Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Rules of Film Noir

The Rules of Film Noir, amiably presented by Matthew Sweet, offered a useful tour around the genre, with the assistance of plenty of clips and contributions from talking heads such as the notable American crime writer George Pelecanos.

Sweet pointed out that, although we tend to think of film noir as American, and the stories of the films often came from pulp fiction, the success of this dark brand of movie owed much to European influences. For example, Sweet and others pointed out that many of the finest directors, men like Wilder, Tourneur, and Siodmak, originated from Europe and some of the cinematographic effects had their roots in German expressionism. Similarly, there was a European style to some of the music used in the films, and due tribute was paid to the work of the great Miklos Rozsa.

Some of the clips came from films I know well, but I’ve never got round to watching either The Big Combo or Murder My Sweet. Two marvellous films based on James M. Cain classics, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, were among those featured, but I was surprised that D.O.A., Phantom Lady and Detour didn’t get a mention. But there is a limit to how much ground you can cover in an hour.

It was said that Touch of Evil (1958) was the last true film noir. But, of course, movies in the film noir tradition continued to be made. And it was surprising, given that the programme ended on this note, that no mention was made of that modern classic in the tradition, Body Heat. Especially since John Barry’s brilliant jazzy theme for Body Heat opened the programme!


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I do really enjoy the dark humor in noir...actually, the dark everything, I suppose. I love the ones where an innocent person is suddenly caught up in a desperate situation. I didn't realize the European influences...very interesting!


Ann Elle Altman said...

I haven't looked much into the film noir movies. I believe I've seen the postman always rings twice but I should go back and watch a few films in this style.


Steve Lewis said...

Martin, If you ever find two people who agree exactly on a definition of film noir, and which movies are in and which aren't, let me know.

Bet you can't, though!

--- Steve

seana said...

I'm far, far from being an expert on any of this. But I'm wondering if the European experience was perhaps necessary to add a little weight to the film industry in Hollywood. After all, the days are sunny much of the time, and people here don't carry the weight of the past in the same way. It may have taken a European in exile to imbue American film with the idea that things aren't rosy just because you'd like to believe so.

Minnie said...

Eh ben voyons, Martin - ce fameux film noir, c'est plutot une invention francaise non ;-)?

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for these comments.
Seana, interesting and plausible suggestion.
Steve, you win, precise definition is impossible/pointless (rather like precise definition of 'crime fiction'?)
Minnie - naturellement!

Peter Rozovsky said...

My favorite bit of recent noir enlightenment came when I read that many American movies of the sort that would later be called films noirs were originally thought of as melodramas.

I thought of this, too, when I saw Odd Man Out recently and read that it, too, had been called noir. It seems more melodramatic to me, and not necessarily in a bad way.
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