I was in Queen Video the other day (which I am often, movie rentals, after magazines and slices of pizza, being the main drag on my pocket money) when I spotted a collection of film noir. Below the image of a hard-bitten detective in a fedora and trench coat blared the subtitle “Five Timeless Classics of Crime and Drama!” There may have been a femme fatale dame present as well, tossing her Veronica Lake-waved hair, but I was distracted by the word “timeless”.
“Really?” I thought.
Film Noir refers to the genre of gritty crime drama, usually set in a cynical, corrupt world, which combined plots from detective paperbacks with the dramatic lighting and off-kilter angles of German Expressionism. The classic era was from the 1930’s to the 1950’s but was not referred to as ‘noir’ at the time. That expression was coined by French film critic Nino Frank (the French taking these things much more seriously) and came into common use after the 1960’s, when French New Wave directors mined the genre for inspiration just as Hollywood had essentially dropped it.
While there are countless modern movies and directors that pay tribute to the style, ‘neo-noir’ being almost a genre in of itself, one of the main places you see it nowadays is as an inspiration for magazine photo shoots. Along with Hitchcock and his icy blondes in grey tailored-suits, film noirs have become a go-to aesthetic for fashion spreads and celebrity group shots. (The picture above is from a Vanity Fair Hollywood issue. Ten points if you can name at least three of the present day actors.)
The thing is, a lot of the original movies weren’t very good. They seen as B-pictures and, while popular with audiences, were rarely praised by critics or honoured with awards. The equivalent would be if, thirty years from now, film theorists wrote serious treatises on stoner pics or computer-animated Pixar fare (which they very well might).
But I understand the appeal of classic noirs. The style is arresting and there’s something very appealing about the stagey, contrived dialogue the genre is known for.
“Why don’t you shoot me then?” the anti-hero asks the gun-toting dame, incredulous despite raising his hands above his head.
“I thought we said no questions,” she purrs.
But again, that word ‘timeless’ is wrong.
You watch film noirs because you enjoy the black and white cinematography, the unrealistic dialogue, the moody soundtracks, the retro costumes and the mildly-sexist (sometimes not so mildly) portrayal of women. Similar to screwball comedies and musicals, you don’t watch noirs because they could have been made yesterday. Rather, you watch them precisely because they weren’t made yesterday. They are outdated, portraying a world that never really existed. It isn’t their ‘timelessness’ but their ‘time-iness’ which attracts.
There are, of course, some great noirs which transcend the contrivances of the genre to become stand-alone classics. One of my personal favourites is ‘The Third Man’, which uses the noir style to explore the destruction, both physical and moral, of post-WWII Vienna. But genuine classics are aberrations; they are classics because they are better than their contemporaries and therefore can only teach us a limited amount about their perspective genres. The main thing I learned from my one film studies course (‘American Film Comedy and Mass Culture’) is that mediocre movies can be worth watching as well. Even if they’re bad, they can often, to quote my professor, be “not uninteresting.”
So go watch ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ but remember that you’re enjoying Humphrey Bogart’s cigarette-smoking, gin-drinking misogynist largely because he no longer exists.
There’s a time and place for everything.