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film noir

by : jeff_v [ email this article to a friend ]
Most film noir studies cite The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the first noir. I don't think there's a cut-and-dried answer though. Gradually, the combination of German Expressionism, hardboiled fiction and WWII malaise congealed into what we recognize as the style. But antecedants like Fritz Lang's 1937 You Only Live Once look and feel like film noir, too, as do many of the French crime classics of the 1930s. Film noir was never a genre, but a style, and once it became recognized as such, the films that were made in the noir style tended to be pastiches. I'd call any film that is aware of itself as a noir film, or consciously employs noir traits, a neo-noir. Starting with Touch of Evil, the classic, un-self-aware version of film noir died. I'm not saying the classic noirs are better than the neo-noirs, and in fact, I think the distinction isn't that useful because I judge films on their effects, not their intentions.

I like to take a stroll down the cinematic darkside. Film noir employs many of the medium's strengths, especially the power of darkness. A film noir is ideally enjoyed in a theater all by oneself. The darkness is private and all-encompassing, and the naked fear of the unknown is palpable. It's a condition of our lives that we don't know everything, that there are things (both personal and systematic) that are beyond our control. Darkness has been likened to ignorance in every creation myth, and film noir shines a light in the dark, exposing the hidden, repressed aspects of ourselves and our society like so many bugs and rodents scurrying from the light.

Film noirs are a necessary antidote to standard world of Hollywood movies, where the line between good and evil is easily demarcated, and the good guy wins in the end. The bleakest film noirs occupy the opposite spectrum; acknowledging the corruptibility inherent in everyone, and pessimistically asserting that it will bring us all down. To indulge in these tales of patsies, criminals, weaklings and hypocrites is to confront some hard truths about ourselves and our way of life. They are mostly cautionary fables --implicit is the message that you could potentially end up as badly as these folks.

While the image of the femme fatale spiderwoman who snares hapless males into her web of deceit is the most arresting and iconic film noir representation of women, it is not the only one. There are many women characters who are just the opposite --paragons of virtue, bastions of hope and fidelity. It's these women alone who can save the wayward men who've succumbed to corruption or temptation, or have been mis-indentified by the police; their love redeems and perseveres. Examples can be found in Force of Evil, Phantom Lady and In a Lonely Place. Often, they are the secondary female character in a noir film in which the male chooses (to his doom) the femme fatale instead.

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