Is film noir a genre, or is it a critical category?

I recently came across a discussion, in Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization (2010), that questions whether film noir is a genre.

It’s not a topic that I’ve given much thought to – until I took a film and sound editing course at Ryerson University.

During the course, I became more closely acquainted with film noir than otherwise would have been the case.

Prior to that, I didn’t spend a lot of time watching movies or reading novels or comic books associated with noir sensibilities.

Frank Miller and Will Eisner

I enjoyed both the Ryerson assignments and the course. One assignment involved the provision of dialogue, music, and sound effects for Goldie’s Murder Scene in Sin City (2005), which demonstrates many of the characteristics of film noir.

We were given the picture for the scene featuring Goldie and Marv, in the above-noted scene, and it was our task to add the sound, using Adobe Premiere Pro or Adobe Audition as our editing platform.

We had several weeks to complete the assignment. It was a great way to get up to speed on the technical and cinematic aspects of the recording and editing of sound, including Foley and ADR (additional dialogue recording).

Nonlinear editing

I took the film course at Ryerson, and will take additional ones, because I was impressed with the answers I received when I contacted Ryerson when I was researching the differences between Apple Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro as editing platforms.

In the Ryerson course, I became acquainted with the work of Frank Miller and people who influenced him including Will Eisner. I was delighted to learn about Eisner’s life and work. He did a great deal to advance and make respectable his chosen means of communications.

I especially enjoyed analyzing the short segment from Sin City (2005) that we focused upon for the Ryerson sound editing assignment. The rest of the film is going to appeal to some, and not to others. At Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 78.

Raymond Chandler

In reading about film noir, I also came across The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler, which I found very enjoyable to read. I speak as a person who has read few detective novels. Chandler brings to life a coherent fictional universe, using descriptive language that is fun to read, easy to follow, and easy to attend to. By easy to attend to I mean it’s easy to stay in the present moment when reading his text; Chandler writes in a style that does not give rise to a tendency for the reader’s mind to wander during the reading of the story.

I was pleased to learn (Film Noir, 2010, pp. 133-134) of a postwar vogue for films based on Spanish-language translations of Chandler among other writers. I look forward to reading about Chandler’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter and to viewing movies based upon his work.

Organized violence

I think of film noir as a particular way of looking at organized violence, which I see in turn as an underlying element of military history, a non-fiction topic that I became interested in when I began to think of the life story of Colonel Samuel Smith, who settled in the late 1700s in what is now Long Branch (Toronto not New Jersey). Little is known about Colonel Smith as a personality.

That being the case, I determined that knowing about the kind of fighting he was involved in, as a military leader on the British side during the American Revolutionary War, would be a great way to learn something about his life and times.

I first became interested in studying military history, with a focus that includes Colonel Smith and the British empire, after I heard a talk, at a meeting of the Long Branch Historical Society, about the history of the Toronto Police Service and related topics such as the history of policing in the Village of Long Branch. In studying the history of policing around the world, I quickly realized that policing history is a sub-genre, or subcategory, of military history.

I would add in passing that I’m delighted that the War of 1812 turned out as it did. Strategically managed, organized violence has played a key role in the creation of nation-states, including Canada.

Genre | Gender | Race

The second chapter of Film Noir (2010) is entitled: “Critical debates: Genre, gender, race.” I’m not an academic, in the same way that Jane Jacobs is not an academic. I have much respect for some academic viewpoints, but I’m not an academic, nor do I think that an academic perspective on things necessarily, or invariably, covers a lot of ground.  It’s something that has to be approached on a case by case basis, taking into account the evidence and frames of reference at hand. Such a perspective about academic matters is not unusual, of course.

Updates: The topic brings to mind a Dec. 9. 2013 New York Times article entitled: “Scholarship and Politics: The Case of Noam Chomsky.” As well, with regard to “imagined communities” (see below), I note that Alice Marwick, in Status Update (2013), p. 7, remarks that “‘Web 2.0’ is also a kind of social, economic, technological ‘imaginary’ in Benedict Arnold’s sense of an ‘imagined community.'” [End of updates]

I don’t know if the audience for film noir overlaps to any extent with the audience for academic writing devoted to the topic of film noir.

Actually, I do know. I revise that. There is indeed an overlap. Some postwar film critics in France came up with the “film noir” label – an apt act of academic invention and creativity – and it’s been circulating within the academic world – and among filmgoers – ever since.

Regarding this topic, Film Noir (2010) argues that Hollywood directors in the 1940s and thereabouts didn’t set out to create “film noir” productions.

Instead, their films focused on the creation of melodramas, thrillers, mysteries, detective stories, and similar narratives that people were willing to pay to watch.

Then after the Second World War, a generation of French film critics viewed the American films and the historical context, whatever it was, that gave rise to their production. In the process of analyzing the films, the French critics created the “film noir” label as a handy way to categorize them.

American films of the 1940s and 1950s

It follows, according to the authors of Chapter 2 of Film Noir (2010), that the labelling of specified American films of the 1940s and 1950s as film noir constituted “an event of reception” (p. 125).  The latter term is introduced in the chapter, but is not defined. I do not know what it means.

Possibly the reference is to a perceptual framework akin to the Symbolic Interactionist perspective that Erving Goffman applies in his analysis of everyday interactions. Or maybe it refers to something else.

According to the second chapter of the book at hand, film noir is less a genre than it is a critical category or, indeed, a fantasy that belongs to a history of ideas as much as it belongs to a history of cinema.

The discussion in the chapter proceeds from there. Among the chapter subheadings  – please note that I’ve copy edited some of the punctuation – that are used to organize the ensuing discourse – about film noir as a topic of discourse – are:

  • How global culture remakes noir
  • Noir sexuality and the politics of desire
  • Noir as the refuge of whiteness?

I like the international perspective that the book brings to the topic – or fantasy, if you like to see it as a fantasy – of film noir. I also like the idea that, through study of such a topic or fantasy, we can learn something about history, and about how the mind works.

Re-edited version of Touch of Evil

The latter two films, in the aforementioned list of chapter topics, are by Orson Welles, whose work in my limited experience as a film viewer warrants close study.

As many observers have noted, Orson Welles appears to have had a particularly strong grasp of the communications that film and radio as media are capable of achieving.

The 2008 edition of Touch of Evil is the version that has been re-edited to take into account Orson Welles’ original intentions, as outlined in a 58-page memo, for the film. Walter Murch discusses the new version, for which he served as editor, in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002).

The latter book was on the reading list of the editing course I recently completed at Ryerson. Also on the list was The Technique of Film Editing, Second Edition (1968), a classic text and highly valuable resource, by Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar.

Film noir as invented tradition

The discussion about film noir – and melodrama – brings to mind Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (2009), a study of 1930s Germany. With regard to 1930s Germany, a trilogy of studies of Nazi Germany by Richard J. Evans comes to mind also.

As well, it occurs to me that film noir can be viewed as an invented tradition.

Many scholars, including Peter Burke in History and social theory, second edition (2005), have addressed the role that imagination plays in history. Burke’s overview of this topic is wide-ranging and illuminating.

Imagined communities

As noted in an earlier post regarding Peter Burke (2005), Benedict Arnold characterized nation states as imagined communities, a term that resonates with many people.The reference to nationalism brings to mind, as well, Michael Mann’s contention (Michael Mann 2005) that most of Europe’s ethnically homogeneous nation states are the outcome of processes of ethnic cleansing and mass killing, as discussed elsewhere at this website.

For Benedict Anderson, “the important factors of these ‘imagined communities,’ as he famously called them, are the decline of religion and the rise of vernacular languages (encouraged by ‘print capitalism’). For Ernest Gellner, on the other hand, the crucial factor is the rise of industrial society, which ‘appears on the surface in the form of nationalism'” (Burke, 2005, p. 58).

Burke adds that Eric Hobsbawn (1990) distinguished between the nationalism of governments and the nationalism of the people. What ordinary people felt about nationality, the latter argued, did not become politically important until the late nineteenth century.

“More and more scholars,” Burke notes in his overview, “have been recruited to the study of such embodiments of identity as national anthems, national flags and national rituals (such as Bastille Day). The power of memory, of imagination and of symbols in the construction of communities is increasingly emphasized (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Nora 1984-93 [in translation, 1996]) (p. 58).”

Burke also discusses the role of imagination as it relates to ideology. “No longer limited to what Marx called ‘false consciousness,’ ideology has become virtually indistinguishable from the collective imagination” (p. 99).

It is noteworthy as well that the argument has been advanced, from time to time, as by Thomas Frank (1997), that the hippies of the late 1960s and early 1970s were the invention of the American advertising industry.

I’m reminded, as well, of the reflections of Claude Levi-Strauss, toward the end of his life, about the penchant that humans have for using their imaginations to attempt to make sense of things – and to create institutions on the basis of such imaginings.

Tales from the German Underworld (1998) by historian Richard J. Evans, who’s also written a trilogy about Nazi Germany, provides useful background reading on themes related to the concept of a “film noir.”


Whether viewed as a genre or a critical category, film noir is a handy invented tradition. It serves many useful purposes, among them the provision of a framework for the development of a great curriculum for a film studies program.


Topics of related interest are discussed at a post entitled:

Empathy is great provided that we use it wisely

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