Maybe it’s our gloomy national mood, the programming on Turner Classic Movies or the Columbia Noir series currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. But cinephiles have been chattering again about film noir, a category that is notoriously difficult to define but about which every movie lover has an opinion. Say you’ve heard the term, but you don’t know quite what it means — well, you have good company. Here’s a quick rundown.
To rehash an old, inevitably circular set of arguments: Noir can’t simply be a genre because it transcends genre. There are noir mysteries, noir melodramas, noir costume pictures, even noir-tinged westerns and science fiction. If noir is a style, its hallmarks might include terse dialogue, an interest in seamy aspects of human behavior and black-and-white cinematography. But a cataloging would have to embrace exceptions. (“Leave Her to Heaven,” the ne plus ultra of femme fatale movies, is in Technicolor.)
Noir might be a mood, but that’s a bit amorphous, like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Or perhaps noir was a temporary wave rooted in anxieties about World War II’s destabilization of American home life. According to this theory, noir-like work made later than the 1950s requires a separate category, the neo-noir. And if that’s the case, the neo period has gone on longer than the original.
When the French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton tilted at an early definition in 1955, they distinguished noirs from police procedurals, which, they said, explored crime from the outside, rather than within. In the early 1970s, Paul Schrader, a critic at the time and soon to be a screenwriter and director, took a stab at a survey, arguing that noir was primarily a matter of tone. “Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir,” he wrote, “and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up.”
I’m in favor of a big tent: If you can explain why it’s a noir, it’s a noir. But don’t you dare name any movie with insufficient subtext, psychological complexity or an atmosphere that doesn’t chill the soul.
There are many places you might start. The gimmes include Billy Wilder’s much-imitated “Double Indemnity” — with Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman who plots with Barbara Stanwyck to kill her husband — and Edgar G. Ulmer’s B-movie “Detour,” with Tom Neal as a pianist who, while hitchhiking, ends up in a car with a dead man and then beholden to a merciless blackmailer (Ann Savage). The film epitomizes noir’s grim sense of fate, and the cheap production values only add to the sordid ambience.
But there may be no better place for getting a handle on what noir is and isn’t than Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place,” conveniently screening in Criterion’s Columbia Noir series. If you enjoy it, less-revived gems (like “Pushover,” with a post-“Indemnity” MacMurray embroiled in another lust-struck scheme) are nearby for the watching.
Even trying to categorize “In a Lonely Place” is tricky: It has elements of murder mystery, melodrama and Hollywood insider scoop. Yet it is certainly one of the most forthright films to deal with domestic abuse ever to come from a major production company, let alone in the early 1950s. Here is a movie so rough-minded, so willing to be unsympathetic that it opens with its protagonist, a screenwriter named Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), threatening to get into a brawl with a stranger.
Dix takes home a hat-check woman from a movie-industry haunt, on the pretense that she can tell him about a novel that he is supposed to read and potentially adapt. Ray seals our identification with the antiheroic Dix by filming the woman, Mildred (Martha Stewart), staring straight at him — and the camera — as she regales him with the narrative. The Bogart who had already given moviegoers Sam Spade of “The Maltese Falcon,” Rick of “Casablanca” and Philip Marlowe of “The Big Sleep” still has a charm, but also a sneer and a temper.
Sometime after leaving Dix’s, Mildred turns up dead in the early-morning hours. Laurel Gray — even the name suggests shades of uncertainty — a new neighbor who saw Dix from her balcony that night, gives the police information that helps with his alibi. Then Laurel (played by Gloria Grahame) falls in love with Dix, knowing there’s a chance he may be a murderer.
Part of what makes “In a Lonely Place” a great example of noir is that it only sounds like a whodunit; the sleuthing, which occurs mainly offscreen, is tangential to the movie’s true subject.
Regardless of whether Dix is the wrong man for the murder, he is a wrong man in every other sense. The police have records of fights. An actress charged that he beat her up — then changed her story and said she broke her nose running into a door. Under interrogation about Mildred’s death, he engages in bizarre self-sabotage, responding flippantly to questions. His death wish extends to a capacity for road rage.
His success as an artist is far behind him: We hear that he hasn’t written a hit since before the war (although Laurel’s presence in his life jump-starts his productivity). He seems fascinated by violence, even for a dramatist. At a dinner, he uses a detective, who served under him during the war, and his wife as players in a re-enactment of the crime, imagining it in more detail than the investigators, and with such vividness that, for a moment, it almost becomes real.
And as he tightens his psychological grip on Laurel, who runs the emotional gamut of infatuation, defensiveness and terror, “In a Lonely Place” builds to a devastating finale. There is even an acknowledgment that tidy answers can’t bring peace to the relationship: “Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us,” Laurel says. “Now it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.” (There may be some subtext here: Those eager to learn more about Grahame’s marriages to Ray and eventually to Ray’s son — apparently a teenager when the two began their affair — should listen to the “You Must Remember This” podcast on the actress.)
Any noir recommendation right now is going to be subject to the vagaries of streaming. To Schrader, “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), which came late enough in the noir period to show self-consciousness and is suffused with atomic paranoia, was the masterpiece of the form. But it’s only on DVD. So is “Nightmare Alley” (1947), with Tyrone Power as a carnival worker who tries to make it as a mentalist and is brought low by aiming too high. It’s being remade by Guillermo del Toro. Who said noir is over?