An Introduction to Neo-Noir

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

Coining a Term

There was for some time a tendency on the part of film critics to argue that the label ‘noir’ could legitimately be applied only to a specific cycle of post-World War Two Hollywood films, the limits of which were most often fixed as 1941 (the year of John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon) and 1958 (with Welles’ Touch of Evil marking the end of the cycle). In recent years, however, there has been increasing acceptance of a much more flexible use of the term – in particular, of a chronological broadening of the term, both to draw in pre-World War Two examples and, more importantly, to expand the category sufficiently to include the burgeoning phenomenon of ‘neo-noir’, which was already beginning to appear at the time that American critics first adopted the French label.

Silver and Ward, for example, in their Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, choose as their first film the 1927 Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg – ‘the first modern gangster film in which the heroes are actually criminals’. At the same time, they push their analysis forward, including in their list of canonical films noirs a movie as recent as Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, and separately discussing neo-noir films up to 1992 (twenty-one films in that year alone, including Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). The 1996 Film Noir Reader (edited by Silver and Ursini) reprints essays that range over noir from Borde and Chaumeton’s seminal piece of the mid-1950s to, for example, a 1990 Todd Erickson article arguing that noir really only becomes a genre (neo-noir) in the 80s, when it emerges from its ’embryonic’ state in the sixties and seventies. One of the best recent analyses, Naremore’s More Than Night, explores ‘noir and its contexts’ from the classic 1940s films to L. A. Confidential (1997).

This widening of the term, of course, complicates one of the questions that critics continue to debate. That is, what kind of classification is ‘noir’? Is it a visual style, a tone, a genre, a generic field, a movement, a cycle, a series – or just a helpful category?  Naremore argues that having a ‘noir category’ serves an important function: even if it is not, strictly speaking, a genre (in the sense that, say, the western or science fiction or the detective story are genres), it is a label that at the very least invokes ‘a network of ideas’ that is valuable as an organising principle. Such is the ‘flexibility, range, and mythic force’ of the concept of noir that it belongs ‘to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema’. There have been over three hundred noir-influenced films released since 1971, and, whatever its generic status, the word ‘noir’ has become widespread both in academic discourse and as ‘a major signifier of sleekly commercial artistic ambition.’

The 1960s and 1970s

In both Britain and America, tensions, doubts, failures and signs of dissent gathered force as the events of the 60s, from the assassination of Kennedy on, undermined confidence and strengthened the spirit of protest. As Mailer implies in The American Dream, after the trauma of the assassination the ‘dream’ turns to a vision of violence and murder. At the end of the 60s and in the early 70s, American society was being shaken by riots in the black ghettos, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the growing opposition to the Vietnam War, higher crime and unemployment rates, Watergate and increasingly vociferous demonstrations of counter-culture discontent. Though the changes in British society were less dramatic, there was nevertheless a comparable movement away from the mood of the 60s. The early 70s saw bitter confrontations between Government and unions, the collapse of the boom in the stock market and the property market, rising unemployment and inflation and worsening conflict with the IRA. Both countries, then, were experiencing the kind of political and social malaise that made the cynicism and satiric edge of noir seem all too appropriate.

Even during the 60s there had been a number of films – some of which Silver and Ward group with canonical film noir, some with neo-noir – that drew on the films and novels of earlier decades, and by the early 70s the phenomenon was attracting considerable critical attention. There was increased use of the ‘noir’ label by film critics and more ‘consciously neo-noir’ films began to appear (Walter Hill’s 1978 film, The Driver, is singled out by Silver and Ward as one of the ‘earliest and most stylised’ examples). Adaptations of literary noir were becoming more numerous: J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film of John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners (Cape Fear); three adaptations of Chandler novels – Paul Bogart’s 1969 Marlowe (an adaptation of Little Sister), Robert Altman ‘s 1973 film of The Long Goodbye and the Dick Richards ‘ remake of Farewell, My Lovely (1975); Altman’s 1974 film of Anderson’s Thieves Like Us; the adaptations of Ross Macdonald’s early Lew Archer novels, Harper (Jack Smight, 1966) and Drowning Pool (Stuart Rosenberg, 1975 – ‘the last vestiges of the classic gumshoe’ ); Burt Kennedy’s 1976 adaptation of Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me; and three separate American adaptations of the more nearly contemporary but equally noir Parker novels of Richard Stark (Donald Westlake): Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967 – see clip below), The Split (Gordon Flemyng, 1968) and The Outfit (John Flynn, 1973).

Postmodern Nostalgia?

In recent critical debate, one question frequently raised is whether the fashionable trappings of neo-noir are themselves symptomatic of an acquiescence in slickly commercial postmodern nostalgia. The sense that ‘noir’ created in the 70s and 80s was a ‘retro’ and nostalgic avoidance of contemporary experience has been encouraged by the often-cited essay, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in which Frederic Jameson assigns to film noir a central role in the vocabulary of commercialized postmodernism.

Referring to Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), Jameson notes the film’s ‘faintly archaic feel’ and its small-town setting, which ‘has a crucial strategic function: it allows the film to do without most of the signals and references which we might associate with the contemporary world, with consumer society – the appliances and artefacts, the high rises, the object world of late capitalism’.

Leaving aside for the moment the matter of nostalgic pastiche, the most important question is whether self-consciously ‘noir’ contemporary narratives are to be seen as escaping from or as engaging with contemporary issues. There are good grounds for taking issue with Jameson’s arguments. Even when its settings are retro, both literary and cinematic neo-noir have been as concerned with exposing the nature of contemporary consumer society as earlier noir was with satirising, for example, the conformist ethos of small town America in the fifties.

A Culture of Consumption

The view of contemporary society as a culture of consumption, consuming not just commodities but performances and spectacles – and consuming the consumer – has come to the fore, increasingly in the 80s and 90s, as one of the dominant themes of literary noir, shaping the representation of protagonists as well as the content and structure of narratives. Just as 30s thrillers took deprivation as their theme, the noir films and novels of more recent decades have turned their attention to the excesses and dependencies of the society of the media, the spectacle, the consumer.

Consumerism is obviously not an element new to noir. The 30s gangsters, characterised by stylish consumption, ‘swell clothes’, penthouses, high-powered cars, expensive restaurants, were used as a means of exploring the growth of American consumerism, often with an anti-consumerist subtext that equated vulgar display with moral disorder. Close attention to fetishistic detail (hats, guns, shoes and other accessories) and a general fascination with fashion (for example, the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ signified by the clothing of fashionably dressed women) were part and parcel of classic noir.

In neo-noir films with a retro look, the incorporation of such things can be seen as a consumer society indulgence (nostalgic window-shopping), and there are unquestionably neo-noir films of which this is a fair enough criticism – Mulholland Falls (Lee Tamahori, 1996), for example, in which (as Naremore says) ‘the chief function of these four tough guys is to light cigarettes with Zippos and model a peacock collection of suits and accessories’.

Even retro noir, however, often engages seriously not only with the historical period it represents but with issues that are of contemporary relevance, and the detailed observation of consumption, style and decor can be part of the critical thrust of the film. For example, in Ulu Grosbard ‘s 1981 film, True Confessions, a thoroughly noir tale of two brothers set in mid-forties L.A., the whole style of life of the priest (Robert De Niro) – his surroundings, his dining out, his golf clothes and clubs – is used to establish him in opposition to his brother, a detective (Robert Duvall).

The detective’s single brown suit and modest apartment help to confirm his status as a figure who will pursue the corrupt regardless of the consequences. They are also, however, no guarantee of his own incorruptibility, and his conspicuous non-consumption is in part an ironic reference back to the integrity of the shabby private eye. This is a detective who has been a bagman and who doesn’t ‘give a shit’ that Jack Amsterdam did not kill the ‘virgin tramp’. He will go after him anyway.True Confessions is not, then, an exercise in nostalgic reincarnation, but instead uses retro evocation of the forties private eye films both to demythologise the traditional genre and to raise complex questions about moral responsibility and complicity in a corrupt society.

The Durability of Noir

The contemporary refashioning of noir themes is a manifestation of the flexibility and responsiveness to social change that have characterised noir from its inception and of the continued vitality of the form. The transformations of the genre in neo-noir have helped to clarify some of the constant, recognisable elements of ‘the noir vision’, most importantly the moral ambivalence of the protagonist and his (or in neo-noir often her) ill-fated relationship with a wider society that itself is guilty of corruption and criminality.

In the mid-fifties, Borde and Chaumeton drew the conclusion that the ‘moral ambiguity, the criminal violence, and the contradictory complexity of events and motives’ worked together in film noir ‘to give the spectator the same feeling of anxiety and insecurity’, and that this was ‘the distinguishing feature of film noir in our time’. Their summary captures some of the identifying traits of noir, but the persistence of this ‘network of ideas’ from the 1920s through the end of the 1990s suggests the necessity of revising the Borde and Chaumeton argument regarding the historical specificity of noir: ‘The noir of dark film is dark for us,’ they wrote, ‘that is, for European and American viewers in the 1950s.’ If noir is ‘the reflex of a particular kind of sensibility…unique in time as in space’, then the historical limits set must correspond to the greater part of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2002 Lee Horsley

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