Film Noir

Forty years after Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton defined the challenge, critical commentators on film noir continue to grapple with it. Ironically, American writers did not immediately take up consideration of this indigenous phenomenon and the question of its "essential traits." Only gradually in a frequently cross-referenced series of essays in the 1970s did they begin to express themselves. There are now a dozen full-length books in English concerning film noir and undoubtedly more to follow. As noted in the Acknowledgments, the sometimes difficult process of tracking down significant earlier writings for an essay in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Overlook/Viking, 1992) gave us the idea for this book. As it happens the two most recent volumes on noir, Shades of Noir (Verso, 1993) and The Book of Film Noir (Continuum, 1993) are anthologies of new essays by mostly non-American writers.

Past and present commentators have brought and continue to bring to bear on the noir phenomenon a variety of critical approaches, and that is the foundation of Film Noir Reader. Of course, we are bypassing the point of view of someone like Barry Gifford, author of the informal survey The Devil Thumbs A Ride, who deems all such endeavors to be "academic flapdoodle." In 1979, the introduction, other essays, and individual entries in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference were the first published attempt in English to search the entire body of films for "essential traits." I remarked there that the full range of the noir vision depends on its narratives, its characterizations, and its visual style. In fact, that style is a translation of both character emotions and narrative concepts into a pattern of visual usage. No doubt a pop critic such as Gifford could assert that it is formalist mumbo-jumbo to "detect" alienation lurking beyond the frame line in a vista of the dark, wet asphalt of a city street or obsession in a point-of-view shot that picks a woman\'s face out of crowd. I would argue that to resist such readings is to deny the full potential of figurative meaning not merely in film noir but in all motion pictures. Obviously none of the various elements of visual style--angle, composition, lighting, montage, depth, movement, etc.--which inform any given shot or sequence are unique of film noir. What sets the noir cycle apart is the unity of its formal vision. There is nothing in the films themselves which precludes or invalidates any established critical method as the various essays reprinted in this volume will confirm.

Michael Walker\'s opening comments in The Book of Film Noir reveal a fairly straightforward auteurist bias. But what can one say about a viewpoint such as French critic Marc Vernet\'s in his introductory essay, "Film Noir at the Edge of Doom" in Shades of Noir? Certainly it epitomizes the sort of criticism which Gifford scorns; but Gifford\'s opprobrium is not the issue. In the third edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference our review of the literature on film noir included Vernet\'s previously published conclusion that "a hero cannot be both strong and vulnerable, the woman good and evil." The assertion made there--that his observations were part of a simplistic, structuro-semiological rush to judgment clearly at odds with the narrative position of film noir as a whole--still pertain. Where once Vernet merely puzzled over contradictory icons, in "Edge of Doom" he indulges in pointless deconstruction. On the one hand Vernet now bemoans "complacent repetition" about film noir. On the other hand he presents the ultimate obfuscation by calling it "impossible to criticize." What then is he writing about?

(Left, Bogart as Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the "stuff that dreams are made of" and the unofficial beginning of the noir cycle. "A hero cannot be both strong and vulnerable"?)

One can tolerate being abstractly dismissed by Vernet and even overlook having one\'s actual name misspelled, as when he changes "Alain" to "Alan." Vernet\'s is certainly not the first bibliographic reference with that particular misspelling. Nor am I suggesting that critical writing should be about crossing every "t" or including every "i." This is particularly true with writers on motion pictures, who are addressing an expressive medium that is the most complex in the history