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Watch: Where Does the Term ‘Film Noir’ Come From?

Watch: Where Does the Term 'Film Noir' Come From?

What exactly is film noir?  Is it a movement, a mode, a style, or a
genre?  These questions have preoccupied film scholars for decades.
According to filmmaker Paul Schrader, noir began with The
Maltese Falcon 
and ended with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.
 He’d add that it was largely
an American movement that applied certain stylistic (high contrast
lighting, voice over narration, non-linear storytelling) and thematic
(existentialism, the cruel mechanizations of fate, amour fou) elements
in genres ranging from melodramas to detective films.
Another film scholar might add that directors like Fritz Lang and Billy
Wilder never described their films as being “noir.”  They thought they
were making thrillers. Film noir?  That’s a term the French critics
applied retroactively.  

This video essay series takes the fairly provocative stance that film
noir became a genre.  Essentially, in its golden age during the 1940s,
noir was a mode/movement that was superimposed onto other genres.  In
the words of genre theorist Rick Altman, genres
can start off as “adjectives”–fragments of the style and theme might
be there, but the genre has yet to fully solidify because the filmmakers
and audiences haven’t quite gotten their heads around it yet.  However,
by the time Robert Aldrich was making Kiss
Me Deadly 
in 1955, the writings of the French critics had made it
stateside (in fact, there’s a picture of him reading Borde and
Chaumeton’s Panorama
du Film Noir 
on the set of Attack!),
and perhaps the filmmakers and audiences had finally
begun to think of noir as being a noun.  When neo-noir flourished in
the 1970s (thanks to filmmakers like Schrader), the movement
emerged–fully formed as a genre–from its black-and-white cocoon.  

I write this trajectory into this introduction to the series because I
can imagine that some of my colleagues might have been troubled by a
video essay that calls film noir a genre. I am more than aware of the
history of this debate, and I cover it in this
essay on pragmatics.  (Part IV will focus on evolution.  There will be a
Part V on international noir, so don’t think I’ve forgotten about that
either!). What I’m attempting to do here is to craft the video essay
equivalent of an encyclopedia entry on film
noir for the undergraduate student with a new episode each month.  If
you’re already familiar with the films and the key debates, you may not
find much in the way of “new” knowledge here.  My main audience–at
least in terms of an intellectual presentation–is
the uninitiated.  I assume the pleasures of the more advanced fans and
scholars of noir will be found in the aesthetics of the pieces, although
maybe they’ll be surprised by a “new” recommendation.  In any case, I
hope you enjoy the first part of this ongoing
series, and I look forward to the debate it encourages.  Stay tuned for

Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.  
the co-editor and co-founder of
Journal of Videographic Film and Moving
Image Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal focused on the
visual essay and all of its forms (co-presented by MediaCommons and
 Cinema Journal).  [in]Transitionrecently

won an award of distinction in the annual SCMS Anne Friedberg
Innovative Scholarship competition.  His publications have appeared inanimation: an interdisciplinary journal, The Black Maria, Flow, In Media Res, Mediascape, Press Play,, Senses
of Cinema, Studies in Comics, and a range of academic anthologies.  He is currently completing
a manuscript on the overlap between American blockbuster cinema and comic book style.

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