The classic period of film noir lasted from roughly 1940 to 1960. Roughly is the operative word here since the exact perimeters of the period have always been open for debate. I mark the beginning as Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and the end as the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, the man who killed the fedora as a fashion symbol. With the demise of the snap brim, classic noir pretty much lost its will to live.
Of course, by that time many other factors had come into play. In the fifties, the studio system fell apart and television began to chip away at the movie business. To compete, movies got bigger and louder. Perhaps most importantly, they also got more colorful. Black and white suddenly became old, signaling the end of the iconic noir cinematography. Noir became stodgy in other ways, too. After Psycho and Bonnie & Clyde upped the ante on mainstream sex and violence, B-movies went through a depressing period of readjustment—or perhaps a better word is disintegration. Noir advertising had always promised more cheap thrills than the movies actually delivered. By 1969, however, a film like Don Henderson’s sleazy The Babysitter—a sloppily shot muddle of hippie nudity and druggie sadism—was evocative of the new grindhouse version of pulp. If what you wanted was sex and violence, there was no longer any reason to sit through an actual plot.
This is not to suggest that the sixties were all bad, though. Films like Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961), and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) kept expanding the limits of the form. Pulp—like everything else in Hollywood—changed. By the time the seventies rolled around, noir had spilt into the two main permutations we still see today:
2. Neo-Noir-These are films set in the time period in which they are made but carry on the themes and archetypes of noir. Examples abound, but superior entries include The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, Reservoir Dogs, A Simple Plan,The Last Seduction, Memento, Match Point, Zodiac, Gone Baby Gone, and 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Neo-noir might also encompass various offshoots of modern noir such as comic book noir (Sin City, The Dark Knight) and dystopian sci-fi noir like Blade Runner and Dark City.
Retro-noirs can certainly be done well—Chinatown and LA Confidential are about as good as movies have a right to be—but they come with certain pitfalls. Like all period pieces, they erect an additional layer of unreality between their story and the audience, a fabricated distance of time. There’s something distracting when a modern star slips on a fedora and fires up a Lucky Strike. This ties into another problem with Retro-noirs: they have to negotiate the pull between being a reenactment of another time period and a reenactment of the movies of another time period. The Black Dahlia is a crappy movie for many reasons, but it might have been better if Dana Andrews had been around to play Josh Harnett’s part. Likewise, the cast of Mulholland Falls (1996) don’t seem to know what kind of movie they’re in because the movie itself doesn’t know. The best Retro-noirs transcend this intrinsic problem. Carl Franklin’s underrated 1995 Devil in a Blue Dress, for instance, stays true to the spirit of Walter Mosley’s novel by following detective Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) on an adventure through parts of LA that Philip Marlowe never thought to visit. Like all good Retro-noirs, Devil in a Blue Dress has a legitimate reason to be set in the forties.
Neo-noir encompasses a much larger field of filmmaking—everything from Point Blank in 1967 to Animal Kingdom in 2010. In fact, the problem here seems to be knowing where to stop. I was talking to noir historian Eddie Muller recently and he lamented, “You know, everything gets called noir these days.” Muller’s point—and it’s a good one—is that the term “film noir” has become a marketing tool as much as an aesthetic description. Is Black Swan a neo-noir? I’d argue yes (see it and then Netflix the 1948 A Double Life). But search IMDB for “neo-noir” and you’ll also get things like Kill Bill Vol. 2, I Am Legend and Saw IV.
And on and on. The apparently deathless debate over what exactly constitutes noir (visual style? plot? archetypal characters?) is pretty good evidence that the idea of noir is malleable. This hasn’t been a bad thing through the years. A genre needs to adapt to the times. The rigidity of the western, for instance, hasn’t done that genre much good over the last twenty years or so. At least in part, noir’s essence is a sympathy for the devil, an impulse to complicate black and white morality and show that ordinary people are capable of acts of evil. Whether that takes its form in a period piece like The Good German or a present day potboiler like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, perhaps the point is still the same: the darkness in the human heart lives on.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor