This summer, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a free, online summer school course on the history and themes of film noir. Your film editor is taking it, because why on earth wouldn’t I, and I encourage you to do the same, so we can meet and discuss every other week. (If you haven’t enrolled yet, it’s not too late.)
In the comments section of our last study group, there was a bit of discussion about definitions — what, exactly, is a film noir? And since we had trouble getting our arms around that definition, I was somewhat relieved that our esteemed instructor informed us, in week two, that it’s a tricky bit of business indeed. “This is a film term that literally has ‘no bottom,’” according to Professor Edwards. “No one has yet gotten to, nor is anyone likely ever going to get to, the bottom of the mystery of film noir.” So that’s a relief! And yet, in week two, we batted around some rough parameters, with some success.
In fact, the commenter’s definition wasn’t that far removed from Eddie Muller’s contention that “the emphasis on a single character’s descent into obsession, and often oblivion, is a hallmark of this type of film.” Further, he points out, “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy, and revenge — which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul-crushing despair, and a few last gasping breaths in a rain-soaked gutter.” But Muller also notes, “I’ll be damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express,” and ultimately arrives at the conclusion that much of the appeal of noir is rooted in style and cool. (We’ll get back to that.)
In his video lecture, Edwards gets into the weeds a bit, and raises an important issue about noir, albeit one that I’d never heard articulated quite so clearly: “There is no general agreement as to what are the common elements that define these films because it depends on whether you consider film noir a genre, a style or a movement or cycle of films.” And he’s right — there’s no consensus, even among film buffs, and you’ll hear it loosely applied all over the damn place. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve always thought of it as a style, but I also like Edwards’ proposition: “What if film noir is actually a combination of all three of these ideas? What if noir was a style that flourished in a particular type of crime film and operated along the lines of a film movement.” That seems to cover all the bases pretty nicely.
But maybe it’s none of those things — maybe it’s something more transient than that, less a label than a worldview. These films and filmmakers made statements, Edwards contends, “statements that tell us something about how these artists viewed the world they were living in, and judging by the films they left us, it was a vertiginous world always seemingly on the brink of a fateful and calamitous conclusion.” To this end, the Deadline at Dawn quote in the module seems particularly appropriate: “The logic you’re looking for… the logic is that there is no logic. The horror and terror you feel, my dear, comes from being alive. Die and there is no trouble. Live and you’ll struggle.” And as I weigh the hopelessness of Detour or the downright nihilism of Kiss Me Deadly, I realize that maybe that’s what noir is — not a style or a genre or a movement, but something as simple as an attitude.
Also noteworthy, in both week two and week three, is the value of context. No film, and no film movement or style or genre, exists in a vacuum, so the numbers that opened the week two lecture are key to understanding the mere productivity that resulted in these films (and good gravy, what if that many people still went to the movies? Maybe the teenage boy demo wouldn’t hold quite so much sway). And this week’s investigation of cinematic, artistic, literary, and musical influences was especially fascinating — particularly the less frequently pinpointed but equally important influence of Hollywood itself (via Universal horror, Warner Brothers gangster movies, and other box set-friendly classifications). In some ways, though, the survey of such wide-ranging influences is depressing — inasmuch as it reminds me that as bad as I feel about not having time to watch as many films noir as I’d like, I’m even less likely to make it to all the Chandler novels and Hammett stories I’d love to read.
A few stray observations from our Daily Doses:
- The inclusion of not just the opening scenes but the opening credits of Ministry of Fear and Border Incident serve as a nice reminder that everything, even the roll call of names, can help set the table (stylistically speaking) for a movie. Plus, that shaft of light from the open doorway cutting across the room in Ministry of Fear, holy cow, A+.
- As promised, it’s fun to chase down the noir influences in other genres, and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen Mildred Pierce, but boy do I want to now — that Veda’s got the cold heart and tough mouth of a true femme fatale.
- I know the fast pace is par for the course (literally, ha ha ha… ha…), but it’s fun just to listen to people talk in some of these, particularly Mildred and Murder, My Sweet.
- Between Rita Hayworth killing it in Gilda and that sexy, loaded interaction between Bogie and Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep, week three was apparently hubba-hubba week over at TCM HQ.
- I like how the text for the Killers clip runs down all the influences before carefully noting, “Siodmak’s rich and evocative directorial vision is more than just a collection of influences. The Killers is an essential film noir that reveals the full range of the style’s expressive potential in 1946.” The notion of playing cinematic connect-the-dots, without acknowledging the skill that’s placing them, is also occasionally used by detractors of Quentin Tarantino, but he too goes beyond mere homage — and, in a fun bit of circularity, it should be noted that The Killers (in both this and its 1964, Don Siegel-directed iteration) was an influence on Pulp Fiction’s story of two cool-as-a-cucumber hit men.
OK, your turn. Hit me in the comments with your own observations, the TCM movies you’ve particularly enjoyed, and your theories on the whole style/genre/movement question. Oh, and um, how’re you doing on those quizzes?