Notes on Film Noir (1972) by Paul Schrader


Recently I’ve read an essay by Paul Schrader entitled Notes on Film Noir (1972). What follows is a brief summary I’ve made that I would like to share with regular or sporadic readers of The Game’s Afoot. You can find in the Internet the original article, together with the article The Family Tree of Film Noir, cited in the text. 

1. The term was coined in 1946 by French critics, seeing the American films they had missed during the war.

2. Film noir is not a genre. It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.

3. Film noir is also a specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave. Film noir can stretch at its outer limits from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958), and most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements. There are also foreign offshoots of film noir, such as The Third Man, Breathless and Le Doulos.

4. Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?

5. There were four conditions in Hollywood in the Forties which brought about the film noir.

  • War and Post-War Disillusionments
  • Post-War Realism
  • The German Influence
  • The Hard-Boiled Tradition

6. There is not yet a study of the stylistics of film noir, and the task is certainly too large to be attempted here. For the present, however, I’d like to point out some of film noir’s recurring techniques.

  • The majority of scenes are lit for night.
  • As in German expressionism, oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal.
  • The actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis.
  • Compositional tension is preferred to physical action.
  • There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water.
  • There is a love of romantic narration.
  • A complex chronological order is frequently used to reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time

7. Raymond Durgnat has delineated the themes of film noir in an excellent article in British Cinema magazine (The Family Tree of Film Noir, August, 1970). It would be foolish for me to attempt to redo his thorough work in this short space. Durgnat divides film noir into eleven thematic categories, and although one might criticize some of his specific groupings, he does cover the whole gamut of noir production (thematically categorizing over 300 films). Durgnat, however, does not touch upon what is perhaps the most over-riding noir theme: a passion for the past and present, but a fear of the future.

8. Film noir can be subdivided into three broad phases:

  • The first, the wartime period, from 1941-46
  • The second phase was the post-war realistic period from 1945-49 (the dates overlap and so do the films; these are all approximate phases for which there are many exceptions)
  • The third and final phase of film noir, from 1949-53

9. By the middle Fifties film noir had ground to a halt. There were a few notable stragglers, Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Combo, and film noir’s epitaph, Touch of Evil.

10. Film noir was an immensely creative period —probably the most creative in Hollywood’s history— at least, if this creativity is measured not by its peaks but by its median level of artistry. Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western and so on. Film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors.

Conclusion: Because film noir was first of all a style, because it worked out its conflicts visually rather than thematically, because it was aware of its own identity, it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological problems. And for these reasons films like Kiss Me Deadly, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Gun Crazy can be works of art in a way that gangster films like Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar can never be.

From Wikipedia: Paul Joseph Schrader (born July 22, 1946) is a U.S. screenwriter, film director, and film critic. Schrader wrote or co-wrote screenplays for the Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and has directed 18 feature films, including his 1982 remake of the horror classic Cat People, and critically acclaimed dramas American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Affliction (1997) and Auto Focus (2002), as well as The Canyons (2013).

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5 thoughts on “Notes on Film Noir (1972) by Paul Schrader

  1. I remember reading about Paul Schrader in the excellent book on 70s cinema, and how it changed Hollywood, Easy Riders Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. He comes across as, er, slightly crazy – pulling guns on people, etc. If you haven’t read it I’d highly recommend it. There’s some fascinating stories about how films by the new wave of auteur directors got made, plus enough gossip to ensure some people were VERY upset with Biskind. Also wonderful, if you’re a fan of 70s cinema, is Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays In The Picture. But there’s a good chance you’ve already read them.

    1. Thanks for the information Crimeworm. I’ve not ready any of them. I’ll make a note. I understand, however, that Biskind was severely critised by some of the filmmakers interviewed in his book, mainly Coppola, Spielberg, Bogdanovich and Altman.

      1. Absolutely – it was quite controversial, which, ironically, probably worked in Biskind’s favour, as everyone would’ve bought it to see what all the fuss was about! I read another of his books, about Miramax, and Harvey Weinstein came out of that one really badly; Bob not quite so. I did really enjoy reading about the 70s films and how they were made (although by the mid 70s I’m surprised anyone could remember anything, there was so much cocaine in Hollywood.)

  2. A useful set of notes, JI, although I obviously disagree with Schrader’s localization of the genre in both time and geography.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment John. I’m looking forward to reading your book in which I presume you have elaborate more about the boundaries of film noir both in terms of time as in geography.

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