When we think of film noir, we mostly think about it is a genre, right?
Well… this is trickier that one would think.
A genre is typically defined as a code of narrational processes familiar to both the creator and the viewer. This is the first significant problem in defining film noir as a genre. When these films were produced in the 1940s, no filmmaker ever set out to make a film noir and no spectator ever expected to see a film noir – because the concept of film noir didn’t even exist.
The term film noir (literally ‘black film’) was coined in France after WWII when French critics first had the opportunity to see the films that had been produced in Hollywood during the war. They noticed a certain new feel to the crime movies of the time, which tended to be grittier, darker, more obsessive than before and to have all very unique communal visuals. They called them film noir, and the term became familiar in Europe throughout the 1950s, especially after Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumenton published their book-length study on the subject in 1955. At that time, almost no film noir was produced in Hollywood anymore. In fact, the term film noir entered the common usage in Anglo-American film critique only in the 1960s/1970s with the surge of neonoir.
So we have two problems here:
- The term film noir was coined outside of the phenomenon, in a different continent and by critics who had a limited understanding of the film production in Hollywood and could do only unsystematic observations on the subject matter.
- The term is retroactive. At the time these films were produced, the term (and so the concept) film noir didn’t exist, and so no one could use a recognised generic codification to produce that specific result.
The definition of film noir as a genre has also always been problematic because of its association with 1940s Hollywood. Genre tends to cross periods rather than been bound by them. A western film will be a western whether it is produced in the 1910s or the 2010s, because the elements that characterise that genre are definite, recognisable and independent.
But there has always been little agreement on what are the noir characteristics that make a film that specific kind of film, and therefore, there has always been little agreement on what films can actually be considered noir. For example, can Casablanca be considered noir, or rather a drama with noirish elements?
Indeed most of the writing on film noir stresses its trans-generic manifestations, identifying noirish elements in films of another, recognised genre.
It has then being proposed that film noir could be considered a style. But this definition is problematic as well because it tends to be highly generalised, highlighting sets of features which are by no means specific to film noir. Even if we consider the body of characteristics that do turn a film into a noir, these seem to be a generic series of stylistic marking. Elements such as compositional imbalance or chiaroscuro lighting can be seen as noir when they occur in conjunction with a specifically noir sets of narrative and thematic conventions. In isolation or even when combined together, they are not specific to film noir, nor to crime cinema, not even to the 1940s.
What exactly is film noir then? This film form that was occasioned by a series of coincidences and historical circumstances in a particular part of the world, at a very specific time – what is it?
Critics are hard-pressed to agree on a definition. But then, we don’t need a definition to enjoy the result.
Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a world-weary ex-freedom fighter, runs a nightclub in Casablanca during the early part of WWII. Despite pressure from the local authorities, notably the crafty Capt. Renault (Claude Rains), Rick’s café has become a haven for refugees looking to purchase illicit letters of transit which will allow them to escape to America. One day, to Rick’s great surprise, he is approached by the famed rebel Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Rick’s true love who deserted him when the Nazis invaded Paris. She still wants Victor to escape to America, but now that she’s renewed her love for Rick, she wants to stay behind in Casablanca. (Fandango Synopsis)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947) by Orson Welles
A seaman, Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) is hired as a crew member on the yacht of the wealthy Banister (Everett Sloane). His beautiful but mysterious wife Elsa (Rita Hayworth) has met O’Hara earlier, when he saved her from a mugging. What ensues is a complicated and bizarre pattern of deception, fraud and murder, with O’Hara finding himself implicated in a murder, despite his innocence. (AllMovie synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC