The Timeless Genre

Every year as autumn approaches I look forward to the AFI Silver’s Noir City series. For a few days I can slip into the world of femme fatales, shadows, doomed heroes, and unraveling crimes. While the series will sometimes include noir classics such as Double Indemnity or Out of the Past, those films aren’t the main attraction. The hidden gems often draw the most interest.

I’ve been a film noir fan for so long that I sometimes take it for granted. But this year I stepped back and wondered why I, and so many others, keep coming back to film noir. In fact, the Silver presents Noir City in partnership with the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit organization that restores and exhibits these works around the world. The Foundation has been going for over 15 years now, driven largely by donations.

Keep in mind that the traditional film noir era is more than 55 years old. While opinions differ, the era is often described as beginning in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and then kicking into high gear after World War II. For those uninitiated, the late great Roger Ebert defined film noir better than I ever could. Filmmaker/Critic Mark Cousins, in The Story of Film: An Odyssey, estimated that 350 noir films played in the 40s and 50s. Of course at the time these films were in theaters no one called them noir. They were simply crime films.

The film noir era ended, very unofficially, in the late 50s with Touch of Evil and Odds Against Tomorrow. Yet hundreds of websites, not to mentions countless books, are devoted to the subject. I saw plenty of fellow film lovers at Noir City. The most recent meeting of Cinema Lounge, the DC Film Society’s film discussion group, focused on noir and had its highest turnout in years.

At the Cinema Lounge and between Noir City shows I asked why film noir maintains its passionate fan base, even in the Twitter age. One common answer was nostalgia. Film Noir Foundation President and Founder Eddie Mueller told me that the late 40s and early 50s were the high point in American culture. I disagree, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many share Mueller’s view. Even if you don’t, there’s an undeniable attraction to the look, feel, and style of those films. Still, the same could be said for other popular genres of that era, such as musicals and Westerns. What makes noir different?

One answer could be that film noir’s no-frills storytelling almost feels like it was designed for today. Many noir films are less than 90 minutes and set up the story very quickly. For example, in The Hitch-Hiker an outlaw hitches a ride with two unsuspecting vacationers and takes them hostage within the film’s first five minutes. There’s a minimum of exposition, and the limited backstory is seamlessly woven into the main narrative. It’s perfect for short attention span filmgoers.

Another answer to my question came from Alan K. Rode, Mueller’s colleague at the Film Noir Foundation, who opined that noir’s themes of “lust, larceny and obsession” still resonate in the modern world. While the styles have changed much since the 40s and 50s, crime stories still fill the news. The news stories are frequently not about criminal masterminds, but ordinary down-on-their luck people who hurt themselves and others through horrible decisions. Not too different in many ways from Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity or Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) in Scarlet Street.

At the Cinema Lounge, we discussed how noir’s resonance goes even beyond crime. Many of the noir stories describe characters who are bored or feel trapped. The films show people living ordinary lives who are instantly placed in dangerous situations. The more these people try to get out the more the noose tightens around them. Hopefully none of us have ever faced these same dangers. But who among us hasn’t at times felt boxed in, stuck, or otherwise dissatisfied? Think of all the people just in the past few years whose lives have been impacted by forces outside their control. The noir scenarios may be fiction but the emotions are real.

With these emotions comes an attitude. Mueller described the noir era as “the time that movies grew up.” Noir movies have an uncommon edge. They show a gritty, adult, and difficult world. So many other films from those years have the Capraesque sentiment that human decency, kindness, and fairness will always triumph. That’s not meant as a critique, and there’s certainly a place for inspiring, uplifting films. It’s just that noir’s cynicism feels more relevant today, as does its ambiguity. Noir often does not have clear good guys and bad guys. Even the heroes such as Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer are often very flawed and work on both sides of the law. The “antiheroes” in seminal 70s films and on TV so much today share a common thread with the noir protagonists from years ago.

Perhaps it is noir’s contradictions that make it so intriguing for today’s audiences. Mueller called noir “suffering with style.” Todd Hitchcock, the AFI Silver’s Programming Director, added that film noir is “both comforting and dangerous.” It’s a familiar world removed from our everyday life, but treading on our deepest fears and desires. It’s both past and present, both highly stylized and messily authentic. As much as I might analyze, part of the attraction will always be beyond words. Like the man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth irresistibly drawn to the femme fatale, I will keep coming back to noir again and again.

NOTE: The AFI Silver will present a new film series – “Overdrive: L.A. Noir, 1940-1959” from November 2-24, 2013.

Adam Spector
November 1, 2013

Contact us: Membership
For members only: E-Mailing List Ushers Website All Else

1 1