The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Movies borrow from film noir more than any other genre. Whether it takes the form of a straightforward homage (L.A. Confidential) or a few thematic props (Dark City), film noir creeps into frame year after year.
Unlike some of its peers, it’s also a style with incredible staying power. True, every generation has a genre which goes supernova and sucks up tickets and scripts. From the late 1930’s to the 1960’s, studios were churning out westerns. In the present, we have a new superhero property every other week. But those genres inevitably become overtaxed and audiences lose patience. They bend under the law of diminishing returns. Film noir, however, doesn’t seem to succumb to that genre weariness. Its fingerprints (which I’ll dust for later) are everywhere.
What Is Film Noir?
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
On a technical level, film noir refers to a chiaroscuro-heavy style of composition. Stark lighting. Usually black and white, since its “classic” era started in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Gritty and urban subjects. Often lingers on shadowy, human-sized figures to create a sense of paranoia.
More than that, though, film noir is about a tone of ambiguity and anxiety. Characters with shifting motives. Characters like the femme fatale, who, like a female preying mantis, dooms her lovers. The private eye. Trips through the darker side of human nature. Clipped sentences.
But what the above clipped sentences don’t adequately describe is what we mean by “film noir.” So many of its ingredients are in other things. The obvious love letter to noir L.A. Confidential has cop investigators, but so does 21 Jump Street (the drama, not the comedy). 21 Jump Street is about as noir as Warhammer 40K.
Noir is more of a feeling that flows from an America fresh from WWII.
The Roots of Hardboiled and Noir Fiction
Film noir is the cinematic wunderkind of its two literary fathers: hardboiled detective stories and noir. All three sprung from the urban jungles of America. If I may be so bold as to quote myself:
In both Britain and America, murder mysteries primarily belonged to “gentleman investigators” like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin. Murders were ordered, logical, and performed by individuals for straightforward personal gain. The authorities were impartial arbiters. The “dirty cop” was a rare abomination.
The predations of the Mafia and the 1920’s made those stories seem quaint and hollow. A new generation of writers responded by publishing stories that hewed closer to life in American metropolises. The heroes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were good-hearted but jaded by experience and loose with their personal morals. They were often thwarted by politicians and policemen contaminated by mafioso money.
To most Americans, that was a more realistic picture than the parlor murders and petty crimes of the English gentry.Sean Weeks, “Stranger in a Strange Land: Modern America“
I confess to omitting a contributing factor: the toll, physical and psychological, of two world wars. Shells and mustard gas tore men apart. Those men returned home, unleashing their battlefield trauma on the society they defended. It is a familiar and ancient story, as I mentioned here. Crime and the novel horrors of global wars created disillusionment within the western world. That disillusionment trickled into the public sphere, including literature and film.
Noir or Hardboiled?
And that’s what noir and hardboiled fiction are: disillusionment. Messy, with all the holes and irrationality of the human psyche. It’s a universe of cops, judges, and the pretense of order, but it’s secretly gone mad. That’s why the usual expression of noir/hardboiled is a private investigator embedded in a corrupt justice system, weighing the decay of a city against his soul.
On that note, it’s important to explain why I’m making a distinction between “hardboiled” and “noir” in the first place. Both of them channel the disillusionment I mentioned, but their characters don’t exist in the same moral spectrum. Hardboiled heroes stand apart from the corruption they fight. Noir characters either succumb to that corruption or already belong to it.
Hardboiled Example: Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
Phillip Marlowe, who was author Raymond Chandler’s most famous creation, is a perfect example of this distinction. In The Big Sleep, he visits a wealthy client. As he’s walking in, one object in particular catches his attention.
Over the entrance doors … there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair … I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Marlowe thinks of himself as a chivalric figure. While he may bend the rules or mingle with the scummier lowlifes of Los Angeles, he’s a good man.
Noir Example: Julie in The Bride Wore Black
In The Bride Wore Black, on the other hand, readers recognize the rottenness of the protagonist immediately. Julie isn’t a cop or an investigator. In fact, she’s the murderer, and her antagonist is a policeman. She’s a black widow, seducing and killing multiple men to avenge her husband’s murder.
Film Noir Doesn’t Care
Weirdly enough, that’s a distinction that film noir doesn’t care about. Regardless of the morality of its lead player, the label doesn’t change.
The protagonist of Sweet Smell of Success is a press agent named Sidney Falco. At one point, he pimps out a woman to an editor in order to get column inches. In The Maltese Falcon, detective Sam Spade is trying to solve his partner’s murder. Once he discovers that his love interest was behind it, he gives her up to the police in a fit of conscience. Despite the vast gulf between Falco’s and Spade’s moral positions, Maltese Falcon and Sweet Smell of Success share the label of film noir.
Neo-Noir and the Children of Film Noir
“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”J.J. Hunsecker, Sweet Smell of Success
Students of the genre like to toss around the term “neo-noir,” but I personally find that to be a bit of a red herring. Film noir and neo-noir are spiritually identical, separated only by dates and details.
According to their model, “classic” film noir era began in the 1940’s and ended in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, writers began to update film noir conventions, integrating modern technology and modern social issues. Prohibition ended and the Mafia no longer grips the public’s imagination like it used to. The face of cynicism changes from decade to decade. Film noir, known by its cynicism toward society, has to keep pace. For some, this re-definition deserves a new definition.
Thus, we have the term “neo-noir,” with which I take some issue. All genres change with the passage of time. Even during the “classic” periods of a genre, artists rattle their proverbial cages. Even during the supposed “revival” periods of the same genres, other artists hew to classical formulae. There are neo-noir movies that conform closer to film noir than “classic” titles. Functionally, the term “neo-noir” muddies the conversation — it serves solely to point out that genres change. Well, duh.
At least the classification of “neo-noir” vs. “film noir” is simple. Was the movie made before the 1960’s? Film noir. After the 1960’s? Neo-noir.
Setting my nomenclature quibbles aside, here are some stranger examples of modern film noir (“neo-noir”):
They have parallel-parked their bimbo boxes in identical computer-designed Burbclave street patterns and secreted themselves in symmetrical sheetrock shitholes with vinyl floors and ill-fitting woodwork and no sidewalks, vast house farms out in the . . . wilderness, a culture medium for a medium culture.Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
At the beginning of this article, I quote the immortal first line of Neuromancer, the 1984 science fiction novel. That’s not an error. Gibson wears his noir influences on his sleeve, and the cyberpunk genre he pioneered follows suit.
Being science fiction, cyberpunk has its share of rogue artificial intelligences, virtual realities, and future ideas. Yet it also has cynical heroes who bridle at society, which is probably a dystopic blend of megacorporations-as-governments and a reckless pursuit of technology. The “punks” of the “cyber” future fight the vices of big businesses and technocrats, much like how private eyes in a Chandler novel resist the greed of Hollywood and Los Angeles.
One of the best film adaptations of tech noir/cyberpunk is Blade Runner.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner, with its rain-drenched streets and deep shadows, emulates the look of classic film noir. Narratively, its protagonist, Deckard, lives in a 2019 Los Angeles which isn’t too removed from, say, James Ellroy’s classic L.A. Deckard is a classic Marlowe, with his bruised idealism and beleaguered decency. Instead of hunting down greedy politicians, however, his enemies are replicants — androids so human they can hide anywhere. The longer he hunts them, the more he questions his own reality. Eventually, he entertains the grim possibility that he might be a replicant himself.
Film noir’s central subject is the decline of humane behavior in the modern age. By considering the question of artificial intelligence, Blade Runner explores the decline of human essence in the modern age. Film noir suggests that technology and urbane sophistication hold a moral peril. Blade Runner proposes that the biggest threat to humanity isn’t immorality, but obsolescence.
Film noir parodies and pastiches have existed since the genre’s inception, and it’s easy to see why. The self-seriousness of its tricks, like the hardbitten narration or the underworld kingpin, lends itself to the task. Naked Gun and its sequels are the best in the business at this form of mockery.
Yet that’s not really what film noir is about. Film noir needs a sense of despair and dead-ends, and that’s difficult to pull off when you’re cracking wise. Narration and shadow are just tools to achieve the film noir feel, not the essence of film noir themselves.
Big Lebowski (1998)
Despite its dopey tone, Big Lebowski does not reach for low-hanging fruit. It is, for the most part, a film noir, but it replaces the genre’s worldly attitude with the good humor of a pothead.
Jeff Bridges plays Lebowski (referred to as “The Dude”), a stoner from Los Angeles who bowls, drinks, smokes, and does little else. Unfortunately, his name bears a resemblance to Jeffrey Lebowski, a millionaire whose profligate wife has racked up debts to the underworld. Thugs rough up the wrong Lebowski by accident and trash his stuff, so the Stoner Lebowski seeks reparations from Millionaire Lebowski.
This is just a pretext for the main plot. Millionaire Lebowski’s wife is kidnapped, and he demands that Stoner Lebowski crack the case. What follows is a loose re-telling of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The Coen brothers keep the ditzy wife, dirty money, corrupt beachfront cops, pornography rings, and femme fatale (played winningly by Julianne Moore). And, of course, Lebowski gets roughed up more than once. At least once or twice a film, noir heroes get their derrieres handed to them. Their refusal to stay down, not their ability to win, informs their heroism.
There’s a more overt reference to film noir later on. Lebowski runs into a real detective named Da Fino who’s actually working the case normally. The result is surreal. For a hot minute, the film has a straight-laced film noir protagonist trading dialogue with his comedy counterpart.
But the replacement of the stoic Marlowe with an affable slacker is the source of The Big Lebowski‘s comedic genius. For the most part, Lebowski observes the crumbling social bulwarks of Los Angeles with a patient shrug and a well-adjusted attitude. This exasperates the tragic elements of film noir. A Dickensian picture of an urban morass cannot bear the indignity of happiness.
In literature, there’s a term for this: bathos.
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
The visuals of film noir inspired a lot of comic book imitators — Dick Tracy, for example. They circulated during the heyday of film noir (1930’s to the 1960’s, as previously mentioned). The likes of DC Comics’ Question and Alan Moore’s Rorschach kept that tradition alive.
But there’s a bat-shaped elephant in the room. Arguably DC Comics’ most profitable and famous property, Batman is a clear homage to hardboiled detectives. His home city of Gotham is mapped on the gangland politics of 1940’s Chicago. Like Tracy, he comes by those political allusions honestly: the character debuted in 1939. His first iterations carried a gun and beat the streets like a good old-fashioned gumshoe, and typically the streets beat him.
And there’s no better proof of this than the film released a mere two months ago. The Batman (2022) returns to the roots of the character. It eschews supervillain theatrics for the more grounded motivations of greed, shame, and jealousy. Batman spends time chasing down leads, not defusing bombs or saving hostages.
Genre is a bookseller’s concern, not a literary concern.Rick Moody
As you can tell, I love film noir. But does it matter?
Not every writer believes in the importance of analyzing genre. Their priority rests with the vision in their mind’s eye; they write what they want to read. Furthermore, they presume that readers will follow the lodestones of quality and their taste. Good writing needs no home.
But good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. When we read and repeat stories, we inevitably accumulate various ideas about what shape a story can take. Whether or not we should do this is besides the point — we will. Genres merely allow us to bend these ideas into some sort of shape we can describe and iterate upon.
And the shape of film noir is a lovely one, indeed.