If you have passed Manchester’s Cornerhouse on your way into university recently, you may have noticed that schedules are littered with the likes of Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), as part of the cinema’s My Noir season. Harking back to classic film noir is not a new trend; films such as Memento (2000), Brick (2005), and Drive (2011) have drawn on the genre, and subsequently contributed to an off-shoot known as neo-noir. But what is it that renders film noir so enduring, and how has it managed to enjoy such continuity in an ever-evolving Hollywood?
Although it is difficult to define, film noir’s foundations are rooted in American literary history – primarily crime fiction of the late 1920s. Some of the genre’s most famous films, like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Mildred Pierce (1945), were based on novels, and Raymond Chandler, who wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), debuted as a novelist. As a result, film noir tends to involve criminal investigations and predominantly anti-heroic protagonists, who often provide narrative voiceovers. Another noir archetype is the iconic femme fatale; a temptress who, in the words of Roger Ebert, ‘would just as soon kill you as love you’. Stylistically, however, film noir – French for ‘black film’ – was largely influenced by German Expressionism, and used light and shadow amongst black and white for impressive, dramatic effect. While some of these elements have not carried over to more recent noir films, they are vital in framing the genre and understanding its spread throughout the mid-twentieth century.
The immediate popularity of film noir reflected heavily on its audience at the time; the films were pessimistic, as were post-war American attitudes. Moreover, many of film noir’s plot elements and exchanges of dialogue were considered risqué during this period, which may have contributed to a curiosity that allowed the genre to enjoy great popularity until the end of the classic noir era in the 1960s. However, its notoriety – while wavering slightly – has endured and today, over twenty noirs stand in the National Film Registry. In addition, plot elements are still used for new interpretations and classics continue to be re-mastered for cinemas and exhibitions. Therefore, evidence suggests that film noir, while enjoying notable success in this particular film season, is not necessarily making a comeback but is rather maintaining its vital position in the ever-continuing development of world cinema.