Film noir is an elusive, amorphous thing, something you recognise when you see it but is incredibly difficult to pin down. There are things you can point to that you expect from film noir—plots from hardboiled crime fiction, cinematography from German Expressionism, private eyes, and femme fatales—but nothing firm.
Paul Schrader wrote that film noir is defined by its tone—a fatalistic, hopeless one—but even that is slightly too specific. More than a genre, a style or a tone, noir is a vibe: something’s film noir if it feels like it is, and any definition is an attempt to backfill a reasoning. When classic films noirs were being made in Hollywood, the industry wasn’t consciously making film noir, the way people consciously made westerns—as James Naremore outlines in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, the idea was only defined retrospectively. The dozens of tropes, stock characters, and shooting styles that make up film noir don’t have a standard arrangement, or even an obvious connection to one another, but through the act of repetition, they collectively acquired new meaning. Film noir is fall guys, cynical detectives, down-and-out boxers, and struggling writers; it’s shadows cast from Venetian blinds, rain on a city night, low angle shots and first-person voiceover narration; it’s Humphrey Bogart looking as cool as possible while smoking a cigarette.
I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about one of my top two artists who fought in the French Resistance, Jean-Pierre Melville, and film noir! You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.