Robert B. Pippin. University of Virginia Press, 2012. 152 pp. $24.95
Writing about film noir is unavoidably philosophical: how to define the category is not even a settled question. Unlike most genres, the makers of the classical films typically so categorized were not consciously setting out to make films noir; the term was retroactively coined to refer to them. Scholars do not even agree that noir is a genre at all, some arguing instead that the term denotes a loose grouping of similarities. In either case, the classic period of film noir is generally understood as running from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon to 1958’s Touch of Evil. Noir is typically identified by a variety of thematic and stylistic conventions: unsettling or otherwise odd camera angles, the dramatic use of shadow and light, “hard-boiled” dialogue, settings that emphasize isolation and loneliness. Film noir is also typically characterized by its murky distinctions between good guys and bad guys, ambiguity about right and wrong, conflicts between law and morality, unsettling inversion of values, and skepticism about post-war optimism and the “American Dream.”
In this 2012 volume, based on his 2010 lecture series, Robert B. Pippin sets out to examine the theme of fatalism in film noir, which he explains as follows: “Some philosophers believe that if the question is: What distinguishes naturally occurring events like bodily movements in space from metaphysically distinct purposive doings initiated by me, the answer is: Nothing” (13). Pippin argues that several films noir serve as excellent illustrations of this problem, as we see plans go awry and protagonists swept along by currents of events not in their control. “Almost nobody significant in noirs behaves in a way that fits [the] reflective model of action and agency [in, e.g., Aristotle], at least not with respect to the central actions around which the basic plot revolves….in some cases no one of the principles has any clear idea at all why [End Page 47] they are doing what they are doing….or, in other cases, characters know what they are doing is ill-advised….Yet they act anyway” (15).
To be sure, what happens to characters in a story doesn’t itself prove or refute philosophical theories about the nature of human rationality or agency. But literature and film are certainly helpful in prompting us to think about the problem, and teasing out its ramifications. Moreover, since these are persistent issues in philosophy, stories reflecting them might add layers of depth and resonance to philosophical discussions of them. So Pippin is right to think that we can profitably explore philosophical problems through a close examination of film, and appreciate film better through assessing their philosophical undercurrents. He has previously done as much in his 2010 book on Westerns, and this volume is a worthy companion to the earlier work. Films noir, Pippin argues, “provide even more compelling evidence about the differences between what we think we think we ‘stil’ think (about individual causal agency, self-knowledge, moral responsibility, and our reflective access to ourselves), and what we actually think….This will raise obvious questions what we ought to think about the issues” (19, emphasis original). This is a felicitous way to describe the way a film can illuminate a philosophical problem.
Pippin’s introduction is an essay-length discussion of the problem of fatalism itself, referencing several philosophers and framing the philosophical dimensions of the issue, with illustrations from several films noir. Each of the next three chapters is an in-depth analysis of a particular film: Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past, Orson Welles’ 1948 The Lady from Shanghai, and Fritz Lang’s 1945 Scarlet Street. The book also contains a final chapter of concluding remarks that highlights Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity. Films do not merely tell a story, of course; they also display the story. In each chapter, Pippin looks at the films as wholes: he considers not only the plot—the story—but also the visual aspects of cinematic story telling – the mise-en-scène, the lighting, the editing. The films point to...