The Enduring Power of Film Noir

Several weeks ago, when reminding a friend and faithful Filmworks supporter about our then-upcoming film Blind Shaft, I described it as “a film noir from China.” Her reaction was not at all what I expected: “All you film guys love film noir,” she complained. “Nobody else does.” I hesitated to respond, in part because the first part of her comment was absolutely true. I am one of those film guys who loves noir. I usually include at least one (sometimes more) in my film classes to illustrate concepts about form, genre, narration, and theory. I’ve delivered papers on film noirs at academic conferences and public lectures. And every new scholarly book that comes out on the subject usually finds its way onto my bookshelves.

I’ve yet to see a film noir from the original American cycle (1941-58) that wasn’t worth watching – from the intentionally disreputable budget-noirs like Detour, Gun Crazy, and Kiss Me Deadly to the A-list classics like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past. Moreover, the little-known gem from Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place, and Roman Polanski’s revisionist masterpiece, Chinatown, have long been among my favorite films of any category.

While classic noir may not be for everyone, film noir continues to fascinate audiences as well as the directors who make them. How else to explain the popularity of recent films like L.A. Confidential and Memento? The critical respect for smaller films like One False Move and A Simple Plan? Or the frequency of interesting, though flawed, noirs like U Turn and Femme Fatale? And that’s just looking at contemporary noirs from the U.S.

Film noir in its pure form (not the bowdlerized type with an apologetic happy ending tacked on) is essentially tragedy for a mass audience. In noir, bad things happen to ordinary people for no reason – except chance, or fate. Flawed protagonists make bad choices, then not only pay for those mistakes but come to realize that they are the cause of their own fall.

These tragedies of transgression and fate are far from escapist entertainment. For each generation of viewers since the 1940s, film noir has embodied the cultural anxieties and psychic traumas that have troubled audiences – from post-WWII readjustments to post-Vietnam, post-Watergate distrust on to more recent variations of the same themes. From the earliest Hollywood noirs, the form undermined illusions about the American Dream. Audiences felt the subversive pull of these films, and the Hollywood establishment, with the force of the Motion Picture Production Code behind it, did its best to contain that subversion. Of course, since the 1970s American filmmakers no longer faced the same restrictions; because of that freedom, ironically, American film noir lost some of its bite. Films produced under more repressive regimes, however, have not.

This brings me back to Blind Shaft, the indictment of Chinese-style capitalism that Filmworks presented in April. For those who saw it, I’m sure it came as no surprise to learn that the film was banned in the People’s Republic. Li Yang’s story of two murderous grifters in the unregulated coal mines of China is both a neo-realist expose of a rapacious industry and a metaphor for the greed and corruption that Li finds rampant in the new economy of his homeland. The film’s bleakness is unrelenting, but what a powerful critique of the new China it is.

More than a decade ago, another Chinese film noir was banned from mainland theaters: Ju Dou, an early film from Zhang Yimou, a leading figure among the Fifth Generation directors, was likewise too bold for government censors to accept. In the China of 1990 (post-Tiananmen Square), this simple story of transgressive sexual desire, reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice, challenged what was expected of individuals within the communist system of the time.

While Zhang’s theme of desperate individualism driven underground is nearly the inverse of Li Yang’s critique of corruption and selfishness, both draw from the conventions of film noir to confront the different zeitgeists of modern China. These two noirs, altered by cultural differences and political circumstances, demonstrate, perhaps more clearly than do those produced today in the West, the uncompromising power of film noir.