The classification and cataloging of items seem to fulfill a basic need in human beings, whether it is vegetable, mineral or animal. It seems that this basic need to analyze and categorize items applies also to objets d’art, including film – and the recognition or dismissal of film noir as a genre has been argued since the term was coined. While the term itself is valid, film noir as a genre is a misnomer. More properly, film noir should be considered a style unto itself, but definitively not genre, defined by the very definitions of the words “style” and “genre”. We will limit our subject matter here to the classic film noir period of 1941-1958, recognizing that all modern noir variants seek to emulate this period. These modern films do not lack merit; however for purposes of defining and labeling noir the original defining elements are what matter. If classical film noir is a stylistic movement, then those films following that movement are, by definition, also a stylistic movement and likewise not genre.
The primary elements we need to examine when categorizing the phenomenon of film noir are the definitions of genre and style. The term “genre”, when applied to film, implies setting, narrative structure, and story development. Style, on the other hand, encompasses stylistic elements, cinematographic techniques, and tone over subject matter. Thus, films of the same or similar genre can be directed in a different style, and appear completely different. For example, both Blade Runner and Star Wars obviously belong to the sci-fi genre; Blade Runner alone is regularly regarded as neo-noir. Examination of the commonalities of those films regarded as films noir will reveal that genre elements vary widely, while stylistic elements are the foundation for classification.
Having defined these structures, our next step is to determine what films noir are, by their defining elements. While there is no decisive list of these films, and critics tend to add or remove films from their own personal lists of films noir, those that are commonly classified as such share a common theme perhaps best described by Paul Schrader in his 1972 “Note on Film Noir”:
There is a passion for the past and present, but a fear of the future. The noir hero dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day, and if unsuccessful at that, he retreats into the past. Thus film noir’s techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style. In such a world style becomes paramount; it is all that separates one from meaninglessness…. (5)
This moral ambivalence and relentless cynicism, the overall tone of hopelessness and bleakness is one of the defining features of this class of films. Mark Conard, in “Philosophy of Film Noir”, references critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton as defining noir as a film which creates a state of tension by removing psychological reference points, in...