place, 1978, p. 39). In the earlier article Place and Peterson attempt to identify the elements of this 'consistent thread'. They outline the difference between the dominant 'high-key lighting style' which eliminates 'unnatural' shadows on faces and gave 'what was con­sidered to be an impression of reality' and noir's chiaroscuro 'low-key lighting' which eschews softening filters and gauzes and 'opposes light and darkness, hiding faces, rooms, urban landscapes - and by extension, motivations and true character — in shadow and darkness'. The night scenes integral to film noir would, in the 'blanc' style, have been shot 'day for night' with special filters. A central element of the noir look, however, was the high contrast image and jet black (rather than blanc grey-black) skies given by 'night for night' shooting. Place and Peterson go on to des­cribe noir's rnise en scene 'designed to unsettle, jar, and disorient the viewer in correlation with the disorientation felt by the noir heroes'. Typically, they argue, noir is distinguished by the use of 'claustrophobic framing devices' which separate characters from each other, unbalanced compositions with shutters or banisters casting oblique shadows or plac­ing grids over faces and furniture, 'obtrusive and disturbing' close-ups jux­taposed with extreme high-angle shots which make the protagonist look like 'a rat in a trap.' Overall, the visual style of noir as described by Place and Peterson amounts to a disorientating anti-realism which exists in opposition to the harmonious 'blanc' world of the realist film.

Place's insistence on the distinguishing character of the visual style of the noir is challenged in an article by James Damico ('Film noir: a modest proposal', 1978). Arguing against the view of noir as move­ment and for it as a genre, Damico claims that the visual style of noir is actually an iconography. He suggests that the com­mon denominator of noir films is their nar­rative structure and proposes a model by which film noirs may be isolated, objecti­fied and their examination facilitated.

'Either because he is fated to do so by chance, or because he has been hired for a job especially associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-so-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is a natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman's betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the some­times metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself (Damico, 1978, p. 54).

While Place's and Damico's respective use of the terms 'movement' and 'genre' is closely argued in relation to their indi­vidual stress on either visual style or narra­tive structure, other writers have used them differently, or have opted instead for 'series', 'cycle' or 'sub-genre'. Subsequent authors have not automatically accepted Damico's contention that his schema pro­vides an alternative reading of noir which is in opposition to accounts stressing visual style. For example, Paul Kerr's article on the industrial context of the 'B' film noir unproblematically includes both Place and Damico in a general introduction to the genre's characteristics (Kerr, 'Out of what past?', 1979/80, p. 49). Sylvia Harvey, meanwhile, offers a useful synthesis within a framework which accepts visual style as the most fundamental aspect of noir. The defining contour of genre, Harvey sug­gests, is dissonance: 'the sense of disorien­tation and unease' produced by 'that which is abnormal and dissonant' (Harvey, 'Woman's place: the absent family of film noir', 1978, p. 32.).

The historical specificity of film noir

Underlying all these different attempts at categorisation of noir lies the issue of its historical specificity. How did it become so dominant in Hollywood for more than twenty years, touching (one might almost say consuming) almost every genre whilst retaining a specific visual and narrative structure? What caused it to decline? And if, as this line of questioning suggests, there was a relationship between historical period and the stylistic and thematic ele­ments of noir, how should this relationship be characterised?

Before dealing with how various theor­ists have answered these questions it is important to signal the debate about the delineation of the genre's historical period. Following Schrader, most critics have understood the major period of noir to fall between The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Touch of Evil in 1958 (Schrader, 1972., p. 8), although the search for immediate precursors has been a popular academic occupation (e.g. Flinn, who claims in 'Three faces of film noir', 1972, that the 65-minute 'B' movie Stranger on the Third Floor is the earliest film noir). This strictly time-bound view is, however, implicitly challenged by some listings. Durgnat's family tree lists several titles made outside of the 1942-58 period, including several more usually seen as precursors, such as Warner Bros gangster films. A more com­plex challenge to Schrader's time limits comes from Silver and Ward (1981), whose book includes synopses of later films which were clearly influenced by noir, often to the point of intentional homage. The genesis of films like Klute, Hustle, Body Heat and Schrader's own American Gigolo was provocatively prefigured by his com­ment that 'as the current political mood hardens, filmgoers and film-makers will find the film noir of the late 405 increas­ingly attractive' (Schrader, 1972, p. 8). These later films may be better described as 'film après noir', as suggested by Larry Gross (Gross 'Film après noir', 1976), but this merely recasts, rather than eliminates, questions about the relationship between noir and its specific historical con­figuration.

Industry and aesthetics

Borde and Chaumeton comment briefly on the influence of German Expressionism, which they see as transmitted chiefly through the agency of émigré directors Lang and Siodmak, but then go on to say that noir is better understood as a 'syn­thesis' of 'the brutal and colourful gangster films' made by Warner Bros, the horror films associated with Universal and the 'detective fiction shared by Fox and MGM'. They also identify in the genre the 'inexhaustible sadism' of animation, the 'absurdity and casual cynicism' of Ameri­can comedy and the influence of certain realist and/or social commentary films, notably LeRoy's / Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Borde and Chaumeton, 'Sources of film noir', 1978, p. 63). Rather than helping to explain why a synthesis in the form of noir should have taken place during the 405 and 505, the diversity of their sources tends to obscure the issue. They do make it clear, however, that noir grew from within the American as well as European industries.

Schrader's account stresses the histori­cal time limits of genre, but does little to explain the industrial context for the 'halt­ing of 305 optimism' except to speculate that the end of the war and Depression freed the industry from the task of 'keeping people's spirits up' (Schrader, 1972, p. 9). His combination of a listing of sources (to which others have added Citizen Kane) linked to a vague statement of post-war gloom can be seen as the most dominant paradigm for understanding the in­dustrial/aesthetic context for noir.

Paul Kerr challenges the generality of such accounts, suggesting a re-exam­ination of the conjuncture between 'a pri­marily economically determined mode of production known as "B" film-making' and what were primarily ideologically defined modes of 'difference' known as the film noir (Kerr, 1979/80, p. 65). More specifically, Kerr argues that some of the stylistic features of noir such as night for night shooting, disorientating lighting and camera angles and the generation of ten­sion through editing and short bursts of extreme violence, were direct results of economic factors such as the desire to thwart union restrictions and use stock footage. Furthermore, production took place in the context of the need to dem­onstrate a clear difference from the realism of 'A' films, with which the 'B' noirs were paired in double bills. Kerr's account goes on to examine the decline of noir, which he relates to various technical develop­ments, such as Technicolor, which were the products of an ideological pressure for increased verisimilitude, and changes in the economic structure of the industry, particularly the anti-monopoly Bill of Divorcement which contributed to the end of the double bill (Kerr, 1979/80, pp. 56-65).

Genre and social context

Kerr's article is explicitly written as a counter-attack on the series of books and articles which have dealt with the wider social/economic/political configurations of the noir period. Again, Borde and Chaumeton (1978) offer a fairly typical account. They suggest the influence of 'vulgarised' psychoanalysis in America and the publicity given to crime. While both of these form recurring elements in noir narratives, Borde and Chaumeton's comments lack historical specificity. A more detailed and influential account of noir's social context can be found in Colin McArthur's Underworld USA (1972.). McArthur notes that 'it is useless to try to align the wholly fictitious events of the thriller with actual events', but then goes on to speculate on the reasons for the emergence of the thriller as film -noir. These 'speculations' include the aftermath of the Depression, the war and the Cold War and the 'general mood of fear and insecurity' produced by an uncertain future. 'It seems reasonable to suggest', he continues, 'that this uncertainty is paralleled in the general mood of malaise, the loneliness and angst and the lack of clarity about the characters' motives in the thril­ler'. McArthur also cites the misogyny associated with 'the heightened desir­ability and concomitant suspicion of women back home experienced by men at war' and the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, which he sees echoed in a shift from 305 gangsters overtly concerned with the social origins of crime to noir thrillers such as Dark Corner, 'a cry of loneliness and despair in a sick world' (McArthur, 1972, pp. 66-67).

These speculations are suggestive, but McArthur offers few clear suggestions as to how they are actually articulated in the texts. Furthermore, there is a paradox in his positing a relationship between the social / psychological formations of a par­ticular period and angst, a term which is a-historical. Given the point in the development of critical theory at which the study was undertaken, it is perhaps inevit­able that McArthur falls back on auteurist notions to explain the connection between these events and the texts. It was, he sug­gests, the 'sour and pessimistic sensibili­ties' of directors such as Lang, Siodmak, and Wilder, 'forged in the uncertainty of Weimar Germany and decaying Austria-Hungary', which provide the vital link between film noir and America in the 40’s and 50’s.

The connection between 'post-war gloom' and the 'meaninglessness', 'depres­sion' and 'angst' of noir became almost de rigeur in critical analyses. Perhaps the most extreme examples linking an appar­ently angst-laden period and noir via the agency of auteurs comes in the articles about noir and Existentialism. Robert G. Porfirio ('No way out', 1976), for example, attempts to connect French existentialist philosophy to noir through 'hard-boiled' writers, especially, and dubiously (see Jenkins, 1982) Hammett and Hemingway. Writing about the Flitcraft parable, for instance, included in the novel The Maltese Falcon was taken from but omit­ted from the film, Porfirio claims it reveals that 'Spade is by nature an existentialist, with a strong conception of the random-ness of existence.' Porfirio's analysis impli­citly depends upon making an unproblematic leap between the historical configurations within which Existential­ism developed in France and the 'world' that exists within the noir texts.

Women in film noir

A very different approach to the historical context of noir can be seen in the feminist writing collected in Women in Film Noir (1978). Making a decisive attempt to shift discussion away from angst, these writers concentrate on the structuring role of patriarchal ideology within the texts. Their interest in noir comes from an understanding of the period of its growth as one of social and economic transition following the disruption of the war years, producing problems for male power and control, and a concern to analyse the genre's treatment of women. Kaplan, for instance, notes that:

'The film noir world is one in which women are central to the intrigue of the films, and are furthermore usually not placed safely in ... familiar roles . . . Defined by their sexuality, which is presen­ted as desirable but dangerous, the women function as an obstacle to the male quest. The hero's success or not depends on the degree to which he can extricate himself from the women's manipulations. Although the man is sometimes simply destroyed because he cannot resist women's lures, often the world of the film is the attempted restoration of order through the exposure and then destruction of the sexual, manipulating woman' (Kaplan, 'Introduction', 1978, pp. 2-3).

In contrast to the seamless, unproble­matic assimilation of Existentialism by the noir text assumed by Porfirio's article, these feminist analyses emphasise the text as a site of contradiction. Thus, rather than searching for symbolic truths residing statically within the text, many of the writers (e.g. Gledhill, Johnston and Cook) are concerned to discern structural rela­tionships which they then rework through conceptual frameworks provided by Marxist and psychoanalytically influenced feminism. Gledhill, for instance, says that to understand the significance of film noir for women

'It would be necessary to analyse the conjecture of specific aesthetic, cultural and economic forces; on the one hand the on-going production of the private eye/ thriller ... on the other, the post-war drive to get women out of the workforce and return them to the domestic sphere; and finally the perennial myth of woman as threat to male control of the world and destroyer of male aspiration - forces, which in cinematic terms, interlock to form what we now think of as the aberrant style and world of film noir' (Gledhill, 'Klute i', 1978, p. 19).

Gledhill's analysis of film noir is based on examination of a series of structural ele­ments which open up contradictions around the ambiguously placed noir women. Her 'five features' of noir are: the investigative structure of the narrative which 'probes the secrets of female sexu­ality within patterns of submission and dominance (p. 15); flashbacks and voice-overs which can sometimes open up a textual gap between a male narrator and the woman he is investigating, as in Gilda; a proliferation of points-of-view, with, typi­cally, a struggle between men and women; unstable characterisation of the heroine, who is likely to be a treacherous femme fatale; and the sexualised filming of this heroine, who is also enmeshed in the con­tradictory visual style of noir.

This last point is expanded by Place ('Women in film noir', 1978). Working from the basis provided by her earlier work with L. S. Peterson (1974), Place examines the visual motifs through which two archetypal women - the spider woman and the nurturing woman - are articulated. Writing about the spider woman, Place comments that 'the sexual woman's dangerous power- is expressed visually' and details her iconography: long hair, cigarette smoke as a cue for immorality, a habitat of darkness and, perhaps most importantly, a domination of composition, camera movement and lighting which seems to pull 'the camera (and the hero's gaze with our own) irresist­ibly with them as they move' (Place, 1978, p. 45). Despite her apparent power, the femme fatale 'ultimately loses physical strength' and is actually or symbolically imprisoned (p. 45). For Place, however, this visual and narrative containment is not what is retained from noir. Instead, it is the power of the femme fatale that we remember, 'their strong, dangerous and above all exciting sexuality' (p. 37).

Place's analysis signals the importance in these analyses of the different emphases placed on the recuperative potential of noir - i.e. on the extent to which the text is able to contain and mask the social contradictions structured into its narrative and visual systems. Here is considerable divergence between theorists. Unlike Place, and Dyer ('Resistance through charisma', 1978), who argues for Gilda/ Rita Hayworth's 'resistance through charisma' to textual and ideological con­tainment in Gilda, Pam Cook offers a read­ing of Mildred Pierce in which the film's textual organisation works to suppress the noir heroine's discourse 'in favour of that of the male', with Mildred finally designated guilty by the Law and returned to a safe, subordinate domestic situation (Cook, 'Duplicity in Mildred Pierce', 1978). Gledhill's examination of Klute, an example of what has been described as 'film après noir', discerns a similar final positioning for a different, but equally equivocal heroine - redefinition, yet again, as guilty (Gledhill, 'Klute z', 1978). These feminist analyses makes a provocative intervention into critical debates about film noir, which have generally been characterised by a masculine perspective on the part of critics and a concentration on the existential dilemmas of the noir hero.


Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorame du Film Noir Americain, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 1955, reprinted in part as 'Sources of film noir', film Reader 3,1978.

Pam Cook, 'Duplicity in Mildred Pierce', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, London, BFI, 1978.

James Damico, 'Film noir: a modest proposal', Film Reader 3,1978. Raymond Durgnat, 'The family tree of film noir', Cinema (UK), August 1970, reprinted in Film Comment vol. 10 no. 6, November/

December 1974.

Richard Dyer, 'Resistance through charisma: Rita Hayworth and Gilda', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, cit. Tom Flinn, 'Three faces of film noir', The Velvet Light Trap no. 5, Summer 1972.. Christine Gledhill, 'Klute i: a contemporary film noir and feminist criticism', and 'Klute 2:

feminism and Klute', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, cit.

Larry Gross, 'Film après noir', Film Comment vol. 12 no. 4, July/August 1976.

Sylvia Harvey, 'Woman's place: the absent family of film noir', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, cit.

Stephen Jenkins, Fritz Lang: the image and the look, London, BFI, 1981.

Stephen Jenkins, 'Dashiell Hammett and filmnoir', Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 49 no. 586, November 1981.

Claire Johnston, 'Double Indemnity', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in film Noir', cit.

E. Ann Kaplan, 'Introduction', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in film Noir, cit.

Paul Kerr, 'Out of what past ? Notes on the 'B' film noir', Screen Education no. 31/33, Autumn/Winter 1979/80.

Colin McArthur, Underworld USA, London, BFI/Secker and Warburg, 1971.

J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson, 'Some visual motifs of film noir', Film Comment vol. 10 no. i, January/February 1974. \

J. A. Place, 'Women in film noir', in Kaplan (ed.), Women in film Noir, cit. Robert Porfirio, 'No way out', Sight and Sound vol. 45 no. 4, Autumn 1976. Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres, New York, Random House, 1981.

Paul Schrader, 'Notes on film noir', Film Comment vol. 8 no. i, Spring 1972. Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds.), Film Noir, London, Seeker and Warburg, 1981.