the short of it

Let’s start the brand new year – and my brand new blog off on a low note, shall we?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive definition, but in brief, film noir was Hollywood’s nearly organic, post-war answer to itself. Arguably, it is both a style and a genre. Visually, noir’s roots came from German Expressionism (deliberately stark light and shadow, off-balance composition, visual experimentation and anti-realism)… like this:


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

The central message of film noir, for the most part is… you’re fucked. In noir, the criminals narrate. They get away with it. The good men die. The weak are punished in line with the strong. Bad things can happen to anyone, whether as a direct result of their own actions, or perhaps not. Sex is often married with danger and impending destruction. And women, more often than not, are wicked seductresses, fatal sirens, hard boiled girls who lead the (anti-)hero straight on down the line to the gas chamber.

And how, you may wonder, was all of this amazing content dumped into films in the heyday of the motion picture production code? Through a Joe Breen developed concept called ‘compensating moral value’. (Joe Breen was the successor to Will Hays and the head of the Production Code Administration until 1954. Your favorite movie from 1934 to 1954? Breen probably censored it!) Compensating moral value allowed all kinds of unsavory behavior on the screen provided; there was a clear voice of morality, the wrongdoer suffered, was punished, or reformed.

Besides, by the early 40’s, there was a general slackening of the moral code – the post war audience had lost its innocence. Though there are noir films made prior to 1940 (and internationally), the disillusionment and despair hit Hollywood in an awesome wave and gave rise to one of my favorite eras in film. And that’s the short of it.


“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

And what of hard boiled girls? Everyone loves a good deadly woman fantasy. But the femme fatale had good cause to re-appear as a fixture in noir. War-weary veterans returned to a different world – one where their newly self-sufficient wives had entered the workforce and were managing the household quite well without them. It’s only one more step until they become vicious, self-serving crimelords.

Why, you need only to have a woman act in a traditionally male fashion, but do so in a push-up bra and red lipstick. That, my friends, is all that’s needed to topple the established order.


‘Til we meet again.




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