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January 18, 2011

I See a Dark Stranger


What do we mean when we describe a film as "Film Noir"? Maybe I'm alone regarding this, but after reading William Ahearn's series of essays on Film Noir, I have to question my own assumptions. Is it still acceptable for me to label a film as "Film Noir", or should I perhaps modify my description by stating the film "has Noir elements"?

I have to think it is way too late to go back to the term as originally intended by French critics in the Thirties in discussing Le Quai des brumes or Le Jour se leve. I'm also uncomfortable with an orthodoxy that limits the history to one beginning with The Maltese Falcon through Touch of Evil. On the other hand, I feel some discomfort in seeing a retrospective of films that includes Momento along with the more generally acknowledged genre gems such as Kiss Me Deady and Detour. Maybe my question should be: how responsible should I be in using the term "Film Noir"?

The reason I raise some of these questions is because I plan to contribute some pieces to a forthcoming blogathon devoted to Film Noir in February. The blogathon is designed to help bring attention to film preservation, and in this case, to help raise funds to preserve a film on behalf of the Film Noir Foundation. While I am all for film preservation, what I also am concerned about film scholarship. Not every film with a girl and a gun is Film Noir. (Or is it?) Some of the films I plan to write about are Asian. One film is loosely lumped with the Italian giallo, a genre that arguably has ties to Film Noir, and has found inspiration in past films. There may be some who feel that the films I write about do not belong in discussion on Film Noir. Others may use the term loosely, but I feel like some consideration is needed for myself to include a film in this series.

Even the term "Neo-Noir" might need some further scrutiny. I've seen a good number of the film listed here by the good folks at "They Shoot Pictures". I can understand the inclusion of The Money Trap, which reunited Glenn Ford briefly with Rita Hayworth, as well as the two films listed by Jean-Pierre Melville. I question listing Bullitt or The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two films I have enjoyed more than once by the way. I might argue that Pretty Poison should have been included in this list. Director Noel Black persuaded Tuesday Weld to be in his movie by mentioning Barbara Stanwyck, and thinking of the role of Sue Ann Stepanek as a then contemporary (19680 equivalent to the femme fatales of what are considered classic noir films. The casting of Anthony Perkins may have been obvious, but his character of Dennis Pitt is not too distant from the well intentioned guys who find themselves in over their heads because of a devious female. The working class milieu of Pretty Poison also connects this film to those of the classic era. It might be worth mentioning that the TSPDT list is made up of Hollywood and some French and British titles, creating a geographic and cultural limitations.

After reading the history of the origin of the term Film Noir, I feel like I just watched the film scholarship version of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, where a couple of French guys decided to print the legend. Of course there are those that might also claim that no one has any business describing The Misfits, Lonely are the Brave or Bad Day at Black Rock as westerns. I also can't expect over fifty years of critical writing to completelyl be revised. At the very least, I do appreciate knowing how the concept of Film Noir began and evolved. Perhaps what is called Film Noir should be allowed some degree of fluidity much as the concept of movies has embraced both celluloid as well as video and digital means of production.

Anyways, I encourage people to read William Ahearn's essays, and if you have the inclination, let me know what you think, either about what he has written, or about what I should covering when I write about Film Noir.

Posted by peter at January 18, 2011 07:55 AM