- More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts
Film noir may be the great achievement of film studies. As the claims of apparatus theory (the synthesis of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Althusserian critique of ideology that film studies used to muscle its way into serious academic discussion) increasingly seem a dubious grand narrative, one can’t deny the power of film noir to mobilize the imagination. This term, which was rarely heard before the 1970s, has now penetrated everywhere, from the academy to Madison Avenue. It evokes a style both cinematic and personal, and its power comes partly (as Naremore’s book establishes) from its vagueness, from the fact that everyone who uses it has a different definition and delights in recounting it to anyone who will listen.
The common ground for definitions is easily demarcated (although as Naremore demonstrates, the disputed borders excite the most commentary). Film noir refers to a group of films made between approximately 1940 and 1960 (there are also “neonoirs,” recent films that knowingly imitate or parody the earlier ones—although scholars disagree whether these can legitimately be classed in the same series). The shared aspects of this group of films are a plot involving crime and violence, usually of a personal, passionate nature; a fatalistic narrative replete with bitter plot turns and bad endings; and a deliberate style of performance (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, John Garfield) and cinematography (low key lighting, strong use of shadows, and edgy, tension-filled compositions). The “noir” of film noir refers literally to the films’ underlit compositions and metaphorically to their dark fatality.
But why see film noir as a contribution of film studies? The question becomes particularly pointed when one realizes that what is probably everyone’s favorite style of American film had never produced—until now—an outstanding book-length work of sustained criticism, although dozens of fine essays have been written on the topic. Naremore supplies the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, [End Page 151] and level of writing that this group of films deserves. But Naremore shows us that the term “film noir” is an act of criticism rather than a rubric that delineates a consciously assembled Hollywood genre. The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead, film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.
For Naremore, noir is one of the key places where popular culture and modernism meet. In place of the now well established catechism of “sources” for noir, Naremore undertakes to probe for larger issues. Thus his brilliant chapter on the novelists who sparked noir through adaptations or scripts (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain) not only takes the unheard-of tack of including Graham Greene as a major influence but also of pointing out that all these writers brought modernist techniques to bear on pulp writing. Noir created a vernacular modernism that broke down dichotomies of high and low culture long before postmodernism. Film noir’s discovery in the 1970s marks the belated recognition of a style flourishing within the cultural industry that could call such oppositions into question.
That noir operates in a space between high modernism and pulp fiction reveals the key to its protean liminality. Noir not only lies between a variety of supposed oppositions (Naremore lists, “between Europe and America, between high modernism and ‘blood melodrama,’ and between low-budget crime movies and art cinema”); it shuttles between these realms, a smuggler introducing contraband from one side of the great divide to the other (220). What makes Naremore’s analysis so dynamic is his refusal to rely...