The Persistence of Noir


How to explain the persistence of film noir? It was more or less an artifact of the forties and fifties so what are these similarly-themed numbers that have been coming out ever since? We have a term for them: neo-noir. But I'm not so much interested in definition of terms as I am about why we still use them so much however we care to define them. I mean, why does the term "noir" still matter? Do a net search for "film noir" and see what you get. You get a lot. Why's that? (For the Wikipedia take, click here.)

When people talk about old movies, they often refer to various flicks as being "dated" or, conversely, as having "held up well". Noir feels, and certainly looks, like a product of its time. Neo-noir continually updates the style, but the originals still mean a lot to a lot of people, and they are still the ideal to which neo-noir refers.

In short, these 40s-50s movies are, more often than not, dated but hold up anyway. Why's that?

They are by nature pessimistic. A lot of them take a sunny turn in the last five minutes, but most of the endings that go that way have a tacked-on vibe, and the take-home impression of these movies in their total is that things aren't right, that people at the bottom of the heap are brutally dense, and people at the top are grossly corrupt, and that all of them are perverse. And it's going to take a lot more than plot manipulation to clean up this mess. Not that these flicks are pushing some sort of revolution. The attitude is generally fatalistic. "Well," these movies seem to say, "Maybe if you're true to yourself, that's something. Maybe if you show a little style, that's O.K. too. But anything more than that and you're a sucker. Anything more than that and they'll grind you up or, worse yet, co-opt you." It's a loner's view, the view of someone who doesn't have much of a stake in the future.

Question is, why should an outlook such as this continue to attract so much attention... devotion, even?

First off, not everyone likes noir. These devotees are a niche not a mass audience. This means filmmakers have a more than average amount of latitude when it comes to walking on the dark side, though how much latitude they choose to take varies quite a bit. Secondly, noir isn't just existential angst. It's mystery and danger, the stuff of involuntary fascination. But noir isn't primarily about action either. Noir movies aren't really thrillers, although the line between neo-noir and thriller can be vague and the overlap considerable. Core noir (40s, 50s) is generally about people sorting through a mass of confusing information in an attempt to find a center, a thread, a foothold. Noir proceeds more on talk than action, which is why a lot of contemporary viewers, raised on hyper edits and explosions, find it slow going.

When recently our financial institutions were exposed as slimy pretty much from top to bottom and the average citizen gasped in horror, I should think most noir fans exhaled a sigh of recognition. This exposure isn't just about the failure of certain institutions; it's about a rottenness of the soul. That's why when the dust settles, we'll do this again like we've done it before. Noir is still around because this is the story it tells, and it's always relevant.

And not just when things go blatantly bad and everyone can see for themselves, but before that and later when everything has been tidied up and most of us are comfy and don't want to hear about it. But this decay doesn't happen all of a sudden like our recognition of it. It takes deal on top of phony deal, shell game after shell game. Decay takes time. And it takes a profound corruption that justifies itself as it goes. As long as money is being generated, justification comes easy.

Film noir is usually about individuals rather than organizations, but the social order is always there like a blurry background projection; and its representatives weave in and out of the plot: the lawyer in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the businessman in The Asphalt Jungle, the police chief in Diva.

Noir knows.


screenshots, top to bottom:
Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky) - 1948
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola) - 1974
The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa) - 1960
L A Confidential (Curtis Hanson) - 1997