Before I tell you of my connections with film noir, I ought to define my terms. What is "film noir?"
Film critics are more or less in agreement that the genre's heyday started with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and ended with Touch of Evil in 1958 - but, of course, this is only a rough timeframe. (One film critic argues persuasively that Psycho really spelled the end of noir, and that 1974's Chinatown is as representative as a film can be. 1998's Dark City was a convincing interpretation - in a sci-fi idiom - as well.) The German Expressionist school of film in the Twenties and Thirties seem to be the antecedents of the style. (Think of Metropolis, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M.) The American gangster films of the Thirties helped to set the stage as well.
All the best noirs seem to be in black and white - mostly black. It's a shadowy world; actors are often lit in odd ways, making their faces look unreal. Images are often framed in a disorienting manner. All of this cinematic darkness is accompanied by acting that is sometimes kept within tight-lipped, restrained limits, or, on the other extreme, displayed as madness, frenzy or desperation.
An overall sense of urban corruption and despair serves as a theme for many noirs, as if the filmmakers were saying that city life and modern society was toxic to one's moral, emotional or spiritual wellness. Who knows? Perhaps they're right.
The cops are corrupt, the industrialists greedy, the criminals merely taking part in "...a left-hand form of human endeavor" (to quote a philosopher/crook in Asphalt Jungle). Many noir screenwriters were Hollywood socialists and communists, so the disillusionment with and resentment of American society that often crops up in noir films is easy to trace.
Noir is mostly a post-war phenomenon; what were the G.I.s returning home to? The kind of America made safe and ideal by their sacrifice? Not according to the noir filmmakers. According to them, the rot had set in, and it permeated every level of society from the penthouse to the police station to the cozy tract home.
Personally, I find all of this bracing - as, no doubt, our parents did before us. I do not particularly enjoy seeing explicit sex and bloodshed depicted on the screen. I much prefer the code-imposed restraint the noir filmmakers had to live with. (They probably resented it.) To me, however, a scene has much more meaning if it is suggested and not graphically shown. After all, I'm an adult - I can fill in the blanks. And I'm usually happier with the results than if someone else did it for me.
Also, there is a refreshing lack of political correctness in noir. How do these people feel? Who cares? It's what they do - and why they do it - that interest me.
Feminism? Not really. Noir females have power, but it's usually portrayed as feminine wiles used against men. Every now and then a dame will fire a revolver at a man. (Who's "Gun Crazy?" Annie, not Bart.) Generally, however, murder is what men are for. No need to soil one's hands.
So there it is: murder, corruption, adultery, blackmail, sex, manipulation, the heist, the rackets, frenzy, madness, paranoia, guilt, fear, and, best of all - desperation - all served up with an edge within the idiom of postwar moviemaking. All for us adults.
As usual, the French had a name for it: film noir.
Perhaps the main reason why I find film noir so compelling is because it describes a lost adulthood so fully. When I was a kid (I am a member of the "baby boomer" generation), adults looked, dressed and acted the way they did in these films - and when I was a kid I expected that when I grew up I would enter that world. Up until the Sixties, it was understood that society was composed of two classes of people: adults and kids, and it was easy to tell which was which by the way they dressed and acted. High school yearbook pictures were full of images of eighteen year-olds who looked like adults. Then, perhaps sometime around the appearance of the Beatles, a new class emerged: the youth. They demanded, and were given, the privilege of not having to mature and become adults. Worse, they were regarded as having new insights that would make society a better place. Becoming an adult myself in this environment was a letdown. Where were the fedora-wearing men who smoked so elegantly and entertained lavishly-dressed women in nightclubs? The men and women who seemed so knowing and sophisticated about sex? Who were - and are now finally acknowledged to have been - so... cool?
The young men of my generation grew up reluctantly, prizing youth all the while, and insisted on jeans and tee-shirts as apparel into middle age. Some, like Bill Clinton, were raised to great heights of power but still acted like reckless adolescents. Entire industries grew up out of a desire to remain young: fitness, plastic surgery, e-Bay auctions of things we owned as children, the transformation of comic books into "sequential graphic literature," etc. But the souls who populate film noir didn't need the drugs, social movements and flower power. They were toughened by the Depression and World War II. Twelve-step programs and self-esteem are a part of my generation, not theirs, and it's refreshing to see them confront life without the therapy mentality that persist today.
In other words, they acted like adults. In her book Stiffed, Susan Faludi has an interesting comment, using the film noir fedora hat as a symbol: "Much later, a crucial difference between those fedoras and the ball caps of today would strike me. The fedora was the haberdashery of a man in a position to give, an adult man with some sense of his value and purpose in a civic society into which he blended seamlessly. The cap was the garb of a boy, a man-child still waiting for his inheritance, still hoping to be ushered in by the male authorities and given a sign, a badge, perhaps a fedora, to indicate his induction into adult society."
I remember one night-time trip into downtown Los Angeles with my mom; I was 11 or 12. For some reason we wound up driving down a skid-row district, in and out of light and darkness from streetlights, looking for our destination. (I think it was Clifton's Cafeteria on South Broadway.) I remember thinking that it was a good thing we were in a car with the doors locked. But on the other hand, I got a crazy sort of buzz out of the experience as well - that it would be cool to be out walking the streets, in and out of those shadows. It was an odd mental conflict between safety and danger. To this day I can't find myself in a major city at night without feeling the same way. And the best films restore that fascination to me. Anyway, we parked in a public lot and had to walk down a dark alleyway to get to where we were going, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was in a frame from an old Batman comic book, or from one of those black-and-white crime dramas that played on the late night movies on TV. And it was so cool.
Years later, as an adult, I was walking around on the streets of Philadelphia one evening with a couple of Civil War reenacting friends, taking in some historical sites. The thing I remember best of all, however, was one friend (especially well-versed in film noir) saying, "Hey, watch this!" He then ran desperately off down an alley. He noisily careened off a trash can and threw himself back up against a dirty brick wall, arms spread out, a panicked expression on his face. He looked at us as if we were gunmen and cried, "No. Don't. I'll get the money. Gimme another chance!" We all laughed, instantly recognizing a scene played out in many crime dramas. I had reenacted many a Civil War and Revolutionary War battle, but this was the first time I had ever viewed a film noir reenactment.