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Film Noir Essay, Research Paper

Forty years after Raymond Borde and ?tienne Chaumeton defined the challenge, critical commentators on film noir continue to grapple with it. Ironically, American writers did not immediately take up consideration of this indigenous phenomenon and the question of its “essential traits.” Only gradually in a frequently cross-referenced series of essays in the 1970s did they begin to express themselves. There are now a dozen full-length books in English concerning film noir and undoubtedly more to follow. As noted in the Acknowledgments, the sometimes difficult process of tracking down significant earlier writings for an essay in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Overlook/Viking, 1992) gave us the idea for this book. As it happens the two most recent volumes on noir, Shades of Noir (Verso, 1993) and The Book of Film Noir (Continuum, 1993) are anthologies of new essays by mostly non-American writers.

Past and present commentators have brought and continue to bring to bear on the noir phenomenon a variety of critical approaches, and that is the foundation of Film Noir Reader. Of course, we are bypassing the point of view of someone like Barry Gifford, author of the informal survey The Devil Thumbs A Ride, who deems all such endeavors to be “academic flapdoodle.” In 1979, the introduction, other essays, and individual entries in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference were the first published attempt in English to search the entire body of films for “essential traits.” I remarked there that the full range of the noir vision depends on its narratives, its characterizations, and its visual style. In fact, that style is a translation of both character emotions and narrative concepts into a pattern of visual usage. No doubt a pop critic such as Gifford could assert that it is formalist mumbo-jumbo to “detect” alienation lurking beyond the frame line in a vista of the dark, wet asphalt of a city street or obsession in a point-of-view shot that picks a woman’s face out of crowd. I would argue that to resist such readings is to deny the full potential of figurative meaning not merely in film noir but in all motion pictures. Obviously none of the various elements of visual style–angle, composition, lighting, montage, depth, movement, etc.–which inform any given shot or sequence are unique of film noir. What sets the noir cycle apart is the unity of its formal vision. There is nothing in the films themselves which precludes or invalidates any established critical method as the various essays reprinted in this volume will confirm.

Michael Walker’s opening comments in The Book of Film Noir reveal a fairly straightforward auteurist bias. But what can one say about a viewpoint such as French critic Marc Vernet’s in his introductory essay, “Film Noir at the Edge of Doom” in Shades of Noir? Certainly it epitomizes the sort of criticism which Gifford scorns; but Gifford’s opprobrium is not the issue. In the third edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference our review of the literature on film noir included Vernet’s previously published conclusion that “a hero cannot be both strong and vulnerable, the woman good and evil.” The assertion made there–that his observations were part of a simplistic, structuro-semiological rush to judgment clearly at odds with the narrative position of film noir as a whole–still pertain. Where once Vernet merely puzzled over contradictory icons, in “Edge of Doom” he indulges in pointless deconstruction. On the one hand Vernet now bemoans “complacent repetition” about film noir. On the other hand he presents the ultimate obfuscation by calling it “impossible to criticize.” What then is he writing about?

(Left, Bogart as Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the “stuff that dreams are made of” and the unofficial beginning of the noir cycle. “A hero cannot be both strong and vulnerable”?)

One can tolerate being abstractly dismissed by Vernet and even overlook having one’s actual name misspelled, as when he changes “Alain” to “Alan.” Vernet’s is certainly not the first bibliographic reference with that particular misspelling. Nor am I suggesting that critical writing should be about crossing every “t” or including every “i.” This is particularly true with writers on motion pictures, who are addressing an expressive medium that is the most complex in the history of art. But Vernet’s assumption about how a particular name should be spelled is telling in that it reveals his tendency towards pre-judgment and succinctly exposes the problem with his critical outlook. Vernet sees a simple contradiction: a French first name like those in the credits of L’Ann?e Derni?re ? Marienbad and an English last name right out of Treasure Island. “Of course,” he deduces, “this must be an error.” Some unnamed researcher has made a mistake, which he is correcting by Anglicizing the spelling. It seems quite clear from this where Vernet’s outlook is rooted. It derives from a solipsistic arrogance that can presume to “correct” anomalies which it does not understand and can generate the offhanded observation that film noir is “the triumph of European artists even as it presents American actors.”

Aside from its remarkably unembarrassed Eurocentric bias, such a statement completely ignores Paul Schrader’s decades-old warning that “there is a danger of over-emphasizing the German influence in Hollywood”; and it typifies many recent attempts both to break down the “myth” of film noir and to relocate its origins. As Borde and Chaumeton realized from the first, there is no easy answer. The noir cycle is an event garmented in the uneasy synthesis of social upheaval and Hollywood. Given its brief history film noir has inspired more than its share of discussion. Part of what has always troubled some critics of film noir are its character themes, its protagonists who often perish because of an obsessive and/or alienated state of mind. Must it be really so remarkable, when methodologies from Marxism to Freudianism to Existentialism assailed the moral and political status quo, that a movement such a film noir should develop characters with a sense of alienation and despair? It may be unduly simplified to erect such a causality or to cite a fortuitous confluence of factors as responsible for the appearance of the noir movement, but that does not make it incorrect.

Much has been made of the crisis of masculinity in film noir. Much could be made of the crisis in Judeo-Christian patriarchal structures since the mid-point of the 20th Century. The dramatic crisis of film noir is the same as that which drives any convergent group of characterizations. The unprecedented social upheaval of two world wars compounded by economic turmoil and genocides on every continent was globally promulgated by broadcasts and newsreels and all condensed into a thirty year span from 1915 to 1945. Just as the technique and technology of filmmaking has progressed in its hundred year history, the ideological outlook of its artists cannot have been unaffected by the other events in the world during that span of time.

Whatever one may believe about the delimiting factors of film noir, then or now, its first expression in what is generally accepted as “the classic period” was solely in American movies made in America by American filmmakers. Vernet seems to imply that Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Anthony Mann, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder were European or, more specifically, German artists. The issue of European expatriates is a significant one, not just for film noir but for American filmmaking in general. But how can it be glibly summarized as a “triumph of European artists presenting American actors”? Putting aside for a moment questions of auteurism or whether these filmmakers were more significant to the cycle of noir films than American-born directors from Robert Aldrich to Robert Wise, does the national origin of the directors change the nationality of a film? Did Joseph Losey continue to make American movies in England? Do John Farrow’s origins make his films for Paramount and RKO “early Australian” film noir?

When Borde and Chaumeton wrote the first book-length study of the phenomenon in 1955 they called it, naturally enough, Panorama du Film Noir Am?ricain. The title itself expresses the second truism of film noir. Vernet and others may have some reason other than Eurocentric bias for stressing the non-American aspects of film noir. The three British and French publishers of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference probably did not delete “to the American Style” from the title just because they thought it was too long. Still, while many subsequent writers have questioned both specifics and generalities of Borde and Chaumeton’s seminal work, none have questioned the very existence of the phenomenon which they tried to define.

In 1979 I wrote that, with the Western, film noir shares the distinction of being an indigenous American form. But unlike Westerns which derive in great part from a preexisting literary genre and a period of American history, the antecedents of film noir are less precise. As a consequence, the noir cycle has a singular position in the brief history of American motion pictures: a body of films that not only presents a relatively cohesive vision of America but that does so in a manner transcending the influences of auteurism or genre. Film noir is not firmly rooted in either personal creation or in the translation of another tradition into movie terms. Rather film noir is a self-contained reflection of American culture and its preoccupations at a point in time. As such it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.

(Right, Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan and Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi plan to use Susan Vargas [Janet Leigh] to embarass her husband in Touch of Evil, one of the last “classic period” film noir.)

Vernet makes some assertions about film noir’s origins, about censorship and prejudices in both America and France from which he concludes that post-World War II French critics “created” film noir. Can anyone seriously contend that critics created anything but the term? As Edgardo Cozarinsky notes “film noir defies translation into English, though its object of study is mainly (and, one may argue, its only legitimate examples are) English-speaking.”1_ The suggestion of Vernet and others arrogates the very concept of creation. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, films are made by filmmakers not by critics, whose understanding of the process is necessarily limited. To paraphrase Vernet, the primary consideration is not the technical process nor the financial process, but the expressive process, which relies on the audience–the perceivers of the expression–for completion. This is the fundamental transaction on which Vernet or any critic should concentrate.

They are, therefore, not revolutionary but conservative. Actually, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.

The Communist Manifesto

In order to see the subject of film noir as it is, one need look no farther than the films. Vernet’s revisionism is like any of the neo-Freudian, semiological, historical, structural, socio-cultural, and/or auteurist assaults of the past. Film noir has resisted them all. Why then are critics like Vernet interested in the phenomenon of film noir? Are they at heart all neo-Platonists and Il Conformista the film that they watch over and over late at night? Perhaps many of the new European essayists need to tear apart the foundation laid by Borde and Chaumeton in order to build something new. Certainly there is justification in James Damico’s lament in “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal” that an “order of breezy assumption seems to have afflicted film noir criticism from its beginnings.” Unfortunately, in this latter context, a reactionary commentator like Vernet offers nothing new but just another brand of breezy assumptions. Actually, he offers a void, a noir hole where there once was a body of films.

Much of Shades of Noir progresses from the suggestion made by David Bordwell in The Classical American Cinema that film noir is merely an invention of critical commentators. In discussing this concept in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference, Bordwell’s assertion was cited to the effect that “critics have not succeeded in defining specifically noir visual techniques… or narrative structure. The problem resembles one in art history, that of defining `non-classical’ styles.” At first glance there is nothing to dispute in Bordwell’s remark. The tautological nature of his position is clearer in a more recent expression by a reviewer: “Genres are invented by critics. When the first film noir–whatever you might consider that to be– was released, nobody yelled, `Hey, let’s go on down to the Bijou! The first film noir is out!’ What is at first innovation or anomaly only becomes a genre through repetition and eventual critical classification.”2_ If nothing else, this is certainly a more cogent expression of the obvious that either Vernet or Bordwell make. So they didn’t go down to the Bijou to see Stranger on the Third Floor or Two Seconds (Vernet’s candidate from 1932) because it was the “first film noir.” To answer in kind, “So what?” Did the first audiences for The Great Train Robbery or Nosferatu congratulate themselves on attending the first Western or the earliest adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The best answer to anyone’s assertion that filmmakers of the classic period never specifically decided to make “a film noir” is still cinematographer John Alton’s evocation of the noir milieu in his book Painting with Light: “The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air.”

If Bordwell was not aware of Alton’s book when he wrote “critics have not succeeded in defining specifically noir visual techniques,” he certainly must have known Janey Place and Lowell Peterson’s essay on visual motifs in noir. Place and Peterson themselves quoted Higham and Greenberg’s 1968 book Hollywood in the Forties on the subject of visual style. The visual analysis of film noir was further developed by Janey Place in Women and Film Noir and by Robert Porfirio’s extensive work in his dissertation The Dark Age of American Film: A Study of American Film Noir.

In fact, the evocation of a “noir look” goes all the way back to Borde and Chaumeton. In 1979 I cited the years of production immediately after World War II as the most visually homogeneous of the entire noir cycle. One might still consider a random selection of motion pictures released over an eighteen month period such as The Big Clock (Paramount, 1948), Brute Force (Universal, 1947), Cry of the City (20th Century-Fox, 1948), Force of Evil (MGM, 1948), Framed (Columbia, 1947), Out of the Past (RKO, 1947), The Pitfall (United Artists, 1948), and The Unsuspected (Warner Bros., 1947) and discover that eight different directors, cinematographers, and screenwriters adapted different original stories for different stars at eight different studios. These people of great and small technical reputations created eight otherwise unrelated motion pictures with one cohesive style.3_

I have previously contended that the noir cycle’s consistent visual style is keyed specifically to recurrent narrative patterns and character emotions. Because these patterns and emotions are repeatedly suggestive of certain abstractions, such as alienation and obsession, it may seem that film noir is overly dependent on external constructions, such as Existentialism or Freudianism, for its dramatic meanings. Irrefutably film noir does recruit the ethical and philosophical values of the culture as freely as it recruits visual conventions, iconic notations, and character types. This process both enriches and dislocates the noir cycle as a phenomenon so that it resists facile explanation.

Criticism is often less a search for meaning than for sub-text. In film the dilemma is that narrative is usually explicit and style is usually not. Charts of narrative patterns, icons, and the like are easy to make. For example, one could assign critical allegiances to noir figures:

Alienated characters **=** Existentialism

Obsessed characters **=** Freudianism

Proletarian characters **=** Marxism

Femme fatales **=** Feminism

All of the Above **=** Structuralism

A writer like Gifford might well accuse chart makers of chasing their own tall tales. For him, film noir is more about Lawrence Tierney’s sneer than statistics or structures. The real question, as suggested by Bordwell, is neo-formalist: if film noir is heavily reliant on visual style, how does that affect meaning?

What I answered in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference was that there is no grammar attached to this visual substance because its conventions of expression are not analogous to those of language. Or, as Pasolini put it, “The cinema author has no dictionary.”4_ Divergent concepts of “signs and meaning” notwithstanding, the side-lit close-up, the long take, or the foreground object bisecting the frame may imply respectively a character’s indecision, a building tension, a figurative separation of the other persons and things in the frame; or they may not. The potential is always there. The specific image may or may not participate in that potential. Without denotation, it is the connotations which film noir repeatedly creates that are telling. The dark streets become emblems of alienation; a figure’s unrelenting gaze becomes obsessive; the entire environment becomes hostile, chaotic, deterministic. Some critics have found a conflict between the documentary import of certain police dramas, which are ostensibly realistic, and the low-key style of detective films, which are ostensibly expressionistic. In fact, the issue is really one of convention. Which is more lifelike, a man in a dark alley, his face illuminated by a match as he lights a cigarette or a woman on a veranda built on a sound stage cottage, her body casting three shadows as she shoots her victim? Hollywood reality is by convention. The visual conventions of film noir are, as often as not, actually more naturalistic.

What Film Noir Reader will quickly reveal is the breadth of theories which critics have brought to the noir phenomenon. Whatever one calls it–series, style, genre, movement, school, cycle–none of the seminal essayists on film noir represented in this book have contradicted Borde and Chaumeton’s remark that the existence of a noir series is “obvious.” Certainly they did not all agree (when have critics ever done that?), but they did address the visual techniques and narrative structures of film noir in dozens of articles.

History is to take an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and examine it apart from others, although there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event always flows uninterruptedly from another.

War and Peace

It should go without saying that any investigator must first look at the heart of the matter, to the films themselves. How then could Marc Vernet look at those films and conclude that “film noir is a collector’s idea that for the moment can only be found in books”? Actually, this may be the most accurate statement that Vernet makes; although, borrowing a touch of his condescension, he probably doesn’t even know why. Obviously there is nowhere in the literal history of cinema, that is, in the films themselves, a “film noir,” any more than there is a Western, a war film, or a screwball comedy. Even straining credibility and accepting Bordwell’s assertion that the makers of noir films did not in any way realize what they were doing, is conscious intentionality a prerequisite for creative expression? It can only be assumed that it is Vernet’s lack of knowledge about the real process by which films are made which leads to his confusion. Of course, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that one is hard pressed to make a samurai film without swords or a Western without horses.

Fresh from the translation of Borde and Chaumeton, I am moved to slip for a moment into a free-form, anecdotal, somewhat French style. In 1975, I sit in an almost empty theater in Santa Monica watching Walter Hill’s Hard Times, the directorial debut of the screenwriter of the remarkable neo-noir Hickey and Boggs; and I am somehow reminded of Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin. Two years later, I sit in a living room in the Hollywood hills, interviewing Walter Hill for Movie magazine. In the preliminary banter, I remark that the Charles Bronson character in Hard Times is like a Japanese ronin, a masterless samurai. Hill goes to a shelf and brings over two scripts. One is a Western, still unproduced, entitled The Last Gun. While I flip through, noting that the main character is named Ronin and that the act breaks are marked by quotes from bushido, the code of the warrior, Hill finds a particular page in the Hard Times script. As he hands it to me, his thumb indicates a line of stage direction in which the street fighter “crouches in the corner like a samurai.”

Is Hard Times a samurai film? Of course not. No more than the elements borrowed even more extensively in Hill’s The Warriors can make it a samurai film. Neither Hill nor Clint Eastwood nor John Milius nor George Miller, as much as they might admire the genre, have made anything more than allusions to samurai films; just as reciprocally Akira Kurosawa could never make a John Ford Western. Styles of films have more than requisite icons to identify them. Filmmakers know this when the films are made. Contemporary filmmakers understand, as actor Nick Nolte asserts, that “film noir is putting a style over the story.”5_ “Collectors,” as Vernet brands them, only realize it after the fact. In the end, does it matter what the filmmakers of the classic period of film noir thought about the films they were making? Film noir is a closed system. To some extent, it is defined after the fact. How could it be otherwise? Was the Hundred Years War, something else after only fifty years of fighting? So when did film noir become what it is? For those more interested in the phenomenon than the phenomenology, the answer must be from the first, when that first noir film opened at the Bijou. But perhaps a more eloquent answer is a question. Consider the photograph reproduced at right. Why did Robert Aldrich, producer/director of Kiss Me Deadly, pose with a copy of the first edition Borde and Chaumeton’s book (in which he is not even mentioned) as he stood on the set of Attack! in 1956?


A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid. Nor is there any reason it should be.

Moby Dick

Questions of phenomenology aside, film history is as clear now about film noir as ever: it finds its existence as obvious as Borde and Chaumeton did forty years ago. If observers of film noir agree on anything, it is on the boundaries of the classic period, which begins in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ends less than a score of years later with Touch of Evil. Issues of pre-noir or neo-noir aside, the editors of this book and many other commentators have long considered film noir to be more than either a genre or a movement. Exactly what Borde and Chaumeton claim to mean by their term “series,” which they define as a group of “motion pictures from one country sharing certain traits (style, atmosphere, subject matter…) strongly enough to mark them unequivocally and to give them, over time, an unmistakable character,” is not clarified by their lists of analogies to film noir, which include both genres and movements. Because so many of the essayists on the noir phenomenon in the 70s were still deliberating the question of “essential traits” posed by Borde and Chaumeton in 1955, there is no consensus on film noir to be found in this book.

Beginning with Borde and Chaumeton’s first chapter, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” Part One of Film Noir Reader contains eight Seminal Essays. Taken together they represent the proliferation and divergence of significant published opinions on film noir through 1979. It was in 1979 that the first edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference appeared; and since then, as already noted, eleven other book-length compendiums and anthologies in English have followed.

It was in the 1983 Afterword to the reprint of Panorama du Film Noir Am?ricain, which was based on an article about film noir in the 70s, that Borde and Chaumeton asserted that “film noir had fulfilled its role, which was to create a specific malaise and to drive home a social criticism of the United States.” Whether the authors were injecting the issue of “social criticism” in hindsight is unknown; but it underlines the second main theme which many of the seminal essayists also consider: the relationship of the noir cycle to the socio-cultural history of the United States.

As Borde and Chaumeton wrestle through lists of films, considering plot points and character types, they also make a telling observation about the style of film noir. In their subsequent chapter on the “sources” of film noir, they introduce not only the obvious influence of hard-boiled fiction but also the prevalence of psychoanalysis in the 1940s as a popular treatment of nervous disorders. The original edition of Panorama du Film Noir Am?ricain had a unique perspective being not merely the first but also the only study of film noir written contemporaneously with the classic period. From this position, Borde and Chaumeton’s initial attempt at definition of film noir cannot be superseded as the benchmark for all subsequent work making the same attempt.

By 1962, French film historian George Sadoul was offhandedly remarking in his Histoire du Cin?ma that film noir “was a school,… where psychoanalysis was applied [so that] a childhood trauma became the cause of criminal behavior just as unemployment explained social unrest.” Both the term and the concept took longer to gain acceptance with English-language critics. The first extensive discussion of film noir in English appeared in the chapter, “Black Cinema,” of Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg’s Hollywood in the Forties. Beginning with an evocative and oft-cited paragraph about the dark wet streets and flashing neon signs that create the “ambience of film noir,” what follows is an overview of what Higham and Greenberg consider “a genre,” but no usable definition of film noir emerges from this impressionistic piece.

In 1970, an article by Raymond Durgnat appeared in the British magazine Cinema. “Paint It Black: the Family Tree of the Film Noir” is the first structural approach to film noir which asserts that “it is not a genre as the Western or gangster film is, and takes us into the realms of classification by motif and tone.” As Durgnat rambles through scores of titles in less than a dozen pages the branches of his family tree twist around and entangle themselves with each other. In the end Durgnat has no time, and perhaps no inclination, to plot these intertwinings. Ironically, Durgnat’s “family tree” is better known in a truncated version stripped down to a two-page chart of just categories printed by Film Comment in 1974. Curiously, Vernet claims that Durgnat’s self-professed “imperfect schematizations” helped “to paralyse reflection on film noir.”

Paul Schrader’s “notes on film noir” originally appeared in a program accompanying a retrospective of noir films at the first Los Angeles Film Exposition. When it was published in Film Comment in 1972, it was the first analysis of film noir for many American readers. If any single essay had the possibility of “paralyzing reflection on film noir,” it was this one. Schrader cited and embraced Durgnat’s assertion that film noir is not a genre. Rather than charting his own types, Schrader summarizes the mediating influences on the noir phenomenon and then discusses its style and themes. Schrader steps over the question of definition with a disclaimer about subjectivity: “Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles…. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?” While he is the first to summarize succinctly four “causes”–(1) World War II and post-War disillusionment; (2) post-War realism; (3) the German influence; and (4) the hard-boiled tradition–Schrader considers the “uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and expressionism” to be contradictory; and, surprisingly, he never considers how oneirism or nightmarish images can reflect a psychological truth as mentioned by Borde and Chaumeton.

The ground-breaking aspect of Schrader’s article is the outline of film noir style and characterization. For Schrader the classic period ends early but still produces a plethora of chiaroscuro and an multitude of haunted protagonists. The stylistic discussion carries over as the piece ends tellingly on the question of film noir and auteurism: “Auteur criticism is interested in how directors are different; film noir criticism is interested in what they have in common.”

In early 1974 Film Comment published another article as influential as and perhaps even more widely cited than the Durgnat and Schrader pieces: Janey Place and Lowell Peterson’s “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” “Visual Motifs” is actually two separate pieces. In the first part, Place and Peterson introduce the concept of what they call “anti-traditional elements,” that is, a mise-en-scene by directors and a lighting scheme by cinematographers that radically diverges from the studio “norm.” In doing so, they are the first to attempt a

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