“Like errant children, films noirs have changed, subsumed by their history and turning into self-referential creatures not always beholden to their parents.” (Dickos 235) The “errant children” that Dickos is referencing in this quote are neo noir films. Much like the classical noir films that these are inspired by these films have themselves seen great success in recent years and have further expanded the idea of what noir actually is. By looking at classical films noir and comparing and contrasting it with neo noir films of the 90’s and 2000’s one can seek to answer the question of how were these neo noir films influenced by traditional noir and how did this affect their production and reception?
One may ask themselves, what exactly is noir? This question is one that is most definitely easier asked than answered. However, starting with a definition may be helpful. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary the word “noir” is defined as “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” This definition certainly does a great job of covering the basics of noir in one sentence, however there are other sources that one must look to in order to discover the true nature of what films noir actually is. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton do an excellent job of trying to find the true definition of noir in “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” They write, “The noir film is black for us…It exists in response to a certain mood at large in this particular time and place.” (Borde Chaumeton 19) This is in reference to the sentiment of the United States at the time that noir films were being created. This was due to the fact that these films were being released as America was in World War II or just coming home from the war. During this time American morale was down as many Americans had just gone through the Great Depression, lost love ones overseas in the war, the political and corporate corruption throughout the United States was rampant, and the fear of Communism coming to America was very real. In order to address and reflect these real-world occurrences, noir film directors and writers chose to make their films extremely dark and edgy for the time. “Blackmail, accusation, theft, or drug trafficking set the stage for a narrative where life and death are at stake.” (B/C 19) These are all subjects that had yet to be touched on in films yet, and noir film creators chose to tackle them at full force. At this same time there were normal police procedural movies that showed how the great cops always caught the terrible perpetrators and punished them for their crimes through the arms of the law. However, noir films chose to go a completely different route in showing crime. “If police are featured, they are rotten… The private detective is mid-way between lawful society and the underworld… and the actual law breakers are more or less sympathetic figures.” (B/C 21) Although this is most certainly not all that noir did in order to change Hollywood for good, it is certainly a start in terms of new forms of narrative to come along and for writers to develop and modify throughout the years.
One such dark theme that was touched on in classical films noir was the idea of despair and hopelessness. These films chose to show a certain form of nihilism in the fact that no matter what the characters did to change the situations of their lives that it was all hopeless and futile in the end and nothing truly matters, because things would always turn out negatively. Robert Porfirio writes in “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” “What keeps the film noir alive for us today is something more than a spurious nostalgia. It is the underlying mood of pessimism which undercuts any attempted happy endings and prevents the films from being the typical Hollywood escapists fare many were originally intended to be.” (Porfirio 80) Noir sought to take the harsh reality of things that were occurring in the real world and show a different kind of harsh reality on screen. One example of this theme can be seen in the character model of the “non-heroic hero” or the anti-hero. This type of noir protagonist is certainly not the typically night in shining armor that you see on the big screen, in fact he is far from it. The noir hero is usually a deeply damaged person of which the film may allude to a dark or tragic past that the character had to go through to get where they are now. They all seem to be partially depressed and existentialist in nature, however they continue to do their jobs which are often rather dangerous. This attitude is partially what makes them good at being a detective or a private investigator in the fact that they do not fear death at all and therefore, make many bold decisions that typically people would not. This type of character can be seen in the character of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.
Not only were classical noir films different at the time for their use of narrative and theme, but also for their use of unique visual motifs. “Nearly every attempt to define film bnoir has agreed that visual style is the consistent thread that unites the very diverse films that together comprise this phenomenon.” (PP 65) Almost all traditional films at the time utilized a three-way lighting setup using a key light, fill light, and back light in order to frame a character. At the time the style of lighting used was known as “high-key lighting” and served to make the characters faces more attractive to the audience. However, noir chose to challenge this idea and instead flip the script and use low-key lighting which creates high contract and dark black shadows, serving to hide features and make characters more obscure rather than being attractive. Another key feature of the noir visual set up were that scenes were shot “night-for-night” meaning that if the scene was supposed to be set at nigh time then the directors would actually should the scene at night. This really seems like a silly and obvious concept in the present day, but it was something that had not been done before this. Before this, scenes were shot “day-for-night” meaning they were shot during the day and filters were placed over the scenes to make them appear to take place at night. “Another requirement of noir photography was greater ‘depth of field.’ It was essential in many close or medium shots that focus be carried into the background so that all objects and characters in the frame be in sharp focus.” (67) The use of the wide angle lenses not only helped show these objects in short to medium shots, but in certain instances distorted faces or figures in order to make the scene appear more mysterious and intriguing as well as bringing the viewer into the screen and making them feel entrenched in the film. Some more factors to consider in traditional film noir visual motifs are the jarring camera angles, “claustrophobic framing devices”, and the fact that “objects seem to push their way into the foreground of the frame.” Given the fact that traditional noir films were shot on a budget as they were often the “B” films of the time, it is quite incredible to observe all of the innovations that directors were able to come up with when creating these movies.
So, after examining the ideas behind traditional noir films from the 40’s and 50’s, one may ask what neo-noir is or as B. Ruby Rich asked, “Neo noir, qu’est que c’est?” Beginning in the 1960’ s Hollywood’s production code began to become more relaxed than it had previously been paving the way for a new evolution of the noir cycle that has continued until the present day. The term itself neo noir is essentially just saying “new film noir” or basically any noir style film that came after the time period of traditional noir. So even if a filmmaker were to make a film in 2020 that perfectly encapsulates classical noir it would still be considered neo noir due to its date of production. However, typically the date is not all that plays a factor in making a film a neo noir film. Neo noir does not come in one specific size or shape, unlike classical noir of which the wide range of films is vastly the same. Directors of these new kinds of noir films had the opportunity to watch and learn from the decisions of previous traditional noir films, and thus learned to adapt neo noir into their own take on the style.
Andrew Dickos describes in A Street with No Name that neo noir films typically have 4 main characteristics that set them apart from traditional films and classical films noir. For one, the neo-noir film shows more on screen violence than other films of its time, however he states that, “such violence is almost always more stylized and often less disturbing.” One note that he makes however, is that this violence is not always shown in a seen of great distress or heightened emotion, on the other hand it is often paired with a comedic element which is hard to utilize, but when utilized properly it works out tremendously. Take Quentin Tarantino’s pulp fiction for example. One of the most shocking and hilarious scenes in the film occur when John Travolta’s character, Vincent, “accidentally” shoots Marvin while his partner drives over a bump. The scene cuts from inside the car to behind it where viewers can see blood splatter all over the back window of the car. During one’s first watch of this film what happens is completely unexpected and over the top gory. However, it is also hilarious due to the characters’ nonchalant attitudes following the event. Vincent states, “Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.” Jules exclaims, “Why the fuck’d you do that!?” And Vincent retorts, “Well I didn’t mean to do it; it was an accident.” Tarantino made a bold decision to include this scene without knowing how viewers would accept it. Nevertheless, he did it anyways and this has become one of the most famous scenes in all of his films.
Another characteristic of neo noir is that “The period accoutrements of classic noir cinema are almost always contemporary.”
Neo noir has also made progress as far as the use of racially and sexually diversified characters goes. In traditional noir films the casts are dominated traditionally by all white men, with the exception of the femme fatale character that would be shown. In neo noir characters such as the aforementioned “Jules” are much more diversified in their races and seven their sexual orientations. It is not uncommon at all for a black character to be the central role in a neo noir film, which is a broad jump from the lack of diversity shown in traditional noir.
Borde And Chaumeton Panorama Of American Film Noir 1941 1953 : Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming. (2002, November 01). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://archive.org/details/BordeAndChaumetonPanoramaOfAmericanFilmNoir19411953/Borde and Chaumeton – Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953
Conard, M. T. (2009). The philosophy of neo-noir. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Christopher, N. (2006). Somewhere in the night: Film noir and the American city. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard.
Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky, 2002. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jcttk. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
Neo-noir : Bould, Mark : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming. (1970, January 01). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://archive.org/details/neonoir00mark/page/44/mode/2up
Pettey, Homer B., and R. Barton Palmer, editors. International Noir. Edinburgh University Press, 2014. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt14brz6d. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
Porfirio, Robert. The Philosophy of Film Noir. Edited by Mark T. Conard, University Press of Kentucky, 2006. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jchn4. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
Porfirio, R. (n.d.). No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir. In Film Noir Reader (pp. 77-93).
Silver, A. (n.d.). Son of Noir: Neo Film Noir and the Neo B Picture. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from http://www.intelligentagent.com/noir/Silver.pdf