Alain Silver’s “Introduction” to his own Film Noir Reader (2005) is a good place to start for general inquiry of film noir. He starts interestingly enough, not with a definition of film noir (which would seem appropriate given that this is the first volume in a series) but admitting that there is certainly no concurrence when it comes to film noir. He explains that it is curious how a subject that is overflowing with critical opinion and countless pages devoted to theories, explanation, and illumination is on such unsteady ground. Unlike other established genres, audiences did not know they were watching film noir and perhaps more importantly, neither did the directors. Throughout the introduction Silver is in a constant state of questioning, along with colleagues, about the state and nature of film noir. His conclusion admits the difficulty of film noir and puts the burden on the reader. Use the text to conjure one’s own definition.
Instead of trying to answer the questions himself, his goal, and seemingly the goal of Film Noir Reader, is to facilitate discussion about film noir by allowing noir scholars, past and present, to voice their opinions without the constraints and confines of temporal difficulty. Silver’s working assumption seems to be that “whatever one calls it – series, style, genre, movement, school, cycle – none of the seminal essayists on film noir have contradicted…that the existence of a noir series is obvious,” (2005).
One of the key essayists Silver refers to is Paul Schrader and his landmark work, Notes on Film Noir (1972). Schrader is adamant that film noir is not a genre. His reasoning here is interesting. Typical, more conventional genres are characterized by character and conflict whereas film noir is characterized by its tone and mood. It seems that the content required for a film to be considered noir is too subjective in order to be concretely defined. Schrader’s goal with Notes on Film Noir is to “reduce film noir to its primary colors (all shades of black), those cultural and stylistic elements to which any definition must return,” (Siliver, Ursini, 54).
Schrader lists four cultural elements: war and post-war disillusionment, post-war realism, the German influence, and the hard-boiled tradition. The first three elements are not applicable to this work because they are elements that exist outside of the filmmaking process and thus, not relevant. The final point is relevant because it relates to a theme that is pervasive throughout the film noir tradition. Schrader sums up the hard-boiled tradition in this manner. “The hard-boiled hero was, in reality, a soft egg compared to his existential counterpart…” (1972). This seems to be an area where Schrader contradicts himself. Although, he has listed this element under the cultural heading (for reasons relating to particular fiction authors at the time, Hemingway, Cain, Hammet) it could be argued that this element also has a place under the stylistic heading. But, for whatever reason, Schrader has positioned it here, and it is consistent with the noir canon. The characters of Sam Spade, Joe Gillis, and, as I will explicate later; the male hard-boiled heroes of Sin City exemplify the hard-boiled tradition.
Moving to Schrader’s stylistic elements, he lists seven and I will briefly summarize them here. The importance of these will be shown in discourse specifically geared toward Sin City.
1) The scenes are lit for night. 2) Oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal. 3) The actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis. 4) Compositional tension is preferred to physical action. 5) There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. 6) There is a love of romantic narration. 7) A complex chronological order is frequently used to reinforce the feeling of hopelessness and lost time (1972).
I agree with Schrader that most of these elements are stylistic in nature. However, there are some that may seem stylistic on the surface, but they do lend themselves to setting up a slightly different narrative than if they were not used. Specifically, I am referring to elements four and six: compositional tension is favored over physical action and romantic narration. A compositional tension lends itself more to a psychological narrative. Instead of the conflict existing in the grimy, dirty, physical world, it lives in the infinitely more complex world of the mind. In the physical world, there seems to be a natural flow to the plot. A character commits an action and consequences ensue. The world is more structured, lending itself to a world where logical, almost mathematical progression occurs. In the world of the psychological, issues are not as clean-cut. A specific action does not necessarily lead to a specific consequence. A does not always lead to B. It can lead to C, D, or even E. There are more shades of grey. The answer or solution to a given situation is subjective rather than objective. The love of romantic narration only emphasizes this effect because the protagonist has an inner voice. It is this inner voice that audibly manifests the compositional narrative. The audience is made aware of the protagonist’s thought process. How does he come to his ultimate decision? Where do his allegiances lie? How does he weigh the positive and the negative of a given situation? What is his rationale?
Schrader’s main point seems to be that the style of film noirs ultimately makes them “better” films than others. According to Schrader’s logic this would make sense. Film noir is only highly stylized reworking of already-existing genres, the gangster genre, perhaps. While I applaud Schrader for his efficient explication of some of the most common noir elements, it is these elements that in the end produce a different genre.
Frank Krutnik’s chapter, “Genre and the problem of film noir” in In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, and Masculinity (1991), specifically tackles the controversy of film noir. He deals specifically with the problem of the label of genre to describe film noir. “Furthermore, the definition of film noir as a genre is often seen as problematic because of its association with 1940s Hollywood – genres tend to cross periods rather than be bounded by them,” (1991). Krutnik explains that a resurgence of film noir films reinforces the view that it is indeed a genre because resurgence signifies a liberation of film noir from the incarceration of forties and fifties Hollywood.
Critics, like Schrader, have often wondered “how many noir elements does it take to make film noir noir?” (1972) Krutnik answers this question:
It is doubtful that one could convincingly show that noir is actually characterized by a unified body of stylistics – rather, it seems to be the case that what is referred to as the ‘noir style’ tends to be a more disparate series of stylistic markings which can be seen as noir when they occur in conjunction with sets of narrative and thematic conventions and narrational processes (1991).
More simply, what Krutnik explains here is that noir cannot be found in a single instance of a noir style element. There needs to exist synthesis. Style elements must be combined with narrative and thematic ingredients. Just as scholars have likened genre to the biological practice of taxonomy (the scientific practice of classification), so too do I liken film noir classification to cooking. The mere presence of crust does not necessarily denote pie, or even tart. Let us take the example of peach cobbler. In a cobbler, the crust sits on top of the syrupy peach filling and the crust is usually richer and sweeter than a typical pie crust. Film noir must combine certain explicit elements (not even wholly specific to film noir). It is clearly not a question of quantity. If that were the case, a simple quantitative study could determine the status of film noir. It is in this context that I will suggest a modification of Schrader’s question into two. What elements are used? How are these elements combined?
Citing another problem in the film noir debate, Krutnik explains how Hollywood regulations could have possibly created film noir, unintentionally. Economic constraints did not allow such big budget productions during and after wartime. Krutnik cites one aspect of film production. Normal budgets for set construction ranged from seventeen thousand dollars for B-films and fifty thousand dollars for A-films. Under the new economic constraints set by the War Production Board, only five thousand dollars was allowed for set construction.
These restrictions exacerbated the already existing trend towards fewer releases, and they also forced the studios to compensate with alternative production values in order to maintain quality standards. Thus for both ‘A’ and ‘B’ films, the studios deliberately encouraged their staff to experiment with new techniques which could be achieved by means of fixed equipment (1991).
Grand implications go along with these restrictions. The restrictions allowed the B-filmmakers to make films on-par with the A-films. It allowed them greater exposure in the Hollywood community, not just among colleagues in the field but also, and perhaps more importantly, the critics. Critical acclaim can lead to acclaim within the field, fostering movement up the filmmaker food chain. It would seem to make logical sense for the small-budget films. Those films cannot rely on big names and big studios to account for big box office numbers. It seems the only way to distance one’s self is to do things differently: on a stylistic scale. It is for this reason that many critics look to the B-films of the early twentieth century for early indications of film noir.
Finally, Krutnik deals with the difficulty of trying to pigeon-hole film noir within the stylized versions of better established genres (i.e. the crime genre). Krutnik explains,
The trouble with this approach is that the generic boundaries of the crime film are themselves difficult to determine – Spencer Selby notes that the category ‘crime film’ can be seen to encompass ‘various and often overlapping generic headings of crime film, gangster film, mystery, suspense thriller and psychological melodrama (1991).
The problem Krutnik sees is that signaling that film noir is merely an altering of a previous genre causes problems because those genres that noir seems to be tied to, do not have a solid boundary of temporal conditions. Crime and gangster films can be seen working their way into the nineties with example such as Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) and L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997). Where does film noir fit into these films? Surely the reason these are not considered for classification isn’t due to their temporal location.
It seems that Krutnik’s contentions with film noir theory are positioned around temporal arguments. I agree that part of the fascination with the topic of film noir may hinge on that the classic period of the genre had such a definite time period. Critics seem to generally agree on those films that bookend the beginning and end of the classical film noir period (usually The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)). But it seems silly to believe that a genre steeped in a highly stylized visual aesthetic could not exist outside of those classic boundaries.
Finally, genre critic, Steve Neale voices his opinion. His book Genre and Hollywood (2000) is seemingly an exhaustive text on genre theory. It also serves as a perfect example of what happens when critics attempt discourse on film noir. There is a single chapter devoted to the explication of classic Hollywood genres. However, immediately following this chapter, Neale devotes an entire section of his work to the explication of film noir. This only confirms the suspicion that there certainly exists an intense obsession with this topic. What most critics seem to be unable to answer is the inability of critics to come to a consensus.
The result has been considerable disagreement about the basic criteria, about the overall contours of the larger noir canon, and about some of the antecedents, roots and causes of noir. Most important of all, noir critics have been unable to define film noir, even though there is considerable agreement as to the films that constitute noir’s basic canon. This is odd. With a small corpus of films, the identification of a set of basic characteristics – and hence basic criteria – should be more straightforward (2000).
Neale feels the same frustration that has haunted noir critics for decades. Nobody knows what to do with film noir. One constant throughout the film noir theorists is the explanation of some of the basic threads of film noir. Neale is no different as he provides a list of noir elements just as Schrader had almost thirty years ago. To put Neale’s work in perspective, he maintains a very negative view on the topic of film noir. “As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view never existed,” (2000). However, his reason for this conclusion seems unsteady and rife with backwards logic. Because there is no consensus as to the status of film noir, Neale believes that noir cannot have existed. Anything with so much controversy cannot have existed. This brings me to my biggest criticism of the genre and film noir theorists. If film noir is not a genre, or in Neale’s case never existed, why devote so much time, space, words, and pages to a discussion of a topic that isn’t real.