If you have started reading this article here, then you probably know what a film-noir is. Chances are, you are also knowledgeable about the basic elements and characteristics of a film-noir to some satisfactory extent. Initially, I have intended this article to be informative and exhaustive; I wanted talk about the thematic and stylistic attributes of this genre as well as the whole timespan of influences and spin-offs; but then I decided it would be a little boring and completely unnecessary to do so, considering the intellectual capacity of our target audience. You have been told numerous times, I'm sure, by various other articles in the blogosphere that a film is not a film-noir without shadows, light-dark contrast, a femme fatale, a detective/private investigator, morally ambiguous existentialist undertones, complicated plots and an overall sense of pessimism. Therefore I will not merely remind you what I presume that you already know.
Instead, with your permission, I would like to wind the clocks back to 700 years ago.
Noir Always Existed
In 1300s, Europe witnessed the birth of probably the grandest artistic revolution in the history of mankind, which would later on be called and known as 'The Renaissance'. Neither time nor the feasibility limits of these blog spaces will allow me to talk about all the aspects of this upheaval, but there was one technical innovation that was critical to the development of the whole idea; something that is also closely related to the stylistic attributes of film-noir which automatically places it in the scope of this article. Tired from the conventions preceding them and in search for more natural and realist depictions of whatever constituted their subject matter, passionate Renaissance artists discovered the secret appeal of contrasts, especially that between white and dark; between light and shadows. Leonardo da Vinci blended this technique with his command over the anatomical details of humans to create some of the most impressive and lifelike depictions of people he knew or more legendary figures that he read about. Raphael used it with his delicate linear perspective to illustrate buildings, locations or simply portraits with more crowded backgrounds. Michelangelo was their reflection on architecture and sculpture.
The technique I'm talking about is of course 'Chiaroscuro' - 'Tenebrism' if the contrast is more dramatic. It is denial of harmony as the central element in painting and of two dimensionality as the basic principle. Since scholasticism was the predominant doctrine during the early Renaissance and religion was the agency that was most sceptical to accurate depictions of humans in paintings, it is also an indirect refusal of extreme fundamentalist limitations on art. But more important than all these aspects, chiaroscuro aesthetics was a trend that was going to persevere and endure even the most unfavorable circumstances. Before influencing cinema, it would be exaggerated in Baroque visuality by painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt and prove for the first time its permanency in different artistic movements.
Fast forward 600 years: Germans are in trouble. Devastated after World War I and torn apart by extreme social and economical humiliation, depression is the color of human spirit. That, and the darkest of blacks. In the meantime, painting ceases to be the one and only visual art form: Louis Daguerre introduces photography -the first rival- and a couple of years later come the moving pictures. Audiences, who sneered at even the most wonderful paintings of their time, now scatter at the mere sight of a train approaching to the station. During more or less the same times; fueled both by their profound depression and the exhilarating potency of these new mediums, all German artists but especially the filmmakers create a movement known to us today as 'Expressionism' (or as 'German Expressionism' as far as cinema is concerned), where expressing emotions -often those that are dark, bizarre and gloomy- becomes the primary concern. These new generation artists oppose the views of the Renaissance people in nearly all aspects; naturalism is abandoned in favor of surrealist imagery that aim to capture the essence rather than merely copy what's visible; reality is distorted and religious themes are alleviated or at times completely replaced by humans and their earthly desperation. The understanding is so different that art historians today categorize Renaissance paintings under the 'Classical Period' while expressionists are considered 'Modernist'. Only one thing from the past endures and somehow manages to survive in this vastly dissimilar artistic movement.
One little idea that was also the aesthetical forefather of the film-noir genre.
Yes, you guessed right. Especially directors and cinematographers but also 20th century painters never renounced the magical beauty of chiaroscuro; on the contrary, they enhanced and emphasized this visuality with sharp angles, exaggerated makeup, surrealist set pieces and more daring compositions. With the help of new technological developments, they played with light and darkness in so many different ways that as a result, truly original and audacious pieces were created. As far as the movies are concerned, directors like Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau and Robert Wiene channeled the overall feeling of despair that haunted their country into their works; dealing with the notions of madness, insanity, betrayal, injustice and moral ambiguity with an intellectual complexity that Hollywood would fail to reach even decades after the first expressionist film. They also invented the first modernist narrative elements in cinema such as flashbacks, visual effects, plot twists and surprise endings. From then on, more complex and nonlinear stories would make their way towards the cinematical medium. Their vision was unprecedented, is still unsurpassed but unfortunately short-lived.
Due to lack of major funding opportunities and marketing support as opposed to the gigantic proportions of the movies industry in Hollywood (which was reached thanks to the golden age of studio system) these gems failed to survive against their American contemporaries; despite vastly surpassing them intellectually and artistically. The German government of the time was in no shape to take measures that would support its artists as well - more basic needs regarding its ordinary citizens were at stake. A few years later Nazis came to power and that was the last drop that spilled the cup. Nearly all expressionist cinema artists (primarily the aforementioned three) migrated to United States, one after another like an endless stream, in order to escape from the numerous difficulties that infested their homeland; and to better fund the movies they would make in the future. Not that it would be remarkably easy to do that in America - they had brought their unique vision with themselves but they were forced to trim their extremities in order to please the public and therefore the wallets of the studio bosses. Their idealist European perspective would be challenged by cold, hard cash. And they would have to blend those two in order to survive.
Prevailing at more or less the same time in United States was the American pulp novel tradition. These inexpensive, thin, paperback books/magazines, which had no intellectual value whatsoever, were widely published and read from 1920s through the 1950s. This eventually turned them into a legitimate phenomenon, which would be frequently quoted, pastiched and paid tribute to by American postmodernists (the best example of which is undoubtedly Tarantino's Pulp Fiction). This should not be surprising, considering how these pieces were blatantly typical in terms of their narratives, dialogues and literary styles - when a trend becomes as distinctly ridiculous as this, it is bound to be parodied once its heyday is over.
Admittedly, the whole thing was quite tedious and inane, but the variety in subcategories was nonetheless astonishing. Among the uncountable many were sword & sorcery fables, horror tales, mythical adventures, science fiction, westerns, war chronicles and sports stories; but it soon became apparent that only two of these genres were the real deal: softcore erotic romances occupied the number one spot (with the support of the rare female readers of these pulp magazines), followed closely by detective mysteries. Needless to say, the whole fad was extremely male-centric.
The detective fiction of this era was marked by the dominance of hardboiled crime stories, thanks to a bunch of guys like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose novels would later on would be adapted into quintessential film-noirs. Complex and enigmatic plots of the whodunits, which primarily consisted of a central riddle and its logical solution as the climax, were replaced by relentless action and gritty realism. Unsolved puzzles, unanswered questions and failed protagonists became more and more common. Crimes were unsentimental and plots became more sexual-driven. Surprise endings were superseded by pessimistic anti-climaxes. The overall writing style was more lean and direct.
It was around this time that cocky American crime fiction impregnated delicate European sensuality that had been dispersing towards United States since the rise of Hitler in Germany. While the baby would inherit his plot devices and existentialist undertones from his father, the mother gave him the unique technical magnificence that had been dominating a continent for more than 6 centuries. He would be loved and praised by the masses due to his father's popularity; while retaining the intellectual quality of the maternal side. The birth took place in the hands of a couple of German immigrants who had been working as filmmakers in U.S. for some time and had been greatly anticipating a half-breed with such potency. Impressed by the beauty of the baby, some French guys lost no time naming him themselves. He was called 'film-noir' and no one objected.
The rest of the story, up until 1960s, has been told in MovieZeal since the beginning of this month with an impossible attention to detail and in dazzling variety. "Why did you write about all this" you might be asking at this point; "Why the history lesson?" Because, like Joker says in The Killing Joke, "I want to make a point." I want you to realize that noir has been out there much longer then we tend to believe and in places outside where it was born. Since Renaissance and probably even before, you can track traces of noir in nearly all the artistic achievements of humanity; constantly changing, evolving, splitting and merging; constantly disguised under many different shapes and forms. The story of noir is a continuous one and that's exactly why it's hard to pin down the exact period of its existence or to come up with precise definitions as to what a typical film-noir really is. That is also why you hear a lot of discussions regarding what films can be included in this movement as neo-noir or retro-noir: how can you evaluate an organic entity using synthetic terms? How can you divide the lifetime of a natural phenomenon into abstract periods? Needless to say, it's impossible and the proof to that is everywhere.
Why then? What makes noir so different from all the other movements we have seen in the history of film? What makes it so unique? The answer to that is indeed many and none of them is truer than another. My own observation is that the noir mentality, not only the films but everything related, deals with human condition more honestly and intensely than all the other artistic movements mankind has ever seen. It had a direct relationship to us, to the meaning of our existence on this planet (or the lack thereof) and has evolved with the humanity itself; adapted constantly to the changing conditions, survived and existed. Not one nor a group of people created it, so it has never been a temporary artistic movement that would be abandoned at the first sight of a major change. It does not tie itself to minute and unimportant earthly matters like politics, social conditions or technical issues related a certain art forms. Thematically and stylistically its concern is the human spirit, therefore it endures; constantly looking for best narrative and visual elements to do justice to its significant subject matter. And like humans, it never stays the same.
But that's not all I had in mind when telling you all these. I also wanted you to realize that noir is not the result of an immediate discovery, an instant revelation or an innovation; which finally brings me to the second point that I want to make.
Noir Is A Postmodern Concept
Film-noir is not something original, nor it is a influential novelty. There is absolutely nothing new about it, technically or otherwise. What it does beautifully and where its real success lies is how it manages to blend fantasy and real-life drama; how it melds realism and surrealism together so smoothly that these two opposing ends of the same artistic spectrum fit into each other as gracefully as never before. Also, being a movement that has been founded by Italians, improved by Germans, brought to life by Americans and named by French, noir definitely enjoys the multicultural influences in its formation. American pulp novel tradition feeds on two different European movements in order to ascend and become noir: French poetic realism and German expressionism. As you can see, film-noir did not come out of nowhere like Dogma 95 did (which was probably the most artificial and shortest-lived movements in film history), nor it reflected the collective understanding of a group of filmmakers like Italian neo-realism did. The first noir artists borrowed techniques, recycled themes and looked for the perfect blend as opposing to their contemporaries who were seeking to discover the purest single malt.
Periodically, classical noirs should be considered modernist avant-garde; but the way I see it, noir represent altogether a different concept. The term 'Avant-garde' refers to works that are experimental and innovative and it represents "a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as norm or the status-quo". This means denial of the past movements in favor of discoveries and new styles. In this sense, German expressionism is definitely an avant-garde concept, because although it borrowed a lot from Renaissance techniques, certain visual elements it embodies such as heavily-emphasized angles, surrealist sets and exaggerated gothic makeup were new; not only to the cinematical tradition but to all branches of visual arts. What constituted their subject matter, which I have mentioned a bit in roughly the 7th paragraph of this article, was never before touched upon in any art form by any artist. It was the denial of all preceding ideals (including but not limited to Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classicism) and was pushing of the limits for something much more.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the postmodernist agenda and its intertextuality principle, which refers to "an author's borrowing and transformation of a prior text" to be used in his/her work. Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard completes this definition with his statement that goes: "Everything has already happened... Nothing new can occur"; asserting that the attempts to create, produce and invent have become futile after a certain point in history. What we can do is merely recycle and use the older texts/styles, use them in different contexts or merge them together to come up with something sensible and worthwhile to pay attention to. Same principle applies to all the technical aspects as well. Considering the fact that postmodernism originally arose as a reaction to modernism, this kind of a declaration seems hardly surprising.
Whatever new or exciting we see in the film-noir movement is completely back-traceable. There are no gaps between postmodern art and the classical noir examples, save for the fact that in a real postmodern work, the intertextual attitude I have been talking about would be deliberate. In noir's case, it's more of a natural evolution. And this is exactly the reason why I have refrained myself from calling it 'a part of the postmodern movement' and contented with the term 'concept'. Still, it has been my intention to prove this assertion by deconstructing all the so-called 'originalities' of a film-noir to show where they have been inherited from. Noir poses no innovation or invention; instead it constantly looks back and emulates past themes/techniques. The way all these things from the past blend together and are adapted for silver screen is what deserves the praise; along with the exhilarating idea that noir artists contributed to the formation of a postmodern concept way before the postmodernist movement started gaining momentum. Has any movement in the history of film ever been so much ahead of its time?
What Happens Today?
After passing through the mirror of postmodernity in 1960s, the classical period of film-noir ended when it ceased to be the outcome of the intertextual approach and became the source that much of the inspiration is drawn from. The brilliant collage of chiaroscuro, mannerism, low-key lighting, complex narrative, fatalistic realism, moral ambiguity, hardboiled attitude, mystery stories, existential loneliness, labyrinthine urban settings and sexually motivated, self-destructive endings now hardened into a shell until all these segmented components became indistinguishable. With its increasing popularity due to its nostalgic quality and swanky French name (which, when uttered, immediately makes you appear more intellectually capable than you actually are) the notion of film-noir was encapsulated into a mass that is more important than the sum of its parts. And that inseparable mass influenced a lot of new-age filmmakers.
It has always been profitable to pay homage to the noir style because noir clichés are so much fun to watch and play with. On a more depressing level though, noir-stained films always worked because it's extremely hip nowadays to appreciate this genre and all its spin-offs. Because aside from everything else, noir has become a tool, used by film buffs all around the globe to convincingly fake an intellectual orgasm. Because cunningly hidden in its simple name are allusions to cinema's most recent history, to stylized black&white visuality and to European understanding of art. Because a sentence that contains this word at least once will imply your listener/reader that you are well-informed about movies; that you are capable of evaluating older and more intellectual films; and that you have a firm grasp over film history as a whole. It has become the table around which many cinephiles like to circle-jerk all the time. Consequently, if you have referenced a film-noir in your movie, people should better like it; because if they don't, it becomes evident that they are a bunch of illiterates who simply don't get it.