Movie Philosophy: Film Noir

This city…

Today’s Topic:
Film Noir

Film Noir… it’s one of those genres that the general public flanderizes to a single image.

A Private Eye, a Femme Fatale, 1940s, Black and White, Jazz Music, Shadows of Blinds and Voice Over Monologues.

But that’s just what is on the outside of Film Noirs.

You can’t just stick to the tropes of Film Noir and immediately encompass the style properly that way. You have to FEEL the Noir… which is why I decided write like a PI waiting for the next case in the office, smoking a cigarette as I anticipate a woman in red walking into the door… and also why I name the chapters in the Mad Lib Thriller Title method.

The Dark Misconceptions

Film Noir… it’s more of a state of mind rather than any key visuals.

You’d be surprised. There actually aren’t that many Film Noirs that have ALL of those key things I mentioned.

The Maltese Falcon has a Private Eye, Femme Fatale, 1940s, Black and White and Shadows of Blinds, but it does NOT feature Jazz Music or Voice Over Monologues.

Out of the Past has a Private Eye, Femme Fatale, 1940s, Black and White and Voice Over Monologues, but it does NOT feature Shadows of Blinds or Jazz Music.

Casablanca has a Femme Fatale, 1940s, Black and White, Shadows of Blinds and Jazz Music, but it does NOT feature a Private Eye or Voice Over Monologues.

Heck, I’ve actually yet to see a straight example of a Film Noir that ACTUALLY features all of those things, most of the time it’s only in parodies.

No, the thing that makes something Film Noir has more to do with the way of thinking. It’s very dark and cynical about life, and whatever little hope there is tend to be personal or selfish things.

I remember now… it’s tied into the history of film at the time, the 1940s.

Back in the days of World War 2, people at the time had that very same cynical outlook of life. The end of the world was pretty much on everyone’s mind and thus they almost kind of look down on escapism… or at least too OVERT escapism.

The escapism of Film Noir has less to do with “getting the girl” or “saving the day” and more to do to with just trying to get an impact on ANYTHING before you leave this mortal plane. In fact, the whole “getting the girl” and “saving the day” cliché is very much mocked all the time, or worse… it gets villified.

And yes, that also very much ties into the sexism on display.

The Cheap Exposition

But before I talk about THAT can of worms I’d like to point to another piece of film history.

Back in the day, if theatres wanted to buy a big movie like The Wizard of Oz, the studio would force the theatre to buy it as part of a bundle so they can ask for more money. So rather than just buying The Wizard of Oz, it’s “Buy Wizard of Oz PLUS 20 other movies!”

That is essentially what an A and B Movie is.
The A Movie is the movie the theatres REALLY want, and the B Movies are there to fill up the numbers of movies to sell in the bundle.

Film Noir tend to come from the collection of B Movies, they were made to be as cheap as possible. Which is why there’s a lot of talking and why it generally features Private Eyes… because we talk… a lot…

Heck, even by the time that movies HAVE colour, Film Noirs still stuck to Black and White.

One, because it’s cheaper that way and two, it just kind of grew to have it’s own look in black and white so might as well stick to it.

But yes, you might be catching on that the whole moneypinching nature of Film Noir development is also why exploitation of the female body is par for the course as well, since sex sells and all that.

The Dark Shadows

Not going to pull punches here, kid. Film Noir can be pretty dang sexist. It is VERY rare to have a woman as an actual protagonist. Them dames are always either the victim or a seductress that uses lies and deceit to get their way.
That is why the Femme Fatale is such an iconic part of the genre, as you can make them “Cool” to compensate, but in all honesty it’s more of a fortunate bandaid to an inherent and unfortunate problem.

Also doesn’t help that it’s… you know… the 1940s.

“Now, a smart man would take a look at her and say she’s not trustworthy. Unfortunately as a private dick I’m not a smart man and can only monologue about how long her legs are.”

At the very least the Femme Fatale trope has a slight benefit of giving female characters some agency, as it’s their own choice to be who they want to be.

And to be fair, they tend to point out that the male protagonist isn’t really any better.

All of these criticisms may be kind of familiar for any casual reader of comics, because if there’s any popular writer and artist out there that is as inspired to Film Noir as I am to friggin Tom Stoppard Plays (in case you haven’t noticed the Tom Stoppard quotes all over my this dang website), it’s Frank Miller.

See, all of Frank Miller’s madness stems from two comic franchises in particular, Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns. Both of whom got Film Noir influences (Sin City more so) with how they view the world in a very cynical way. This is also what drove Batman as a character to be darker and somber because of The Dark Knight Returns’ success.

The problem, as a certain reviewer named Linkara has mentioned, is that Frank Miller never STOPPED writing things like that. Holy Terror is pretty much the biggest example of Frank Miller’s inability to just let the style go, and the work (and readers of said work) suffer for it.

The thing is that Super Hero Comics and Film Noir are pretty much thematically opposed to each other.

The Grey Morality

Super Hero Comics thrives on the optimism that eventually everything will be okay. There is a solution to everything, we just need to find it.

Film Noir thrives on the cynical nature of the harsh world. Whatever solution you come up with, it won’t change the inherent flaw that caused the problem in the first place.

The Dark Knight Returns however worked because it was inherently a deconstruction of Super Hero Comic (thus feeling like Film Noir) until the end where things get reconstructed to have hope again. In a sense it’s pretty much saying “The Super Hero Comics are still THERE, it’s just deeply buried”.

And just to go on a slight tangent here, people REALLY seem to have the wrong idea about the Armored Batman.

The idea is NOT that he’s SUCH a friggin badass for wearing it to fight Superman, the POINT was that he’s gone SO far from of what he originally was about that you barely even recognize him as his classic self. I think people just forget that he is also using a friggin GUN!

Sure it fires kryptonite, but you see what I’m saying here, right? The Armored Batman is as much of a deconstruction of Batman himself as Film Noir is to the Super Hero genre in the comic, it’s one of the things that NEEDED to be destroyed to get the happy ending that it desperately needs.

This is generally why Film Noir (or at least the Classic Film Noir) as a whole also kinda died.

Sad and depressing stories just didn’t sell anymore. (Well that and studios couldn’t get away with the whole A and B Movies thing anymore.)

By the 80’s the public grew to a different standard where people like to exit the theatre with a smile, or at least satisfaction. And that is just not what Film Noir offers.

The Bright Lights

Now despite all of this, though, I am still a huge fan of Film Noir.
Not how Frank Miller does it, mind you, but I am a fan of what Film Noir as a whole tries to do.

The dark shadows (which in black and white looks so cool) all over the place aren’t just an aesthetic so much a great story-telling technique of the harsh world the characters live in. Like darkness is all over the place and the hero is just making do with whatever little light there is.

It’s called Chiaroscuro

The private eye monologues are always a joy to listen to, they’re almost the only way a movie can get away with literally putting a character’s thoughts from a novel into a scene. And hey, parodies can have a blast with it, take a look at Naked Gun XD

I guess a big part of why I like Film Noir is kind of the same way I like Star Trek, it was something that pulled me out of my comfort zone (Star Wars at the time). Star Trek made me realize that Star Wars wasn’t the only way Sci-Fi could be done, and Film Noir by comparison gave me a different way to view Detective Fiction.

I grew up on things like Sherlock Holmes, so I was used to a detective SO smart that he’d figure out everything through brains rather than brawn.
Film Noir by comparison focused more on street smarts.

As silly as that is, that is pretty much what differentiated Film Noir Detectives from Great Detectives (like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, etc.).

Instead of wondering how the clues fit with each other, you instead kind of wonder how the hero keeps getting out of the worst of situations WHILE following the clues.

Mysteries aren’t really puzzles to be solved so much as something you just need to wiggle yourself through to get to the ending itself (which may or may not end in the hero dying, but hey at least they got their answer…).
Basically Film Noir is a thriller whereas a Great Detective story is a mystery.

You could almost argue that Film Noir is opposing Great Detectives and Super Heroes by exposing their “lie” so to speak. That if you’re going to be escapist fiction, the least you could do is make the dangers of reality as dangerous as they are on-screen.

Suddenly things like affairs, corrupt politicians and drugs posed the proper danger that they WOULD in real life, rather than the wish fulfillment of super powers or great smarts that get you to solve the problem. Film Noir instead says “no, we can’t solve it, but we can at least understand it”.

Film Noir very much is the edgy kid in the school of film genres.

And honestly, I have to admit that there’s something attractive to it. It allows you to indulge in your darkest thoughts and kinda feel cool while doing it.
Film Noir to me is fun in an anti-escapism way, the same way as H.P. Lovecraft stories (which is probably why the two genres fit so well). It gives you a different point of view where simply surviving is suddenly badass enough.

But it does so different than, say, a Post-Apocalypse story where people have to scavenge for food.

No, you have food on the table (barely, a Private Eye doesn’t make much money after all) but the actual “surviving” is more of a mental thing as you ponder about your place in the world. In a world where shadows are everywhere and the light struggles to make an impact, what point does your own existence have within all of this if nothing you do actually benefits anything? Anyone?

It makes the smaller victories shine all the brighter, as it means there’s finally an impact at all. It may be small, but… well I guess there’s no better clip to point to :P

The Final Conclusion

Film Noir as a genre has laid dormant for quite a while, and there are a lot of reasons for that. On the other hand, there are many things about the genre that should be preserved.

The world of film is big enough for both optimistic as well as cynical stories and we need to vary up the different forms of presentation before the industry grows stale.

Of course, the prominent style of film will always be something of a circle. Our current generation may generally be about optimism lately, but dark cynical movies have popped up as well (usually in the Horror genre).

Will Film Noir ever get the spotlight that it once had?

We’ll see…

*Exit, pursued by rain and pretentiousness*

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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