WATCH: Film Noir Basics from THE MALTESE FALCON to BOUND to INHERENT VICE: A Video Essay

WATCH: Film Noir Basics from THE MALTESE FALCON to BOUND to INHERENT VICE: A Video Essay

What exactly is film noir?  Is it a movement, a mode, a style, or a
genre?  These questions have preoccupied film scholars for decades. According to filmmaker Paul Schrader, noir
began with The Maltese Falcon and ended with Orson Welles’s
Touch of Evil.
 He’d add that it was largely an American movement that applied certain
stylistic (high contrast lighting, voice over narration, non-linear
storytelling) and thematic (existentialism,
the cruel mechanizations of fate, amour fou) elements in genres ranging from
melodramas to detective films. Another film scholar might add that
directors like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder never described their films
as being "noir."  They thought they were making
thrillers. Film noir?  That’s a term the French critics applied

This video essay series takes the fairly provocative stance that
film noir became a genre.  Essentially, in its golden age during the
1940s, noir was a mode/movement that was superimposed onto other genres.
 In the words of genre theorist Rick Altman, genres
can start off as "adjectives"–fragments of the style and theme might
be there, but the genre has yet to fully solidify because the filmmakers
and audiences haven’t quite gotten their heads around it yet.  However,
by the time Robert Aldrich was making
Kiss Me Deadly in 1955, the writings of the French critics had
made it stateside (in fact, there’s a picture of him reading Borde and
Panorama du Film Noir on the set of Attack!), and perhaps
the filmmakers and audiences had finally begun to think of noir as being
a noun.  When neo-noir flourished in the 1970s (thanks to filmmakers
like Schrader), the movement emerged–fully
formed as a genre–from its black-and-white cocoon.  
I write this trajectory into this introduction to the series because I
can imagine that some of my colleagues might have been troubled by a
video essay that calls film noir a genre. I am more than aware of the
history of this debate, and I will cover it in a subsequent
piece (Part I just covers semantics, Part II will focus on genetic
syntax, Part III on pragmatics–so the noir genre discussion will
primarily rest there, and Part IV will focus on evolution.  There will
be a Part V on international noir, so don’t think I’ve
forgotten about that either!).  What I’m attempting to do here is to
craft the video essay equivalent of an encyclopedia entry on film noir
for the undergraduate student with a new episode each month.  If you’re
already familiar with the films and the key
debates, you may not find much in the way of "new" knowledge here.  My
main audience–at least in terms of an intellectual presentation–is
the uninitiated.  I assume the pleasures of the more
advanced fans and scholars of noir will be found
in the aesthetics of the pieces, although maybe they’ll be surprised by
a "new" recommendation (I love
Key Lime Pie, a fantastic animated short by Trevor Jimenez.  In any case, I hope you enjoy the first part
of this ongoing series, and I look forward to the debate it encourages.  Stay tuned for more! 

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.  He the co-editor and co-founder of
[in]Transition:  Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal focused on the visual essay and all of its forms (co-presented by MediaCommons and
Cinema Journal).  [in]Transition recently won an award of
distinction in the annual SCMS Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship
competition.  His publications have appeared in
animation: an interdisciplinary journal, The Black Maria, Flow, In Media Res,
Mediascape, Press Play,, Senses of Cinema,
Studies in Comics, and a range of academic anthologies.  He is
currently completing a manuscript on the overlap between American
blockbuster cinema and comic book style.

6 thoughts on “WATCH: Film Noir Basics from THE MALTESE FALCON to BOUND to INHERENT VICE: A Video Essay”

  1. O.K. But let’s not forget that there are various sub-genres, so to speak. Specifically, The Gangster Film, Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, classic Film Noir, which is the conventional definition, Neo-Noir, such as Chinatown, The Last Goodbye, Romeo Is Bleeding, Red Rock West, etc., and finally, Retro-Noir, L.A. Confidential! Everybody on the same page now?


  2. Certainly interesting. My definition of noir is more traditional and while it may certainly be a style [particularly lighting] it is also an historical period in film history. Which is to say it ended sometime in the 1950’s. Everything else is just shades of noir and nods to the style. I think the time period is important because it often dealt with the disillusionment of men and women in a society after World War II and the depression. I find too many films to be self consciously noir [Blood Simple, Sin City] and probably not noir [Chinatown, Blade Runner]. But I realize I am in the minority on this.


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