Openculture Critque

Dark Corners is dedicated to the systematic study of FN. Here David Main gives his thoughts on another attempt at a systematic analysis.

Sandy Hobbs

The Open Culture Film Noir (FN) website offers a list of 17 “aspects” that are used to assess the “noirness” of a range of films.

List A – the 17 aspects used to rate the films

  1. Investigator (a man of relative integrity)
  2. Criminal (usually a murderer)
  3. Woman #1 (bad, beautiful)
  4. Woman #2 (good bland)
  5. Money or valuables are stolen
  6. Plot is complex and/or far-fetched
  7. The past is never past (Flashbacks are common)
  8. Mankind is rotten and corrupt
  9. Bleak, downbeat ending
  10. Everyone drinks heavily, smokes heavily or both
  11. Dialogue is both quick-fire and poetic
  12. Dark and oppressive lighting
  13. Technically ingenious direction
  14. Urban location
  15. European emigre director
  16. Script based on American pulp fiction
  17. Poster with startling tagline

Firstly I would like to note that any attempt to find a way to quantify the “Noirness” of a film is a worthy endeavour. The Openculture site should be commended for their attempt and for also producing a set of tallies for a range of FN scored on their list of key FN aspects. There is certainly some merit in their approach. However, I would like to consider the Openculture aspects and how we might revise them into an alternative system for scoring “noirness”. The first part of this critique is to trim the number of aspects down by removing a number of the proposed 17 FN indicators. A number of these 17 aspects are over-general, spurious or at the very least “debatable” to be useful as “Noir markers”. I believe the following five aspects should be removed from the list.

  • (Aspect 10) smoking and drinking were common in most films up to relatively recent times. I think you would find hard drinking and lots of smoking in most genres of films made around the same time as the “noir” sample e.g. Westerns.
  • (Aspect 13) There may be some technically interesting film techniques in some Film Noirs (FN) but again it seems likely that technical and cinematographic innovations are part of a general trend through the history of film. There is also the potential for double weighting here as one might make a claim that the innovations were (at least in part) due to the director coming from or being influenced by living in another country (aspect 15) so this item is I believe a dubious aspect to use as a noirness indicator.
  • (Aspect 14) Most FNs are shot in urban locations but again this is likely to be a double weighting issue if you accept (Aspect 16) that the film is based on pulp fiction. The stories in pulp fictions are in general based on city life. Binyon (1977) considered the novels, and pulp magazine “hard boiled stories” that were published after “The Big Sleep” and noted “the locale has most often been California, with New York a short head behind and Chicago trailing in third place” (p173). Although I am unsure if anyone has quantified this, I would suggest that in any pulp literature or FN that make use of non-urban locations, then these locations will tend to function as an area which is a temporary safe haven or a place to hide and lie low. The key character in the film who is located in the non-urban setting in the film or book, will be a temporary migrant to the area. This character will invariably have a past in which they lived, worked and encountered or committed crimes in a city, but who are now on the run either from the law, or from criminals who hail from the same urban areas the key character has run from. Their fear has driven them outside their urban comfort zone.
  • (Aspect 15) I have already noted above that a foreign film director might be partly responsible for using different filming techniques but I would also voice my disinclination to consider a film to require a foreign European director to be classified as a “Noir” film. Whether a film is a FN or not, should be judged on the film’s content and not on which individual of whatever nationality directed the film.
  • (Aspect 17) Although one might evaluate a poster as a part of a studio’s attempt to attract an audience into see a film, I think the proposed poster aspect is far too general and might be applicable to all sorts of different film genres. There is only limited space on a film poster for text and this means the poster designer is always likely to attempt to create an intriguing or sensational tagline for whatever type of film they are working on, it is not a uniquely Noir aspect.

I suggest that it is worth attempting to organise the remaining proposed aspects into four clusters or themed groups of FN characteristics, namely: Key figures in the film, Typical plot aspects, Filming style and Social commentary.