Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What is noir?

Bill Crider will appreciate this. Since we were science fiction fans from our early teens on we got to sit in on an endles debate over the difference between science fiction and fantasy. What is sceince fiction? Big name authors wrote a pretty good number of pieces on the subject. I never really gave a damn, I just read what I liked and didn't worry about what niche it fit into. But it was always fun reading the yea and nay arguments as intelligent people struggled to nail down a definition of their prefered reading matter.

Somthing similar has been going on over at Mystery*File, one of my favorite sites. David L. Vineyard has written a two part article that attempts to define noir both theoretically and in practice. I don't know that I agree with all of it but it's well written and entertaining and does set up a workable (if somewhat arbirtrary) definition of the form.

David L. Vineyard:

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say why I don’t think some films embraced as noir really belong there, then saw it off behind me by trying to define what noir is. But first the films that I don’t think really are noir despite having noir elements.

I’ve already explained why I don’t think The Maltese Falcon is noir — Spade is hardly alienated, doomed, obsessed or the victim of mysterious forces. He’s in control of himself and the situation, and the closest he comes to a touch of noir is a pang of regret at sending Brigid up the river for killing Archer. The only bad nights Spade is going to have is getting Miles Archer’s widow off his neck.

Laura is a bit more problematic, because the sleuth is briefly obsessed, but in the end he isn’t a noir protagonist either. Clifton Webb’s villain is alienated and obsessed, but in noir it’s the hero and not the villain that counts.

I Wake Up Screaming would be noir if Laird Cregar’s cop was the hero, but the hero and heroine are PR man Victor Mature and showgirl Betty Grable, and if you remove the murder plot, the two would be perfectly served in a musical (in fact, they were).

Johnny Eager is a slick MGM take on a Warner’s gangster movie, but again the hero, Robert Taylor isn’t a noir hero (his buddy Van Heflin is though, but that doesn’t count). There is nothing in Johnny Eager’s character different than the general run of gangsters in a hundred similar films.

for the rest go here:


mybillcrider said...

I had to laugh when I read your first paragraph. I remember that debate well. I didn't even know there was a difference until someone brought it up. I wonder if the debate was ever settled or if people just stopped caring. I never much cared, and I feel pretty much the same about the "noir" definition. I enjoy the debate, though.

Anonymous said...

I always thought a Noir hero was a poor sap who wasn't a cop, wasn't a P.I., but was just a guy who got sucked in by a dame or a plot.


Todd Mason said...

Well, as you know, this discussion has been known to break out regularly on Rara-Avis, the hb/noir discussion list.

Meanwhile, gentlemen, where do westens end, and stories of the west begin? Several years of argument, please.

(Fiction is about how to live, by positive, negative or mixed fiction is about the best/worst/etc. possible ways to live...fantasy ficttion is about the b/w/e imaginable ways to live...)

Todd Mason said...

And horror fiction is about the b/w/e imaginable ways not to die...while suspense fiction is about the b/w/e probable ways not to die...

Ricardo Carlos said...

Just wanted to add that david l.vineyard's article you refer to should be read by all those finding this page. He really writes good articles. His recent one on Desmond Cory is another good example of his level headedness when he writes. Recommend to all readers.