Film Noir: The Troubles with Genre-fication

Oh hey there internet. So, we’ve known each other for a while (what’s that? It’ll be five months on May 22? That’s sweet of you to keep track), and I thought it’s finally time for me to tell you about one of my favorite things and one of the major reasons I put this blog together and well…wanted to meet you. At this point you may already know that I like film noir and you may have noticed that several of the movies on my front page are noirs (Chinatown (1978), Blade Runner (1982), Brick (2005). Technically all of these are neo-noirs). But you might not know that I, you know, like-like film noir. Of all the genres out there, this is my favorite, even more than post-apocalyptic-cyber/steam-punk-robot/priest/vampire movies (which are a close second). Maybe it’s because I want to be that quiet, tough guy in the corner and have that charming silentness (instead I shout my feelings on this site). Anyway, I want to talk with you about my friend Film Noir. He’s pretty great, so great that I will need a few posts to really explain all of his charm and intricacies. First, I’ll deliver a few introductory posts (starting right now) and then start reviewing some of my favorites.


Monet's lilies. Notice all the....paint and...colors. Okay movies are my thing, not paintings.

Monet’s lilies. Notice all the….colors and…paint. Okay movies are my thing, not paintings.

Defining genres in art tends to be an entertaining and self-indulging process. Analyzing our favorite works and breaking down their components is part of the joy for many avid fans and arguing about the breakdowns help foster debate and discussions about the works. The brush strokes on Monet’s lilies and harsh angles of Picasso’s cubes are integral to the aesthetic effects and retrospectively allow us to place these works in the correct wing of the museum. Categorizing film proves a more difficult task for many reasons. An obvious first reason is the relative youth of the medium. When sifting through centuries of paintings it is a simpler (yet still controversial) task to draw a line and say “and here begin the Impressionists” and later “these are the Cubists.” It’s why I can go to a museum with a friend and tell her I’ll be in the Renaissance area and know I can find her on the Impressionist floor (and if we want to hide we’ll be in the Modernist area where neither of us would expect to find the other). But with film it’s a different story. Even the oldest genres are young, and the techniques and plot developments that make each genre unique are borrowed, shared and developed from film to film. Thinking about film noir, we’ve gone from German Expressionism to Film Noir to Neo-Noir in the span of some people’s lives.

While sculptures and paintings illustrate a moment in time (I know this isn’t entirely true and is unfairly simplistic), film allows for more progression and development (well, it should anyway, and an absence of progression is one of the main reasons we chastise a bad film). In this way the comparison to literature is much more obvious and natural. The plot of any film, like any literary work, allows for some degree of genre-fication. Add a cowboy and a stagecoach and boom you’ve got a Western. Make the cowboy a cop and the stagecoach a 1968 Mustang and you’ve got a cop movie. But what happens when the cop dies and comes back as an android (as in Robocop)? Is that still a cop movie, or is it Sci-Fi? And what if the Cowboy happens to fight Aliens (Cowboys and Aliens). And really all these movies are action movies at their core. How much comedy do you need to make a dramedy, and how much romance for a rom-com? Either way none of this really matters. Unless you want to, let’s say, make a blog series about your favorite film genre.

Which is exactly what this post sets out to accomplish. The poison I’ve picked is Film Noir, both an amalgamation of older influences and an ingredient in new genre recipes. Ironically, film noir is not classically thought of as its own genre of film, but rather a collection of styles and motifs. Films collected under the noir umbrella hail from multiple “classical” genres but are traditionally associated with the detective stories of the post-World War II era, this being the so-called Golden Era of Film Noir, a moniker obviously assigned retrospectively. Here we find films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Killers (1956) and others. Curiously, the overarching similarity among these films is their classification as film noirs. The individual variation is striking, ultimately making such a classification an act of self-indulgence. We do it because we love movies, love talking about them, love analyzing them, and love remembering them.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)

Like many movements in artistic media, film noir sprouted from the technical developments of its predecessors watered by the contemporary cultural shifts of the time. As a style, noir was built chiefly from the foundations of German Expressionism, a diverse movement which peaked a few decades before film noir’s Golden Age. While German Expressionism seeped its influences into many areas of art, architecture, and film, it found a cozy home in the noirs. In many ways, the timeline between the two movements is both fortuitous and inevitable. German Expressionism peaked roughly in the 1920’s but its principal influence on American film persisted for a decade or so as concepts intermingled and German isolationism loosened. Hollywood incorporated the lessons from the relatively more advanced German cinema, blending the harsh angles, disorienting views and innovations of these directors (Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, a fantastic film site, provides a more in-depth look at German Expressionism in his amazingly informative “What Is…” series and describes the influence of the genre outside of the noirs). As this movement brewed abroad, a wave of American “hard-boiled” fiction developed independently, featuring the anti-heroes of noir’s future. Forgoing the view of America as a land of ivory towers and hopeful optimism, these pulp magazines depicted a street level view of deception, murder and mistaken identity. The characters and story-lines developed by the likes of Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and James Cain (Double Indemnity), infused with the techniques of German Expressionism, produced the film noir genre as we know it today. The steeping and sintering of these elements was perfectly timed to manifest itself in an American culture turned pessimistic and agitated following the fall-out of World War II and entering the slow, rolling boil of the Cold War. With all of these influences aligned perfectly, the Golden Age of film noir established itself in the period spanning from the 1940’s to 1950’s, after which the genre morphed and evolved further, seeping its influences into other areas. But film noir didn’t disappear after the Golden Age ended, but rather the neo-noirs rose up to rival the classics of the post-war period.
Flashback/Backslide will return soon to tell you more about our favorite friend Film Noir. Next time, I’ll go through the characterizing features of the genre, and talk about what sets it apart from other genres and what innovations it brings to the cinematic table.
Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Film Noir: The Troubles with Genre-fication

  1. Pingback: Film Noir: Defining a Genre | Flashback/Backslide

  2. Pingback: Happy Blogiversary Flashback/Backslide! | Flashback/Backslide

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