The Noir Instinct

Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon[I recently completed an essay on film noir references/influences in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, for inclusion in a forthcoming book on noir in East Asian cinema. In the introduction, I wrote a lengthy section arguing that film noir is almost entirely a critical construct, brought to life by the convenient way in which it helps us to group together a disparate group of films and analyse them under a similar brand as if they represent some collective response to their social contexts. Much of this lengthy introduction was not really necessary, as the book’s authors had already built most of the terminological discussion into their introductory chapter. In the final version, then, most of what follows has been cut out so that my chapter cuts more quickly to the case, but I thought the longer version, despite being disjointed in places, might be of some interest as a standalone blogpost. I’ve added a few bits of new text to clarify some points, make it all less formal, and to round off the argument at the end.] 

For as long as I’ve been teaching and researching film, the term ‘film noir’ has been cropping up regularly, often applied loosely as an adjectival phrase in students’ essays (‘in a film noir style’, ‘noirish lighting’ etc.). One could easily get the impression that everyone knows what ‘noir’ is, and that everybody agrees on what it is, and that we’re all referring to the same thing when we say ‘noir’. To an extent, that’s true. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I didn’t know what you were referring to whenever you drop a couple of ‘noirs’ into the conversation. The difficulty of studying film noir is in the capaciousness of its definitions, the heterogeneity of an object of study that is supposed to describe a generic coherence. There are just so many films labeled as noir, and so many differences between them. Steve Neale has described the peculiar tenacity of ‘noir’ as a word rather than as a recognizable genre, calling it ‘a phenomenon whose unity and coherence are presumed in the single term used to label them rather than demonstrated through any systematic, empirical analysis’.[i] The invocation of the word therefore operates talismanically: once it is uttered in reference to a particular film, noir becomes a constructing force that grafts its interpretive codes onto the film text. Killers KissMarc Vernet has referred to noir as ‘a cinephilic ready-made’, a self-fulfilling critical construct, since ‘speaking about film noir consists, from the beginning, in being installed in repetition … Film noir is an affair of heirs disinclined to look too closely at their inheritance, who take pleasure in regularly putting back into circulation topoi like the femme fatale, the shining pavement of the deserted street, unexpected violence, the private detective’.[ii] If I were to define the key traits of noir as a city where crime is endemic and systemic, a detective whose fate and nature are bound up with the solution to the plot’s central mystery, and an air of fated doom, I would need to note that this is not only a hazy definition that could be mapped onto other genres (horror films often feature doomed protagonists, science fiction articulates thematic content through its representation of the city), but also a subjective designation that I may have unwittingly retro-fitted to match the model that I want to contain my chosen film texts. Raymond Durgnat (1970) attempted just such a schematic distillation of noir, presenting eleven subheadings that cover the definitional turf and described ‘not genres, but dominant cycles or motifs and many, if not most, films would come under at least two headings, since interbreeding is intrinsic to motif processes’.[iii] We assemble our own definition of noir from a loosely linked set of components (detectives, doomed protagonists, femmes fatales, low-key lighting), all of which can be found in other genres, and our subjective construction of the genre means, for Vernet, that noir remains ‘a collector’s idea that, for the moment, can only be found in books’.[iv] As Bould et al put it:

Individual films are polysemic, contradictory and incoherent, spilling over with material that cannot be easily reduced or in good conscience ignored in order to cut them to some pre-existing pattern. Consequently, there will always be exceptions to – and disagreements over – generic definitions. Instead, the conceptual usefulness of genre depends on identifying, exploring and analysing relationships, the complex patterns and networks of intertextual and intercultural exchange.[v]

That fluid definition of genre as subjective and changeable is not well served by monolithic and mummifying discussions of noir as if it were a simple found object from the historical record, with knowable parameters and an agreed corpus. It now seems like a naïve, rather than a bold claim that opens the introduction to Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s 1979 index of films noir, describing the cycle as

a body of films that not only presents a cohesive vision of America but that does so in a manner transcending the influences of auteurism or genre. Film noir is grounded neither in personal creation nor in translation of another tradition into film terms. Rather it is a self-contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form. In short, it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.[vi]

Definitions of noir can be so vague that it seems acceptable for Alain Silver and James Ursini to assert that ‘dream and reality are the touchstones of film noir’ as if it explains anything, or delineates noir films from any other films.[vii] James Naremore warned readers of his More than Night from the outset that the object of study is not a solid or fixed one. Although film noir can be described as ‘one of the dominant intellectual categories of the late twentieth century, operating across the entire cultural arena of art popular memory, and criticism’, it is also ‘a kind of mythology’, viewable in terms of ‘noirness’ rather than a concrete canon of texts and characteristics.[viii] a little further on, he insists that noir be thought of as a “discursive construct”, due to the many loosely defined agendas to which it can be put (6); later still, he points to the paradox that ‘film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past’.[ix]

Describing Borde and Chaumeton’s classificatory work on noir,[x] Naremore notes that they treat noir not just as a descriptive term, but as ‘a name for a critical tendency within the popular cinema – an antigenre that reveals the dark side of savage capitalism … the essence of noirness lies in a feeling of discontinuity, an intermingling of social realism and oneiricism, an anarcho-leftist critique of bourgeois ideology, and an eroticised treatment of violence’.[xi] Steve Neale has outlined the problems that noir studies have encountered on several levels: the canon of noir films is not only disputed, but even in its most generous accounts, represents a tiny percentage of the total output of Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, hardly sufficient to demonstrate a prevailing pessimistic mood that might be attributed to postwar paranoia or societal upheavals; it is near impossible to prove even provisionally that the national mood might actually filter down into the lighting and production design of individual films.[xii] The designation of noir as a genre may even be counterproductive, since it draws together, on tenuous connective evidence, groups of films that are then abstracted from their actual historical and cultural contexts (and whose true resonances are therefore occulted), in order to compile them into a specious generic database. Neale has described the peculiar tenacity of ‘noir’ as a word rather than as a recognisable genre, calling it ‘a phenomenon whose unity and coherence are presumed in the single term used to label them rather than demonstrated through any systematic, empirical analysis’.[xiii] The invocation of the word therefore operates talismanically: once it is uttered in reference to a particular film, noir becomes a constructing force that grafts its interpretive codes onto the film text.

Despite the failings of genre designations to definitively categorise and tame the chaotic multiformity of film, we persist in applying it. It becomes constitutive of our understanding of cinema history and style, prompting us into a kind of apophenic approach to genre, where we search for (and invariably find) connections, semblances and patterns in random phenomena, in disconnected lists of films that may or may not exhibit signs of influence, reproduction, mirroring, homage or repetition. As a result, when films come to us labelled as noir, either by critics, advertisers, or word-of-mouth, we instinctively read them as noir by seeking out the characteristics implied to us by the generic ‘brand’. Reciprocally, the same instinct is built into the systems of production, where conformity to a successful template can be a guarantor of success, or a filtration system for projects that will be put into production, but also in the interpretive schema of spectators, who are pushed towards reading diverse media products as exhibitors of noir-like traits. Film noir offers up, in Noël Carroll’s phrase, an ‘approved cinematic iconography’ through which a new film can indicate to the informed spectator that the present film is to be contemplated in relation to an existing hermeneutic framework.[xiv] Allusion became, according to Carroll, one of the key expressive devices through which filmmakers came ‘to make comments on the fictional worlds of their films’;[xv] interpretive schema based on allusion can be highly ambiguous, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to find apophenic pattern-recognition permitting the spread of noir as a global phenomenon.Scarlet-Street Fritz Lang Joan Bennett Edward G. RobinsonFay and Nieland remark that ‘noir lends itself to domestication in different national contexts, in part because it is concerned with the local and for this reason travels well and endures historically’.[xvi] For them, noir is a ‘fully international phenomenon’, so we still find its traces decades after the classical noir era, in a country such as Japan, thousands of miles from the birthplace of the genre, but it also expresses ‘disquiet with the conditions of a modern, globalized age’.[xvii] Noirs, they tell us, ‘have been often read as symptoms of the health, sickness, or decay of nations either corrupted or reinvigorated by foreign influences and perspectives. And they have functioned for critics and scholars as celluloid clocks telling the time of national life (its rootedness in tradition, or its movement into the future, or its traumatic upheavals, displacements, and confusions) and keeping pace with global movements that may render that life a phenomenon of the past’.[xviii] This is instructive and eloquent, but tells us nothing that is exclusive to noir, and I suspect that the opposite is true: rather than using a rigid noir template to take the pulse of a nation’s responses to globalization, we are driven instead to locate those crime films which perform just such a diagnostic social function, and then to brand them as noir, thus validating the category and ‘proving’ the value of the term by continually reconstituting it as perpetually useful.

What I have described is something akin to a ‘noir instinct’; this refers to the way noir, which one might think of as a set of aesthetic choices made in order to convey a particular mood or a response to postwar US society (the foundational myth of noir), could be seen as a determining template through which stories are thought and refracted. What we end up with is an increasingly diffused scent of noir lingering around a number of disparate crime films, a body of work too diverse for it to constitute anything like a usable genre (assuming in the first place that one wants to assign to genre the task of sorting and shaping films, and increasing their intertextual legibility).

In her essay ‘Lounge Time’, Vivian Sobchack attempts to locate the logic by which the films classified as noir come to be correlated with their historical contexts, so that postwar America could be shown to directly generate these works. She wants to explain why the diner, the dancehall, the motel etc. come to ‘gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning’.[xix] Against the grain of attempts to posit the postwar period as America’s Golden Age, film noir provided ‘the cinematic time-space in which contemporaneous cultural anxieties found vernacular expression’.[xx] Incidentally, Sobchack presents one of the best summaries of noir’s recurrent characteristics I’ve yet read. I’d like to quote it at length here:

In the decade that follows World War II and gives us the Korean War and an ongoing Cold War, both wartime and the home front together come to form a re-remembered idyllic national time-space of phenomenological integrity and plenitude. A mythological construction, this chronotope [define] emerges in postwar culture itself and becomes the lost time and place of national purpose, cohesion and fulfilment. Indeed, the chronotope of the idyllic wartime homefront stands as this country’s lost object of desire until Camelot – that other mythological spatiotemporal construction about loss (though not of a past but a future) – replaces it in the national mythology after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the early 1960s.

Within the context of the postwar period’s national (and personal) insecurity about the future and its longing for the purposefulness, unity, and plenitude of a mythologised past, film noir provided – or so film historians, critics, and anecdotal experience have told us – the cinematic time-space in which contemporaneous cultural anxieties found vernacular expression. Dark in tone (if not always chiaroscuro in lighting), twisted in vision (if not always in framing), urban in sensibility (if not always in location), impotently angry and disillusioned in spirit (if not always in execution), noir circumscribed a world of existential, epistemological, and axiological uncertainty – and inscribed a cinema that film critics and scholars saw as an allegorical dramatisation of the economic and social crises of a postwar period they located roughly between 1945 and 1958.

Sobchack is ‘pro-noir’, in that she hopes to ground noir criticism in the actualities of the films and their correlation with US postwar history. She looks at the depictions of non-domestic spaces (motels, bars, diners etc.), where the loss of home is a structuring absence. All of these places forbid intimacy, promote isolation. Sobchack, after Dana Polan, uses this as a way to critique claims that noir is expressionist – instead of depicting the interiority of characters in the setting and décor, the settings remain resolutely external. Sobchack persuasively argues that noir can be traced back to a series of sociohistorical prompts that ’caused’ American cinema to respond. But this argument might just as easily show up the historical specificity of noir and discount its subsequent manifestations: if noir is an ahistorical attitudinal style, how can it have this specific generative context?

Considering noir’s relationship to history, Naremore notes the backward-looking nature of noir discourse, since ‘most contemporary writing and filmmaking associated with noir provokes a mourning and melancholy for the past’.[xxi] The essential motifs of noir have been transformed by years of intertextual correspondence, into ‘a vehicle for nostalgia and parody, available to anyone who wants to engage self-consciously with the traditions of American Cinema’.[xxii] For Naremore, noir, ‘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’.[xxiii] Noir, then, has become a touchstone for films seeking to explore ambivalent relationships between past and present, shorthand for metaphysical discomfort inflicted on the protagonists by their situation and environment. Fay and Nieland give us the idea of ‘noir-humanism’, which ‘offers a specific vision of human agency as increasingly governed by forces beyond reason or rational control, not only within the human (passion, madness, paranoia, trauma and the like), but beyond and abstracted from human capacity in the very modernity of the modern world.’[xxiv] This is the fatalism of noir, with its powerful, invisible moral forces that swallow up the individual hero. At its most solid, when I try hard to credit it with a coherent vision, noir might just show us the inefficacy of square-jawed, tough-talking muscle at dismantling the world’s entrenched social corruption and decay.

Noir has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If there’s no such thing as noir, there certainly is a neo-noir, self-consciously referencing, aping or otherwise alluding to the collective belief in the original myth. See Chinatown for the classic example of a film embracing, and messing with, noir narrative tropes of the seedy detective ultimately defeated by the insurmountable odds of official corruption, or Sin City for the most brazen (and tiresome) aping of the style, sunk by the bloat of its own attempts to make the noirest noir of all. Sometimes, neo-noir is a useful tool for letting us see genre cliches with fresh eyes, in a new time, context, or generic environment (Taxi Driver, Body Heat, Blade Runner, The Last Seduction), and sometimes it’s a lazy label applied to anything that takes a downbeat route through its story.

By now, ‘noir’ is a built-in filter setting on my iPhone camera, which should give a hint of how watered down and ubiquitous the sense of noir is. I am not arguing that noir does not exist at all, rather that the recognisable brand of ‘film noir’, as useful as it may be in generating historical interest in a range of low-budget crime thrillers that might otherwise have disappeared but instead have accidentally accrued the status of important analyses of postwar American psychology, is overstated in its significance, scale and coherence. Instinctively, we wanted there to be a noir, so we found it, without empirical proof that postwar American cinema was being led from the front by a wave of hardboiled, high-contrast pessimism.  

[i] Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000, 144. I might add that many conversations with Steve, a former colleague, may have heavily influenced my ‘noir skepticism’.

[ii] Vernet, Marc. Trans. J. Swenson. ‘Film Noir on the Edge of Doom’ in Joan Copjec (ed.) Shades of Noir: A Reader. London & New York: Verso, 1993. 1-31, 2.

[iii] Durgnat, Raymond. ‘Paint it Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir.’ Cinema 6.7 (August 1970), 48-56, reprinted in Alain Silver & James Ursini (eds.), Film Noir Reader, New York: Limelight Editions, 1996, 37-51, 39.

[iv] Vernet, 26.

[v] Bould, Mark, Kathrina Glitre & Greg Tuck. Neo-Noir. London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2009, 3.

[vi] Silver, Alain & Elizabeth Ward. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1979, 1.

[vii] Silver, Alain & James Ursini. L.A. Noir: The City as Character. Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press, 2002, 13.

[viii] Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: California University Press, 1998, 2.

[ix] Naremore, 11.

[x] Borde, Raymond & Étienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953. Even Borde and Chaumeton admitted that there was an element of memorialisation in noir – see their discussion of Minnelli’s ‘Girl Hunt’ sequence, for instance.

[xi] Naremore, 26.

[xii] Neale, 142-5.

[xiii] Neale, 144.

[xiv] Carroll, Noël. ‘The Future of an Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond).’ October 20 (Spring 1982): 51-81, 51.

[xv] Carroll, 52.

[xvi] Fay, Jennifer and Justus Nieland. Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalisation. London: Routledge, 2010, x.

[xvii] Fay and Nieland, xi.

[xviii] Fay and Nieland, xiii.

[xix] Sobchack, Vivian. ‘Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir’ in Nick Browne (ed.) Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Berkeley & Los Angeles: California UP, 1998, 129-170, 130.

[xx] Sobchack, 133.

[xxi] Naremore, 4.

[xxii] Naremore, 168.

[xxiii] Naremore, 49.

[xxiv] Fay and Nieland, 8.

One thought on “The Noir Instinct

  1. Pingback: Reading List 10.10.2014 – Hyperfilm

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