It’s more of a question: Is Noir dead? And the answer that keeps pestering my optimism is a reluctant and bitter yes.
The Noir I mention is pure unadulterated Noir. I could provide a list of qualifications (as Gus did in a previous entry on genre) but to mention a few movie titles might do better. Detour directed by Edgar G. Ulmer is Noir. Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler is Noir. Night and the City directed by Jules Dassin is Noir. A combination of sex, deception, jazz, double-cross, murder, desperation, money, and a moody atmosphere… Noir.
It thrived in the 40’s and 50’s along with the Pulp literature from which it came. In the passing decades it has ruptured into so many sub-genres that the meaning of Noir is corrupt. For instance, we have “Country-Noir” with this year’s back-woods crime story Winter’s Bone. The Nicolas Cage-starring Red Rock West is sort of “Western Noir”. Films like No Country for Old Men pass as Noir, and I ask why. Is any movie that includes crime and dark shadows Noir? Even Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, as good as it is, isn’t Noir. It’s more police procedural than anything. And these corruptions apply to the classics of Hollywood as well. For instance, some might call Sunset Boulevard a Film Noir, but for what reasons? Because it has dark Black & White photography and demented, fated characters? Any genre might possess those elements.
As Gus once told me, the crime genre (in writing and movies) is a house with many rooms. The gangster story, the Cozy, the court-room drama, the who-dunit, the caper and others.
Imagine if someone were to call Agatha Christie’s work Pulp in the same vain as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. Such a suggestion would be laughable but that’s the same mistake that has been made concerning Noir.
Of course, there have been examples of pure Noir, at least by my standards, since the 50’s. The Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves with Gene Hackman fits the bill. So does Chinatown. Body Heat though disgustingly imitative of Double Indemnity makes most, if not all, the right moves. The Hot Spot, directed by Dennis Hopper, is maybe the best of its era. Even a movie like Phoenix (a forgotten crime gem with Ray Liotta) comes close but misses the genre.
And to be fair, there is nothing wrong with the creation of the above-mentioned sub-genres; in fact, the evolution of genre is necessary for a living cinema. Still, it’s important to remember where these terms came from, what they once stood for and possibly still can.
Is pure Noir possible in current cinema? In a world where jazz isn’t as popular, where the detective is more an icon of the past than a hero of the present… What would pure Noir look like in a modern setting?
Would it have pornstars instead of lounge singers? And Meth dealers instead of thieves? It might resemble something like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant; the German director’s depraved-cop yarn, full of drugs and Iguanas, is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to the genre in recent years. Herzog seems to think that New Orleans (a place torn-up by crime and natural disaster) is the perfect location for a resurgence of Noir.
Maybe he’s right. Perhaps the genre has just been asleep for too long.