Tuesday, November 08, 2011

What does noir mean to you?

I've been reading some harder-boiled crime fiction recently and I have no new post for today, so I'm bringing back this old discussion on the timeless — and, to some, exasperating — question of what noir means.
=============================
Centrifugal force generated by my recent discussion with Megan Abbott and some of the replies thereto spun off a few questions about noir.

Is noir about attitude? Atmosphere? Doom? Destiny? The term is French; the first and most prominent practitioners have been American. Who else exemplifies noir?

I can define noir no more precisely than that American Supreme Court justice defined obscenity when he wrote:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."
Without claiming to be an expert, and with little hope that my words will live as long as Potter Stewart's, I know noir when I feel it. It hits like a punch in the stomach when I see the protagonist going down, and down is the only direction in noir.

The protagonist may face his destiny (or hers) with resignation or with unnerving detachment. He may knowingly initiate his descent, and those stories may be the most chilling of all. The descent need not culminate in death. In fact, death may be too easy an end. The noir protagonist may not even recognize his own hopelessness (here my definition may part ways from those of other readers), but the reader does.
OK, that's a bit of what noir means to me.

What does noir mean to you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Labels: ,

54 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I agree with your pornography analogy. The problem with too closely defining a sub-genre such as noir is that everyone has their own ideas of how broad the definition should be. Then some are taken to task for not being "true noir," or "not noir enough," or some other pejorative term because they didn't meet the critic's definition of an essentially undefined term. (And it must be essentially defined, or we wouldn't be constantly debating its definition.)

Considering the amount of heat sometimes generated by these discussions, I have stepped away, classifying them as debates about how many criminals/dirty cops/femme fatales can dance on the point of a switchblade.

"Why bother commenting?" you may ask. I'm just an argumentative SOB by nature. It's part of my darker nature that's drawn to noir fiction. How do I know what's noir?

I know it when I see it.

May 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's worth discussing as long as the discussion is more an inquiry than a marketing meeting, I'd say.

I've read references to neo-noir, but I'm not sure what it means. And I have read stories in noir anthologies that don't seem especially noirish, which does not bother me in the least.

Someone once wrote about the absurdity of trying to define a literary style with terms coined to designate cinematic style. That's a good argument to remember anytime anyone gets dogmatic about noir. I mentioned a panel at NoirCon that discussed how widely the term has spread. An interesting question for those of us with time on our hands is why it has spread so widely.

May 18, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

In a discussion about banned books over on Crimespace, someone mentioned that, sadly, crime/mystery novels have only very rarely been the target of bans. I suspect this is partly because mystery novels tend to be written by people with a great faith in good winning out over evil, the bad guy getting caught in the end and order getting restored. Nothing too subversive at all, really.

Even in books in which main characters are alcoholic, 'lone wolves,' up against the system, they don't go so far as to screw up their jobs enough to fail to catch the murderer.

This is where noir comes in ('cause I bet you were wondering where this was going).

To me, noir is a state of mind in which good doesn't always triumph over evil, where order doesn't always get restored and where bad guys don't always get caught.

True noir is rare though, probably because the huge leap of faith required to spend so much time on something so likely futile as writing a novel would work against the truly bleak world view of 'noir.'

May 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now that you mention it, I did wonder where you were going with that. I didn’t mind the diversion, though. That was an interesting take on crime fiction.

Two names occur to me in connection with your definition of noir: Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Claude Izzo. I suspect it is significant that both were French and perhaps bleakly coincidental that both lived rather short lives.

I don’t even think such a figure as Ken Bruen writes noir as I think of it, not even in his Jack Taylor novels. Bruen might disagree with me, but there’s hope in the novels, even if Bruen is only setting Jack Taylor up for disappointment. It’s no accident that he uses the Beckett line ”I can't go on. I'll go on” as an epigraph (if I remember correctly). That’s bleak, but there’s a kind of optimism to its persistence.

May 18, 2008  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I don't want to get into the definition either. I find it depressing, unpleasant stuff. Perhaps people read it because it makes them feel better about their own lives. It works the opposite way with me. I'm particularly appalled that noir has become fashionable, so that noir writers find a ready interest in their work. Between cosies on one hand and noir on the other, there's little left for anything in the middle. The unnatural extremes rule.

I'm a realist: Life is made up of good and bad times, good and bad people, good and bad events. Even people have good and bad qualities. My books will always juxtapose the potential good and the horrible things people do to each other. I'm more interested in how an average character copes in the real world of crime, and I relate to Jack Taylor precisely because both aspects coexist in him and in his world.

November 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I've already weighed in with my views on this subject -- in a nutshell, I like much noir fiction in the original, classical, unrevised definition -- but I'd like to recommend a readily available novel I read over the weekend, A Touch of Death, by Charles Williams, 1953; a Hard Case Crime reprint. The very definition of "real" noir.

The made-hard-boiled-by-circumstances male protagonist encounters not one, not two, but count 'em, three femmes fatales over the course of the novel. A Hard Case Crime reprint. With every turn of the page you know this guy is not gonna get out safe and sound. But the writing (who is this guy Williams?!) is fantastic and I, as a reader, willing spiraled down into the abyss with the the poor sap. Just one nice sample from p. 1:

"It was very quiet in the hot afternoon sun. A few cars went past on the sea wall, and far out in the Gulf a shrimp boat crawled like a fly across a mirror."

Oh, and thanks for that photo of Dash, Peter; it's one of my very favorites of him.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I would say that good noir often concerns the plight of average characters drawn into hellish circumstances. Some of David Goodis' or Megan Abbott's protagonists are at least as average as Jack Taylor.

I expect, though, that some pucish noir partisans would embrace the description of noir as an unnatural extreme.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, who the heck dresses up like that to type these days? Who the heck types?

I like the juxtaposition of shrimp and fly. I'll look for the book.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

I've been pondering a blog post on a smiliar subject for several weeks now. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of liking many of the writers described as "neo-noir," but not what they write. They have chops, and I've come to know several of them online and enjoy their virtual company greatly. I'm just burned out on the genre.

I still love what I think of as 'traditional" noir. James M Cain, SUNSET BOULEVARD, Megan Abbott. Those stories read like relatively ordinary, if somewhat unsavory, people finding themselves in bad situations making bad decisions.

Too much neo-noir seems to revel in its depravity. There's no light in the story. Not only is the protagonist doomed, I find myself rooting for his demise. The stories are almost nihilistic, and life's too short to spend too much time there.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Second try after Blogger again eats a comment:

Dana, I can guess what you mean by their having chops. Some of them are good at description, not as good at telling a story.

November 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Who the heck dresses up like that to type these days? Who the heck types?

Peter, as you may recall from Layman’s Dashiell Hammett bio, Hammett taught himself to touch type. You may also recall that, once he earned some real money, Hammett was a bit of a clothes horse. He liked fine tweeds and in one interview given shortly after he had received national acclaim he preened a bit before the woman interviewer in his smart, new dark green tweed suit, of which he was very proud. Dashie was a class act!

That photo is one of several from the same photo shoot. “Portrait of the artist at work” stuff.

Too much neo-noir seems to revel in its depravity. There's no light in the story. Not only is the protagonist doomed, I find myself rooting for his demise. The stories are almost nihilistic, and life's too short to spend too much time there.

Yes, indeed, Dana. For example, I find this is how I feel about Ray Banks’s series character Callum Innes. After 2 novels, I find I don’t really care what happens next to Innes. Innes is neither likable nor unlikeable, neither interesting nor uninteresting. I believe Peter has noted that Allan Guthrie is Banks’s agent (?). Hmm, yet I really love Allan Guthrie’s hard-boiled novels and care about even some of his most unlikeable characters. However, falling in love with characters is definitely not a prerequisite for me to fall in love with a writer’s work so I imagine it boils down to the writing itself. With his third novel, I had hoped that Banks might grow out of the urge to provide graphic, Technicolor details of bodily functions, for example. I presume this falls under the heading of “gritty realism” but it’s just tiresome. As I believe I’ve written before, I know there are people like Innes et al out there in the world, I just don’t want to spend any of my free time with them. There's no Chandlerian redemption for me in the Innes novels.

Yes, "traditional noir," written in any decade.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Allan Guthrie is not Ray Banks’ agent but is a friend of his and may have served as an editor on one or more of his books (whether formally or informally, I’m not sure).

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Elisabeth,
It's interesting that you and I agree on everything under discussion except for Ray Banks, who I like more with each read. I read the last Innes book (NO MORE HEROES) and recently finished his e-novella GUN. Loved them both. Yes, Innes is in many ways an unremarkable character, yet I find him representative of where a lot of people could wind up if they aren't careful and lucky.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, Banks’ Dead Money (the book that, in an earlier version, includes the sinister haircut cover to which you linked recently) has some fine description that nicely follows the old show-don’t-tell advice in conveying the sleaziness of casinos. It’s not a Cal Innes novel, but it does end with something like self-realization on the protagonist’s part.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe it's more self-pity. But it's something.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

My list of favourite classic noirs here:

http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.com/2011/10/ive-seen-things-you-people-wouldnt.html

As you can see its a pretty expansive list but there are limits, there have to be otherwise the point of having categories at all make no sense.

November 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's not summertime, but I'll make the clicking easy with this handy link to your list.

As much as I love Hammett, I've never thought of the movies based on it as noir, which matters not a whit, of course.

I've said that Ned Beaumont's beating in The Glass Key is about the noirest bit of Hammett, but Gutman's treatment of Wilmer in The Maltest Falcon is pretty noir, too, I suppose.

November 08, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Looked at Adrian's list. The titles ring familiar, but I only remember seeing THE THIRD MAN. That film I remember vividly, though it belongs to my youth and another life in another country. Strange, when I was quite young, noir films simply struck me as serious and artistic commentary on life.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah! Perhaps your current antipathy to noir is an embarrassed reaction to that youthful infatuation. Now we’re getting somewhere!

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I've posted on the subject but it's too long to place here.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

I.J. Parker said"
"...noir films simply struck me as serious and artistic commentary on life."

Sometimes they are. I don't think I've ever seen a better movie than SUNSET BOULEVARD. It fits both of your terms.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D: Post a link.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, "Sunset Boulevard" probably is a melodrama, which is exactly what American movies retroactively called films noirs were before that term was invented.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I was called away to another task and the post has interesting linguistic dead ends and unfinished sentences which is in keeping with the subject in hand.

I'll post a link when the fair copy is complete.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll wait patiently while you polish the post.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Thank you. I may not get back to it for a while as it is not a priority.

As you are a copy expert, you might like to read it as it is for it's glaring grammatical errors.
It's up on my blog already.

I still enjoy trying to see how a phrase can make sense or not based on the placement of prounouns.

November 09, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Noir is anything the publisher can't figure out what else to call it.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: As long as it has no cats.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D: The importance of word order in English offers great opportunity for wordplay.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
How about dead cats?

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, dead cats could form a mournful part of a cozy -- unless the cat's owner decides to exact gruesome torture revenge on the cats' killers.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

All this begs the question as to why we don't have a genre called "blanc".

As for word order and word play, I was very pleased to stop translating back and forth between French and English. Finding the protagonists (subject and object) and getting them into the correct order, given the different rules in each language, would have kept Sherlock Holmes in a state of confusion.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Holmes was probably fluent in a number of European languages, or could acquire such fluency given a good book, enough cocaine, and an undisturbed night.

November 09, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Blogger ate my comment on MIllers Crossing?

Shite!

Well I'm not going to repeat it all again. Just wanted to mention that the Coen Brothers ripped off that Ned Beaumont beating for a scene in MIllers Xing

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Blogger took revenge for that comment you put in just to annoy me on another string.

I saw Millers Crossing years ago, before I had ever read The Glass Key. Maybe another look in the name of research is called for.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

The problem with lost comments is so acute that I've written about it here:

"http://moderntwist2.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-to-drive-saint-to-virtual-drink.html#links"

Of course, everyone knows to keep a copy of everything in Word or Notepad, as a record of one's virtual wanderings.


Unfortunately, in reference to language skills, the drug enhancers available to tired students in the past were

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

limited to dehydrated coffee.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

The past few years have led to many insights into true noir, most of which I shall never bother to write down.

"The Maltese Falcon" is probably the film that most fits the blueprint of the times I recognise best,
from an artistic point of view. (I hear grappling irons being prepared already as the experts get ready to protest).

Noir emerges full force in times of social disaffection, I think and here's today's piece about the "Femme Fatale".

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

"http://widgetinghour.blogspot.com/2011/11/fatal-distraction.html"

(Apologies, this looks as if I'm spamming your site... simply forgot to add the link.)

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And thanks for the link.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I won't protest, but I will note that the novel is even darker than the wonderful movie.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

That is one book I must get, as I preferred films based on Hammett's work, usually, and found
Chandler sleazy (ten year olds have very discerning taste in art).

This is useful and explains how the film followed the book's dialogue to the letter.

"http://www.enotes.com/maltese-falcon"

You ask about set scenarios in Noir in another post. Playing on the viewer's sense of claustrophobia reaches fever pitch in "The Maltese Falcon".
Being compelled to remain in a room with a person who means one harm is truly a nightmare and is a recurring
visual leitmotiv in the film.

Such works probably influenced Sartre, whose claustrophic world is truly nauseating.

But Peter Lorie steals the show and I saw the film many times on TV with adults chatting happily about how handsome Peter Lorre was.

"http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/maltese-falcon?before=1316010665"

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
You're probably right about SUNSET BOULEVARD. I think of it as noir because it has what I think of as the ingredients of traditional noir: a tolerably honest guy who's looking for an easy buck gets pulled into a situation--often by a woman--in which he is out of his depth. He doesn't see it until too late, often because things are going too easy for him.

Most noir stories revolve around a crime and a relationship; both usually go bad. SUNSET BOULEVARD is the relationship, and its affects on Joe Gillis's character and psyche; in this case the murder is more the end than the means. It might be my favorite movie.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Photographe,
THE MALTESE FALCON is one of my favorite books. I re-read it every few years. (Now that I'm thinking of it, I'm about due.) at the risk of spoiling this for anyone who hasn't read the book AND seen the movie, my favorite twist is one of the few changes made in the screenplay.

Brigid is at Spade's place, and they're deciding whether it's safe for her to leave. Spade looks out the window and tells her it's not safe; she has to stay. In the movie, he saw Wilmer. In the book, no one was there.

The best example of the subtle effects the Hayes Office had on changing the subtexts of movies as I've seen.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P a D, that's a good point about the confinement in a room, and yes, that is a fine example of a crime fiction or film set piece.

I wonder if anyone has produced a stage version of The Maltese Falcon.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, one could make an entertaining list of changes from the novel and the 1931 movie version necessitated by the code. Bloody code had fooled generations into thinking the mid-20th century was an innocent time.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I was surprised when I read that American movies we call noir now were called melodramas before the term film noir was coined. Noir has much greater intellectual and artistic cachet than melodrama these days, but the juxtaposition of the two terms is useful, I think. It made me think about the stories in noir rather than just the atmosphere.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

The typical melodrama is a wrangle between the hero, the heroine and the villain.

Boucicault's device of having "The Streets of Dublin" transfer to every city with ease by just changing the name (the play became "The Streets of New York" there) is worth doing some internet searches. He and Feydeau have recognizably noir plot-lines, notably mistaken identies.

"The Maltese Falcon" was produced recently in the theatre:


"http://events.mccoolesredlioninn.com/2011/09/maltese-falcon-is-both-funny-and-suspenseful-review-the-morning-call/"

Also, and opportunity here for Dana to stand up and take a bow as "Wild Bill" is getting many accolades:

"http://www.timothyhallinan.com/blog/?p=5084"

(Though Peter may have posted this link first.)

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Dublin, thank you for the reference to Tim's review of WILD BILL. You're very kind to do so.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
Your comment about the innocence of the middle of the 20th century puts me in mind of a line from the movie REDS. It's two old people, looking back on the time of the Russian Revolution. Something along the lines of, "I think there was a lot of screwing going on. People just didn't talk about it much."

I suspect the amount of screwing that has gone on hasn't changed much over the centuries. Only the attention drawn to it has fluctuated.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And here’s that review in handy, one-click form. That’s a nice big-up.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I think that was Henry Miller in one of the weird intellectual-celebrity interpolations, and I think he said "fucking," not "screwing." In either case, it was for me a rare highlight amid four mostly tedious hours.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
Thanks very much for he link.

You're right, it was "fucking." I had a breif burst of civility. It doesn't hppen often.

November 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fuck it, that's all right.

November 12, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home