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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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General Overviews

In the 1980s numerous book-length studies of film noir appeared, a trend that continues unabated. Early examples include Hirsch 1981, which uses broad categories to describe film noir and Selby 1984, which focuses instead on detailed analyses of individual film. By the late 1980s works were emerging that treated film noir as an established cultural tradition and surveyed not only the films but also the history of discourse on them. Telotte 1989 focuses on the cultural significance of the form’s narrative mechanisms, particularly with relation to those of classical Hollywood cinema. Palmer 1994 raises issues pertinent to the reception context for the films. Naremore 2008 provides an elegant and comprehensive overview of much of the discourse surrounding the form as well as its contradictions. On page 5 of chapter 1: “I contend that film noir has no essential characteristics and that it is not a specifically American form.” He follows this apparent dismissal of film noir with more than three hundred pages on film noir. This is neither a contradiction nor an indication of poor scholarship: rather, it is an honest acknowledgment of the sometimes bewildering complexities of the topic in what is probably the best available book on the subject. A central concern of this book, reflective of many writings on the topic, engages this complexity and places film noir alongside terms such as “tragedy” or “James Bond,” which have had multiple and contradictory meanings over time and yet persevere as terms that are widely used in common discourse with the presumption of their not having a variety of meanings but rather a single, universally apparent meaning. Hillier and Phillips 2009 compiles a list of canonical films and pays attention to non-Hollywood films.

Anthologies and Reference Works

Writings on film noir had become so widespread by the 1990s that editors began to anthologize them, often providing the service of making material that had appeared in obscure publications generally accessible. These works began the project of building a canon of commentary. R. Barton Palmer collected historically influential essays in Perspectives on Film Noir (Palmer 1996), as did Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio in their Film Noir Readers (see Silver and Ursini 1996, Silver and Ursini 1999, Silver and Ursini 2004, Silver and Ward 2010, Porfirio, et al. 2001; in addition, see Cameron 1994 and Server, et al. 1998). Spicer 2010 gives an extensive overview and bibliography. The reader should know that much valuable material on film noir is not available in print and not covered in this bibliography. Many films noir have been released in home-video formats such as DVD, some of which include “bonus” materials such as audio commentary by filmmakers and critics, alternate versions and deleted scenes, storyboards, production notes, and publicity material.

Bibliographies and Data Sources

Useful bibliographies appear at the end of Naremore 2008, Cook 2004, and Spicer 2010. An enormous amount of material of varying value is available online such as Classic Noir Online, Dark City: Film Noir and Fiction, Film Noir Studies, Filmsite: Film Noir and They Shoot Pictures Don’t They.

Formal and Spatial Approaches

Frank 1995, cited under Early Assessments, introduced the provocative notion of film noir as being set in a landscape of the “contemporary fantastic.” Schrader 1998 is an influential essay (under Early Assessments) asserting the primacy of the “choreography” (or stylistics) of film noir over its thematics and not only helped launch interest in the genre in the United States but also put out a call for formally rigorous, stylistic studies. Two years later, Place and Peterson 1998 (Early Assessments) made an early attempt to establish a stylistic vocabulary for the study of the form and to move beyond broad thematic assertions. Alton 1995 gives a cinematographer’s perspective on film noir’s visual strategies. More recently, numerous studies such as Sobchack 1998 and Dimendberg 2004 have concentrated on the spatial articulations of film noir, linking them with cultural/historical significances of urban or conceptual space. Although these studies arise from formal observations about the films, they often move beyond formal issues and construct a spatial interface with modern urban imagery, its historical development, and cinematic environments (again, what Nino Frank termed the “contemporary fantastic”). Pike 2007 contextualizes many of these issues within the larger pattern of spatial interpretations of modern urban environments.

  • Alton, John. Painting with Light. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

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    The cinematographer of many important films noir explains his visual techniques.

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  • Dimendberg, Edward. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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    An original approach to the genre demonstrating its profound engagement with modernism, particularly in its shaping of the modern urban landscape and its social redefinition of urban spaces. The book uses film and urban history, architecture, and philosophy to show how the anxiety associated with film noir reflects an urban landscape undergoing convulsive transition, inspiring fear about the collapse of utopian hopes for the modern city.

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  • Pike, David L. Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture, 1800–2001. New York: Cornell University Press, 2007.

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    An original exploration of the historical ways in which underground spaces in the modern city have been conceptualized and perceived. Not a book about film noir, but rather one about the environments, historical or mythic, from which film noir emerged and that appear repeatedly and significantly in the genre.

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  • Sobchack, Vivian. “Lounge Time: Post-War Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir.” In Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. Edited by Nick Browne, 129–170. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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    A phenomenological approach to film noir, exploring its recurrent physical spaces by grounding them in their socio-historical significances for the films’ initial makers and viewers. The author argues that the articulation of such spaces contributed to the internal logic of the movies and the external logic of the culture that produced them.

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Gender and Psychoanalytical Approaches

Since the late 1970s psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis, has become the lingua franca of much discourse on film noir, and it inflects many approaches. One such approach, as evidenced in Kaplan 1998, Copjec 1993 as well as Doane 1991, Williams 1998, Campbell 2005, and Wager 2005, draws upon poststructuralist feminist film discourse to reveal the significance of gender constructions within the films. This contests earlier categorizations of film noir as primarily reactionary in its depiction of women. It grants that the femme fatales so central to many films noir are presented as exploitative villains who are severely punished, often by death or imprisonment, by the end of each film. It contends, however, that such punishments involve more than the specific crimes these characters commit; they reflect the ideological transgressions they make against patriarchal structures by not “knowing their place” as subservient to the men. What can be seen as progressive in the genre is this: perhaps for the first time in film history, women are presented as intelligent competitors with men. They do not want to be comfortably dependent on men. They seek what the men seek—money, power, independence, social status—and often prove more savvy and ruthless than the men in acquiring those things. Although cultural codes of the time required their punishment, these characters, in a backdoor manner, demonstrated a strength and independence not previously held by women in American film. The analytical tools developed by feminist studies provided masculinity studies such as Krutnik 1991 with basic approaches for the exploration of the complexities and contradictions within masculine representation.

American Social History

Many works on United States sociocultural history of the wartime and postwar eras either provide rich contexts for understanding film noir or address it directly as a major form revealing the dynamics of Cold War America. It has been seen as the underbelly of the World War II and postwar culture of consensus, as a rejection of the American Dream, and a cauldron for the American anxieties during the McCarthy era. These films have also studied the 1950s imperative toward conformity and a consumer society. Affron and Affron 2009 develops a sophisticated approach to the filmgoing experience during the immediate postwar era, and Belton 1994 relates film noir to the change in cultural meaning of previously romanticized figures such as Chaplin’s tramp. Dixon 2009, May 2002, Polan 1986, Rogin 1987, and Krutnik, et al. 2007 develop various sociohistorical contexts significant to major trends in film noir.

  • Affron, Charles, and Mirella Jona Affron. Best Years: Going to the Movies, 1945–1946. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

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    Broad-based, insightful study of cinema culture during film noir’s formative era.

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  • Belton, John. “Film Noir’s Knights of the Road.” Bright Lights 12 (Spring 1994): 5–15.

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    Discusses film noir with relation to the road movie, arguing that the romanticized tramp associated with Charlie Chaplin from the nineteen-teens on had, by the film noir era, become a misanthropic and even sinister figure. The article includes an insightful survey of important issues related to film noir.

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  • Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

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    Addresses film noir’s history, focusing on its reception and the effect of anxiety and paranoia within the cultural context of the mid-20th to the early 21st century.

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  • Krutnik, Frank, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield, eds. “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

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    A collection of often insightful essays about Hollywood during the blacklist era that frequently discuss films noir, their filmmakers, and production and distribution history.

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  • May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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    Traces the complex influence of Hollywood film on American politics and culture from the 1930s through the 1960s.

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  • Polan, Dana. Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940–1950. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

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    Uses American films of the 1940s to explore the tensions underlying American society during the era.

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  • Rogin, Michael. Ronald Reagan: The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

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    Perceptive study of demonology in American politics born out of fear of the subversive. One chapter, “Kiss Me Deadly: Communism, Motherhood, and Cold War Movies,” deals explicitly with film noir, but the rest of the book also provides contexts for the genre and its era.

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Hard-Boiled Fiction

More than most genres, film noir has a complex relationship with literary culture, particularly with the American hard-boiled detective tradition. Many films noir are based on hard-boiled fiction; many hard-boiled writers also wrote screenplays for films noir; and some critics have spoken of both forms as nearly identical. Film noir defined itself in part by making a conscious break from the practices of earlier mystery and detective films in much the same way that hard-boiled mysteries broke from the earlier British model of detective fiction. From the beginning, many critics such as Nino Frank often conflated film noir with hard-boiled fiction, speaking of both forms as if they were virtually indistinguishable. Studies such as McCann 2000 develop sophisticated contexts for the cultural resonance of the fiction. The work of Raymond Chandler, a major hard-boiled novelist as well as screenwriter, has drawn particular attention in works such as Jameson 1970, Luhr 1991, and Phillips 2000 because of its extensive influence on dialogue and narration in film noir as well as its depiction of Los Angeles as a noir-ish environment. Film noir and hard-boiled fiction certainly share themes and ideological perspectives, but analysis becomes complicated when attempting to differentiate literature from film, as discussed in Irwin 2006 and Rabinowitz 2002. Studies of fiction and films must pass through aesthetic minefields. Many, however, are valuable, as are some biographies such as Nevins 1988, which is a portrait of the important hard-boiled writer, Cornell Woolrich.

Race and Nation

Although most early descriptions of film noir presumed it to be a Hollywood form, numerous claims, such as those of Buss 1994 and Keaney 2008, have described it as a much wider phenomenon appearing in various national cinemas—France, Britain, China, and Latin America, for instance. Commentators have also noted the often jingoistic and racist representations of other nations and nonwhite races in Hollywood film noir. Particularly since the 1990s, critics such as Manthia Diawara and Eric Lott have explored issues such as the erasure or marginalization of people of color in many films noir and those films’ use of highly coded racial imagery (see Diawara 1993 and Lott 1997). Jazz, for example, was often coded as African American music and, within social codes of dominant cinema in the postwar era, presented as signifying savage or evil behavior. Films of this era generally do not directly attribute evil to African American characters or environments but rather symbolically associate antisocial behavior with them. This is evident in movies such as Phantom Lady, regarding its representation of a frenzied jazz drummer. Even though the character is played by Elisha Cook Jr., a white actor, his behavior symbolically associates him with racist images of blackness. In D.O.A., an African American band drives the white nightclub audience into a similar, animalistic frenzy: and in that club, the concealed murder of the main character occurs. More recently in the neo-noir era, critics such as Murphet 1998 have noted the emergence of a central black, rather than white, point of view in mainstream films, particularly movies directed by and featuring African Americans such as the movies of Carl Franklin.

Neo-Noir

Film noir died out as a commercially viable genre by the early 1960s with the decline of the Hollywood studio system, the replacement of black and white by color cinematography as the dominant format, the collapse of the Production Code Administration censorship that had dominated the industry since the 1930s, and the widespread redefinition of American cultural values during the 1960s and 1970s. However, in the 1970s it was revived in a largely nostalgic form called neo-noir. Where film noir was about “today,” neo-noir tended to be about the historical and cinematic past. Where the makers of many films noir did not know they were working in what would later be defined as film noir, neo-noir filmmakers are generally highly conscious of working in an established tradition. Cawelti 1985 (discussed above under Early Assessments) was one of the first to demonstrate the processes of generic transformation evident in the emergence of neo-noir. Other early commentators are Borde and Chaumeton 1996 and Jameson 1999. The 1990s and 2000s brought numerous book-length studies of the form, including Martin 1997, Hirsch 1999, Stanfield 2002, Dyer 2006, Conard 2007, Schwartz 2005, Bould, et al. 2009.

Individual Film Studies

Considerable important work on film noir has appeared in studies of individual films. Some of these, such as Brackett 1988, Doane 1983, Heath 1975, Sharrett 1993, and Thompson 1988 appear as essays in individual volumes or journals, and others are part of a series: for example, BFI monographs such as Dargis 2003 and Isenberg 2008, collections of screenplays and related essays such as those of Rutgers Films in Print Series (see Luhr 1995), or volumes of essays on individual films such as those from Cambridge University Press, among others.

LAST MODIFIED: 10/28/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0029

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