What Is Film Noir?
by William Park - published by Bucknell University Press, 2011
A Book Review by Father John McCloskey
Tired of exposure to lousy movies full of sex, violence, ear-blasting noise and floods of gratuitous special effects, forty-something actors who look (and act) like teenagers, and repeating predictable story lines? Why not turn to William Park's definitive book What Is Film Noir? (Bucknell University Press 2011) for a reminder of what artful and truly adult entertainment films can provide.
In the early seventies I had the good fortune to take a two-semester film course with the noted film critic Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, who was renowned as the American exponent of the auteur school of film criticism that holds that cinema is an art form appropriately wielded by the director. There I had my first systematic exposure to a class of films crafted by directors using a recognizable style and reflecting a recognizable atmosphere and ethos. This class of films is the subject of Park's book.
William Park, a retired chaired professor from Sarah Lawrence College with degrees In English Literature from Princeton and Columbia, has written on a wide variety of subjects, including English and American poetry, rococo art—and cinema criticism. The topic of film noir offers Park an abundance of material, since over the last 50 years much has been written about its impact on cinema, its relationship to literature, and (most important from my point of view) its relationship to American culture.
Park himself lays it out nicely:
What Is Film Noir? clears up the confusion about the nature of film noir, between those who see it as any crime film of the 40s and 50s and those who deny its existence altogether. Much of this confusion about this category arises because film noir is the only Hollywood genre which is both a style and a period style. This book corrects several common misconceptions: that film noir was an afterthought; that Hollywood was not conscious of what it was creating; and that film noir is too amorphous to be a genre. However, just because Hollywood did not adopt the name until the 1970s does not mean that it was unaware. On the contrary, all the evidence, including parodies, indicates the opposite. The genre consists of a fallible protagonist, a crime, an investigation, and a contemporary setting. In literature, such a combination is nothing new, and film history reveals early examples, notably in the work of Hitchcock and Lang. But it did not become a type, that is, a group of recognizably similar films, until the early 40s. Its production declined in the 60s, but the 70s and the elimination of the Production Code gave it new life, immediately recognized by critics as "neo-noir." Components of the style existed in the silent era, notably in the German films of the 20s, but Orson Welles brought them together in Citizen Kane (1941). Its combination of chiaroscuro, depth of focus, oblique camera angles, a disjointed and fragmented narrative, all supporting an appropriately gloomy worldview, initiated the style. It suited the new genre of film noir perfectly and was used in hundreds of crime films throughout the 40s and 50s. Thus, popular usage of the term film noir as any urban crime film of the era is understandable if not entirely accurate. The style of film noir, its gloomy outlook, its narrative conventions, may be seen and felt in all of Hollywood's genres from the 40s well into the 50s. As such it was the dominant or period style of World War II and the immediate post-war decade, primarily but not exclusively in Hollywood." Park's book is not simply an introduction to noir. In many ways it is the definitive encyclopedia of the genre. Park clearly views film noir as an art and perhaps one of those easiest to identify, classify, and enjoy, because it deals with human frailty and normally—although not always—with redemption and some type of justice.
Park quotes the renowned film critic Roger Ebert's description of film noir as "a movie where an ordinary guy indulges the weak side of his character, and hell opens beneath his feet."
Park then explains how a subject, a locale, and a character can define film noir. Its subject is crime—almost always a murder, but sometimes a theft; its locale is the contemporary world, usually the city at night. Its character is a fallible or tarnished man or woman. From these givens, from the situation, an investigation almost always ensues which further involves the protagonist as it unravels the web of misadventures.
As for the protagonist, Park points out that he is often a cop, though he may also be a private eye, reporter, relative, or even an amnesiac. In fact, part of the attraction of noir is the very ordinariness of the people portrayed, whether victims, perpetrators, or pursuers of the criminals. Anyone can identify with one or more them—as sinners, do-gooders or simply victims of circumstance.
Park includes a list of all the professions of the various protagonists and the actors who portray them; virtually all the actors are immediately recognizable as top performers in much more lavish cinematic entertainments of their time.
There are sections of the book that develop what Park identifies as "Gothic Women's films and psychological melodrama," with protagonists such as Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, and the queen of this subgenre, Joan Crawford. Perhaps the most familiar of these movies to the reader would be Sunset Boulevard.
Park dedicates a special section to perhaps the very best director ever (dissenters are welcome to try to argue their case), Alfred Hitchcock. Park describes Vertigo as "not only Hitchcock's most profound work; it is also the consummate film noir. It lacks one ingredient, namely black and white photography. In every other aspect of genre and style it is super abundant."
Perhaps for most cineastes, nothing identifies film noir as immediately as the photography. Park mentions many of the classic elements: high contrast (that is, shadows), areas of darkness opposed to more lighted areas, key lighting (that is, a point of light on one subject or face), slats of light (the Venetian blind effect), night scenes, wide-angle photography, depth of focus, hallucinatory dissolves, dream montages, strange camera angles, flashbacks, voiceovers, etc.
Of course many of these techniques are still in use today.
There are other genres within the greater category of film noir—social problem films, rogue cop films, etc.—but I will let you investigate all this for yourself, as Park's book includes lots of lists likely to help you acquire a healthy addiction to the style and genre of film noir. Once this addiction is acquired, Netflix can help feed it at a modest price, since it offers literally dozens of these black and white films that are generally more realistic, better produced, more entertaining, better scripted, better acted, and more suspenseful than 90 percent of what comes out of Hollywood today.
Some of our most outstanding directors and actors did their best work in noir. This book will keep you busy for many years of intriguing and healthy adult (in the true sense) entertainment. In film noir, the morals are biblical, and so are the respective judgments meted out for the guilty and the innocent.
These films also open up the viewer to a low, grimy, and curiously appealing view of American life in its seamier sectors from 1942 up to 1958. If you are a male, you may be inspired to go out and buy a fedora.
First appeared in Chronicles of Culture Magazine in the July 2012 issue.