Studies in Film Genre: Film Noir

English 4820
Film Noir
Section 1
Nancy West
1:00-1:50; W 6:00-8:30pm

Focusing on 15 films, this course is designed to introduce you to film noir. Broadly speaking, film noir refers to movies that typically take crime as their subject, presenting a world marked by menace, cynicism, and violence. Unlike the gangster genre, however, film noir tends to be deeply psychological.  Through its compelling antiheroes and femme fatales, it explores emotions such as paranoia, despair, greed, sexual desire, fear, and mistrust. It also possesses a much more complex visual style and narrative structure than the gangster genre.

As we will see, film noirs encompass a range of plots—the central figure may be a private eye, an insurance salesman, a screenwriter, a law-abiding citizen lured into a life of crime, or simply a victim of circumstance. The prominent themes of these films are the inescapability of fate; police corruption; the duplicitous nature of women; the dangers of sex and sexual desire; the fragility of marriage and the family; the failure of capitalism; and the perversion of the American dream.

Though film noir largely disappeared from American screens in the late 1950s and 1960s, it returned with a vengeance in the 1970s. We will also look at the resurgence of interest in film noir sparked by Roman Polanski’s Chinatown in 1974—an interest that has continued throughout the decades and has resulted in a wide body of films we now term “neo-noir.”

The films we will study include The Maltese Falcon (1940), Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Night of the Hunter, Chinatown, and Collateral. We will study these films closely but we will also discuss such important contexts as the censorship code, the rise and decline of hard-boiled literature, the surprising number of Jewish émigré filmmakers associated with film noir, and the phenomenal popularity of film noir in the 1990s and early 2000s. We’ll also discuss noir’s migration to television, especially to Scandinavian and British television.

As many critics have recently observed, noir has become much more than a film style or genre; according to film scholar James Naremore, it now belongs to “the history of ideas.” Why and how this is so forms a central question of the course.

Goals of the course:

·      to make you a better viewer of films

·      to facilitate stimulating discussions

·      to provide interesting lectures about the cultural and cinematic contexts that inform our selected films

·      to sharpen your discussion and writing skills