And while we’re at it, what the hell is “Noir”?

Originally noir, at least in English, referred to film, and to the books and stories that were often their inspiration. But now the term is used to sell just about everything. Literature. Music. Perfume. Lingerie. Coffee beans. Breath mints. Chocolate. Bad crime shows. Sitcoms. Beer. Vanity Fair fashion shoots. And lawnmowers, probably. Mostly by people who don’t know the difference between a gunman & a gunsel.

I’m sick and tired of it. They should all be thrown off the hay truck. Don’t even wait until noon.

But once upon a time, it meant something. The formal definition goes something like this:

“Film noir is a term coined by postwar French film critics to describe an area of Hollywood film-making that they particularly relished. Concentrated in the ten years following World War II and characterised above all by its atmosphere and its urban settings, film noir gave a broadly pessimistic treatment to melodrama and to crime movies. In a world that should have felt liberated by victory, failure, or the threat of it, haunted the petty criminal, the potential fall guy, the tired gumshoe and the two-bit femme fatale.”
Although the concept of film noir remains nebulous – nobody, until the nostalgia boom of the seventies and eighties, actually set out to make one – it covers a distinguished collection of films that bring together an unrivalled assembly of talent: directors such as Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder, writers including William Faulkner, Daniel Mainwaring and Raymond Chandler, stars like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner….”
— The Movie Book of Film Noir

“The overarching and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.”
— James Ellroy

“Hollywood, according to present indications, will depend on so-called “red meat” stories of illicit romance and crime for a major share its immediate non-war dramatic productions: The apparent trend toward such material, previously shunned for fear of censorship, is traced by observers to Paramount’s successful treatment of the James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity which was described by some producers as “an emancipation for Hollywood writing.”
— Fred Stanley (November 19, 1944, The New York Times)

“Whichever way you turn, fate sticks its foot out to trip you.”
director Edgar G.. Ulmer

“Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”
— Robert Mitchum in Arthur Lyons’ Death on the Cheap

“Hard-boiled is about attitude. Noir is about atmosphere. They’re not the same thing, but neither are they mutually exclusive. That which is both tough and colloquial is hard-boiled. That’s really all there is to it. That which is both dark and sinister is noir. That, too, is really all there is to it.”
–Jim Doherty, cutting to the chase

“Hard-boiled=tough, noir=screwed.”
— Jack Bludis, cutting to the bone

“I didn’t know I was doing film noir, I just thought they were detective stories with low lighting!”
— Marie Windsor

“Noir is the shadow moving beyond the campfire light, the darkness down the back alley, in the unlit doorway, between the street lights, OR in the woods. Or for that matter in the unconscious mind, the dark mind of the Other, the killer…. Death’s home, really or symbolically. I will stop before I freak myself out on this rainy morning in London!”
— Marianne Macdonald waxes poetic

“Seriously, are we still so terrified of pussy?”
— Christa Faust drops the hammer in her essential Ten Rules to Write Noir.

“I couldn’t see how noir could begin and end with films about anti-heroes, femmes fatales, moody, would-be suicides and that alienation that comes from urban life. Noir, it seemed to me, grew out of the image and the age, a deliberate study and shadows and light, of course, but a response to the concentration camps, to the discovery of torture and to the brave new world of Hiroshima. For instance, I like noirs like The Lady from Shanghai where, at Acapulco on a blindingly bright day, the mad (but very bright) lawyer Grisby can laugh about the end of the world. Yes, there were famous, unarguable noirs  that spoke to the harshness of existence — films like Detour, They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, Double Indemnity. Films about doom. But then there were films dealing with a larger range of life, films full of hope,  where doom could not be put aside or forgotten. Citizen Kane is a film noir. So is Letter from an Unknown Woman. So is It’s a Wonderful Life.”
— David Thompson, in the intro to Suspects

“If God answers all players, noir is the colour when He says ‘No.'”
my quickie response, from A Jury of Twelve Answers “What is Noir?”

“… noir is handy as a catch-all but useless as a definition.”
— Ed Gorman & Dan Mossman, from the intro to Out of the Past


List respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith, with suggestions and contributions from Marianne Macdonald, Jim Doherty, Jack Bludis, Marcel Bernadac and a cast of thousands. The still from the Coen Brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), and the typeface is–what else?–“Film Noir.”


4 thoughts on “And while we’re at it, what the hell is “Noir”?

  1. The definition I always use is: “Desperate people (mostly men) making catastrophic choices with dire consequences.” This is what separates a “film noir” from just a crime drama or detective story. And there are many good ones of those. But I always use this definition as my initial yardstick, then go from there.

  2. The term Noir was first used to describe books here in France Libre Noir, by some of the same people who coined the term film noir, like Nino Frank, who once explained to me that with the invention of Video cassettes the US movie companies hijacked the term to sell their video movies

    1. A nice story, but Nino’s letting his cynicism get ahead of himself. The term was first picked up by American film geeks (I think Frank used it in an essay) starting in the early sixties, which was well before videocassettes were a thing. Of course now it IS a marketing tool. For everything from movies to pantyhose.

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