What is Film Noir? Many critics debate whether or not this style of film-making is a genre unto itself or not. Film Noir, or black film, is a type of film from the 40s and 50s, typically gritty detective stories, that thematically deal with sex, drugs, crime, and the seedy underbelly of society. The films also utilize cinematography, lighting and shadows, and music to create a dark and ominous mood. Noir characters aren’t heroes. They’re flawed every-men.
Additionally, the narrative structure tends to drive the climax into some sort of maze or shrinking space, forcing the protagonist and antagonist together. The screenplays are often pessimistic, fatalistic, or nihilistic. But a film classified into this not-genre doesn’t have to have any or all of these and there are many films in the genre which have virtually none.
It’s confusing as hell. So when I was assigned an oral presentation on film noir during my first, freshman year, History of Cinema class in college, I butchered my way through it and escaped with a B+. Still, to this day, I’m bewildered when it comes to what makes noir, noir. And looking back, I’m pretty sure the rest of the class was as well.
During my recent trip to Vienna, however, I enjoyed watching a classic bit of film noir cinema greatness: The Third Man (with Orson Welles). Shot almost entirely on location in Austria (including the theater Burg Kino, in which we viewed the picture), the film takes place during a post-WWII rebuilding of Vienna, when the main character comes to town to find his best friend dead. The first line of voice-over narration says, “I never knew the old Vienna before the war…”
A mystery ensues (if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil it for you) all over the capital city of Austria transporting the audience to 1949, but to many of the same places Jen and I had visited earlier in the visit. The film was very good and I recommend it. I’m still not sure I can explain exactly what makes it film noir, although the final chase through Vienna’s complex sewer system – complete with elongated shadows and echoing footsteps – is most likely the film’s best indication.
In his review of the film, the late Roger Ebert said, “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.” I don’t completely agree with him, but I can see how he arrived at that opinion. I did feel very much engrossed in the golden age of Hollywood during the screening.
Hasta La Proxima…