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Cinema and Media Studies Film Noir
by
William Luhr

Introduction

Film noir emerged out of a nexus of American sociopolitical crises, including the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. It presented the underbelly of the traditionally optimistic and utopian “American Dream” and drew upon numerous cultural influences, such as German Expressionism, American hard-boiled fiction, French Poetic Realism of the 1930s, tabloid journalism, Italian neorealism and American postwar documentary filmmaking. The formative discourse about film noir appeared in journals such as L’Ecran Francais and Revue du cinema in post–World War II Paris. No new American films had arrived in France during the Nazi occupation; and when, in spring 1946, wartime Hollywood movies became available, critics identified a new and darker quality in them that they termed “film noir.” The first book on the subject, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir americain 1941–1953, was published in Paris in 1955. English language discourse on it did not emerge until the 1970s, after the genre had lost its commercial viability: but simultaneously, cinema studies was growing and becoming institutionalized in journals, film clubs, and universities. At this time, film noir held a special appeal for young critics in light of the fact that their elders had dismissed many of the films on their original release; the younger generation tried to overturn these categorizations and embraced film noir in an enthusiastic exercise of rediscovery and of rewriting film history. Early articles in English and American journals sought to define the form. In the 1980s book-length studies appeared and have continued unabated; they range from general surveys to those using newly developing, cross-disciplinary methodologies. These analytical tools include formal, structural, and po ststructural approaches as well as feminist, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered methodologies. There were also masculinity, psychoanalytic, spectatorship, and genre studies as well as approaches linking film noir with American literary and social history, particularly of the Cold War era.

Early Assessments

Early assessments sought to identify and define the form. Generally presuming film noir to refer to Hollywood films made during the 1940s and 1950s, they introduced issues that are still being debated, such as whether or not it is a genre, whether it is politically progressive or reactionary, whether or not it is an exclusively American form, and the nature of its canon. Most early commentaries, such as Frank 1995 and Borde and Chaumeton 2002, appeared in France; English-language discourse on film noir did not appear until the 1970s and included Durgnat 1998, Schrader 1998, Place and Peterson 1998. These early works tended to be typological and structural in approach, and they employ socio-historical contexts and existential thought as a guide to the world of the films. Cawelti 1985 established early contexts for understanding generic transformation and change within film noir.

  • Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953. Translated by Paul Hammond. San Francisco: City Lights, 2002.

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    This first book-length study declares the form’s main characteristic to be the dynamism of violent death and notes its widespread misogyny. Film noir is crime presented from the criminal’s POV; and although individual shots often appear semidocumentary, their cumulative effect is that of a nightmare. First English translation of the 1955 French edition.

  • Cawelti, John G. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 3d ed. Edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, 503–520. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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    Uses genre theory to discuss the shift from film noir to neo-noir and describes genres as constantly evolving entities. The essay contextualizes Chinatown within mythic, literary, and cinematic traditions and sees it as marking a paradigm shift by both invoking and changing the hard-boiled paradigm in narrative, social critique, and character development. First published in 1979.

  • Durgnat, Raymond. “Paint it Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir.” In Film Noir Reader. Edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, 37–51. New York: Limelight, 1998.

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    British left-wing critic Durgnat rejects castigation of film noir as “Hollywood Decadence” by citing historical precedents such as Greek tragedy, Jacobean drama, and Romantic Agony. It explores film noir’s use of the world of crime for social criticism and a critique of capitalism. First appeared in Cinema in August 1970.

  • Frank, Nino. “A New Type of Detective Story.” Translated by Connor Hartnett. In The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, John, Director. Edited by William Luhr, 8–9, 14. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

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    This groundbreaking essay coined the term “film noir” in its analysis of recent Hollywood films, exuberantly proclaiming them evidence of a fundamental shift in Hollywood cinema and the dawn of a more mature era. Frank conflates the innovations of the films with those of American hard-boiled fiction.

  • Place, Janey, and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” In Film Noir Reader. Edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, 65–75. New York: Limelight, 1998.

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    Place and Peterson laid the groundwork for the assessment of film style based upon the formal specificity of the films rather than upon broad thematic and impressionistic assertions. Beginning with a primer on camerawork and lighting, they identify film noir practices as deviations from the norm in pursuit of viewer destabilization. First published in Film Comment, January–February 1974.

  • Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” In Film Noir Reader. Edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, 53–63. New York: Limelight, 1998.

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    Describes film noir as an American form, not a genre, but rather films defined by tone, mood, and historical era. A major theme is a passion for the past and present but also a fear of the future. He laments the paucity of stylistic studies and presents “notes” on film noir’s techniques.

LAST MODIFIED: 10/28/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0029

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