UNIVERSAL DARKNESS: On the definition of film noir. (Stanley Fish, 6/10/24, The Lamp)

Next year I shall be teaching a course in film noir for the first time, and I thought it might be useful to set down my thoughts about the genre. Definitions and lists of characteristics are not hard to come by. Many websites will tell you that film noir movies were shot in sharply contrasting black and white, made liberal use of flashbacks, and flourished between 1940 and 1958 with a number of “neo-noir” films, some in color, appearing even to the present day; that film noir heroes or anti-heroes are cynical, world-weary, bitter, and vulnerable to the seductive wiles of sensual and duplicitous women; that these men and women play out their doomed lives in a landscape of corruption, betrayals, double crosses, and plans gone awry; that everyone and everything in the film noir universe is at the mercy of chance, accident, and a general, even miasmic, malevolence; that these movies were especially appealing in the context of the pessimism generated by World War II and a post-war malaise brilliantly documented in a film that is not noir but has noir touches, William Wyler’s masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

But for my money, this list of noir elements casts too wide a net. As far as I am concerned, it’s not noir unless at its center is a moment when a line is crossed and someone, almost always a man, starts on a path that leads inevitably not only to his own destruction but to the destruction of everyone and everything he touches. It is tempting to speak of this moment as a choice, but it is better characterized as a slide, a slide from what had been a more or less ordinary existence to a toboggan ride down to hell with no hope of a reversal of motion. Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes (Double Indemnity, 1944) puts it best when he says of the lovers-murderers he has not yet fully identified, “It’s not like taking a trolley-ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”

The Hays Code gave us great art.