Noir is another word for “cool.” A particular kind—“dark” cool, “black” cool. A film noir is a cool movie that feels “dark.” From the early-to-mid-1940s to the mid-to-late-1950s Hollywood produced an unusually large number of movies that later critics have regarded as noir—this is the classic film noir era.
Readers who have waded through the endless debates over the definitions of noir and film noir should now be cheered—the definition of film noir really is as simple as that. What’s more, demystifying the terms help critics and noncritics alike. These definitions straightforwardly describe how noir and film noir are and have been most often used in ordinary parlance by film industry professionals, by movie journalists, and by movie lovers.
Scholars, of course, communicate something more specific with these words. Or do they? Few terms in the recent history of aesthetics have caused as much critical vexation. Indeed, the ceaseless academic efforts to define and redefine film noir have sufficiently distracted Webster’s—usually so good at describing language as it is actually used—that it offers as its sole definition of film noir a kind of averaged-out, lowest-common-denominator version of the multitude of critical interpretations.
Don’t be fooled. If you look closely, almost all scholarly definitions of film noir rest upon a basis of nothing more than personal taste, a varying mix of the scholar’s own and that of the many critics who have come before: The term noir primarily identifies a certain type of direct experience with a cultural artifact—one of stylish “darkness”. The verifiable elements of subject matter, of visual style, of narrative construction follow. This is how film noir has really worked as a term since it was first applied to the products of Hollywood.
In 1946 the periodical L’Écran français published “A New Detective Genre: The Criminal Adventure.” This article appears to be the first occasion in print in which film noir is used to describe a Hollywood movie. Here are the opening lines of Nino Frank’s seminal essay:
“Just a year ago, after a run of poor quality American movies, Hollywood was given up for dead. Today the summary conclusion is altogether different, for the appearance of a half-dozen good productions from California makes me consider—and write—that the American cinema is as worthy as ever. Our filmmakers are decidedly manic depressives. Seven of these new American films are marvelously wonderful."
So, in its very first association with Hollywood, film noir is attached to movies whose primary attribute is superior quality. Of the films he names, Frank is particularly interested in four, because they represent “the normal output from Hollywood.” They “belong to what used to be called the detective film genre”: Double Indemnity, Laura, The Maltese Falcon, and Murder, My Sweet. They feature not only “a dynamism derived from violent death and mysteries that must be solved”, but a new “verisimilitude of the characters” in which “action...matters less than faces, behaviors, words,” and “fragmented” narration as well. The films are characterized by an appealing assemblage of “dark” subject matter, style, and storytelling technique. An even more efficient summary is that Frank is asserting a brand of “cool.” The word is informal; it is also, in American English, the most precise.
Noir as a brand of cool—that‘s certainly how I made use of the term as a young movie junkie.
How come a nice guy like me is a critic obsessed with noir? Just lucky, I guess. And I mean it. I was predisposed, I’m certain, to become addicted to something and lucky enough to have a mother who didn’t think a five-year-old was too young to take to a revival screening of Rebecca. Among the darkest of Hollywood melodramas, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American directing job, Rebecca is the first movie I can recall seeing, perhaps the first I ever saw. Though that could have been The Red Baloon. In any event, I was hooked.
Growing up in New York in the 1970s, I saw a ton of movies, old and new, foreign and domestic. One thing I didn’t think too much about was genre: Westerns, as everyone knew, were tedious; musicals were fine so long as they had Fred Astaire in them; old horror movies were great but the new ones were way too gory—that was about it. At some point I came up with a whopper of an opinion: All the good movies were from Europe, or maybe Japan. I shared my revelation with Mom. She snorted. Go see The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, she said; it happened to be playing downtown at one of the city’s many revival houses. I did. It was very good; it was very dark; it starred Humphrey Bogart as a decent chap who becomes a raving paranoiac. How cool. Soon after, I chanced across Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, the coolest movie of all time. Where could I find more of that?
And so I became aware of film noir. A pocket universe of midcentury American movies, black-and-white but mostly black, moody, sexy, dark, cool. At some point I learned that neither Rebecca nor The Treasure of the Sierra Madre nor The Night of the Hunter were “officially” film noirs because they were not “crime films.” I didn‘t know the officials who made such decisions, but however grateful I was to them for helping introduce me to such wonderful movies as Criss Cross, The Set-Up, Roadblock, and Blast of Silence, I knew even early on that they were wrong, and uncool.