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The Philosophy of Film Noir

The Philosophy of Film Noir

edited by Mark T. Conard
Foreword by Robert Porfirio
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of Film Noir
    Book Description:

    A drifter with no name and no past, driven purely by desire, is convinced by a beautiful woman to murder her husband. A hard-drinking detective down on his luck becomes involved with a gang of criminals in pursuit of a priceless artifact. The stories are at once romantic, pessimistic, filled with anxiety and a sense of alienation, and they define the essence of film noir. Noir emerged as a prominent American film genre in the early 1940s, distinguishable by its use of unusual lighting, sinister plots, mysterious characters, and dark themes. From The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958), films from this classic period reflect an atmosphere of corruption and social decay that attracted such accomplished directors as John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Orson Welles. The Philosophy of Film Noir is the first volume to focus exclusively on the philosophical underpinnings of these iconic films. Drawing on the work of diverse thinkers, from the French existentialist Albert Camus to the Frankurt school theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the volume connects film noir to the philosophical questions of a modern, often nihilistic, world. Opening with an examination of what constitutes noir cinema, the book interprets the philosophical elements consistently present in the films -- themes such as moral ambiguity, reason versus passion, and pessimism. The contributors to the volume also argue that the essence and elements of noir have fundamentally influenced movies outside of the traditional noir period. Neo-noir films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Fight Club (1999), and Memento (2000) have reintroduced the genre to a contemporary audience. As they assess the concepts present in individual films, the contributors also illuminate and explore the philosophical themes that surface in popular culture. A close examination of one of the most significant artistic movements of the twentieth century, The Philosophy of Film Noir reinvigorates an intellectual discussion at the intersection of popular culture and philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7170-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Robert Porfirio

    In the fall of 1976, when I wrote the article “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in theFilm Noir” forSight and Sound(vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 212–17), little would I have expected that some twenty-five years later a collection of essays under the titleThe Philosophy of Film Noirwould be published. Yet here it is, a welcome indication of how far we have traveled in terms of public awareness and scholarly respectability. Indeed, in 1976, the termfilm noirwas little known beyond a coterie of French and American cineasts and derided by some as a...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    A drifter, driven purely by desire, is convinced by a beautiful woman—a femme fatale—to murder her husband. A whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking detective becomes involved with a gang of ruthless criminals in pursuit of a priceless artifact, for which they’re all willing to kill. An insurance salesman is lured by a restless, avaricious housewife to murder her husband for the insurance money. Another detective, this one sleepy eyed and trench coated, is hired by a gangster to find a woman who tried to kill him and then absconded with his money—except, when the detective finds her, he takes up...

  6. Part 1: The Essence and Elements of Noir

    • Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir
      (pp. 7-22)
      Mark T. Conard

      The Postman Always Rings Twice(Tay Garnett, 1946) was adapted from a novel by the writer of hard-boiled fiction James M. Cain. Interspersed throughout the movie is voice-over narration by the protagonist, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), indicating that he is recalling events in the past. Frank is a drifter who takes a job at a remote diner owned by an older man, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), after getting a look at Nick’s stunning young wife, Cora (Lana Turner). There is a strong sexual attraction between Frank and Cora, and, after one aborted attempt, they succeed in killing Nick and making it...

    • A Darker Shade: Realism in Neo-Noir
      (pp. 23-40)
      Jason Holt

      Classic film noir ran from the early forties to the late fifties, beginning with John Huston’sThe Maltese Falcon(1941) and ending with Orson Welles’sTouch of Evil(1958). We might widen the scope a bit, citing the little-knownStranger on the Third Floor(Boris Ingster, 1940) as the inception of the classic period andOdds against Tomorrow(Robert Wise, 1959) as the terminus, but, even without settling the disputes about which should count as the first film noir and which as the last, the historical limits of the period, spanning at most twenty years, are pretty well defined.


    • Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir
      (pp. 41-48)
      Aeon J. Skoble

      Film noir is a genre identified by a variety of stylistic conventions: unsettling or otherwise odd camera angles, the dramatic use of shadow and light, hard-boiled dialogue, settings that emphasize isolation and loneliness. Thematically, film noir is typically said to be characterized by moral ambiguity: murky distinctions between good guys and bad guys, ambivalence about right and wrong, conflicts between law and morality, unsettling inversion of values, and so on.¹ I will argue that there is some pedagogical moral value to the ostensible moral murkiness and that, in fact, films noirs are less morally ambiguous than they are generally said...

    • Cherchez la Femme Fatale: The Mother of Film Noir
      (pp. 49-68)
      Read Mercer Schuchardt

      In 1927, nineteen years before French critics were to notice a change in American cinema, a film was released that gave birth to what would—a generation later—be recognized in its maturity as a new genre. The hallmark characteristics of this new type of “dark film”—retroactively dubbedfilm noirby the French critics—were, nevertheless, present in primordial form in the structure, plot, and fabric of a film that was the first of its kind: a film that displayed to the world the very metaphysical crisis under which the film industry itself would operate for the next one...

    • From Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir
      (pp. 69-88)
      Jerold J. Abrams

      The time of film noir is Hemingway time—dark and cold, moody and mean, existentially void and grossly atomistic. Here is a “house built to confuse men” and lead them all about in a synthetic prison of their own design. This dark maze of the night is everywhere and nowhere, and the only one who knows it clean is the hard-boiled detective, who navigates its thousand hidden passageways. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer—these are the classic noir detectives, each one stoic and detached, a cold Cartesian spectator with no hope for redemption and no reason to care....

  7. Part 2: Existentialism and Nihilism in Film Noir

    • Film Noir and the Meaning of Life
      (pp. 91-106)
      Steven M. Sanders

      Film noir is a fabric woven out of many threads. Its various styles, themes, motifs, and forms make it a complex and contested cultural phenomenon. I suspect that many readers of this volume would agree that they know film noir when they see it even though they cannot define the termfilm noirper se. While doubts persist about definition,¹ we can say with some confidence that film noir raises important questions about life’s meaning. My aim here is to examine some of these questions and, thus, to use film noir to motivate philosophical thinking about the meaning of life....

    • The Horizon of Disenchantment: Film Noir, Camus, and the Vicissitudes of Descent
      (pp. 107-124)
      Alan Woolfolk

      Film noir may be understood as a cinematic form that, even more than standard film genres (e.g., melodramas, musicals, westerns), defies exact definition, not only because it is transgeneric in origin and to a considerable extent derivative of other genres, but also because it picked up certain subversive cultural motifs of a rapidly changing late industrial society and equivocally reshaped them in a way that, at best, challenged widespread assumptions about material and moral progress and, at worst, merely confirmed the most devastating illusions of a culture vacillating, as Philip Rieff once wrote, “between dead purposes and deadly devices to...

    • Symbolism, Meaning, and Nihilism in Quentin Tarantinoʹs Pulp Fiction
      (pp. 125-136)
      Mark T. Conard

      Nihilismis a term that describes the loss of value and meaning in people’s lives. When Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead,”¹ he meant that Judeo-Christianity has been lost as a guiding force in our lives and that there is nothing to replace it. Once we ceased really to believe in the myth at the heart of Judeo-Christian religion, which happened after the Scientific Revolution, Judeo-Christian morality lost its character as a binding code by which to live one’s life.² Given the centrality of religion in our lives for thousands of years, once this moral code is lost and not...

  8. Part 3: Six Classic Films Noirs

    • Film Noir and the Frankfurt School: America as Wasteland in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour
      (pp. 139-162)
      Paul A. Cantor

      In the history of film noir, Edgar G. Ulmer’sDetour(1945) occupies an honored place, appearing on just about everybody’s short list of classics of the genre, and frequently cited as the director’s best work.¹ At the time Ulmer made the movie, he was operating on the fringes of the motion picture industry, virtually as an independent producer. AlthoughDetourwas famously made in under a week and for less than $20,000, Ulmer delivered a professional piece of work, showing why he came to be known as the “King of the B-Movies.” Despite some signs of haste and cheapness in...

    • Knowledge, Morality, and Tragedy in The Killers and Out of the Past
      (pp. 163-186)
      Ian Jarvie

      Students of film find film noir interesting because it is a critics’ rather than a filmmakers’ category. Socially minded critics find interesting the pessimistic mood of so many early films noirs, coinciding as they did with wartime and the immediate postwar period.¹ The pessimism, menace, and violence of the films also clash with their prima facie status as mere popular entertainment. This leads me to my philosophical question. Perhaps these films are more than they at first seem. Are these dark films a popular extension of tragedy as Aristotle defined it, that is, dramas educing pity and terror that offer...

    • Moral Man in the Dark City: Film Noir, the Postwar Religious Revival, and The Accused
      (pp. 187-206)
      R. Barton Palmer

      A principal problem for historians of the American film is how to explain, as Andrew Spicer puts it, “the eruption of film noir’s dark, cynical, and often pessimistic stories into the sunlit pastures of Hollywood’s characteristically optimistic and affirmative cinema.”¹ Although influences from other cinematic traditions (primarily German expressionism) and from literature (European naturalism, native hard-boiled fiction) have customarily been taken into account, film scholars, Spicer among them, have for the most part relied on what we might call thedark mirror theoryto account for this surprising development. According to this view, the sudden emergence and flourishing of film...

    • On Reason and Passion in The Maltese Falcon
      (pp. 207-222)
      Deborah Knight

      An elegant, dark-haired woman in a fur wrap enters the office of the private detective firm of Spade and Archer. Sam Spade’s secretary has already told him that he’ll want to see her because “she’s a knockout.” Miss Wonderly, as she initially identifies herself, wants to hire Spade to find her younger sister, Corinne, who has apparently run away to San Francisco with a man named Floyd Thursby. Miss Wonderly insists that Thursby is dangerous and will stop at nothing. Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, arrives during the interview, obviously finds Miss Wonderly quite attractive, and agrees to tail Thursby that...

    • Ride the Pink Horse: Money, Mischance, Murder, and the Monads of Film Noir
      (pp. 223-238)
      Alain Silver

      The history of film noir is simple enough. Despite occasional squabbling over the identity of the first film noir, it is clear that, after some early prototypes, the classic period of film noir transpired over a mere two decades. While most commentators would agree on the key motion pictures that constitute the body of noir films, beginning with John Huston’sThe Maltese Falconin 1941 and ending with Orson Welles’sTouch of Evilin 1958, there is certainly no consensus about the philosophy of noir. That the noir phenomenon exists is indisputable. Although some of the critical analyses that have...

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 239-242)
  10. Index
    (pp. 243-248)