"How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"
-- Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA 1944)
“Because film noir was first of all a style, because it worked out is conflicts visually rather than thematically, because it was aware of its own identity, it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological problems.”
-- Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir” (1972)
Even though film noir is considered to be an international category today, the French film critics who first circulated the term in post-WW II Europe used it to refer to a hot new wave of films coming out of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood – works such as Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder), Laura (1944, Otto Preminger), The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino), and Touch of Evil (1959, Orson Welles). In its heyday, classic film noir was more of a style than a full-fledged genre and its moody, fatalistic atmosphere so pervasive as to arguably having “noired” (Todd Erickson) a considerable proportion of the country’s total film production. Film noir tapped hard boiled crime fiction and other lowbrow genres; in Hollywood, a community of expatriate European film professionals (Freund, Lang, Preminger, Siodmak, Ulmer, Wilder, Zinnemann, etc.), as directors, cinematographers, and writers, illuminated the U.S. American psychological landscape in the steep and jagged angles of expressionist cinema. Film noir dazzled and enthralled audiences with zig-zagging, flashback-heavy plotlines, “subjective” camerawork, and a predilection for complex, morally compromised characters. Film noir was thus fit to capture a nation in transformation as it conveyed a range of widespread sentiments all the way from WWII disillusionment to Cold War paranoia and xenophobia.
In this seminar, we will look at a number of film noir classics and critical writings on the noir from different perspectives. We will investigate how representations of gender, race/ethnicity, and class resonate with the noir’s distinctive conventions, such as its narrative and stylistic devices. Though in-depth film analytical knowledge is not a requirement for this seminar, students are expected to familiarize themselves with some basic tools of the trade via materials made available to them in this class.