As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it and why the contours of the larger noir canon in particular are so imprecise. Many of the features associated with noir – the use of voice-over and flashback, the use of high contrast lighting and other ‘expressionistic” devices, the focus on mentally, emotionally and physically vulnerable characters, the interest in psychology, the culture of distrust marking relations between male and female characters, and the downbeat emphasis on violence, anxiety, death, crime and compromised morality – were certainly real ones, but they were separable features belonging to separable tendencies and trends which traversed a wide variety of genres and cycles in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood. [i]
What is film noir? Steve Neale (above) argues it is not a film genre. Essentially, he maintains that it is a discursive critical construction. Yet today, film and television producers and advertisers assume that its core qualities are self-evident as they attempt to exploit its appeal as a marketing strategy for their products, both narrative and non-narrative. It is assumed that the general public now shares the conventional perception of noir. They see it as emanating from those 1940s Hollywood melodramas that deployed, even intermittently, high contrast chiaroscuro lighting that projected deep shadows accompanied by unstable camera set ups that thematically envelope, or trap, the actors within the frame. This visual imagery was often accompanied by a bleak view of American society, especially in the immediate postwar period, that challenged the Hollywood happy ending. This perception of noir developed for more than forty years. Scholars and film buffs such as Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward promoted the idea, arguing that not only did a “noir cycle” exist, but it was a “self contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form. In short, it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.”[ii] Silver, with James Ursini, summarised the view of many when they claimed that if “observers of film noir agree on anything, it is on the boundaries of the classic period which begins in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ends less than a score of years later with Touch of Evil.”[iii]
Andrew Dickos shares Silver’s position, not Steve Neale’s. Dickos ends his book by dismissing the complexities of discussing film noir raised by James Naremore in his excellent study, More Than Night. Film Noir In Its Contexts,[iv] by concluding that in conceptualising “classic film noir” “one may almost be forgiven for forgetting that to recognize the film noir as, above all else, a screen genre.”[v] Naremore’s nuanced study, on the other hand, points to the inherent paradox involved in any study by noting that “film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past.”[vi]
Dickos, in his 2021 ‘updated edition’ of his 2002 book Street With No Name, rejects suggestions that film noir is a movement, a cycle, a visual style, a tone, or a mood. It is, he asserts, a genre. Yet this is difficult to verify for, unlike the classic Hollywood genres such as the western or the musical or gangster film, “film noir” as a description of a type of Hollywood film is never mentioned in-studio documents as the term was unknown in the United States until, at least, the mid-1950s. In fact, it was nearly another two decades before it was commonly used. The lack of the term can be verified by a perusal of 1940s Hollywood trade magazines that now routinely label these movies as film noir. The films were described as “private detective melodrama in the hard-boiled manner” (Out of the Past), or “blood-and-thunder melodrama with psychological overtones” (This Gun for Hire) or“mystery melodrama with a psychological twist”(My Name is Julia Ross).[vii] But never “film noir.”
Dickos, to his credit, points to the shifts in the application of the term when he notes that “film noir” has mutated into categories such as “teen noir” and “femme noir” along with generic hybrids such as “western noir,” “horror noir” and “tech-noir.” [viii] He also points to the continuing popularity and influence of the “classic American Film Noir” on other film cultures, including Scandinavia, Japan, Latin American, and South Korea.”[ix]
In Street With No Name, Dickos argues that “film noir [is) … a body of work conforming to generic standards.”[x] To support this view, he points to the “stylistic distinctiveness that transformed the conventions of the crime and private eye dramas into those peculiar to the noir.”[xi] The ramifications of this, according to Dickos, was a “technique that finally transformed a style into a new narrative expression.”[xii] Its “distinctive visual style” reached its apotheosis, Dickos argues, in the hands of “notable noir filmmakers, usually in collaboration with their cameraman.”[xiii] In this regard, he cites Otto Preminger and Joseph La Shelle, Anthony Mann and John Alton, Robert Siodmak and Woody Bredell, and Robert Aldrich and Joseph Biroc. In many ways, this highlights Dickos’s real interest throughout the book on the celebration of selected “auteurs” and the development of particular themes. To provide a conceptual framework for this idea, he consistently argues that film noir constituted a “genre status,”[xiv] characterised by a range of “structural elements of noir narrative.”[xv] These elements are:[xvi]
- an urban setting or at least an urban influence.
- a modern, twentieth-century setting.
- a lack of comic structure (the notable exception according to Dickos is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity).
- a denial by its main characters of conventional social and domestic happiness through unattainability or refusal.
- an assertion of individuality as defined by the killing of someone in defiance of modern social mores and law.
- the iconic representation of the features mentioned above by a definitive star of the screen or through a striking performance by a less recognized screen star or actor.
Dickos then proceeds to compile a list of “conventions of the film noir [that are] ensconced in its narrative structure, which make it distinctive yet are not exclusive to the noir.”[xvii]
- the femme fatale or her counterpart, the homme fatal.
- active/sexual and passive/nonsexual characters.
- the use of voice-over narration and the flashback – usually from the male point of view.
- frequent use of portraits.
- temporary amnesia, plus nightmares or daydreams.
- cars as indispensable devices of escape.
- apartments or bungalows.
- art and its collection suggesting corruption, effeteness, and a European sensibility.
- the inclusion of nightclubs and lounges, neon signs, cigarette lighters, trench coats, hotel rooms, both cheap and elegant, pool halls, boxing rings, gyms, guns, and smart fashion.
This attempt at generic taxonomy is brave on Dickos’s part as such attempts, even with more clearly defined genres such as the western, are always subject to contradictions and film outriders that its precise boundaries. Hence, it is relatively easy to cite films generally classified as noir that evade most of these attributes. For example, My Name is Julia Ross (1945) or Ivy (1947) or So Evil My Love (1948), the last two films set in 19th Century England.
Dickos hints at a more sophisticated approach in his preface to the updated edition when he refers to film noir as “Melodrama narratives … cast in a noir haze.”[xix] This notion is intriguing, and it is a pity that the “updated edition” never explores this idea. The main reason for this lapse is that the 2021 “updated edition” is the same book published in 2002. The only change is a two-page (new) preface replacing the seven-page preface in the 2002 edition. In fact, the 2002 book provides better value as the hardcover edition is printed of high-quality paper which showcases the excellent selection of images in a much better way than the 2021 edition.
The rest is this review is, by necessity, a review of the 2002 book – as nothing has changed. At least the publishers should have taken the trouble to disguise this a little better. For example, the index to the 2021 edition notes that Double Indemnity is supposedly mentioned on pages xiii and xiv. The trouble is that there are no pages xiii and xiv in the new edition – only in the 2002 edition. If one compares the 2021 edition with the 2002 edition, it reveals that both editions are identical – the text is exactly the same, and the images are the same.
Some brief comments on the 2002/2021 books. Dickos’s study, while not a comprehensive history of film noir, includes a valuable discussion of German Expressionism in the period from 1919 to 1933, along with trends in French Cinema in the 1930s. He sees these film cultures providing the genesis of what became known as “classic American film noir” a decade later. However, even here, one suspects that Dickos is more interested in celebrating the virtues of selected European “auteurs” than providing a comprehensive outline of the precursors of American film noir. For example, the section on “German Expressionism and the roots of Film Noir” gives Dickos a licence to trace selected German and Hollywood films directed by Fritz Lang. But there is a notable and strange omission. While Dickos mentions Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La Bête Humaine in his section on French cinema in the 1930s, he fails to extend this by discussing the Hollywood remake sixteen years later of Renoir’s film, titled Human Desire. – Even though it was directed by Fritz Lang, who is one of the directors singled out for comprehensive discussion of both his German films and his Hollywood films. And despite the fact that Human Desire featured two actors – Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place) and Glenn Ford (Gilda) – often considered as iconic noir actors. This omission is a pity as the basic plot of Human Desire is archetypal noir – a sensual woman (Gloria Grahame) attempts to seduce a seemingly naive train driver Glenn Ford to murder her abusive husband, played by Broderick Crawford. What makes this film especially interesting is the battle between the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, and Lang over the presentation of the femme fatale. Cohn wanted a familiar, stereotypical image of the fatal woman who sexually manipulates a gullible male into committing murder. The commercial advantages of this association between sex and murder were self-evident to Cohn. However, Lang, and screenwriter Alfred Hayes, resisted this simplistic presentation. They proceeded to show a mature, complex presentation of this stereotypically familiar character by transforming her into both seductress and victim. She is a sensual woman who is also a victim of physical abuse from her husband and sexual abuse as a teenager. Along the way, Lang and Hayes also emasculated the seemingly attractive male victim (Ford) by presenting him as vacuous, cold, and lecherous.
A valuable aspect of Dickos’s book is his acknowledgment of the important contribution by Cornell Woolrich in considerations of film noir and, specifically, the shifts in the Hollywood crime melodrama in the 1940s. Although Dickos groups Woolrich with more traditional writers of hard-boiled fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Woolrich was not interested in police detectives, private eyes, or continuing characters. Instead, his focus was on traumatised victims, not hard-boiled heroes. In his two dozen-plus novels and more than 200 short stories and novelettes, Woolrich’s protagonists were mostly ordinary people trapped in a hostile universe, a world ruled by chance and fate. His stories, as Frank Krutnik notes, were characterised by “tortuously passages of masochistic delirium.”[xx] Dickos captures this facet of Woolrich’s fiction when he writes:
Cornell Woolrich wrote of people caught in circumstances, arbitrary and destabilizing, that provoked fear, often terror, and the feeling of utter helplessnes in the face of it. No writer describes this interior world more vividly than he, and the psychology of Woolrich’s characters, often facile in itself, is complicated by the subtle modulations of impending dread, of that sinking feeling that always anticipates doom.[xxi]
However, Dickos ends his impressive overview of Woolrich’s fiction by cursorily lumping together more than fifteen film adaptations with an inaccurate comment that they were “compellingly transcribed”[xxii] to the screen. Unfortunately, the Hollywood adaptations of The Black Curtain, renamed Street of Chance by Paramount, Phantom Lady, Black Alibi, renamed The Leopard Man by RKO, Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, renamed The Chase, “And So to Death,” also known as “Nightmare,” which was filmed as Fear in the Night, “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” and I Married a Dead Man, filmed as No Man of Her Own by Paramount, were generally emasculated by Hollywood screenwriters and producers. They often imposed a moral closure to stories that refused to endorse a sense of justice in an arbitrary world.[xxiii]
The other omission in Dickos’s study, which weakens the book’s claim to be a “History of Classic American Film Noir,” is the treatment of Double Indemnity. While the film is mentioned intermittently throughout the book, mostly in connection with “Barbara Stanwyck’s signature role as Phyllis Dietrichson”[xxiv] and its use of voice-over narration and flashbacks, the film played a significant part in convincing the major studios that it was financially viable to embark on the production of big-budget crime melodramas featuring morally flawed protagonists. For example, James M.Cain’s novella Double Indemnity was published in 1936, and his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934. Although MGM purchased the rights to The Postman Always Rings Twice in March 1934 for $25,000, Hollywood censor Joseph Breen warned the studio not to go ahead with an adaptation. Similarly, following the publication of Double Indemnity in Liberty magazine, interest in the screen rights were expressed by MGM, Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, and Columbia. Again, Breen opposed any adaptation. However, after Paramount executive Joseph Sistrom purchased the rights for $15,000, the studio submitted a treatment to Breen, who rejected it.
Nevertheless, Billy Wilder persisted, especially after Raymond Chandler was hired to assist him to develop a screenplay from Cain’s story. The critical and commercial success of the film was a landmark moment in the history of Hollywood cinema. The film marked a major challenge to censorship practices at that time as the 1930 Production Code stipulated that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.” Wilder and Chandler changed that. Double Indemnity’s critical and commercial success resulted in a veritable flood of submissions to Breen’s office for similar films – including one from the most conservative major studio, MGM, to finally adapt The Postman Always Rings Twice. Fred Stanley, writing in The New York Times in 1944 after the release of Double Indemnity, highlighted the importance of the film in initiating a dark, “red meat” cycle involving “certain types of storied sordidness and ultra-sophistication.”[xxv]
Dr. Geoff Mayer is a former Head of School, La Trobe University and Chair of the Cinema Studies Department and the author of Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland, 2021).
[i] Steve Neale, Genres and Hollywood (London, Routledge, 2000), 173-174.
[ii] Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds.), Film Noir. An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style New York, The Overlook Press, 1992) 1.
[iii] Alain Silver and James Ursini, “Introduction,” in Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader (New York, Limelight Editions, 1996) 11.
[iv] James Naremore, More Than Night. Film Noir In Its Contexts (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998).
[v] Andrew Dickos, Street With No Name. A History of the Classic American Film Noir (Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky, 2021), 282.
[vi] Naremore, 11.
[vii] See Steve Neale, ‘Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term “Melodrama” in the American Trade Press, the velvet light trap, Number 32, Fall 1993, note 28, page 78.
[viii] Dickos, x
[x] Dickos, 4.
[xi] Ibid., 5.
[xiii] Ibid., 6.
[xvi] See Ibid., 6 -7.
[xvii] Ibid., 7.
[xviii] See Ibid., 7-8.
[xix] Ibid., x.
[xx] Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street. Film noir, genre, masculinity (London, Routledge, 1991) 41.
[xxi] Dickos, 99.
[xxii] Ibid., 103.
[xxiii] See Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland, 2021) 228-243.
[xxiv] Ibid., 157.
[xxv] Quoted in Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout. World War 11 and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) 97.