C. Jerry Kutner’s proposition on noir-as-genre versus noir-as-style, “We shouldn’t be asking, “Is it noir or not-noir?,” but rather, “How noir is it?,” has prompted me to revisit my own questions (and misgivings) about noir, not least of which is whether a film’s noirishness should be determined by visual stylization alone. Does what looks like noir always think like noir, and what exactly must one do to be noirish, apart from coolly skulking in a trenchcoat and thrashing lowlifes only slightly lower than oneself? Somehow gut feelings tell us that, for noir to be meaningful, it cannot be reduced to film school affectation or imitable style tics, lest it become the unintentional parody that neo-noirs often turn out to be (i.e., the over-stylized 1988 remake of D.O.A.). It also must be more than a chiaroscuro reflection of existential angst, lest any shadowy existentialism, even that of Bergman, be inordinately labelled “noirish,” if not exactly “noir.” But when we ask “is it noir or not-noir,” are we all using the same criteria?
If we wonder whether Bergman can be noirish (perhaps Hour of the Wolf  and The Rite , with a certain critical whitewash), we’re confronted with several problems. First is the historicized and historicizing problem of genre: we insist that Bergman can’t be noirish because he’s just, always, and forever Bergman, totally unrelated to noir’s inherently, generically urban alienation and claustrophobia. However, let’s temporarily put aside the historical development of the mode, let’s call noir a “mode” of representation that may or may contain characteristic style traits, and change our question from “What do we look for when we suspect noirishness exists?” to the more simple question, “What do we really want from noir, either as it has historically developed or as we wish it might have developed?” Do we want greatly grey existential statements of postwar anxiety, or only such statements encoded within the treacherous lipstick and smoky gun-barrels of urban American myth? More pointedly: Is it possible to make a noir whose plot exists totally outside of detective-gangster-mystery genres, and contains absolutely no threat of physical violence? Is a noirishly, intensely filmed account of a desperate marital breakup less authentic as noir than Kiss Me Deadly on account of its subject matter alone? Would that marital break-up story become less noirish if its noir camera angles were retained, but the locale were moved from Manhattan to small-town Iowa? Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) addressed this issue tenuously, what begins as an extremely tough, incredibly dark urban policier moves to the country in its second half, with its noir ambience dimmed by about 50%. (On the other hand, you could say the first half’s noirishness increases 200% while you’re viewing the countrified episodes.) Yet even On Dangerous Ground remains conventional (if offbeat) detective fiction throughout.
This first set of questions deals only with style; if we return to the example of Bergman, we come to the second, more difficult issue: Exactly what kind of existentialism is noir’s expressionistic style supposed to be expressing? And where does this existentialism (writ, presumably, as a moral greyness) reside? In Lang’s proto-noir M, the greyness doesn’t reside in Peter Lorre’s unambiguously evil (though pathetic) childkiller, who, presented in terms of irresistible psychopathology, cannot be considered a free agent. Therefore, it’s not Lorre who is “existential” but his final jury of underworld criminals, whose grimy misdeeds lighten and become relative when juxtaposed against Lorre’s deathly pitch. Mr. Kutner’s example of Marnie as a potential noir is trenchant because it, like M, makes us ask whether the hero(ine) must be sane in order for us, the presumed sane, to be able to identify with his/her psychically noirish crisis. But Marnie ultimately winds up valorizing Sartre’s nemesis, psychoanalysis, while Tippi Hedrin initially mocks Sean Connery’s patronizing attempts to psychoanalyze her, it turns out she really needs not a healthy injection of free will but the revelatory abreactions of the film’s orthodox Freudian climax.
But to return to M, we could say that although the film’s nocturnal environs evince a noirish psyche, the predictable amorality of Lorre’s insane protagonist disqualifies the film from noir-dom. (The more traditional, “sane” noir prototype would be along the lines of Murnau’s Sunrise, where moral relativism is a function of the protagonist, not a judgmental audience.) The key word here is “predictable”, the same generic predictability (of characters, plot) that an ‘authentic’ noir supposedly transcends. And even greyness should then be constantly fluctuating by degrees, lest it become predictable itself.
If we say that in noir the hero must be existentially conflicted yet sane, we then ask how this existentialism is played out, and too often, it’s understood wrongheadedly as labyrinthine fatalism, not the life-affirming, if eternally doubtful and occassinally cruel, agency of Sartre and Camus, and certainly not the mountain-climbing self-determination of Nietzsche. So why do so many noirs pretend to be “existential” (or are called such), but in fact regurgitate the anti-existentialistic notion that we are doomed, desperate souls who try but fail to resist a bloody fate (existentialism isn’t about failure, and mere desperation isn’t death!). Of course, this fatedness stems from the fact that noir is still enslaved by, and enamored of, the rules of genre violence. Noir generally punishes risk-taking and transgression (existentialism’s bread and butter), because all transgression is manifested as illegality (or as betrayals that involve or are tantamount to illegality). The role of the femme fatale proves noir’s predestinations, if the woman can never be trusted, the hero’s role as existential actor is reduced to one of dramatic irony (we know he’s doomed, he thinks he’s free). Noir sees modern freedom as sad cruelty, it’s better to believe in God than what fallen humans, emancipated by the modern-urban-industrial age, turn out to be. Again, this is precisely the opposite of what existentialism purports, and noir-as-genre, betraying its conservatism, forestalls the less conscripted possibilities of noir-as-mode/style. And even if noirs with a political conscience, like Force of Evil, are more interesting than the gumshoe-and-dame variety, both draw upon on the same existentialism-as-fatalism formula.
Can it be then, that pastoral Ingmar Bergman, who holds out hope for mankind in the face of God’s absence, is more noirish than angularly urbanite noir auteurs? Is his existentialism, borne out again and again in terms of his characters’ free choice, and not the fatalism of a generic detective story, more in tune with what the spirit of noir should be? And if the answer is an emphatic “no,” must we resign ourselves to defining noir in national, regional, and/or generic terms?
I’m being argumentative in a probably silly way, and indeed a disingenuous one, since the equation between noirism and existentialism is reductive, and Bergman, unlike agnostic noir, retains his Kierkegaardian faith against all better judgment. But the core silliness of my argument is its taxonomical imperative; the last thing even I want to do is make a list of each potential noir and determine its authenticity by deciding which characters are as sane and/or subjectively centered as we’re supposed to be. But the argument does make us question not only the ideals of the genre but what exactly we want from it. Consider the two different endings of Kiss Me Deadly: in the American ending, Ralph Meeker and the femme fatale are seen escaping that radioactive deathtrap, but in the European one they perish inside. Normally, we (Americans) would think the deadlier European ending is more “adult,” “realistic,” and “genuine,” while the softened American version has been rendered infantile. Yet, if our relativist question is “how noir is it?”, the simplemindedly fated ending of the European version is less noirishly authentic, while the American ending, where Meeker’s Mike Hammer will be subject to future degrees of radiation poisoning as ambiguous as his moral code, is the “correct” one. (“How much noir?” equals “How much radiation?”)
But this is nitpicking, there are more obvious examples. Some films considered noir classics trade in conventional cinematic dogma, and affront my own cherished sense of ethical greyness. I remember being disheartened, even confused, the first time I saw The Maltese Falcon and realized Bogart was more off-white than genuinely grey, still strictly bound by the detective genre Sam Spade signified. Even today, I am unsure if Bogart’s Spade is capable of love, or if it’s just an act, how curious it is for him to send Mary Astor to jail for twenty years, but still claim he’ll wait for her when she’s released! Did we ever believe he’d wait for her? If this were purely a detective film, the pledge would be unremarkable; but if this is noir, understood as a mode rather than genre, it’s baffling. Is this the sophisticated noir hero we hold dear, someone so ultimately conservative that he believes in the redemptive qualities of the American penal system? Or is he a liar even to himself? If he were to stop lying, to us as well, would we then see noir-as-genre and noir-as-mode finally decouple, revealing themselves as two happily extricable ideas, and not one idea trapped inside the other, not convention drowning possibility?