Film Noir

The Genre That Never Sleeps…

By Reyshan Parker

As a Genre

The term “film noir” as a genre is an arguable point.  Critics go back and forth on the subject of its exact definition.  Arguing that it a style and not a genre. This is mainly due to its wide reach over other genres such as horror, thriller, drama, mela-drama, crime, the western, and of course mystery, however, there is a deeper level,

[1] “Any attempt at defining film noir solely through its ‘essential’ formal components proves to be reductive and unsatisfactory because film noir, as the French critics asserted from the beginning, also involves a sensibility, a particular way of looking at the world. So noir is not simply a certain plot line or a visual style achieved by camera angles and unusual lighting. It also involves a ‘way of looking at the world,’ an outlook on life and human existence.”

There must be essentially be a certain psychological empathy that is secreted to the audience.

The other side of the coin is that noir is a genre all of its own based on the mood, theme, tone and point of view of a film.  I intend to prove that these conventions are precisely what categorize a film that can then be described in genre terms as a film noir.

[2]“Noir deals with criminal activity, from a variety of perspectives, in a general mood of dislocation and bleakness which earned the style its name. Unified by a dominant tone and sensibility, the noir canon constitutes a distinct style of film-making; but it also conforms to genre requirements since it operates within a set of narrative and visual conventions.  Noir tells its stories in a particular way, and in a particular visual style. The repeated use of narrative and visual structures . . . certainly qualifies noir as a genre.”

These conventions include but are not limited to, the spider web of fate; the detective; the femme fatale; the good girl; unconventional story structure; voice over narration; low key lighting; smoke; the dark city; wet streets; corruption; greed; deceit; and revenge… these are the major elements that must come together in what can then be referred to as a film noir.

To define exactly what is genre, Foster Hirsch says, “A genre… is determined by conventions of narrative structure, characterization, theme, and visual design”.[3] This idea can be expanded as Thomas Sobchack says,

[4]“The subject matter of a genre film is a story. It is not something that matters outside the film, even if it inadvertently tells us something about the time and place of its creation. Its sole justification for existence is to make concrete and perceivable the configuration inherent in its ideal form. That the various genres have changed, gone through cycles of popularity, does not alter the fact that the basic underlying coordinates of a genre are maintained time after time.”

In terms of these definitions, it can easily be stated that film noir is indeed a genre. In order prove this, the conventions themselves must be explored in more detail.

Conventions of Film Noir

The spider web of fate:

This is where the a main character seemingly falls prey to an accidental occurrence that leads him or her down an unforeseen path, inevitably to the downfall of that character.  The protagonist, usually a detective figure, is pushed and pulled in all the wrong directions, he is conventionally beat up at least once throughout the film, and traditionally ends up losing everything including his life.

The Detective:

            Usually, but not always, the protagonist embodies some sort of detective like quality. Whether he be an actual detective or some poor shmuck who finds himself forced down a path of discovery, there is always a sense of mystery in the air surrounding him.

The Femme Fatale:

The femme fatale, a woman who’s wicked cunning is instrumental in pushing the protagonist down the rocky path of the plot.   Her influence is key in all classic noir films as she usually embodies a powerful female archetype who has power over her male counterpart.

The Good Girl:

The Good Girl, who usually plays the part of the sweet and innocent woman, (the opposite of the femme fatale) a woman who epitomizes the classic 50’s female whom her male counterpart can take care of, love and marry, a symbol of purity and family.

Unconventional Story Structure: 

Unconventional plot and narrative structure is a major motif in film noir, involving flashbacks, flash-forwards and voiceover to disrupt and obscure the narrative flow of the film, creating an un-linear plot line that can twist and turn in and out of itself.

Voice Over Narration:

 Voice over narration plays a key role in in film noir.  Allowing the audience to get inside the head of the protagonists, there-by aligning themselves with the characters plight.  It is also a useful way of pushing the plot forward, while keeping scenes simple and affordable.

Plot Conventions:

Plot conventions usually entailing the darker side of life are a very prevalent factor in creating a film noir. Usually encompassing crime, murder, deceit, and blackmail. It pulls from the criminal mind twisting and taking its characters to the breaking point of their moral ambitions.

Lighting:

The visual style is a major convention that reflects the mood and tone of a noir film.  Incorporating low-key lighting, awkward camera angles, shadows and classically a black and white color scheme.  Color however, would take over later in the neo-noir era, but the dark brooding mood of the lighting schemes would remain the same.

The Dark City:

The brooding city at night is usually the seedier parts of town, where neon lights glow, and danger is felt lurking around every corner.  The city’s themselves become characters in the films, laying the backdrop for the disorder and chaos.

Themes:

Corruption; greed; deceit; revenge; an all over sense of danger lurking around every corner…

 

I hope you enjoyed the article.

Please check out my Noir Bookstore, Novels and Graphic Novels here. 

–Reyshan Parker

 

[1] Conard, 11

[2] Conard, 10

[3] Conard, 9

 

[4] Dickos, 1