What is Film Noir, a genre, style or something else?

December 7, 2022

My dad has this rotating bookcase-rack filled to the brim with pocket editions of these cheap dimestore novels you could buy in gas stations across post-war America. I’d browse through them and notice the pulpy titles and striking covers: Twisted Wives, Satan is a Woman, Girls Dormitory, Satan is a Lesbian… The list goes on. I was never really compelled to read them, but I did imagine how these trashy titles could play out as a film: stories of lust and jealousy, crime and betrayal, death and desire. Little did I know that this collection of books was also the home for some absolute bangers like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice, pulp novel staples I’d later become familiar with through their unforgettable film adaptations.

When I first started watching American Film Noir films, my dad’s dime store collection began to make sense as a reservoir for some of the best films ever made in the American Studio system. I could bond over these films with my dad, who loved American actors like Humphrey Bogart, James Cackney and James Dean. The strong and silent types as Tony Soprano used to call them. Then we watched Touch of Evil, Orson Welles genius answer to the American Film noir, and got even more obsessed about cinema together.

At film studies, I got to learn about the cinematic era that preceded what is now commonly known as the film noir. Our Professor Jim Hurley, who sadly passed away in 2014, gave a course on Weimar Cinema, about the period of filmmaking between the aftermath of World War I and the rise of Nazi Germany, which was the starting point of some of the best directors of the 20th century, including the one and only Fritz Lang, whose Dr Mabuse and M can be seen as some of the greatest anchor points for the Film Noir. Generally understood as urban drama’s and thrillers, film noir films are often labyrinth detective and crime drama’s about the moral trappings of life in the crushingly big city. These are paranoid films about the darker penchants of human nature, amplified by crime syndicates, state corruption and sexual tension. Sure, they can be pulpy, but in the hands of the right director, the cheap source material becomes a well of existential observations and deep reflection on human behaviour.

The best film noirs are drenched in an almost supernatural aura. It seems as if the characters are controlled by forces bigger than themselves. They’re steering towards impending doom and have no way of changing direction. This sinister vibe can be hypnotic, hallucinatory, intoxicating or even arousing. I can imagine why so many audiences flocked to these films and why so many directors tried to make them: it’s the stuff that movies are made of, packaged in audience-friendly formats.

I also understand why so many directors harken back to the film noir of yore, which begs the question: what even is a film noir anymore? with all the talk of neo-noir, and neo-neo-neo-noir, it’s hard to even define what a film noir even is. It’s for this very reason that Australian critic Adrian Martin says that Film Noirs have never existed as a genre per se, but only as a mode of production in a very specific time in the United States after World War II. I agree with him that the label Film Noir has become a kind of hollow container for a lot of films to be attached to, but at the same time it’s a useful way to describe the vibe of some of these unforgettably haunting and gripping films that are so delightfully twisted and fucked up while still playing for a mainstream audience. It’s maybe the cinephile compromise of the ages, a type of film that’s enjoyable for each and everyone.

And if you want to find out what this loose definition of the film noir is all about, you need to check out the LAB111 programme Tom compiled that brings together some of the very bests in the genre on the big screen. I think Tom has already talked about Nightmare Alley on this podcast, which is the inspiration for the programmes title: TALES FROM NIGHTMARE ALLEY, but there’s plenty of other cinematic goods to be found here, from The Killing by friend of the podcast Stanley Kubrick to the aforementioned A Touch of Evil by Orson Welles. But don’t miss out on Otto Premingers Laura, Michael Kurtiz’ Mildred Pierce and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City either.

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