April 19, 2007


Seeking with Groans: The moral universe of film noir (Thomas Hibbs, March/April 2007, Books & Culture)

"I don't want to die."

"Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I'm gonna die last."

That's a bit of romantic dialogue between two characters from Out of the Past, one of the films featured in the Film Noir Classics Collection. The fifteen films in these three box sets were originally released between the mid-1940s and the early 1950s. (A fourth volume, featuring ten films, is promised later this year.) They thus bypass the early period of noir, defined by such classics as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, films whose viewing by French critics in the middle of the decade gave rise to the noir tag in the first place, but they include such gems as The Asphalt Jungle, The Set-Up, Murder My Sweet, Dillinger, On Dangerous Ground, and Narrow Margin. Clearly there's a growing contemporary interest, both popular and critical, in film noir. Book-length analyses of the historical, cultural, and philosophical roots and implications of film noir continue to multiply—including two noteworthy recent examples, Mark Conard's edited volume, The Philosophy of Film Noir, and John Irwin's Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them. Even this limited sample of films and books gives evidence of the rich philosophical resources in noir; its penchant for subversive, anti-Enlightenment themes; and its revival of a peculiar kind of quest.

As the discussion of the essence or nature of film noir in the books from Conard and Irwin indicates, critics seeking a unifying definition of noir as a genre have failed to achieve consensus. Still, the films grouped under the noir label exhibit what philosophers call family resemblances, including recurring themes (criminality, infidelity, get-rich-quick schemes, and seemingly doomed quests), dominant moods (anxiety, dread, and oppressive entrapment), typical settings (cities at night and in the rain), and peculiar styles of filming (sharp contrasts between light and dark and tight, off-center camera angles). Noir is certainly a counter to the optimistic, progressive vision of postwar America; subverting the rationality of the pursuit of happiness, noir turns the American dream into a nightmare. Noir also counters the Enlightenment vision of the city as the locus of human bliss, wherein human autonomy and rational economics could combine to bring about the satisfaction of human desire. Instead of Enlightenment progress, with its lucid sense of where we are and where we are going, noir gives us disconcerting shadows and a present tense that is incapable of moving forward because it is overwhelmed by the past. In the noir universe, progress and autonomy are debilitating illusions. The title Out of the Past is a synecdoche for much of the noir genre.

The Golden Age of Hollywood was largely the product of censorship. It forced upon filmmakers the central, and quintessentially American, theme of noir, that bad deeds always end in tragedy. The more freedom the movies have been granted the less they've done with it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2007 12:14 PM

The more freedom the movies have been granted the less they've done with it.

Ha!! You could definately say the same about jazz.

Posted by: Twn at April 19, 2007 11:35 AM

Last night Turner Classic Movies showed the 1947 film Brute Force, staring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronin (as a dictatorial chief of the guards). It was a prison film and it was particularly brutal, especially for 1947; however, it did it in a way as to not actually show the violence.

Not showing it is why the movies back then were so goood (Alferd Hitchcock, et al). Today, you've got to have some hack like Quentin Tarentino show you someone's head getting chopped off. You can say the same thing about the proliferation of pornography - showing it all has cheapened it.

Posted by: pchuck at April 19, 2007 1:34 PM