Movie Genres: Film Noir–Indie Cinema’s Most Popular Genre

Is film noir a singular genre recurring through time with an unrestricted life span?  Or is it a time-bound cycle, a congealing of forces and attitudes operating in a specific era?

Theorists have long been preoccupied with the question of whether noir is a distinct genre or a style that operates across generic boundaries. For Paul Schrader, noir is not a genre because, unlike Westerns or gangsters, it is not defined by conventions of setting and conflict, but by the “subtle qualities of tone and mood.” This mood was described by J.P. Telotte as a longing for temps perdu, “an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate and an all-enveloping hopelessness.” In his Film Encyclopedia, Ephraim Katz defines noir also in terms of mood: “a type of film that is characterized by its dark, somber tone and cynical, pessimistic mood.”

Noir as Genre and Visual Style

Others argue that visual style is what unites the diverse body of films comprising the noir universe. But if noir is a style, the question is what specifically constitutes that style. Needless to say, each definition of noir leads to the exclusion and inclusion of particular films. But no matter how it is defined, most scholars agree that noir represents a combination of iconographic, stylistic, narrative, and thematic elements.

The strongest argument for noir as a genre is its literary origins in the hard-boiled fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. Like the Western, noir’s literary conventions and thematic concerns went beyond the realm of cinema. As Schrader points out, the hard-boiled school created a tough, cynical way of thinking and acting, separate from the world of everyday emotions. It was the American counterpart to European existentialism, a romanticism with a protective shell, with cynical heroes who reached the end of the line.
Perpetually reborn in American cinema, noir enjoyed a major revival in the 1980s, in the work of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. And it is even more apparent in the 1990s, in the films of Tarantino and his offshoots. The reason for the continuous fascination may be simple: noir strikes responsive chords of fear, anguish and desire indigenous to American life. Noir’s brutal frankness in dealing with the primal subjects of sex, greed, and death is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.

Neo-Noir and Indie Cinema

Neo-noir continues to bewitch young filmmakers, who love its glamour but often misunderstand its existential consequences. Distinctions should be made in the growing body of neo-noir among directors who update the genre, those who reinvent it, or those who just use it as a point of departure. There have been pastiches (Body Heat), straight remakes (The Postman Always Rings Twice), efforts to resuscitate the noir universe by combining it with another genre, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which mixes noir and sci-fi, and even parodies (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid).

Specific political and cultural conditions of the 1940s and 1950s saw noir at its zenith: Post-War disillusionment, the German artistic influence, the impact of Freudian psychology, the hard-boiled literary tradition, the dread of the atomic bomb and nuclear holocaust. The combination of these conditions helped define the noir tonality and vocabulary. Noir’s anti-heroic vision was generated in response to the War horrors and problems that beset post-WWII America society, such as urban crime and political corruption. Noir films dealt with the loss of honor, the decline of integrity, the rise of despair, alienation and disintegration.

The advent of Italian neo-realism, with its emphasis on on-location shooting gave film noir verisimilitude in portraying dark, sinister environments. The realist movement suited America’s post-WWII mood, and actual location shooting became the norm. The public’s desire for a more honest, harsh portrayal of life shifted noir from high-class melodrama to the streets of the cities. But Expressionist studio lighting, imported to Hollywood by German directors, was not incompatible with realistic exteriors. Noir welded seemingly contradictory elements into a unified style: Unnatural, stylized lighting was directed into realistic settings.

Los Angeles as Noir Capital

Despite the fact that the label was given by French critics, noir is a uniquely American form, one that has outlasted Westerns, screwball comedies, and musicals. Noir is indigenous to Los Angeles, the “last frontier” of the American Dream. It’s not a coincidence that writers like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard have set their tales in L.A. a city that occupies a special place in our collective fantasy. To the millions of Americans emigrants, L.A. represented the end of the rainbow–the promised land: The land was cheap, the space vast, the weather accommodating. The new economy and culture also encouraged the development of cults and fashions that exemplified the country’s achievements and failures.

Los Angeles also became the home of the world’s greatest dream factory–Hollywood. As a metaphor, L.A. became, on the one hand, the city of eternal sunshine where prayers are answered, and on the other, the end of the continent. Not surprisingly, the gap between expectations and reality has been a major theme of noir. When noir is set somewhere else, the film succeeds if the new location suggests California’s sprawling seediness and sunlit vulgarity. Body Heat takes place in Florida, but its landscape, architecture and manner evoke L.A. of the 1940s.

New directors have been intrigued by noir’s distinct vocabulary: voice-over narration and subjective camera. As a privileged way of seeing, subjective camera emphasizes point-of-view, challenging “normal” perspective by forcibly aligning the viewers with a specific way of seeing. Subjective camera is concerned with heightened expression–the relationship of external events with inner feelings.

Noir Villains

Of the wide gallery of noir protagonists, the most prevalent types in neo-noir continue to be corrupt, neurotic cops, psychotic killers, ruthless con artists, cynical hit men. However, in neo-noir, the gap between heroes and villains has considerably narrowed: Both are portrayed as cynical, disillusioned, insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and uncertain of the future.

In classic noir, the seedy, malignant characters in the background made the lead characters (played by major movie stars) shine. But at present, the peripheral characters and villains, often played by Christopher Walken, Michael Madsen or Christopher Penn, are more interesting than the central one. Reflecting the moral chaos in the society at large, in the new noir, villains have become more sympathetic, their charm masking malevolent perversity.

Women in noir were cast not as wives or mothers, but in overtly sexual roles that allowed them to exert control over men. Linking women’s sexuality with destruction represents deep male anxieties, fears of women’s sexual power. Noir women presented a challenge to the restoration of a patriarchal-capitalist order in which men are in control. Neo-noir continues to draw on women’s threatening sexuality, but, if in the past, noir rebuked women’s independence and looked toward the restoration of traditional family values, at present, patriarchal values are more fractured.

Attempting to explain why noir has never died in American film, scholars have suggested that whenever there is a deep rift or disruption in values, one way to express it artistically is through film noir. In the 1970s, as a result of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, distrust of government and paranoia became major themes in a cycle of noirish films that included Chinatown, The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President Men and Nashville, all made between 1974 and 1976.

The dark, twisty territory of noir–a shadowy world dominated by fatalism, pessimism and romantic despair–is the drug of choice for today’s filmmakers. Kenneth Turan has observed that hardly a month passes without one filmmaker or another attempting a noir, so strong is the lure of this brooding genre. While most of neo noir are content to mimic the surface moodiness and stylishness of the classics, the good ones also echo their emotional impact. For Turan, the noir essentials boil down to an intricate plot that ebbs and flows in unexpected places, dialogue that is juicy and wise-assed, and characters whose anguish is easy to connect with.

For the most part, the new noir directors draw on a now codified style with its visual conventions: Deco titles, heat waves, flames, ceiling fans, shadowed window blinds, tinkling wind chimes, rainy nights in neon-city, muted voices, hopped-up dialogue. The hardboiled double-entendre, which was developed in the 1940s as a way around the restrictive Production Code, seems ludicrous in contemporary films filled with profanity and nudity.

Noir’s visual codes include: Somber black and white photography; low-key lighting; oblique camera set-ups; use of extreme camera angles to emphasize a dark oppressive tone; tight framing to underline themes of claustrophobia and entrapment; compositional tension to create an atmosphere of eerie menace, deliberately disquieting editing.

Style in Hollywood movies has become more assertive and pronounced, but no more personal. Ambitious indie directors strive for personal and original works, but they often fall victims to cliches. That the noir style has become over-calculated and deterministic, is evident in a body of cliches, summed up by one critic in the following way: a man drinking black coffee in an isolated roadhouse; a neon sign blinks on and off with one letter missing in seedy bars; men wearing trench coats; a ceiling fan even in the dead of winter; a hero spilling his guts in voice-over narration; rooms dominated by mirrors; unfiltered cigarette and overflowed ashtrays; drinking whisky (straight) in a barroom during the day; wet and glistening streets with shadowy figures, even when there’s no trace of rain; a muted trumpet moans plaintively in the night; men have pocket handkerchiefs; a body lies face down in a pool of blood.

Pop culture has provided young directors with material that stimulates their more serious artistic instincts. American film history has played a little joke on educated Americans. For Americans who wish movies to be civilized, mature, ennobling, crime films cause dismay. But, as often happens in American film, fresh, creative energy has come up from the bottom, from tabloid thrills, lurid pulp fiction, cheap horror flicks, and comic books.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press).