If you want to start an argument among noir fans, there’s no easier way than proposing to add or subtract a film from the canon. All these debates turn on the eternally tricky question: what is film noir? Fittingly for a body of films so full of narrative confusion and moral ambiguity, noir is a notoriously slippery customer. Is it a genre, a cycle, a style? Too often, it’s in danger of becoming a brand, defined by a checklist of instantly recognizable motifs. There must be granite-jawed men in trench coats with the brims of their fedoras pulled down to shadow their eyes. There must be a femme fatale whose lacquered lips gleam like the wet asphalt on which her heels clatter. Guns must be pulled at regular intervals, cigarette smoke must curl up in the shafts of light from Venetian blinds, beatings must occur in blind alleys behind neon-smeared cocktail bars. There must be crime, hard-boiled banter, and a sucker-hero tripped up by fate.
Don’t get me wrong: I love these iconic elements as much as the next noir addict, but I also see the essence of noir in films that look and sound very different. This essence lies below the surface of crime and violence, in an interior world of alienation, anxiety, obsession, disillusionment. Or as crime writer David Goodis sums it up in his novel Nightfall: “a certain amount of confusion, some despair mixed in, and some loneliness, and some bitterness, and topped with a dash of desperation.”
These ingredients can be found in many films that don’t fall neatly within the boundaries of the classic noir cycle. Some fans like to patrol these boundaries and deny entry to films that lack the proper credentials. I believe the boundaries are porous, that noir has a way of spreading like an infection or a miasma. Exceptions to the rules—noir in radiant color (Leave Her to Heaven or Desert Fury), rural noir (They Live By Night, The Hitchhiker, or Bitter Rice), period noir (The Suspect or So Evil My Love)—do not prove the rule but rather demonstrate, like so many noir stories, that rules are made to be bent until they snap from the strain.
For the record, I don’t think noir is a genre. Genres are defined by their subject matter or settings—westerns, war movies, gangster or heist pictures, romantic comedies—whereas film noir is a more flexible set of plot elements, themes, and visual and narrative conventions that coalesced during a particular period in Hollywood, roughly 1940 to 1960. With its melting-pot lineage, which includes American pulp fiction, German expressionism, and poetic realism, noir can encompass everything from semidocumentary police procedurals to lush psychological dramas, witty drawing-room murder mysteries to brutal prison flicks. This is not to say that efforts to define noir or trace the origins and trajectory of the classic cycle aren’t worthwhile. But that discussion is only enhanced by considering noir’s ancestors, relatives, or fellow travelers—the noir cycles of other countries, silent noir, pre-Code noir, noir westerns, noir melodrama . . .
Melodrama is where some people balk. A much-maligned form, it is often treated like noir’s embarrassing, scene-making stepsister, and the popularity of the hard-boiled style, with its dry, masculine stoicism, has tended to obscure the closeness of their relationship. (In the days before the term “film noir” was widely adopted, movies we would now call noir were often dubbed “crime melodramas”—for instance, by James Agee in a 1946 review of The Killers, Black Angel, and The Dark Corner.) Noir stories are always fueled by intense, violent feelings—obsessive love or hate, greed or fear or lust for revenge. Both noir and melodrama are about people trapped or possessed by forces beyond their control. The tough guy’s frozen-faced impassivity is just as stylized a response as the operatic excesses of melodrama. Are conflicts that climax in emotional outbursts really more implausible, more “over the top” than ones that climax in shoot-outs?
Written on the Wind (1956) does open with a gunshot, amid a storm of dead leaves and smashed whiskey bottles, and it unfurls in flashback to trace the path to the fatal night. Yet Sirk’s dark melodrama is rarely spoken of in the context of noir; his style, at once feverish and ceremonial, garishly overheated and obliquely cool, is sui generis. But his work, like so much of noir, is about the lies and loss embedded in the American dream of self-transformation, the gnawing hunger and perverse self-destructiveness bred by plenty and complacency. In Written on the Wind, the emotionally crippled offspring of an oil millionaire are caught in a tangle of frustrated desires and long-nursed resentments: the son a weak playboy who treats his lacerating insecurity with cheap corn liquor, his sister a hedonistic tramp who treats her unrequited love with cheap sex. In the end, she provides a melancholy epitaph for her brother: “He was sad. The saddest of us all. He needed so much, and had so little.”
There is something of the warning fable or the dark fairy tale embedded in many noir stories: the perfect heist ends with everyone dead and money blowing away in the wind, the angelic beauty reveals a heart of black ice, the dream of freedom is cut down in the dirt a few feet from the border. Desire is deadly, ambition is a mirage in a desert of waste and failure. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales dwell cruelly on the punishments incurred for wanting what you don’t have; they stem from a bone-deep understanding of what it is to need so much and have so little. The little mermaid is so desperately in love with a man that she trades her underwater existence for legs that make her feel as though she is walking on knives, only to die of a broken heart when he marries someone else. The little match girl, sinking into warm, beautiful visions fueled by the matches she burns as she freezes to death, might be an addict swooning in the embrace of the substance that’s killing him.
At the heart of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) is a seventeen-minute-long ballet based on Andersen’s eponymous tale of a girl who longs for a pair of red shoes, which, once donned, force her to dance until she dies. In this cinematic tour de force, the doomed girl whirls through an increasingly noirish world: a sinister carnival, desolate city squares with floating newspapers, a lurid nightscape with prostitutes clustered under streetlamps, a nightmarish orgy of masked, savage figures, and finally a funeral at which the girl, now in filthy rags, collapses and dies. The ballet was choreographed by Robert Helpmann, who also partners the radiant Moira Shearer, and Léonide Massine, who created the role of the sinister shoemaker:
In Andersen’s story, the girl ends up asking a woodsman to chop off her feet. Nothing so gruesome happens in the film (though the image of the impresario Lermontov caressing a sculpture of a severed foot in a pointe shoe may be a sly allusion), but the psychological violence is no less brutal. This cruelty lurks in a radiant, enchanting world of crimson-plush theaters and rococo drawing rooms, the vibrant bustle of Covent Garden, the deep, plangent blue of the Mediterranean, and the crumbling, sun-soaked stones of a villa above Monte Carlo. But beauty comes at a high price, the “great agony of body and spirit” that Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) tells the ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) she will have to suffer to be an artist. The film’s real conflict, Powell wrote, is not between art and love, but “between romance and realism, between theater and life.” Lermontov, like Mephistopheles, offers to make Vicky immortal but demands that she choose between dancing and living.
So is The Red Shoes a film noir? It doesn’t look much like one, and it lacks most of the tropes we expect. But Vicky’s burning drive erupts in images—like the shocking close-up of her face snapping out of a turn, black and white and red and demonically fierce—that spring straight from noir’s expressionist roots, while the conflict that almost literally tears her apart is observed with flaying psychological insight that characterizes the best of noir. There were those who objected when Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece graced the lineup for the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco in January; even Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which presents the festival annually, admitted he had gone “off the reservation” in his programming for the 2016 edition. His selections, which ranged from tortured-artist dramas (Young Man with a Horn, The Big Knife) to explorations of the blurred border between art and madness (Specter of the Rose, Peeping Tom), drove home the message that art, no less than money or sex, can be a fatal obsession. We all know crime doesn’t pay, but that the purest ideals might also undo us is a bitterer pill to swallow. Why do we swallow the bitter pills of noir with such insatiable delight? That is the endlessly interesting question.