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Watch: How Did Film Noir Evolve? A Video Essay

Watch: How Did Film Noir Evolve? A Video Essay

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. 

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.  

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 it was covered in Part III on Pragmatics.
 Part IV is a shift in gears and focuses the evolution of the genre,
guided by Thomas Schatz’s scholarship (so be sure to watch the
introduction one last time for the change in approach!).  Finally, there
will be one final installment focusing more intensely 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 (I love Key Lime Pie, a fantastic animated short by
Trevor Jimenez).  In any case, I hope you enjoy the penultimate episode
of this ongoing series and I look forward to the debate it encourages.

A list of the films featured in this installment:

La Bete Humaine
This Gun For Hire
The Big Sleep
Out Of The Past
The Killers
The Lady From Shanghai
In A Lonely Place
Sunset Blvd.
Ace In The Hole
Bob Le Flambeur
Shoot The Piano Player
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Pulp Fiction
Sin City

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.  He the co-editor and co-founder of[in]Transition: 
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 in
animation: 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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