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The Philosophy of Film Noir

Les Reid sees through a lens darkly with Mark Conard.

Film noir represents a dark night of the soul in American cinema. In the 1920s and 30s the most popular genre was the Western, with its tales of courage, self-reliance, male toughness and female sweetness. Westerns were infused with the values of the American Dream, and the Western hero was likeable, trustworthy and admirable. By contrast, the films made in the 1940s and 50s referred to as ‘film noir’ convey dark feelings of disillusionment, pessimism and cynicism. Recurring characteristics of these films are that the whole society portrayed seems corrupt; the protagonist is more anti-hero than hero; a femme fatale lures the protagonist into crime; crime is presented as a cunning exploit; and fatalism rules as plans go awry. The expressionistic use of black/white photography which gives film noir its name emphasises the bleak reality of urban life and the disillusionment it brings.

Film noir has been written about extensively since Borde and Chaumeton first analysed it in 1955. This new book brings together thirteen essays on philosophical aspects of the genre, covering a wide range of issues, from ontology (is film noir a genre or what?) to aesthetics (does its fatalism equate with tragedy?) to the meaning of life (is its cynicism founded on a moral crisis, such as existential angst?) and more. Among the philosophers mentioned, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer feature most often, with Plato and Aristotle close behind. Thomas Nagel, Paul Edwards and Charles Peirce are the most popular modern philosophers cited. I found the references clearly explained and effectively used, adding considerably to the interest of the discussions.

The phenomenon of film noir invites sociological speculation. For example, in a well-known essay on its social context, ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in Film Noir Reader 2, Paul Schrader emphasised the trauma of World War 2 and the difficulties encountered post-war when the survivors tried to resume normal life. Film noir gave expression to those social problems.

Such speculations are tempting, but they are methodologically dubious since they make broad sociological comments usually with little empirical data to support them. For the most part, the contributors to this anthology avoid such speculation and concentrate on the films rather than on the society in which they were made.

The essay by Steven M. Sanders is a case in point. He examines the fatalistic outlook found in many classic noir films, and compares it to the concept of absurdity in existentialism. He uses Vertigo and The Third Man as his main examples, but Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Asphalt Jungle are also obviously fatalistic. In these films, the protagonist seems doomed: plans do not work out, human relationships are flawed and unreliable, and society seems biased in favour of others. That combination of fatalism and alienation has some kinship with existentialism. The existentialist is alienated because he or she refuses to accept as given the moral codes of others. According to Sartre, anyone who denies his or her own freedom by following a received moral code (eg by being an orthodox Catholic) is guilty of bad faith. Freedom however brings absurdity in its wake, because the world is indifferent to the hopes of humanity. Hence the pointless toil of Sisyphus, which is celebrated as heroic by Camus.

Such existentialist defiance of the absurd world is expressed in the dark wit which is a feature of film noir. However, Sanders concludes that film noir and existentialism are fundamentally different in their attitude to human freedom. Both recognise that our freedom is bounded by physical limits; but existentialism emphasises the capacities that humans have – the scope of our freedom – whereas film noir sees only contingency, failure and fate.

A similar analysis of the fatalism in film noir leads Ian Jarvie to conclude that despite the combination of flawed heroes and pessimistic outcomes, the narratives do not attain the status of tragedy. In Aristotelian terms, film noir is low drama. Jarvie says that the stories are “morally incoherent.” They provide glimpses of personal integrity, but no clashes of principle which test the moral fibre of the protagonist, thus falling short of tragedy.

Those arguments I found quite persuasive, but there were others which were much less so. I was assured by J. Holt that the pessimism of neo-noir is one of its strengths because pessimism is more realistic than optimism. That assertion is contentious in itself; but it was also at odds with the critique offered by P.A. Cantor, in which he claimed that the pessimism of film noir is the product of a distorted view of the USA which 1930s European émigré directors like Ulmer, Wilder, Siodmak and Lang conveyed through their films. I was left wondering whether pessimism is realistic, distorted, or both.

Equally debatable was the identification of a lack of religious faith with meaninglessness, alienation or a lack of moral values (the world of film noir is largely God-free). Sometimes such false assumptions have been inherited from earlier philosophers. Conard, for example, accepted from Nietzsche the assertion that the death of God entails the death of meaning, as if no-one could find a purpose in life without belief in the supernatural. No doubt Nietzsche is a fitting source to quote, as his rhetorical excesses match the melodramatic expressionism of film noir; but I would not take anything he wrote as gospel.

Discussion of film noir is often too narrowly focused, in my opinion. Precursors in the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s are acknowledged here, but earlier prototypes are rarely mentioned. Consider Hamlet, certainly a film noir anti-hero: alienated, cynical, and abrasive in his wit, hostile to the society in which he lives, shrewdly intelligent in his pursuit of his enemy and ruthless when others block his path. His black attire, specified in Shakespeare’s text, suits his dark broodings and the pessimistic outcome of the play. Hamlet deals with all forms of killing: accidental manslaughter, deliberate murder, impulsive killing and suicide. Hamlet ponders on the morality of the killings, but events often outstrip his philosophising, and the audience are swept along in his wake. Emotions run high, and the interludes of rational thought are brief and ineffectual. At the end we feel sobered by a grim pursuit of justice in which many innocent people have been killed. Hamlet dies, and “the rest is silence.”

The classics of film noir stir the emotions in the same way. Killings happen, and we are morally implicated by our sympathy for the wrongdoers. We feel more sympathy for the killers than for their victims. Ordinary moral reasoning seems to be undermined.

Hume argued quite convincingly that morality ultimately rests on our emotions of sympathy and compassion. Those feelings provide the ‘ought’ – the basic moral values – from which all our complex moral reasonings are derived. But Hume assumed our sympathies would follow a conventional path and cherish our common humanity. The challenge of film noir is to deny that assumption and depict a world where our sympathies take a different path that leads us down darker alleyways. Perhaps that is part of its attraction. We enter a world where our moral bearings are lost, and we allow ourselves to side with amoral people living in a world quite like our own, but with all its ugly, unjust defects emphasised. We cannot tell how well we shall cope, confronting murky situations with our moral complacency switched off, but that uncertainty grips our conscience and our attention and carries us into the story.

Philosophy is the art of putting our thoughts in order. But doing that requires us to scatter the pieces sometimes, just to see how we again arrive at order from the disorder. Film noir performs such a function for our moral thinking, and does so in a most engaging way. This collection of essays, delving into the films and elucidating their philosophical depths, is also challenging and engaging. Read it and prepare to be provoked.

© Les reid 2008

Les Reid is Chair of the Belfast Humanist Group: belfast.humanists.net. You can find a list of classic noir films at imdb.com/chart/filmnoir.

The Philosophy of Film Noir, edited by Mark T Conard, published by the University Press of Kentucky, 2007, pb, 248 pages, $24.95. ISBN 978-0-8131-9181-2.

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