According to Oxford Languages, Film Noir is a cinematography style or genre that expresses pessimistic moods and fatalistic ideas. The dark detective films that were mainstream during the post-World War II era later became known as Film Noirs. They were films with a stoic detective, a black and white color scheme, and a plot involving gangsters or the mob. Even today, there are still films and other entertainment mediums that embody the Film Noir visual style. The vibe of a detective in a fedora hat and trench coat walking in a dark alley while smoking a cigarette is still a pleasant thing to see for many. However, some people do not see the Film Noir style as a legitimate film genre. This argumentative essay will attempt to provide evidence that Film Noir should be considered a movie genre.
When one hears the term Film Noir, what comes to mind is an image of a detective in the 1990s. Film Noir is the representation of the state of the world after World War II. (Gurkan, 2015) It shows the sorrow left by the war, anxiety felt by the survivors, and the fear that a new war may break out. Besides these negative emotions, Film Noir also showed the beginning of feminism and equality with the introduction of Femme Fatales and the rise of suburbanization through the use of suburban settings.
Arguments that Film Noir is not a genre is an issue that filmmakers are still unable to resolve. Critics argue that Film Noir is not a genre but a visual style. The style came from German Expressionism and from 1930s French films (Irwin, 2006, p 207). These critics focus on the behind-the-scenes filmmaking aspect of Film Noir. They argue that Film Noir is defined by the use of visuals techniques such as in-camera angles, camera placements, set designs, and lighting.
Defining a Movie Genre
Providing the definition of a movie genre should be the first step in understanding if Film Noir suits the category. Different film experts and filmmakers provide different perspectives on the definition of a movie genre. Thomas Schatz, Executive Director of the University of Texas Film Institute, provides two approaches in defining a movie genre. First is the static definition in which he proposed that a genre has a fixed formula of narrative and cinematic components. The second is the dynamic definition in which he states that a movie genre undergoes continual refinement due to the changes in the industry (Schatz 1991, p. 16). The static definition provides the traditional approach where there is a fixed checklist of style and techniques that critics can use to categorize a film into a movie genre. Take for example the Action movie genre where the main selling points of the movies are fast-paced action and highly stimulating visuals. The dynamic definition suggests that a movie genre goes through a series of changes as time passes. This may be perhaps due to a new idea in film theory or a result of a filmmaker's creative experiment. The dynamic definition may also emphasize the emergence of movie subgenres such as Rom-Com from the Romantic movie genre and Survival Horror from Horror movie genres.
Other examples are the films The Underwold (1967) and Public Enemy (1913) which are Gangster films. The movie subgenre Gangster films is a result of the Crime genre undergoing careful refinement due to the post-war effects and narrative styles of the filmmakers. Viewers are only able to differentiate Gangster films from other Crime movie genres by their continued exposure to the subgenre and comparing them to other crime movie genres. Film director Robert Altman supports this by stating that film genre theory has avoided potential conflicts between the different aspects of film genre by sorting together similarly themed examples from specific genres (Altman, 1999, p. 15). This provides the argument that preservation of the original definition of a genre is due to the emergence of the subgenre categories.
Thomas Schatz's definition of movie genres focused on the shared understanding of the filmmakers and the audience. A movie or film's genre is an obvious theme that can be identified by the similarity in themes, plots, settings, and filming style. Also, with the emergence of subgenres for each movie genre, perhaps there is an argument that Film Noir is under the Crime genre.
Defining Film Noir
Critics and audiences can recognize Film Noirs by the 1990s soundtracks, a detective as the protagonist, and a plot often involving a femme fatale and gangsters. Recognizing the themes of a Film Noir is easier than giving a concrete definition of the term (Naremore (1995, p 12). Film Noir originated in the USA with a few influences from German Expressionist cinematography. Examples of Film Noirs are The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Indemnity (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and In a Lonely Place (1950). The themes of these films were dark and they showed the harsh life in suburban areas. The heroes or anti-heroes were mostly cynical and even suicidal like in the case of It's a Wonder Life (1946). Film scholar Chris Fujiwara argued that the filmmakers of films in the Film Noir category did not actually refer to them as Film Noir (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2005). The filmmakers believed that they were creating films under the crime genre.
The fact that the Film Noir category was not a used term during the early stages when black and white detective films were mainstream is a strong argument on how Film Noir is not a genre. Film experts are even debating if Film Noir connotes a period in time, a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a phenomenon (Naremore, 1995, p. 12). The French critic Nino Frank coined the term Film Noir. Critics used the term Noir to refer to the realism of a corrupt and disorganized world that French filmmakers attempted to capture. Though the term was foreign and almost non-existing for American Filmmakers, the fact that the audiences can categorize certain films into the Film Noir genre cannot be set aside.
Film Noir Protagonists
The protagonists in Film Noirs can mostly be defined as anti-heroes due to their moral ambiguity. Film Noir genre protagonists are often portrayed as a person with a different, mostly darker outlook on life. Detectives are the most common Film Noir protagonists, however, other kinds of people such as a drifter and professors can be a Film Noir protagonists. Being able to define the characteristics of a Film Noir protagonist helps in the argument that Film Noir is a genre. This can be compared to the brave soldiers or skillful martial artists in the Action genre.
Black and White Theme
The black and white theme of Film Noirs is one of the most iconic visual styles from the 1990s. Even today, this kind of visual style is used especially in mystery and detective films. Certain shows even change to black and white when they are trying to portray a setting in the 1990s. The black and white tones also complement the goal of filmmakers to show the dark and polluted environment of the suburbs. The incorporation of this color scheme to Film Noir is another way on how people are able to categorize certain films into the genre.
Film Noir as a Style
It does not make sense to say that Film Noir is simply a style of filming even though the Noir label communicates a specific tone and exhibit particular stylistic traits (Schrader, 1990). This is because, when it comes to considering visual style, mood, or tone as the defining aspect of Film Noir, the difficulty arises that any one of these can be transgeneric, which is to say that no one of these by itself will always define a film as Noir. Thus, for example, while The Maltese Falcon (1941) is seen as one of the earliest and best examples of the genre, Citizen Kane (1941) is clearly not according to Irwin (2006), because it lacks a central crime element, and is therefore not a Film Noir in spite of its chiaroscuro lighting, deep focus, disturbing camera angles, and generally skeptical tone. Indeed, most contemporary studies of Film Noir as a genre or of individual Noir films usually use some combination of the approaches or terminology mentioned above (genre, visual style, recurring story motifs, recurring tone, or mood) (Irwin, 2006). And even if there tends to be a certain critical vagueness as to specifics in these studies, still the Noir label has helped in the revaluation of a large number of neglected films, helped by focusing attention on these examples of a non-self-conscious genre that thrived for some twenty years (Vernet, 1993).
Film Noir as a Genre
The debate whether Film Noir is a legitimate movie genre is still ongoing between film scholars. Some argue that the problem of recognizing Film Noir as a movie genre is that it cannot be identified through its production, promotion, and consumption. Film Noir was more of a scholarly discovery resulting from critical retrospection (Palmer, 1994, p. 140). The makers of the films that were later categorized as Film Noirs filmed their movies as crime dramas or murder mysteries. Film scholars suggest that Film Noir should be viewed as a generic field that contains the elements used in the films within its category. Since the Film Noir visual style has been used by other genres such as Westers, horror films, comedy, and science fiction, this argument seems to have a solid foundation that Film Noir should not be a genre.
However, Thomas Schatz's dynamic definition can argue that society can reestablish and redefine the definition of a genre. This idea of society creating boundaries is particularly important in respect to Film Noir because, while classic Film Noir was not a genre at the time it was produced and instead classified and marketed under other genres, classic Film Noir has established its own genre over time. This recognizes both the evolutionary potential of those elements that define certain genres and also their existence in and influence from a constantly changing society (Neale, 2000).
Film Noir has been an influential style or genre for filmmaking and other entertainment mediums. Certain fiction books and storytelling video games have classified themselves within the category of Noir. The continuous debate of whether this type of genre is actually legitimate exists exclusively in the filmmaking world. Mostly due to the diverse genres in which the elements of Film Noir were used. However, going back to the dynamic definition of a genre, Film Noir can be regarded as a film genre through the passage of time and innovations in filmmaking. Audiences are able to point out elements of a film that can be attributed to a Film Noir. Specific character archetypes and visual style have also been attributed to Film Noir. The term Film Noir may not have existed before the Noir films, but the collective recognition of critics and audiences towards the genre helps in its argument that it is a movie genre.
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