Here is the reason for this post: Several years ago a co-worker of mine who was familiar with my love of classic movies asked me this question: “If I wanted to see a real film noir, what would you recommend to me?” That got me thinking-what is a ‘real’ film noir? The reason this becomes a question is because defining film noir has become a cottage industry all to itself. Go to any bookstore worth its salt(if such a thing as a bookstore continues to exist nowadays), find the section with books on film and you will find plenty of books on film noir, more than possibly any other type of movie. What this has created is an analysis of film noir from every conceivable angle, no matter how far-fetched, that it has rendered the most stylistic type of movie of the last century nearly unidentifiable.
Almost anything made in the 1940’s or 1950’s with a certain attitude or look in a couple of scenes or so has now been defined as ‘noir’, even ‘classic noir.’ It has even gotten to the point where a perennial classic such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been defined as noir in a recent book, based on the darker, starker nature of its later scenes following poor George Bailey around as he sees what life would’ve been like had he never been born. With that being the case, and with the definition of film noir becoming more elusive with each new so-called definition, how could my co-worker’s question be answered, which could be the same one many movie lovers of today may have who have heard of film noir and would like to see one, or think they’ve seen it but are not quite sure?
Well, to answer the question, I thought back to a movie that might be surprising in view of the subject under discussion. It was Vincente Minneli’s “The Bandwagon”, starring Fred Astaire, one of my favorite musicals and my favorite Fred Astaire musical (sorry Ginger!). The reason why it came to mind has to do with one dance number in the film, the one called “Girl Hunt Ballet”, with Astaire and arguably his greatest dance partner Cyd Charisse. I won’t describe it in great detail right now because you must see it to appreciate it, one of the best dance numbers in any musical ever made, but the point is this: the number is a direct and possibly the best parody of film noirs that were being made at that time.
What made it that way were certain identifying characteristics that, when put together, to anyone watching at the time, they could clearly identify as a certain type of movie, what came to be known as film noir. The point is that those identifying characteristics that existed then would be the same ones that could be used today to identify the same type of movie.
So, then, to help anyone interested in seeing true noir, and based on the supposedly hundreds that have been made, most of which I’ve seen, I’m going to try to define noir at its most basic, simplistic level. Let me just say at this point that this definition will not satisfy all noir purists and could be up for major debate because that is the nature of noir. My point, though, is not to give the be-all, end-all definition because that may never be found, but rather a basic understanding of what constitutes true, pulpy, to the core noir, so that it can be appreciated in its purest unadulterated form for any who would like to see noir, real noir, at its fundamental best. The next post will provide the 5 key defining factors of true noir and what makes them so, so stay tuned.