The fabulous and fascinatingly contested thing that is film noir is not only alive and kicking, it appears to be undergoing something of a re-evaluation in critical thought. Gone is the stubborn insistence that film noir was purely a product of post-war American culture influenced by German Expressionism and cultural instability; in its place is a wide-eyed revisionism that views noir as a global and constantly evolving phenomenon.
In the wake of key works like Andrew Spicer’s European Film Noir (2007) and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009) (1), amongst others, comes Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization, which examines noir as a product of globalisation, a brooding stylistic symptom of disquiet at globalisation’s failures not only in America but also in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, Iran, Hong Kong, Japan and South America. Fay and Neiland explore noir as a manifestation of global crises and phenomena like war, depression, modernisation and decolonisation. It is interesting to note that most of the examples of international noir considered in Film Noir were produced during periods of intense social, political, cultural upheaval and tension, such as Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), produced under the repressive fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, or in the wake of war, as with the German and Japanese films examined by Fay and Neiland.
Despite carrying the mantle of Routledge Film Guidebooks, Film Noir is not a guidebook to film noir in the manner of, say, Limelight’s diversely informative Film Noir Readers, or many of the other works bearing the title Film Noir. Nor is this a work for those uninitiated into the intricacies of film noir, as it presupposes a certain level of familiarity with the tropes and elements of noir. Fay and Neiland begin Film Noir with a rather unwieldy description of internationalism in terms of Cosmopolitanism, Americanism, and Globalisation. This, along with the authors’ insistence on referring to themselves as “we”, gives the impression of a rather dry intellectualism and marks a less than inspiring beginning. That said, once Fay and Neiland move past their introduction and into their analysis of the international evolution of noir and its manifestations in individual films, this becomes an engrossing and provocative study that contrasts the accepted history of noir as “American” with alternative cinemas of noir in national cinemas such as France, Germany, Italy and Mexico.
Film Noir is divided into four sections that are ostensibly chapters but could more productively be considered as linked but separate sections which have recurring themes and ideas. Chapter 1, “Film noir and the culture of internationalism”, follows the travels of pulp modernism with particular focus on James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was filmed in France (as Le dernier tournant [Pierre Chenal, 1939]) and Italy (as Ossessione) before finally being filmed (twice) in the US (in 1946 by Tay Garnett; in 1981 by Bob Rafelson). This chapter also explores the evolution of noir in America and France and its “discovery” by French critics before moving on to the development of German and Japanese occupation noir, where sociocultural instability and the influence of external forces played important roles in the growth of this strand of noir. Chapter 1 then shifts into an exploration of border noir via Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), moving on to Mexico, Spain, India, Iran and finally coming to rest in Hong Kong, where a pronounced sense of cultural dislocation and arch postmodernism have become the new noir manifestations of disquiet with global modernism.
Chapter 2, “Critical debates: Genre, gender, race”, explores noir as an “event of reception” (p. 125) and suggests that noir is a way of talking about/seeing film rather than a kind of film. Fay and Neiland settle with the perplexing description of noir as having no essential characteristics, and they play with some of the possible readings and receptions this creates. Postmodernism, nostalgia, sexuality and race are key concepts covered here.
Chapter 3, “Film noir style and the arts of dying”, charts the development of noir “style” and the cross-pollination between cultures and cinemas with particular emphasis on the relationship between key hitman noir films such as Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967), Le samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967) and The Killer (John Woo, 1989) before concluding with an analysis of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999). With its eclectic range of influences, Ghost Dog is shown to be symptomatic of noir’s self-referential nature, but also its broad ranging international manifestations.
Chapter 4, “Fragments of one international noir history”, provides – in chart form – the chronology of international noir as used in the preceding chapters. This is followed by an appendix of suggested viewings and possible discussions. Just as Chapter 3 seems to be creating the pathway for a final chapter that will bring together the many strands and elements that have been raised in the preceding chapters and perhaps explore what might happen in noir’s future, there is this abrupt transition to the chronology of noir, which feels more like an appendix than a chapter. This creates a structural unbalance in the work as a whole because there is the absence of a satisfying conclusion or summation of the book’s key points.
Film Noir is a work that frustrates almost as much as it fascinates, unlike Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia which (despite some of Dixon’s bizarre claims) emerges as a well-written, provocative and complex re-evaluation of the past, present and future of film noir. Fay and Neiland write some excellent pieces of film analysis and raise some intriguing ideas about just how noir functions, especially their concept of noir as a product of cinephilia where attention to style (detail, gesture, etc.) becomes a defining element. They explore this concept by tracking the international noirish influences manifested by cinephile Jim Jarmusch in his film Ghost Dog. Ending as they do with a film from 1999, there is a lot more that could be said by Fay and Neiland, particularly about the resonance and future potentialities of both noir and noir style/cinephilia.
Film Noir is an unsatisfying work, settling as it does for the concept of noir as essentially featureless, which fails to account for the strong aesthetic link between noir films. Fay and Neiland’s theory of cinephilia is more convincing but still does not satisfy. They raise some interesting ideas but fail to bring them to a strong conclusion. Noir is a dark and fluid thing that is as perplexing as it is fascinating. This book may just add to noir’s mystique: it ultimately fails to shed clear light on its subject, in the end simply fading away into the gloom that has always surrounded noir.
Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization, by Jennifer Fay and Justus Neiland, Routledge Film Guidebooks series, Routledge, London and New York, 2010.