TCM’s Film Noir “Into the Darkness” Course Study Group: Weeks 6-7

This summer, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a free, online summer school course on the history and themes of film noir. Your film editor is taking it, because why on earth wouldn’t I, and I encourage you to do the same, so we can meet and discuss every other week. (If you haven’t enrolled yet, it’s not too late.)

When we started these little study group posts back at the beginning of the summer, I classified myself (per the choices of the initial survey) as “somewhat familiar with film noir.” But the deeper we dive into the context and specifics of the style, the sillier I feel for even giving myself that much credit; increasingly, I’ve realized that I held a common and rather generic view of noir, full of the sort of unsubtle cues (window-blind lighting, hardboiled men, tough-talking voice-over, shadows galore) which populate the least nuanced of parodies.

And that’s because, when you get down to it, our earlier search for a definition was bound to be fruitless — as film noir is no one, single thing. It spanned across two decades of diverging mindsets, through periods of war and peace, of national comity and widespread suspicion. In the lecture, Edwards advises viewers to note the year the film was made — after all, we’re not just dealing in some kind of broad, vague “1940s” or “1950s” period.

Thus, as Edwards points out, an early effort like 1941’s The Maltese Falcon seems to take place on another planet from something as itchy and nihilistic as the postwar classic Kiss Me Deadly. Early in the cycle, the noir protagonist usually had to go looking for trouble; by the end, as we see in the Daily Dose clips from Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker, trouble came looking for you. Those opening scenes play with the iconography of the highway, the establishment of dread, the feeling that you never know what you might find by the side of the road.

Point is, there’s room for both extremes in the noir tent, because noir is no one thing. It’s similarly tempting to consider the character types discussed in Week 6 in similar terms — we tend to lump all of them into Edwards’ first classification (“a femme fatale lures a man into a compromising or dangerous position”) and forget about the “femme fatale as victim” (of a man, or “a heartless fate”) narratives.

Still from "Where Danger Lives"

And, as has become my refrain during the course, context matters. The Week 7 discussion begins to zero in on something I frankly hadn’t really considered previously: what prompted the end of the film noir as we know it. The easiest assumption, when any craze comes to an end, is box office — which certainly became a more measurable quantity for “B” pictures after the Supreme Court’s Paramount decision, which also helped hasten their demise as a studio tool. But as Edwards points out, elemental shifts in both the cinematic (hello, television!) and cultural landscape would soon bring the film noir cycle to its conclusion — to send it, to paraphrase Too Late for Tears, off the edge. “The creativity and constraints that fueled the rise of noir had seemingly run their course,” Edwards says. “The opportunity window for making films noir seemed to be closing.” But these filmmakers weren’t going down without a fight: “If it was closing, it made the most of the opportunity it had turning out a decade’s worth of classic films noir in the 1950s.”

Stray observations:

  • Edwards notes that film noir “has psychological and philosophical roots contrary to most of the films made in the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s and 1950s,” which is a fine point that’s not often made; from the Technicolor musicals to the slapstick comedies to even the prestige dramas, this was a sunny, sunny period for studio filmmaking — which must’ve made these shadowy movies seem, comparatively, even darker.
  • “Women frequently had a limited number of roles in the Hollywood film in the classical era,” Edwards says. “They could portray mothers, wives, girlfriends, or even conspicuously sexual women, but they tended to do so in stories that relegated to them a secondary status to the men in the story.” Well, thank God that’s all over!
  • Biesen writes, in Blackout: “By 1944 Hollywood studio publicity and critics in the United States had already identified these innovative films as a bold new trend called the ‘red meat crime cycle.’” Um, can we bring that expression back, pretty please?
  • A recommendation for you fans of The Hitch-Hiker: the Ida Lupino episode of the You Must Remember This podcast is riveting listening. Although I can’t imagine you’re not listening to YMRT if you’re taking a class like this… right?

OK, now to you. Tell me what you’ve learned so far that’s been particularly eye-opening. Hit me with a recommendation for one of the “Summer of Noir” movies that I might’ve skipped — or that isn’t on the schedule at all. And who’s your favorite tough guy and/or femme fatale?