Noir is alive and true to its form, which means that it has managed to find some state of mind common to our time and the fifties, a state of mind typical for some forthcoming modernity.
If among all tendencies, movements and schools throughout the history of film, I had to choose one and the most important for film itself, as well as the most representative of the 20th century culture, after pondering long my choice would be film noir.
There are many reasons for it. The first is certainly the films themselves: Touch of Evil, Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, or Scarlet Street are such powerful films that many future generations of interpreters and followers will be inspired by them, quote or shamelessly plagiarize them.
The second reason is the authors. There may exist a film movement or style that, at least for a short period of time, influenced and absorbed such great and different authors such as Orson Welles, Huston, Kubrick, Wilder, Fritz Lang, Siodmak, Dymitryk and Preminger. There may be one, but I am not familiar with it.
The third reason is the influence. Even today, when you watch neo-noir films, such as The Last Seduction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Seven, or The Man Who Wasn’t There, at first you find yourself taken aback by the fact that the noir formula survived for decades almost unchanged but still remains fresh. Most of the American genres of the forties and fifties are either long buried in the historical-film cemetery (like western) or have been changed beyond recognition (like SF). Noir is alive and true to its form, which means that it managed to find some state of mind common to our time and the fifties, a state of mind typical for some forthcoming modernity.
Nevertheless, the most brilliant thing about noir is the fact that this great movement was born in the bedroom of seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Noir is a product of the combination of European and American culture, high intellectualism and populism; and without these two sides of the equation, it would be impossible.
Noir would never exist if it hadn’t been for those German, Jewish, and immigrant directors from Central European, all those Siodmaks, Langs, and Wilders who brought to California their sensibility, culture, and the complicated and fatalist historical experience. On the other hand, noir would never exist without Hollywood, its logic, stars and tradition of genre. And Hollywood would never exist if it hadn’t been for the hard boiled murder mysteries, which are immanently an American cultural phenomenon, as well as expressionism that snuck into Hollywood through German directors and gave the emerging young style its characteristic visual expression. Noir would never exist without the “low” culture, tradition of pulp-prose and gangster feuilleton writing. Even so, noir was greatly influenced by the high culture: Freud’s psychoanalysis and existentialism.
Emerging from war, noir was much influenced by the post-war feeling of desperation, lack of power and disbelief in human nature. If the whole American (and Western?) tradition favors the hero who takes his fate in his own hands and decides to make things at least a little better, it does not believe in him anymore. The heroes of noir are fatalists, people who in the end, in best case, remain the same. The world is, more or less, a hopeless place; the fires of human greed and ambition can destroy, degrade, or despise everything. The world of noir is a world without a strong foothold, a vast and empty land in which zombies roam. These zombies do not hope for anything, and if they do dare, they will soon be sobered up in a bitter manner. This fatalistic existence of film noir is a typical modernistic phenomenon. It is a film movement that in spite of its commercial and populist core, as a reflection of its time, goes hand in hand with products of the most hermetic elite culture: with Beckett, Ionesco, Bacon’s paintings, Kafka’s novels. If in some faraway future, people should even remember twentieth century culture, they will remember it for that handful of things; and among them will be the film noir. (Jurica Pavičić)