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To you, what makes a film noir?


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One thing that fascinates me endlessly is how people define films noir. Is it style? Substance? Is B&W a necessary component? I'd love to hear what defines one. It can be as loose or as academic as you'd like. 

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A more interesting question for me is the proper terminology. Film noir, films noir, films noirs. The confusion can be avoided by just saying noir. A french term applied to American crime stories shot in german expressionist style. 

Black and white film. High contrast. Night time city scenes. Cigarettes. And a certain period for style. Trench coats. Fedoras. Clocks with hands. Time is important. Somebody should get killed. A woman. Or two. One good one bad. A hero we may not like all that much. An ironic ending. 

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1 hour ago, LuckyDan said:

A more interesting question for me is the proper terminology. Film noir, films noir, films noirs. The confusion can be avoided by just saying noir. A french term applied to American crime stories shot in german expressionist style. 

Black and white film. High contrast. Night time city scenes. Cigarettes. And a certain period for style. Trench coats. Fedoras. Clocks with hands. Time is important. Somebody should get killed. A woman. Or two. One good one bad. A hero we may not like all that much. An ironic ending. 

Another major factor of "noir" are the themes and associated motives of the protagonist;  E.g.  obsession,  uncontrollable desire,  loneliness,    the morality (or lack of),  of legal authorities,  etc...      E.g. in a crime film of the 30s,   most of the criminals are fairly one dimensional:  they commit crimes for basically for financial gain,  and after capper is over,  think about the next one,,, THE END.    In noir films crimes are committed for reasons often related to their ego and how they see their future:    the last capper so they can lead a life a more normal life;   a score to convince themselves they are not over the hill,  etc...    Femme Fatales have their own unique set of values and motives,  vastly different then female character (who were mostly just there for their pretty faces),  in 30s crime films. 

Hey,  I love the visual aspects of noir films as well as common noir motifs,   but what keeps me coming back are the themes and motives of noir character trying to escape a noir world.    

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My homemade definition is rather basic: a noir has to feature sex, money or murder. The best noirs have all three, of course! And the sex can be implied, it doesn't have to be explicit. In films like MOONTIDE (1943) and THE BIG COMBO (1955) some of the implied sex is gay sex.

Of course noir can be in color...like NIAGARA (1953) and INFERNO (1953). 

And I don't limit noir to the postwar era at all. My favorite "neo" noir is A SIMPLE PLAN (1998). I think I've watched it at least twenty times by now.

Screen shot 2017-06-22 at 3.11.04 PM.png

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17 minutes ago, LuckyDan said:

No color in a noir. Ever. If you shoot in color you may be borrowing noir elements, but you're not making a noir. Noir is the absence of color. 

Well I think you can have color noir where the colors are saturated with darkness, meaning they are not necessarily vibrant hues. But of course, thematically it's interesting if a character has a bleak existence in an otherwise colorful atmosphere...it heightens their alienation and isolation, which is what these stories tend to portray with the main characters.

Therefore, I would not literally define noir as black but instead define it as having elements of blackness. People that interpret the bible literally run into trouble, and I think people who define noir too rigidly also run into a bit of trouble!

Now if you're talking about colorizing a film noir originally shot in b&w, that is just wrong, period! :)

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17 minutes ago, LuckyDan said:

Noir literally means black. Literally.

The word noir means black, yes...but film noir means a style that denotes shades of darkness (including metaphoric, psychological darkness). 

If it was total blackness then you would see no images on screen, because you wouldn't be able to allow any whiteness as that is not blackness.

It is noir not blanc...yeah?

So you'd be left with just a big black screen and only hear audio. This is what happens when people go absolute and apply things too literally, too narrowly.

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5 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

The word noir means black, yes...but film noir means a style that denotes shades of darkness (including metaphoric, psychological darkness). 

If it was total blackness then you would see no images on screen, because you wouldn't be able to allow any whiteness as that is not blackness.

It is noir not blanc...yeah?

So you'd be left with just a big black screen and only hear audio. This is what happens when people go absolute and apply things too literally, too narrowly.

Reductio ad absurdum.

I'm a noir truther. If it's in color, it's not noir. Chinatown is a masterpiece. It has all the elements. But it is colorful. Beautiful. Not noir.

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8 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

The word noir means black, yes...but film noir means a style that denotes shades of darkness (including metaphoric, psychological darkness). 

If it was total blackness then you would see no images on screen, because you wouldn't be able to allow any whiteness as that is not blackness.

It is noir not blanc...yeah?

So you'd be left with just a big black screen and only hear audio. This is what happens when people go absolute and apply things too literally, too narrowly.

I agree.    Of course everyone can have their own view of what is or what is not "noir",   but I don't use such a narrow view for most definitions related to art.   E.g. at the jazz website too much time is,  IMO,  wasted with discussions of;  is person a jazz musician,  or is this song "jazz".    

When it comes to classification  and labels (which are artificial to begin with but useful for discussion purposes),  Art is about degrees:    As for "noir",   a film like Leave it to Heaven has noir themes and characters with common noir motives.    Ok, the visuals don't "fit' a typical B&W noir film but there is enough of those other degrees-of-noir for me to say it is a noir film.   (and also the scene after Gene's father dies and she rides that horse in the desert sunset and the impact on the colors is a noir visual in my book).

 

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3 minutes ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

When it comes to classification  and labels (which are artificial to begin with but useful for discussion purposes) ... 

 

They're not useful if they have no meaning, and they have no meaning if we all get to decide for ourselves what they mean.

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15 minutes ago, LuckyDan said:

I'm a noir truther. If it's in color, it's not noir. Chinatown is a masterpiece. It has all the elements. But it is colorful. Beautiful. Not noir.

I don't see you as a noir truther. LOL

The b&w you champion is only half black because white is not black. LOL

Maybe you have a bias against films that have bigger budgets, where the studio forked out money for Technicolor. Maybe you feel noir has to look cheap without any extra bells and whistles.

Using James' recent example of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) if they had shot it in b&w instead of Technicolor would that automatically make it more noir? Nope. And going by your definitions, why aren't you calling GOING MY WAY (1944) with Bing Crosby a noir, because it is not in color..?

:) 

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I don't remember Leave Her to Heaven. The Road pictures were musical comedy. 

Edit. I thought you referred to Hope and Crosby. Anyway. I already talked about noir elements earlier. 

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8 minutes ago, LuckyDan said:

I don't remember Leave Her to Heaven. The Road pictures were musical comedy. 

Edit. I thought you referred to Hope and Crosby. Anyway. I already talked about noir elements earlier. 

No worries. I edited my post because I realized not all the Road movies were in b&w. ROAD TO BALI (1952) was in Technicolor.

***

Going back to what James said earlier...noir is often a marketing tool. These are still crime dramas. And we can discuss crime stories without getting hung up on whether they were filmed in color or b&w.

CROSSFIRE (1947)-- my most favorite movie of all time-- is powerful because of what it is saying thematically about anti-semitism, homophobia and hate crimes. That's way more important to me as a viewer than the type of celluloid Edward Dmytryk and J. Roy Hunt used to record the story.

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3 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

No worries. I edited my post because I realized not all the Road movies were in b&w. ROAD TO BALI (1952) was in Technicolor.

***

Going back to what James said earlier...noir is often a marketing tool. These are still crime dramas. And we can discuss crime stories without getting hung up on whether they were filmed in color or b&w.

 

I'm not hung up. I'm simply staying true to the original meaning of the term. The guy who coined it was talking about a certain set of movies that had certain things in common. They were not color. 

If I tell you I just saw a great noir I want you to see, tell me you won't envision a black and white movie from the forties or fifties involving crime, guns, a bad girl, whiskey and cigarettes. Noir stuff. You're not going to ask me if it was shot in technicolor I'm pretty sure.

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11 minutes ago, LuckyDan said:

I'm not hung up. I'm simply staying true to the original meaning of the term. The guy who coined it was talking about a certain set of movies that had certain things in common. They were not color. 

If I tell you I just saw a great noir I want you to see, tell me you won't envision a black and white movie from the forties or fifties involving crime, guns, a bad girl, whiskey and cigarettes. Noir stuff. You're not going to ask me if it was shot in technicolor I'm pretty sure.

I would consider the full spectrum of what film noir might mean. And sometimes I envision these things as involving a bad boy instead of a bad girl. I don't use noir to uphold any sort of hetero-normal world view. Film noir stories especially should not depict a so-called normal life in any way. There is plenty of room in the non-moral universe of film noir for the characters to be bisexually active and homosexually active. But that's another discussion.

Here's a thought: you can always watch LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN with a black and white television set. Or by adjusting the settings on your color TV to watch it in b&w. Nobody's stopping you!

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51 minutes ago, LuckyDan said:

They're not useful if they have no meaning, and they have no meaning if we all get to decide for ourselves what they mean.

I never said they didn't have any meaning only that any meaning is largely artificial.   (in that one can prove their POV is the correct one).    Of course a meaning \ definition \ classification can have more "value" when it is accepted by more people,  especially experts.  (e.g.   when discussing jazz I value the opinion of professional jazz musicians over those of myself and my amateur friends).

Eddie Muller considers color films to be "noir" as do most so called experts I have read books from;  E.g.  the noir book Film Noir (Ward \ Silver),   includes Leave it to Heaven.

 Again,  I'm not saying this POV is the right-one.     It is just the one I agree with.  

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21 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

Here's a thought: you can always watch LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN with a black and white television set. Or by adjusting the settings on your color TV to watch it in b&w. Nobody's stopping you!

Why would I want to? I like hotties in technicolor.

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29 minutes ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

I never said they didn't have any meaning only that any meaning is largely artificial.   (in that one can prove their POV is the correct one).    Of course a meaning \ definition \ classification can have more "value" when it is accepted by more people,  especially experts.  (e.g.   when discussing jazz I value the opinion of professional jazz musicians over those of myself and my amateur friends).

Eddie Muller considers color films to be "noir" as do most so called experts I have read books from;  E.g.  the noir book Film Noir (Ward \ Silver),   includes Leave it to Heaven.

 Again,  I'm not saying this POV is the right-one.     It is just the one I agree with.  

I claim no expertise in this or any field. I simply prefer the usage of words and phrases in their original meanings where possible, though I am aware that words misused often enough and by enough people take on new meanings. Whenever I hear, "To me, such and such means this," I tend to tune the speaker out. 

I subscribe to the view that there is a canonical set of film noir titles. Then there are the antecedents that pre-dated them, and the evolved works that came later. 

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I would say the canonical set of film noir titles that have been referenced consists of titles that are quite derivative of 30s gangster noir. Meaning postwar noir was a way to recycle old tropes and repackage familiar ideas the studios had already been using for fifteen or more years, and thus this canonical noir is itself the "evolved" work that came later. 

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On 2/18/2021 at 2:29 PM, jamesjazzguitar said:

I agree.    Of course everyone can have their own view of what is or what is not "noir",   but I don't use such a narrow view for most definitions related to art.   E.g. at the jazz website too much time is,  IMO,  wasted with discussions of;  is person a jazz musician,  or is this song "jazz".    

Your jazz analogy supports your position well. Since I read it, I've been thinking musicology can illustrate my position, too. 

Think of the classical guitar and it's history and literature. It consists of transcriptions of music written for other instruments; Renaissance music written for the lute or vihuela; Classical era music written by Sor and Carcassi on the smaller bodied baroque guitar; and music written since the advent of the modern classical guitar designed in 1850 by Antonio de Torres and advanced by Francisco Tárrega.

Let Tárrega and his students stand in for what I call the canonical noirs of the 40s and 50s. Yes, Tárrega transcribed centuries-old lute pieces, but he also composed works on the modern guitar and gave the instrument not only borrowed music but it's own literature, which combined elements of the Romantic style of his day with Spanish folk music. He taught a certain playing technique, including posture. Call it the Tarrega school.

As decades passed, we saw the rise of Andrés Segovia, who popularized the guitar like no one before him, and commissioned works that have become standards for the instrument alongside Tárrega's. Julian Bream did the same in my own lifetime.

Can we say then that any music written for the modern classical guitar, including works for Segovia written by Villa-Lobos, or later pieces for Bream by William Walton or Benjamin Britten, are part of the Tárrega school? It's the same instrument. Those works are every bit as musical, as complex, and require the same degree of dexterity and musicianship. What about the earlier lute works and organ works Tárrega himself transcribed? 

No. We can't. Tárrega's school is confined not only to its own time and it's own instrument, but to its own style, and it's own members. Later players and composers can borrow from that style, can trace their lineage to it in many cases, can be great interpreters of it - Bream thought himself more understanding of the Spanish style than the Spanish were precisely because as an outsider he saw things they didn't -  but they cannot be part of it, any more than we can say Tárrega was a Baroque guitarist because he transcribed Bach, or a classicist because he played Sor. 

In film, the techniques of the German expressionists of the 20s and the gangster pictures of the 30s influenced the noirs of the 40s, which themselves were based on a style of contemporary pulp fiction, and were created and shown during a time of great turmoil. Earlier films may have predicted some elements, and later films may imitate them and build upon them, borrow from them with a wink and a nod, even poke a little fun at them, but they cannot be one of them.

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11 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

Your jazz analogy supports your position well. Since I read it, I've been thinking musicology can illustrate my position, too. 

Think of the classical guitar and it's history and literature. It consists of transcriptions of music written for other instruments; Renaissance music written for the lute or vihuela; Classical era music written by Sor and Carcassi on the smaller bodied baroque guitar; and music written since the advent of the modern classical guitar designed in 1850 by Antonio de Torres and advanced by Francisco Tárrega.

Let Tárrega and his students stand in for what I call the canonical noirs of the 40s and 50s. Yes, Tárrega transcribed centuries-old lute pieces, but he also composed works on the modern guitar and gave the instrument not only borrowed music but it's own literature, which combined elements of the Romantic style of his day with Spanish folk music. He taught a certain playing technique, including posture. Call it the Tarrega school.

As decades passed, we saw the rise of Andrés Segovia, who popularized the guitar like no one before him, and commissioned works that have become standards for the instrument alongside Tárrega's. Julian Bream did the same in my own lifetime.

Can we say then that any music written for the modern classical guitar, including works for Segovia written by Villa-Lobos, or later pieces for Bream by William Walton or Benjamin Britten, are part of the Tárrega school? It's the same instrument. Those works are every bit as musical, as complex, and require the same degree of dexterity and musicianship. What about the earlier lute works and organ works Tárrega himself transcribed? 

No. We can't. Tárrega's school is confined not only to its own time and it's own instrument, but to its own style, and it's own members. Later players and composers can borrow from that style, can trace their lineage to it in many cases, can be great interpreters of it - Bream thought himself more understanding of the Spanish style than the Spanish were precisely because as an outsider he saw things they didn't -  but they cannot be part of it, any more than we can say Tárrega was a Baroque guitarist because he transcribed Bach, or a classicist because he played Sor. 

In film, the techniques of the German expressionists of the 20s and the gangster pictures of the 30s influenced the noirs of the 40s, which themselves were based on a style of contemporary pulp fiction, and were created and shown during a time of great turmoil. Earlier films may have predicted some elements, and later films may imitate them and build upon them, borrow from them with a wink and a nod, even poke a little fun at them, but they cannot be one of them.

Good points here and I find them very interesting.   Related to jazz music and the jazz website I frequent there is always a robust discussion of jazz sub-genres;  bebop,  hard bop,  west-coast-swing,  etc....   When it comes to new post-period jazz musicians and there recording the questions are "he is playing bebop or hard bop",,  most of the time they are playing hybrid;   a mix of jazz sub-genres,  but strongly rooted in one of them.

As for noir:   I still say there are a few color noir films that were made during the "classic" noir cycle;  1941 - 1959 (of course these years are subject to endless debate). 

The film I mentioned: Leave Her To Heaven was released in 1945.     If I was writing a book on noir of the classic period I would include this film as an example of a film that pushed the boundaries  of what is noir,  that was made shortly after Laura by 20th Century Fox.   

 

 

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Just now, jamesjazzguitar said:

The film I mentioned: Leave Her To Heaven was released in 1945.     If I was writing a book on noir of the classic period I would include this film as an example of a film that pushed the boundaries  of what is noir,  that was made shortly after Laura by 20th Century Fox.   

And boundaries are pushed when new trends develop from existing ones. You'd be correct to include that title for contrast. 

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