Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Suspect: Genre

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty isn't it?
- Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Dixon Steele: I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
- In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Genre. noun. A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.

First of all, lets establish the ground rules. Is Film Noir a genre? Many would say yes. Some would say no. I'd wager that the majority would swing in the favor of the former. Just type Film Noir into Google and be met by articles, definitions and essays. Type it into Amazon and be met with a plethora of books and DVD Box Sets. It's one of the most popular genres in the history of cinema; its twists and turns thrill mainstream audiences and its complex antiheroes and aesthetics fuel the fire of film academics. IMDB also has it listed as a genre and many critics would (and have) acknowledged it this way. The people who answer no would likely tell you that it isn't so much a genre as a mood, style or tone of a film. But doesn't that fall under the definition of genre anyway? Don't those little elements of familiarity in a film determine its genre? Would shadows projected across alleyways, femme fatales puffing on a cigarette, a suited hero running for his life and a voiceover of anxiety and despair not be the codes and conventions of the grand American genre Film Noir? I think they would. When you write your essay on Noir you may choose to categorize it differently but for now Film Noir is a genre. Now, allow me to disprove it...

The problem lies in definition. If we were to take Film Noir under its literal translation, which would be 'Black Film', we would be entering a whole other world of connotation - think of the cinema of Spike Lee or Tyler Perry for example. The fact is that the term 'Black Cinema' in relation to the crime and gangster movies of the 1940s and 50s is a very lazy grouping which proves inaccurate with todays film theory, readings and the attitudes of modern society. It's true that these films work in a collective sense and can be studied as a body; the aforementioned femme fatales, sharp suited heroes and voiceovers are their conventions. So it's easy to see why people would want to label them for study. 'Black Film' just isn't the right term. The crime, mystery and gangster genres (which are true genres and all fall under the inappropriate label in discussion) were influenced in design by the films of the German Expressionist/Weimar Film period (which ran from approximately 1920-1929). Themes of the movement involved sexuality, psychology and changing technologies/attitudes but it's really the visual style that informed 'Noir'. Weimar Film (which takes in filmmakers like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene) was all about light and shadow. Consider the scene in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) where Count Orlok (Max Schreck) creeps up the stairs to the bedroom of Ellen (Greta Schröder) and his shadow projects across the wall (http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_5wKqzXKfVsY/SuIKeHlR56I/AAAAAAAAAJc/DhqhGGfsmOo/s400/nosferatu1922.jpg) - the use of darkness and shadows and the emphasis on a fearful image (normally the antagonist) can be traced all the way back to this movement. There is a very specific design to those films that 'Noirs' like Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) echo perfectly (http://www.cinepad.com/filmnoir/bigclock.jpg). So how do I propose we label this fine body of cinema? Simple. Expressionist Crime Cinema. It's not catchy, I know - but since when was it about being catchy? We're all using wrong terminology anyway. 'Film Noir' or 'Black Cinema' doesn't exist; it's a false grouping for an excellent collection of crime orientated pictures that deserve better. Taken individually their own genres apply but as a body of work, for academic purposes, we must refer to these films properly as Expressionist Crime Cinema.

So what, you say, of Neo-Noir? Literally translated as 'New Black', this is another false label for a collection of Post-Classic crime/gangster films that employ colour and have updated themes to reflect their society. The connotations are, again, questionable at best and seeing as Noir never existed in the first place this label exists on a whole other plane of incorrect. Films like Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) are of the same genres as Expressionist Crime Cinema, they have gumshoe detectives, compelling mysteries and femme fatales. Films like Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) (which arguably comes under the label) literally uses a form of light and shadow descending from Weimar Cinema. So what do we call that? Simple again. The New Crime. Now that is catchy...

So, is there weight to the theory or are we too stuck in our ways and too far into academic dissection to turn our backs on 'Film Noir'?

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) is part of The New Crime.


  1. I'm firmly in the group that considers noir a style, not a genre. However, if it gets more titles to DVD that I want to see then "they" can call it whatever "they" want.

    My number one movie rule: All film noir are crime drama, but not all crime drama are film noir.

  2. @ Caftan Woman
    I understand seeing it as a style and not a genre, i'd back that up with more enthusiasm but it's still too much of a lazy and unfocused grouping for my liking, especially when we're dealing with already established and diverse genres simply employing an already existing style. Fair call on the getting titles to DVD though, the term Noir sells and it has brought some great titles my way. At the end of the day it's unlikely to change.
    And I like your rule, it's very true.