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What is the Film Noir File?

The Film Noir File challenges standard interpretations of film noir, which have been presented as facts — both in the mass media and academic literature. These interpretations belong to what I call “the hardboiled paradigm.”

For example, in autumn 2016, Life magazine published an issue solely devoted to “Film Noir: 75 Years of the Greatest Crime Films.” The opening chapter under “Classic Noir” is called, “A Genre Is Born: How German film and pulp fiction inspired a uniquely American art form.”

Life mag

The first paragraph, by editor and author J.J. Baker, begins as follows:

“The film genre that the French would eventually dub noir (meaning “black”) was created when the visual tropes of German expressionism (think the stark, angular chiaroscuro and Teutonic angst reflected in such silent classics as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) were combined with the influence of the pulp and hard-boiled crime fiction that had been popularized in large part by an American magazine called Black Mask. Influenced by the terse realism of Ernest Hemingway’s fiction, the stories limned a seamy world of fedoras, cheap booze, cheaper bars, guns and gumshoes, double-crossing dames, cynicism, doomed boxers, doomed dreamers, doomed gamblers, and doom itself.” (New York: Time, Inc. Books, p. 8)

A decade earlier, an approximate summary of the ideas in the hardboiled paradigm was published on the front page in the January 2006 issue of the San Francisco Arts Monthly, “Film Noir Steps Out of the Shadows,” by film critic Sura Wood.

The Film Noir File challenges Wood’s description of film noir on point after point. (Italics in Wood’s quotes are mine).

“Though the French coined the term, film noir is a distinctly American phenomenon.” This is typical of the hardboiled paradigm, and it can be challenged. (See the pages under Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir and Internationalism of Film Noir, 1923-1963.)

“Known for minimalism and snappy dialogue, these low-budget, black and white, highly stylized movies, which reached their apex in the late ’40s and early ’50s, were stories usually told from a criminal’s point of view, about desperate people driven to the brink.” This represents the hardboiled paradigm, and it can be challenged. (See the pages under Against the Hardboiled Paradigm and Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir.)

“The noir universe was populated by a carnival of colorful, shady, often violent characters, who dwelled in an underworld or on the fringes of a fever dream; trouble lurked around each corner.” This represents the hardboiled paradigm, and it can be challenged. (See the pages under Against the Hardboiled Paradigm and Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir.)

“Noir has its roots in the pulp fiction/crime dramas of writers Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith and other authors who cut their teeth on the fiction of the 1930s.” This represents the hardboiled paradigm, and it can be challenged. (See the pages under Against the Hardboiled Paradigm. And in the page Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir, in the section called, Spy Noirs Contradict Film Noir’s “Origins Myths,” see the first subsection Film Noir Is Not Derived from Hardboiled Crime Fiction.)

Its look was influenced by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, as well as German Expressionism, imported to the U.S. by émigré directors such as Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer and Robert Siodmak, who experienced the rise of Nazism and brought with them a pessimistic, existential vision.” This represents the hardboiled paradigm, and it can be challenged. (See the pages under What Explains the Visual Style of Film Noir? And in the page Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir, in the section called, Spy Noirs Contradict Film Noir’s “Origins Myths,” see the second subsection The Noir Style Is Not Derived from European Émigrés and then the following section called, What Explains the Noir Style in the Origins of Film Noir?)

No film noir festival would be complete with that staple of noir myth, the femme fatale, a woman who is as relentless as she is unsentimental. The iconic femme fatale is devastatingly beautiful, seductive and more driven by a lust for power than by passion.” This represents the hardboiled paradigm, which has ignored other equally important female characters, especially the woman in distress, the good spy and the underground resistance fighter. (See the pages under Against the Hardboiled Paradigm, Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir and Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs. Postwar. For my challenge to Sura Wood’s claim that the femme fatale “is as relentless as she is unsentimental” — or in the words of Foster Hirsch, another proponent of the hardboiled paradigm, that the femme fatale “cannot be humanized” — see the page International Lady for my discussion of the “soft femme fatale,” who is contrasted with the “hard femme fatale,” who I discuss in the page Quiet Please, Murder.)

The stereotypical concoction of plot features, iconic characters, plus émigré directors in the hardboiled film noir paradigm are cited for “Assemble the Elements” on the website of the British Film Institute (BFI) on July 22, 2015, under “Infographic: What Makes a Film Noir?” The purpose of The Film Noir File is to challenge the BFI’s simplistic, even misleading, representation of film noir, as well as to provide evidence that film noir is far more complicated, expansive and interesting than the BFI’s constricted assemblage of “elements.”

The Film Noir File also has other pages that I hope will interest you.

You can email me, Dan Hodges, here: dmhodges@pacbell.net