The Problem Of Film Noir

"Film Noir" is a french label on an american film phenomenon. In postwar France they got the opportunity to watch a large amount of american movies made in the forties, at the same time, and thus it became easier for them to discover similarities among these pictures. The french noticed the divergence between this film load and prewar american movies and the connection between these films and the literature called roman noir. This was dark literature, and film noir means black film. The knowledge of this term did not get to be used in the production or among the contemporary american spectators, in fact only french critics used the term in their work until the era of noir was over. Film noir is now a more familiar term and its use is widespread, but still there are ongoing debates concerning its status. Both film critics and historians participate in the discussion on the definition of this film category, and I will give a presentation of various views on the subject.

There are some critics that view film noir as a genre; thus it will rely upon a system of well defined conventions and expectations like other genre defined movies; for instance the Western or the musical. If film noir is referred to as a genre, like Higham and Greeenberg and Paul Kerr do, there is a number of problems that arises. First, genres tend to cross periods instead of being bounded by them and the film noir is generally very closely connected with the 1940s Hollywood. This particular criticism of noir as a genre relies upon whether one regards the more recent films as a continuation of the noir tradition or not. Obviously I do not. Furthermore film noir tends to cross traditional genre boundaries; there are both noir westerns, gangster films and comedies to mention some. The fact that the term film noir was not familiar to the film industry and audience of the 40s and 50s does not necessarily work as an argument against the genre definition of noir, because it is possible to argue that the defining characters of the noir constituted a set of conventions and expectations. Still, apparently the makers of noir did not deliberately set out to actually make noirs. A critique against regarding film noir as a genre is that it will not include all the films that have been seen as noirs. But this may also be a reflection of problems within the methodology of film criticism.

Other critics, like Durgnat and Schrader, avoid these problems by viewing film noir not as a genre, but by emphasizing the stylistic elements. Here, tone and mood are given considerable weight. With this focus on visual style one also runs into problems. This `noir styleŽ is actually not what it seems. Instead of being subversive of the traditional or classical norms of Hollywood style film making, as many critics values it to be, the noir style was a part of the systemization of Hollywood's narrational regulation during the 1940s.

Film noir has also been regarded as a series. In this case the noir is seen as a cycle, and viewed as an aesthetic movement. Here the cycle has been seen as lying within the boundaries of the crime film, but this creates a problem since these borders themselves are difficult to determine.

All of these different views on film noir try to define and capture the essence of noir, and still I find that none of these are sufficient. But at the same time every one of them touches something important or essential about this film term. Maybe it would be best to simply state that all of the above describe some aspects of what one can call the film noir phenomenon. A film phenomenon with both generic, stylistic and cyclic parts.