When people say "film noir," they often mean very different things: for some, a film noir is any movie with a private detective; for others, it's any movie with Humphrey Bogart; film buffs will lump most dark and moody B-movies of the period (1941-1957) with a crime element into the film noir category. Why??? Read on...
Most people (including many film scholars) think of film noir as a genre of film, like westerns, melodramas, romantic comedies, etc. But film noir is not really a proper genre, because the other genres we all refer to are labels specifically applied to films by film studios trying to sell their product to a target audience. A Douglas Sirk melodrama produced in the late 50s was meant to draw a specific audience, and the label "melodrama" (accompanied by a genre-appropriate publicity campaign) was one of the studio's tools to drive that audience in.
But film noir was not a label applied by any studio until long after the classic era of film noir (roughly 1941-1956) concluded with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. From what I understand, noir was the first film movement defined from without, instead of within, and the story of the term's genesis reveals quite a bit about style itself.
Film noir was a term coined by French cinephiles after the (Second World) War. From 1938 until 1945, the French did not have access to new American films. The vision of American film that the French maintained through this dark age was likely the light and fluffy madcap farces and the sentimental melodramas of the 30s.
After the war, American films rushed back into the country, and within a span of two summer months in 1946, the French caught up on all that happened in American film during the prior 7 years: The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Double Indemnity, I Wake Up Screaming and many many more. This was a far cry from the zany comedies and matinee idols (See Bringing Up Baby) that had flooded the silver screen less than a decade earlier. These movies brought viewers into seedy and violent underworlds, drew on German Expressionist cinematography and design, featured much older leading men (whose faces were often pummeled by film's end), offered labyrinthine oneiristic plots (Raymond Chandler freely admitted that The Big Sleep is almost entirely unintelligible without prior knowledge of the novel), and presented a bleak, paranoid world-view that was very much in line with the spirit of postwar-France. In short, these films were dark, very dark, and the French applied to them the same term that they did to similarly dark novels: "noir," meaning black.
Historians and scholars can't seem to come to agreement about whether film noir is a sub-genre, a style, a movement, or simply a group of films. If it is sub-genre, than what genre should it placed under: melodramas, crime films, or thrillers? And if it is a style, was it a self-conscious one, or simply the result of the fact that most of these films were B-movies under financial duress (Why are there so many shadows in film noir? Simple answer: the directors had to use single source key lights, often from practicals, due to their budget constraints...)? And if it is a movement, was it an unspoken allegiance of like-minded artists or simply the zeitgeist of that period in American history? And if it is, at the end of the day, only a group of films, who gets to determine which films make that list?
Since the very "definition" of film noir seems to be in the eye of the beholder, allow me to submit, on behalf of Stolen Chair, the definitive film noir list. These are all films which, in some way or another, articulated for our company what it is that we love about film noir. With the exception of D.O.A., all of the films precede the 50s, and this a very important characteristic of the noir that Stolen Chair loves: it is firmly rooted in the rare intersection of post-war trauma, pre-war anxiety, and mid-war constructions of morality and nationalism that marked the 40s. This strange brew gives noir its distinctive bleak cynicism and fatalism, its transgressive but ultimately repressive gender dynamics, its bizarre unresolved endings, and, most importantly for Stolen Chair, its leanings towards Absurdism (which emerged over in France only a few years later).
Here they are in no particular order:
- The Maltese Falcon
- The Big Sleep
- Murder My Sweet
- Lady in the Lake
- Double Indemnity
- I Wake Up Screaming
- They Won't Believe Me
- Scarlet Street
- The Postman Always Rings Twice
- The Killers