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Let's try and define Noir


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I got a kick out of reading the Nick Ray thread especially where it derailed into a what is Film Noir discussion, I happen to think *The Big Heat* is a great Noir (it was getting some questionable opinions in the derail), but I do question some films labeled as such, example most recently *The Big Steal*.

 

I've been on quite a Noir kick recently and enjoying some of the more obscure ones.

 

Some Noirs are very stylistically lit, others not so much, some have very high contrast between black & white some low, some as a percentage of the entire film have negilible of either the first two visual points. Some Noirs have great femme fatales some don't, still others have only characters that are dark of heart. Some Noirs definitely have a major crime angle on some its secondary to the plot. Some Noirs have exciting denouemonts in interesting locations some don't. Some friends prefer Noirs with classic lines and snappy dialoge over those that don't. Some even consider Noirs films that are more Histotical Dramas *The Black Book, The Tall Target*, *The Strange Woman.*

 

Anyway it will be interesting to see a continued discussion from the Nick Ray thread here where it should be, no?.

 

Personally I usually prefer the Noir's that are stylistically lit to others that are not and those that use real locations than those that are set bound unless the sets are extraordinary examples *Scarlett Street* and *The Set Up.*

 

Facts are objective and provably true; however, if no clear facts exist about a topic, such as in the case of Film Noir, then a series of balanced opinions needs to be produced to allow others to make up their own minds. B-)

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I have a compiled list of around 500 movies that are mentioned as possible noir, and when I watch them very few in my eyes are actually Noir.

 

Of the movies mentioned in that other thread, I guess the best example I can give as a comparison is *The Big Heat* to *The Big Combo*.

 

These two movies are almost identical, but with *The Big Combo* the lighting is much more noir, the characters are much more noir, and overall *The Big Heat* pales as a noir by comparison. Now i am not saying The Big Heat is not a great movie, but only saying as an example of noir I can't see how it could be considered as noirish. Maybe you guys see it differently, but when Cornel Wilde has the shadows cast over his face near the end that is what you would expect in a noir lighting, the same is done in others like *Detour*. Even the sidekick in the police department is creeepy.

 

For me to be a real noir it has to have the lighting, that makes a big impact. Near Noir is a lot of these 500 movies I have listed. For example last night they ran *Born to be Bad* and on my list it was a possible noir but it wasn't really. The lead babe was a type of femme fatale but she only got caught lying.

 

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I think as we devle into this we'll find its a sort of sliding scale. We are going to probably have a Hard Core Noir Film list where almost all of the key elements, the expressionistic lighting, shadows, silhouettes, off balance frame compositions, dutch angles, flashbacks, femme fatales, a conveyance of events unfoldning out of control, the crime angle element, the hardboiled dialog, negative or ambiguous endings, and voice overs all are present, and then the rest of the pack which may do 4 or 5, 6, 7, 8 etc., of the 11 elements I mention, but do them extraordinarily well.

 

For an example take *The Big Combo*, that you mentioned, I like it also, but it doesn't have very interesting sets and I think a film like *Crime Wave* shot a lot on location in LA has an advantage between the two.

 

BTY if I'm forgetting something of those elements chime in.

 

So first off lets make sure we have all the elements that we think constitutes the perfect Noir.

 

 

PS, MovieMadness, its interesting that if you go on IMDb to a Films page and where they list Genre of the title film click on Film Noir it brings you to a list of 488 titles that IMDb lists as noir pretty close to your 500 number

 

 

B-)

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I been waiting to join in on this interesting thread. I feel now is a good time because I see too much focus on the visual style associated with noir as well as 'dancing around the edges' aspects and not enough about the noir protagonist. I'm stealing from the book Film Noir by Silver Ward here:

 

A useabe definition of the noir protagonist must encompass two key character motifs; Alienation is prehaps the more instinsic. The second key emotion in the noir universe: obsession. The extent to which obsession is neither rational nor predictable - obbessive behavior transcends such ordinary consideration as morality and cauality.

 

People will often say that a movie like 'Leave Her To Heaven' isn't noir because it lacks a noir visual style (e.g. it is in color, it uses wide open spaces etc..), but it clearly has a noir protagnosit that is driven by obsession.

 

Many non noir films will have some of the visual traits mentioned here, just like some noirs lack a strong noir visual style, but all noirs have at least some characters that have have noir character motifs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanks jamesjazzguitar we'll add that in the list, OK so lets begin the lists, not sure if this is the best way to break it down. Visually, Characters, The Digetic "Noir World" of the story. Again feel free to adjust it if it makes better sense in another breakdown, and feel free to add too.

THE VISUAL STYLE (self explanatory)

1.) Expressionistic lighting, using a highly mobile Key light, a Back light and usually no Fill Light.

2.) Use of shadows in a symbolic way to denote or enhance emotions, motives, or to induce

claustrophobia. Chiaroscuro contrast.

3.) Use of Dutch angles to highlight conflict, off balance compositions.

4.) High & Low angel camera shots

5.) Deep Focus keeping both the close and distant objects being photographed in sharp focus

6.) Distorting lenses that alter physical reality to express strong feelings about it

THE CHARACTERS/PLAYERS

7.) Archetypes: the noir protagonist must encompass two key character motifs; Alienation is perhaps the more intrinsic. The second key emotion in the noir universe: obsession. The extent to which is neither rational nor predictable - obsessive behavior transcends such ordinary consideration as morality and causality. The character is often confused or conflicted with ambiguous morals, or character defects and eccentricities, and lacks courage, honesty, or grace. The anti hero can be tough yet sympathetic, or display vulnerable weak traits, Specifically, the anti-hero often functions outside the mainstream and challenges it. Common archetypes associated with Noir, the Femme Fatale, an irresistibly attractive woman who leads men to destruction, the Hard-Boiled Detective (PI or professional cop and the variations of such), the Criminal, the Ex-Con, the Gambler, the Looser, the Transient.

THE DIEGETIC (The “world” of the story and all the elements that belong to it: the sight and sounds of the action (e.g., footsteps, explosions), including off-screen action and objects (e.g., birdsong, church bells). The most common non diegetic sound is music, the Soundtrack, unless the music(which would only be diegetic if the musicians or source of music were part of the action).

8.) Bleak subject matter and a somber downbeat tone.

9.) The plot is often a quest.

10.) Story often takes place at night.

11.) The setting is usually the gloomy underworld of crime and corruption.

12.) Use of Flashbacks to tell the story

13.) Use of Voice Over narration, that comes from an unseen, off-screen voice, character or narrator who can be heard by the audience but not by the film characters themselves; narration often conveys the character's thoughts, either as a “voice” heard within one's head or as other narrative information and commentary

14.) Iconography, guns, fedoras, strapless gowns, high heels, seamed stockings and garter belts, urban settings, bleak desolate motels & gas station/lunch counters in desert settings, decaying claustrophobic apartments, rural hideout shacks, bars, nightclubs, casinos, roadhouses, juke joints, pool halls, burlesque theaters, strip joints, fleabag hotels, newspaper stands, abandoned industrial locations, rail yards, wrecking yards, bus stops, train stations, theater marquees, neon lights, bare light bulbs.

15.) Music, usually torch songs, Blues and Jazz



Edited by: cigarjoe on Oct 7, 2011 9:44 AM
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"{font:arial, helvetica, sans-serif}I've decided that the "I know it when I see it" test is the best way to classify films as noir or non-noir.{font}"

 

Its probably going to come down to individual tastes the subjective biase. So here is where you can help, give an example of a no doubt in your mind Noir Film and another that you consider a borderline Noir. Or the one that is the Least Noir as "you see it" of what you consider Noir .

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Something that I don't quite understand is the insistence that some so-called noir fans put on the "look" of a noir film. Yes, we all love shadows and chiarascuro (phew, I spelt that without a net, hope it's right), but some people seem to have gotten the idea that if a film isn't full of greyness and shadows, it can't be what they call a "true" noir.

I find this a little annoying, and wonder how much these fans have actually read and learned about film noir. I wonder if they've just clicked on a website with the word "noir" in it, and have conceived their idea of noir from that.

 

Like a lot of hard core noir fans, I've read a lot about the genre and have many books on the subject, including that all-important bible, the Noir Encyclopaedia - the American Style. (Alain Ward and Elizabeth Silverstein, I think) Many editions of this - I may not have the title right. I also am the proud owner of Eddie Muller's The Dark Side of the Screen.

 

 

Now, this doesn't make me an expert, of course, and I don't claim to be one, not by a long shot. (no pun intended.) But anyone who has read even some of the articles in either of those books will be aware that Noir does not have to have the dark shadowy urban streets and that "look", the shadows, the bars, the disorienting angles, etc., to be a film noir. It helps, but it isn't everything. That's why I got so exasperated a couple of months ago with a poster on another thread who kept insisting that *The Big Heat* was not a "true noir", because it wasn't "shadowy" enough or something. That's a very shallow interpretation of what film noir is.

 

 

More later. I have to feed my cats now, they've been buggin me for an hour ( just like the cat in that latter-day noir attempt, Robert Altman's *The Long Goodbye.)*

 

Edited by: misswonderly on Oct 8, 2011 11:53 AM

corrected typo in "people" .

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misswonderly I think you are talking about little ol' me in your post, so let me give you an explanation about what I consider to be noir.

 

In the book you mention, the Encyclopedia of Film Noir, on page 4 it asks the question What is Film Noir. It goes on to say that there is no real definition (surprise), and at the time these movies were being made they were not intended to be placed into a noir category. This seems to be true and you can do historical searches of this term and like the book says they were labeled as dramas or melodramas at the time of making or at release.

 

It wasn't until later that this whole concept was created to fit these movies into a separate category, and even doing historical searches you can see in the 70's and 80's movies being released at that time were occasionally called film noir. So it was a mixed bag at what this even means, and all of us can call it as we wish.

 

On page 5 of the introduction it even goes on to say even using the term leads us to what we have here, ramblings about what it is and isn't.

 

I think, and just my opinion, that film noir has been broadened out way too much to include movies that are not unlike others made at the time, simple dramas that may involve a crime or are a police whodunit, spurned lover, and such.

 

Yes I believe that how the movie was shot is a lot of the difference in the movie, it must look noir to me. Some can call that shallow but you can't call a dog a cat after all. If it looks like a dog then it is, that is part of the whole problem here.

 

Had they stuck to how the movie looks then this would have been much easier to define, most of the 500 movies I have listed (a lot in my collection, over half that amount), many have no special shots to make them stand apart from other movies of the time.

 

 

How would Frankenstein 1931 have looked without the shadows and lighting? As the book says many of these movies in horror took a lot out of how they were shot. This to me is what makes some of the listed Noir movies so great, it is not just the story but also how the movie was shot that adds much more to the story.

 

Also the characters themselves, how they are portrayed. Like I said compare *The Big Heat* to *The Big Combo*, one is much more noir to me.

 

I think others in this forum have agreed with me on this so I am not some wacky noir character on this. I really believe that noir has been overused to a great extend and people today can define it to include 100's of movies if they wish. But it appears to me that almost any crime drama from the 40's to early 50's is called noir today, and that is way to simple and easy to do.

 

Really you have to ask how can you write a book about something that you can't define? To me that makes it difficult to take the movies listed as authentic noir.

 

I can define noir to myself so could list movies if I had to write a book on it. To me it has to appear with noir lighting period to be a real noir. Yes the shadowy stuff, and I know that excludes some movies today that are considered noir classics.

 

The thing is you can go back and at the time of release those weren't called noirs. It was made up later, and expanded and expanded. And as I have said before many of those are still great movies, it is just are they really noir. People can disagree but it is better to say no to some of them instead of saying yes and disappointing people that watch them.

 

PS In a crazy way this whole noir thing reminds me of the String Theory in Physics or also the Big Bang Theory. Noir sounds like theory that can't be proven, but since these movies are easily seen then maybe the theory needs adjusting at this time. ;)

 

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MovieMadness:

First, despite the rather strong wording in my earlier post ( "shallow", etc.), I meant no offence to anyone whose idea of "film noir" differs from mine. It may very well have been one of your posts on some other thread that sparked my reaction, but I could not remember who said what on those threads, so certainly I was not "targeting" you, nor anyone else.

Not that you were suggesting I was "targeting" or otherwise being offensive - in fact, your response is very reasoned, intelligent, and moderate. ( How's that for Canadian politeness? :8} )

 

So, now to the topic at hand: First, I need to correct myself. The second book I mentioned in that post was indeed called The Dark Side of the Screen, but the author is Foster Hirsch, not Eddie Muller. I wish I did have that Eddie Muller book, which I think is entitled Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.

 

Moving on...yes, like you, I am well aware that film noir as an identified genre did not exist at the time these movies were made, they were, as you say, thought of as "dramas" or "melodramas" ( certainly I'd go with that when it comes to the Joan Crawford noirs), or "crime dramas". The people making them had no idea that they were going to be celebrated and given a whole new category by French cinema intellectuals and journalists in the late 1950s. So if you are saying, and I think you are, that there is no one ultimate definition of the term, and that it is amorphous, subjective, and ever-changing, I agree with you.

 

 

However, I still say that, much as I like - make that love - the shadowy noirs, the greyness, the dark streets, etc. , I don't feel that is the primary feature of these flms. An important one, for sure. But for me, what makes a movie "noir" is more than that - it's the darkness of the characters themselves. If you are as familiar with that Encyclopaedia of Noir as you seem to be, you will recall that the introduction talks about not only the "look" that you have embraced as a major element of the genre, but also about the protagonists' psychological state- alienation, isolation from the rest of the world, distrust, cynicism - or, more interestingly, innocence that turns into cynicism or disillusionment by the end of the film. Obsession, especially sexual obsession, is a big one, as are feelings of imprisonment or claustrophobia ( often reflected in the film by small rooms, bars, railings, etc.)

 

 

It is that psychological element that I find so fascinating about film noir. The desperation of the characters', their failure to find assistance or safety in the usual authority figures - in fact, it's often the police and the politicians who are corrupt and untrustworthy. I find this psychological "greyness" at least as interesting as the physical "greyness" of the lighting in film noir.

 

 

That's enough for now, otherwise I get into postistoolongitis, and I wish to avoid that at all costs.

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I don't think its quite that black and white ;-).

 

But I know what MovieMadness is driving at it seems like marketers are jumping on the Noir bandwagon bundling fimls that shouldn't be included in what most of us consider Noir styler in their collection volumes. Example Columbia Pictures Film Noir Collection Vol 1 has "The Big Heat" & "The Sniper" which I consider Noir but has "The Lineup" "Murder By Contract" which are just above borderline and "5 against The House" which is borderline. Vol 2 has "Human Desire" "NightFall" and "The Brothers Rico" and "Pushover" which are Noir and "City Of Fear" which is borderline.

 

 

I think that is why we have to list the films we consider *Hard Core Noirs* with out question. I think once we start doing that we'll have some sort of a standard, and the standard will have over 50% or more of the three components, I listed VISUAL, THE CHARACTERS, THE DIGETIC.

 

 

A couple off the top of my head *Night & The City* and *Scarlet Street,* are good examples they have all three in spades. But I think once we start listing we are gonna find some that are more unbalanced like for instance for instance *Sunset Blvd*., *Out Of The Past* and *In A Lonely Place* which most people consider noir , which have not quite as much dark visuals as either *Night & The City* and *Scarlet Street.*

 

See what I'm driving at? *Out Of The Past* has a lot of brighter lit outdoor scenes (Mitchum at his gas station, Mitchum & his girl friend at the lake, a bit of the Mexican sequences, and near the end where the kid hooks the bad guy) compared to *Scarlet Street*

 

Edited by: cigarjoe on Oct 8, 2011 7:22 PM

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Yes, I was about to say the same thing myself. Everybody goes on about how *Out of the Past* is the ultimate noir, and yet it probably has more sunny outdoor day scenes than shadowy indoor, night and urban ones. Half of it is set in the rugged wholesome mountains, all fishing and other outdoorsy stuff going on. Not traditionally noir. And don't forget all those Mexico scenes, hard core sunshine.

 

so those who argue that the visuals of noir have to be dark, muted lighting, shadows, etc. - how do they rate *Out of the Past* on the noir-O-metre?

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I would have to watch *Out Of The Past* again, but based on memory i wasn't that impressed with it as a noir.

 

Other "classic noirs" that I would also rate more as a crime drama would be *Brute Force*, *Call Northside 777*, *The House On 92nd Street*, *Gun Crazy*, maybe even *The Postman Always Rings Twice.*

 

Yes Lana Turner is a knockout, but not any creepy characters in that one. Killing off a husband is also not unique to noirs.

 

*D.O.A*. to me is also more of a crime drama.

 

Like I said if we went by my definition there would be a lot less noirs, hundreds and hundreds less. It has to have the look of a noir to begin with, and no matter how good the story is that doesn't make it a noir beyond that.

 

I think though the cat is out of the bag on this, books have been written proclaiming hundreds of movies noir and that could never be undone.

 

The police proceedural movies are not noir to me, not sure why some reporter is a noir character. Really never in danger, no femme fatale, only has to prove a guy innocent.

 

Gun Crazy is a crime drama, not noir. Yes she is a femme fatale but that is not enough when all they do is shoot off some guns and die at the end. It's a great movie i love to watch but doesn't have the noir look to it.

 

I actually like crime dramas so these movies I all have and watch, but not as noirs really. *Brute Force* I have no clue about how they claimed that one as noir. Yes the guys in that one cell all were nice enough to go to prison over some women ( I think one was even gracious enough to volunteer when they might have claimed some women did a murder). Most prison movies have convicts like that. It s a good prison movie but not a noir.

 

The real noirs though have that added look that takes them a step above this. Anybody that watches should be able to see this.

 

Really you can go back to *Baby Face* where she makes her way to the top and the last guy kills himself. If this was done in the 40's it would be called noir today, but it isn't.

 

I hope I haven't ruffled feathers but this is only my opinion. Many books disagree and that is fine. To me though i think they made this all too complicated and kept seeing noir behind every bush and tree.

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> {quote:title=misswonderly wrote:}{quote}Oh, I get it...sort of like, "no news is good news"...

 

Given that this is a noir thread, 'no noose is good noose' might be more appropriate.

 

The reason I'm not adding anything substantive, is because we've swept this beach so many times before. "We've been down this alley so many times before" would probably be more appropriate for a noir comment, but that would make me feel too much like Miles Archer.

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MovieMadness OK we know what you don't consider noir but I've been asking you to list the films you DO consider noir. This would help a lot to define the Visual component Noirs.

 

Thanks in advance for your time.

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"MovieMadness' Initial Noir List

 

Movies like-

*Night and the City*

*The Third Man*

*Detour*

*The Big Combo*

*Kiss Me Deadly*

 

All of the noirs like this that have the special lighting techniques."

 

OK Great think of more we'll add them, I'll have to watch *Detour* again I haven't seen it for a while.

 

I'm more familiar with the others:

 

With *Night & The City* I can't think of any daylight sequences at all.

 

*The Third Man* I remember has some daylight sequences the Ferris Wheel, and I think two cemetery sequences but its probably 95 % noir-ishly lit.

 

*The Big Combo* I own on DVD I don't remember any daylight sequences in it either.

 

*Kiss Me Deadly* Has a few daylight sequences Hammer in, I think the Bunker Hill section of LA, checking on one of the leads, Hammer at Nicks garage picking up the Corvette, Hammer & Lily driving the Corvette.

 

Once we have a list we can re-watch the films and get a feel for exactly the percentage of screen time that they are Noir-ishly lighted. With a DVD we can easily get a "cinefantific" breakdown on this VISUAL component.

 

So right now I can say that:

 

*The Set-Up* is 100% Noir Lighting

*Night And The City* is probably 100% also, but someone who owns it should should screen it and find out for sure. * interestingly though I believe that both of these films or at least *The Set Up* takes place over the course of a night

 

But breaking it down this way gives us (not only a good excuse to re-watch our favorite Noirs) but we may actually be able to get a handle on the VISUAL component of Noirs. We may find that there is a tipping point percentage value where there is no question in anyone's mind that the film is Noir, (regardless of anything else the "Hard Core Noir") and the inverse on that where there is not enough Noir-ly lit scenes for a film to be considered Noir just on the VISUAL component alone and this is where the CHARACTERS and DIEGETIC components will come into play.

 

We can have a lot of fun with this.

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But, MovieMadness, can you tell me why that seems to be the one and only criteria you have for a film noir? ( the dark appearance, the visuals.) How did that come to be the prime element for you?

 

I'm thinking I might research this and try and read some of what those French guys, the ones who originally identified film noir as a genre ( which, yes, yes, we all agree the directors who created these movies did not call them or think of them by that name) have to say about what constitutes "noir". Surely you would agree that since they came up with the concept, it's reasonable to accept their definition ( by "they" I mean the French film critics.)

 

I mean, it seems such a rigid definiton - I agree that too many movies are classified as "noir", but don't forget, like any genre ( yeah yeah it did not exist as a genre when they were made) there are many movies that fall into that category. There are hundreds of Westerns, comedies, war movies, musicals,love stories, horror films. Why is it ok for those genres to have a multitude of films , but not film noir?

 

 

Still curious to know, if you have read books about film noir - and as I said, it sounds as though you have - you must have come across descriptions of noir that include features other than the dark "look" so important to you. Did you not accept what these writers said concerning the other elements of noir?

Another thing - why should film noir always have to have a femme fatale ? Who says a dark movie, dark in its visuals, its story, its characters, but lacking a femme fatale, is not a "true" noir? Some of my favourites have no such person. ( *Act of Violence*, *Pickup on South Street*, *On Dangerous Ground*.)

I just think that by confining a definition of noir to such limited terms, we're missing the point - which is, as I've said, and as far as I'm concerned, a dark outlook, stories that examine the darkness within human beings, a pervading atmosphere of anxiety or doom. Lots of film noirs have that, without either a femme fatale or a lot of dark shadows.

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misswonderly, some people are really keyed to the VISUAL aspcect of films, that's OK, for what we are doing. MovieMadness can provide a us with a good sounding board for that VISUAL Component, since he/she feels so strongly about it.

 

Hopefully we'll get more opinions on the CHARACTER component and the DIEGETIC Component which is the one that I like quite a bit. I tend to like the sleasy locations in some Noir better than the Noir's that feature High Society type story lines.

 

 

We have to start somewhere and the VISUAL component is what got the initial ball rolling, no? So its probably the best place to begin because we can actually get a DVD and add up the time length of the Noir-ly lit sequences and come up with percentage numbers.

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Hmm, well, I guess I'll lose all credibility at this point, because what you're suggesting just sounds like too much work to me. Don't get me wrong, I respect what you're saying, how only by almost scientifically re-watching the noirs in question and any others we feel are relevent to the argument will we be able to come to some sort of consensus as to the definition of film noir.

 

And certainly the part about re-watching favourite noirs is the most fun part, I'm down with that. But all that business you suggest about actually timing, measuring how many dark scenes etc. are in the film just sounds like work to me. I guess I'm too lazy to want to take it that far.

 

Maybe I'm with finance on this: "Can't define noir, but I know it when I see it."

 

But I'd still like to hear MovieMadness' response to a couple of the questions I addressed to him/her.

i.e. - where do you get your definition of noir, how come despite your readings on the subject you're not open to a broader set of criteria, and why can't noir have hundreds of titles under that heading just like other genres do? (Westerns, war movies, comedies, etc.)

 

But I'm much more intuitive about all this than you guys appear to be.

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