Setting the scene for our month of Film Noir reviews – and explaining why we are refusing to take a narrow view of just what ‘noir’ is.
Welcome to Noirvember, a month in which we’ll be bringing you a collection of Film Noir reviews. In anticipation of what we know will be sputtering outrage from self-defined experts and purists, we thought that we should perhaps explain our own take on this most slippery of genres and how we plan to push the definitions to breaking point.
What, we might ask, is Film Noir? Well, you probably think you know. But your definition is perhaps not going to be the same as the next person’s. That’s the problem with genre, isn’t it? It’s so damn flexible and given that there is no official body overseeing definitions, everyone might well have their own ideas of what fits and what doesn’t. There are those who believe that all horror films need a supernatural element, which is the most pointlessly reductive idea of the genre imaginable – but that’s what they believe. Similarly, there are those who believe that Noir must fit a very narrow set of criteria to qualify. This might be a time period – the belief that Noir is a 1940s and 1950s thing and everything else is just ‘crime cinema’. It might be certain themes that pop up in Noir – the nefarious femme fatale, the hapless hero who is manipulated and tricked into his own downfall. It might even be the visual style – there are the Noir purists who think that only black and white films qualify.
In truth, we can define Film Noir in many ways. You might even be willing to accept the idea that, as judges have sometimes said of pornography, you know it when you see it – but not everyone will see the same thing. French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton set out a definition of sorts in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, in which they say that the films should be “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel”, but of course this is a critical consideration by people who didn’t invent the concept – it’s essentially an individual (or two individuals) stating a personal belief rather than a defining description. It strikes me that Noir can be all those things, or a few of them, or perhaps even none. In any case, many of those words are vague enough in definition to be attached to all sorts of films. Indeed, most European horror films would count as Noir if it just came down to those five descriptors.
The only thing that people seem to generally agree on about Film Noir is that it should be, in some way, a crime movie. A hard-boiled detective story, a police procedural, a study of criminal desperation, or greed, or crimes of passion. It might be a mood and an atmosphere more than a simple narrative. And it might well cross over into other genres. It strikes me that trying to strictly define Noir as a narrative, a visual style and an atmosphere is like nailing jelly to a wall.
Ultimately, we all have our own ideas of what is or isn’t Noir and for me, the definition is decidedly loose and wide. Of course, I’m also willing to stretch the definition of a horror film much further than most people would because it strikes me that the borders between genres are usually very fuzzy and wherever we draw the line is fairly arbitrary. And so for our Noirvember series, we’ll be casting our net a bit wider than most people do, if for no other reason than the fact that we like to challenge preconceptions and want to cover a bigger variety of edgy, challenging crime cinema than strictly adhering to the most narrow definitions of the genre allows – and because there are perhaps films that sit outside the classic Noir canon that are as much deserving of attention as the classic titles. Purists may be appalled – so be it. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves in the comments.
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