This essay originally appeared in my The Philosophy of Film Noir volume.

Philosophy of Film Noir


The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was adapted from a novel by the hard-boiled writer, James M. Cain. The movie is interspersed with voice-over narration by the protagonist, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), indicating that he is recalling events in the past. Frank is a drifter who takes a job at a remote diner, owned by an older man, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), after getting a look at Nick’s stunning young wife, Cora (Lana Turner). There is a strong sexual attraction between Frank and Cora, and, after one aborted attempt, they succeed in killing Nick and making it look like a car accident, in order to be together. A suspicious D.A., however, hounds them and finally tricks Frank into signing a statement claiming that Cora murdered Nick. Cora beats the rap, and the lovers are bitterly estranged for a short period. In the end (after some other twists and turns), they come back together, knowing that they’re too much in love to be apart, knowing that they’re fated to be together. Ironically, they have a car accident in which Cora is killed. The D.A. prosecutes Frank for Cora’s murder, and Frank is convicted and sentenced to death. We learn at the end that he has been telling the story to a priest in his prison cell, awaiting execution.

Postman displays all the distinctive conventions of film noir: the noir look and feel, as well as a typical noir narrative, with the femme fatale, the alienated and doomed antihero, and their scheme to do away with her husband. It has the feeling of disorientation, pessimism, and the rejection of traditional ideas about morality, what’s right and what’s wrong. Further, a great many noir films were either adapted from hard-boiled novels or heavily influenced by them. Last, it’s told in flash-back form through Frank’s voice-over, another noir convention. Indeed, Postman is considered to be a quintessential film noir.

Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

But what does that mean? What exactly is film noir? Is it a genre (like a western or a romantic comedy)? Is it a film style constituted by the deep shadows and odd scene compositions? Is it perhaps a cycle of films lasting through a certain period (typically identified as 1941 to 1958)? Is noir a certain mood and tone, that of alienation and pessimism? Each of these answers, amongst others, has been given by one theorist or another as an explanation of just what film noir is. And, given that there is widespread disagreement about what film noir is, there is likewise disagreement about which films count as film noir. Clearly, Postman is a film noir, but is Citizen Kane (1941), for example? Or, perhaps more pointedly, are Beat the Devil (1953) or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) noir films? Like The Maltese Falcon (1941), both films star noir legend Humphrey Bogart, and both were directed by John Huston, but, whereas The Maltese Falcon is considered to be a noir film, indeed a classic noir, the other two movies are often not so regarded.

In this essay, I’ll give a brief history of the various attempts at defining film noir. I’ll then discuss Nietzsche and the problem of definition, and I’ll conclude by making a modest proposal for a new way of looking at film noir and the problem of its definition.


Socratic Definition

Before examining the various, proposed definitions of film noir, I want to look at one approach to the question of definition generally, namely Socrates’. As a philosopher, Socrates’ central concern was ethics: he wanted to know how to live his life, and he believed that the key to living well was knowledge, specifically knowledge of the virtues. If he’s going to be pious or just, Socrates believes, he has to know what piety and justice are. So, in Plato’s dialogues, [1] in order to achieve the knowledge he wants, Socrates searches for the form of these virtues.

Plato’s theory of forms is a theory of universals and essences. A universal is the category into which things fall. So, for example, individual, physical chairs or desks are what philosophers call “particulars,” whereas the category, “chair,” or “desk,” is the universal or the species, under which those physical items are organized. Particulars are concrete, individual things; whereas universals are abstract categories. So, if the form is film noir, then the particulars would be the individual films which fall into that category: Out of the Past (1947), The Maltese Falcon, and so on.

But, more than this, the notion of the forms is the cornerstone of Plato’s metaphysics, his theory about the nature of reality. For Plato, the continuously changing everyday world of physical objects and events, the particulars, which we see and hear around us is not ultimate reality; it is a pale imitation, like a shadow on a cave wall (to use Plato’s famous analogy).[2] Ultimate reality is not what we perceive with our five senses. Rather, it’s what we grasp with our minds, the universals. The forms are intelligible rather than sensible, they lie outside space, time, and causality, and they’re eternal and unchanging. Further, the forms are the essences of the particulars: they’re what make the individual, physical objects and events what they are. If someone wants to know what this individual thing made up of plastic, metal, and fabric is, you mention the form: chair (or “chairness,” the essence of any physical object of that type). The individual object comes into existence, changes and decays, and ultimately is destroyed. The form, on the other hand, remains the same throughout. So, even if every chair in the world were destroyed, what it means to be a chair—that essence and form—would still be the same, Socrates believes.[3]

So when Socrates asks for a definition, he is not asking for a dictionary definition, which tells us the way we use a word. Rather, he wants a description of the form. He wants to know what real, essential properties these virtues (in his case) have. And if we can do that, articulate the form, then we’ll know exactly what we’re talking about, and we’ll be able to identify anything of that type.

So is there a way of identifying the “form” of film noir? Can we pick out its essential properties and articulate that in a definition?[4]


Defining Film Noir 1: It’s a Genre

There is now a relatively long history of discussion about film noir and, as I mentioned above, a continuing debate about what noir really is.[5] One of the central issues in defining film noir is whether or not it constitutes a genre. So, what’s a genre?[6] Foster Hirsch says: “A genre…is determined by conventions of narrative structure, characterization, theme, and visual design…” And, as one of those who argues that film noir is indeed a genre, he says that film noir has these elements “in abundance”:

Noir deals with criminal activity, from a variety of perspectives, in a general mood of dislocation and bleakness which earned the style its name. Unified by a dominant tone and sensibility, the noir canon constitutes a distinct style of film-making; but it also conforms to genre requirements since it operates within a set of narrative and visual conventions…Noir tells its stories in a particular way, and in a particular visual style. The repeated use of narrative and visual structures…certainly qualifies noir as a genre, one that is in fact as heavily coded as the western.[7]

So, film noir is a genre, Hirsch says, because of the consistent tone, and story-telling and visual conventions amongst the movies. We see all of these, for example, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, as I mentioned above: the tone of dark cynicism and alienation; the narrative conventions like the femme fatale and the flash-back voice-overs; and the shadowy black and white look of the movie. These are the conventions running through the classic noir period, Hirsch says, which define film noir as a genre.

James Damico likewise believes that noir is a film genre, and precisely because of a certain narrative pattern. He describes this pattern as the typical noir plot in which the main character is lured into violence, and usually to his own destruction, by the femme fatale.[8] Again, this is exactly the pattern of Postman: Frank is coaxed into killing Cora’s husband and is ultimately destroyed by his choices and actions.  Damico, unlike Hirsch, however, denies that there is a consistent visual style to the films: “I can see no conclusive evidence that anything as cohesive and determined as a visual style exists in [film noir].”[9]


Defining Film Noir 2: It’s Not a Genre

Those who deny that film noir is a genre define it in a number of different ways. In the earliest work on film noir (1955), for example, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton define noir as a series or cycle of films, whose aim is to create alienation in the viewer: “All the films of this cycle create a similar emotional effect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. The aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation.”[10]

Andrew Spicer also identifies noir as a cycle of films, which “share a similar iconography, visual style, narrative strategies, subject matter and characterisation.”[11] This sounds a good deal like Hirsch’s characterization of noir, but Spicer denies that noir can be defined as a genre (or in most other ways, for that matter), since the expression, “film noir” is “a discursive critical construction that has evolved over time.”[12] In other words, far from being a fixed and unchanging universal category, like one of Plato’s forms, “film noir” is a concept which evolved as critics and theorists wrote and talked about these movies, and is an expression which they applied largely retroactively, to movies in a period of cinema that had already passed.[13]

The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon

Further, in arguing against Damico’s version of noir’s essential narrative, Spicer points out that “there are many other, quite dissimilar, noir plots” than the one Damico describes. Classic examples might include High Sierra (1941) and Pickup on South Street (1953), neither of which includes a femme fatale who coaxes the protagonist to do violence against a third man.[14] In Pickup, for example, pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) steals classified microfilm from a woman, Candy (Jean Peters), on the subway. She’s carrying it for her boyfriend, who is—unbeknownst to her—passing government secrets along to the Communists. The story, then, concerns the efforts of the police to get McCoy to turn the film over to them—which would mean admitting that he’s still picking pockets, thereby putting him in the danger of becoming a three-time loser; and it concerns the efforts of the conspirators to retrieve the film from McCoy by any means necessary, including killing his friend and information dealer, Moe (Thelma Ritter). This is a classic example of a film noir, but doesn’t follow Damico’s narrative pattern.

Spicer goes on to say:

“Any attempt at defining film noir solely through its ‘essential’ formal components proves to be reductive and unsatisfactory because film noir, as the French critics asserted from the beginning, also involves a sensibility, a particular way of looking at the world.”[15]

So, noir is not simply a certain plot line or a visual style achieved by camera angles and unusual lighting, Spicer says. It also involves a “way of looking at the world,” an outlook on life and human existence.

In addition to a series or cycle of movies, film noir is often identified by, or defined as, the particular visual style, mood, tone, or set of motifs characteristic to the form. Raymond Durgnat, for example, says that: “The film noir is not a genre, as the western and gangster film, and takes us into the realm of classification by motif and tone.”[16] The tone is one of bleak cynicism, says Durgnat, and the dominant motifs include: crime as social criticism; gangsters; private eyes and adventurers; middle class murder; portraits and doubles; sexual pathology; psychopaths, etc.

Paul Schrader likewise denies that noir is a genre. He says: “[Film noir] 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.”[17] He thus rejects Durgnat’s classification by motif, and focuses his definition on the important element of mood, specifically that of “cynicism, pessimism and darkness.” He goes on to say that “film noir’s techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style. In such a world style becomes paramount; it is all that separates one from meaninglessness.”[18]

In a classic essay, Robert Porfirio says that “Schrader was right in insisting upon both visual style and mood as criteria.”[19] The mood at the heart of noir, says Porfirio, is pessimism, “which makes the black film black for us.”[20] The “black vision” of film noir is one of “despair, loneliness and dread,” he claims, and “is nothing less than an existential attitude towards life…”[21] This existentialist outlook on life which infuses noir didn’t come from the European existentialists (like Sartre and Camus), who were roughly contemporaneous with the classic American noir period, says Porfirio. Rather, “It is more likely that this existential bias was drawn from a source much nearer at hand—the hard-boiled school of fiction without which quite possibly there would have been no film noir.”[22] The mood of pessimism, loneliness, dread and despair are to be found in the works of, e.g., Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and David Goodis, whose writings were a resource for and had a direct influence upon those who created noir films in the classic period, as I mentioned above. I’ll have more to say about Porfirio and the existentialist outlook of noir films below.

Last, R. Barton Palmer likewise rejects the definition of noir as a genre, calling it instead a “transgeneric phenomenon,”[23] since it existed “through a number of related genres whose most important common threads were a concern with criminality…and with social breakdown.” The genres associated with noir include: “The crime melodrama, the detective film, the thriller, and the woman’s picture.”[24] In other words, whatever the noir element in a film noir is, it can be expressed through a number of genres, melodrama, thriller, etc., and so film noir is not itself a genre. It’s “transgeneric.”


Defining Film Noir 3: It Can’t be Defined

Another writer, J. P. Telotte, focuses his discussion of film noir’s definition on the issue of genre, and he, perhaps prudently, somewhat sidesteps the issue of whether or not any of these characterizations of film noir do in fact establish it as a genre. The element of noir films that Telotte claims unites them—without necessarily providing a basis for a calling it a genre[25]—is their rejection of traditional narrative (story-telling) patterns. More than any other type of popular film, Telotte says, “film noir pushes at the boundaries of classical narrative…”[26] This classical narrative would be a straightforward story told from a third-person omniscient point of view, which assumes the objective truth about a situation, involves characters who are goal-oriented and whose motivations make sense, and which has a neat closure at the end (boy gets girl, etc.). Telotte goes on to say that “[noir] films are fundamentally about the problems of seeing and speaking truth, about perceiving and conveying a sense of our culture’s and our own reality…”[27] So what’s common to noir films, Telotte says, is unconventional or non-classical narrative patterns, and these patterns point to problems of truth and objectivity and of our ability to know and understand reality. Some of the techniques which underpin or establish these non-traditional patterns are: 1) Non-chronological ordering of events, often achieved through flashback. As we saw, this is the technique used in Postman, but the best example of this is perhaps The Killers (1946), which brilliantly weaves together Jim Reardon’s (Edmond O’Brien) investigation of Ole Andersen’s (Burt Lancaster) death with flashbacks which tell the story leading up to the murder. 2) Complicated, sometimes incoherent, plot lines, as in The Big Sleep (1946), for example; and 3) Characters whose actions aren’t motivated or understandable in any rational way. For example, why does Frank agree to go ahead with the second (and successful) attempt on Nick’s life in Postman, when it’s such a poor plan and sure to get them caught?

Whereas Telotte sidesteps the issue of definition, James Naremore puts his foot down and concludes that film noir can’t be defined. “I contend that film noir has no essential characteristics,”[28] he says. “The fact is, every movie is transgeneric…Thus, no matter what modifier we attach to a category, we can never establish clear boundaries and uniform traits. Nor can we have a ‘right’ definition—only a series of more or less interesting uses.”[29] Part of the reason film noir can’t be defined, Naremore says, is that—as mentioned above—the term is a kind of “discursive construction,” employed by critics (each of whom has his own agenda), and is used retroactively. The other reason has to do with the nature of concepts and definitions generally. Most contemporary philosophers believe that we don’t form concepts by grouping similar things together according to their essential properties—the technique employed by Socrates and seemingly by most film theorists in talking about noir. Rather, says Naremore, we “create networks of relationship, using metaphor, metonymy, and forms of imaginative association that develop over time.”[30] In other words, our concepts are not discrete categories, but are rather networks of ideas in complex relationships and associations, which we form with experience. Consequently, “categories form complex radial structures with vague boundaries and a core of influential members at the center.”[31] This certainly seems to describe film noir: we all agree that there is a core set of films in the noir canon, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Maltese Falcon; but there is a fuzzy boundary, such that we disagree about a great many films and whether or not they fall into the canon, e.g., Casablanca (1942), Citizen Kane, or King Kong (1933).

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past

So Naremore argues that film noir can’t be defined, that it has no essential characteristics. On the other hand, there are those, like Nietzsche, who would argue that this doesn’t just apply to these movies, but rather that there’s something problematic about truth and definition generally, even beyond the issues Naremore points out about Socratic definition. Before I can go on to say something about what noir is, I want to examine briefly Nietzsche’s position on these issues.


Nietzsche and the Problem of Truth and Definition

Nietzsche holds a version of what we might call a “flux metaphysics,” the idea that the world, everything, is continually changing, and nothing is stable and enduring. Consequently, he argues, any concept of “being”—something which remains the same throughout change, like Plato’s forms, God, or even the self or ego—is a fiction. Interestingly, he argues that language is one of the primary sources of this fiction. That is, it’s impossible to grasp and articulate a world that’s continually in motion, in which nothing ever stays the same. Thus, “understanding” the world and articulating that understanding becomes a matter of “seeing” parts of the flux as somehow enduring and stable, i.e., it means falsifying what our senses tell us.

One of these falsifications is the subject/predicate distinction that’s built into language. For example, we say “lightning flashes,” as if there were some thing or subject “lightning,” which somehow performs the action of flashing. Similarly, we say “I walk,” “I talk,” “I read,” as if there were some stable ego, self, or subject which was somehow separate from those actions. Nietzsche says: “But there is no such substratum; there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.”[32] In other words, in a world in flux, you are what you do. Further, the “doer” or subject created by language, Nietzsche argues, is the source of the concept of being—a stable, unchanging, permanent reality, behind the ever-flowing flux of the world:

“We enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language, in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere it sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things—only thereby does it first create the concept of ‘thing.’ Everywhere ‘being’ is projected by thought, pushed underneath, as the cause; the concept of being follows and is a derivative of, the concept of ego.”[33]

The fiction begins as merely a stable self, the idea that the ego is something enduring and unchanging and separate from its actions (as opposed to being constituted by those actions), but soon is translated into being; that is, for example, into Plato’s forms and a divinity. Nietzsche says: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”[34]


This falsification introduced by reason and language certainly makes truth, objectivity, and indeed definition problematic, to say the least. In an early and influential essay, Nietzsche says: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions…”[35] Elsewhere, he says: “[A]ll concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated elude definition; only that which has no history is definable.”[36] Nietzsche here seems to be agreeing with Socrates: a definition must capture the essence of the thing, that which doesn’t change and thus has no history. The catch here is that, as we’ve seen, Nietzsche denies that there is any such thing, and so he’s denying that anything at all can really be defined. This is a radical position and seems not to bode well for the project of defining film noir. However, and perhaps ironically, I think it’s Nietzsche who will help us better understand what noir is.


What is Noir?

To discover what makes a film a film noir, i.e., what the noir element in the film is, it might be instructive to look briefly at noir literature, and especially so if it’s through the hard-boiled literature that noir films get their existential, pessimistic outlook, as Porfirio says. I’ll take as an example of this literature a work by David Goodis,[37] who was the author of Dark Passage, which was later made into a film starring Bogart and Bacall. The first paragraph of Goodis’ Night Squad reads:

“At 11:20 a fairly well-dressed boozehound came staggering out of a bootleg-whiskey joint on Fourth Street. It was a Friday night in mid-July and the humid heat was like a wave of steaming black syrup confronting the boozehound. He walked into it and bounced off and braced himself to make another try. A moment later something hit him on the head and he sagged slowly and arrived on the pavement flat on his face.”[38]

We instantly recognize here the clipped, gritty phrasing of the hard-boiled school; the dirty gutter setting; and the down-on-his-luck character.   The boozehound is being mugged by three men, while a fourth man, Corey Bradford—who turns out to be the protagonist—watches from the other side of the street. Bradford is a former dirty cop and forces the muggers to give him the boozehound’s money. He keeps most of it for himself, but returns a dollar to the boozehound for cab fare home. Instead of going home, however, the boozehound takes the dollar—his only money—and goes back into the bootleg-whiskey joint for another drink. Before he does, he mutters, “The trouble is, we just can’t get together, that’s all.” Bradford interprets this to mean, “we just can’t get together on what’s right and what’s wrong.”[39]

The story largely takes place in a Philadelphia neighborhood called “The Swamp,” where Bradford grew up. The area is just as run-down, dirty, and crime-infested as its name implies. In an interior monologue about the neighborhood, Bradford reflects on how tough the place is, and he has nothing but good things to say about the prostitutes. They’re “performing a necessary function,” like the sewer workers and the trash collectors. He says:

“If it wasn’t for the professionals, there’d be more suicides, more homicides. And more of them certain cases you read about, like some four-year-old girl getting dragged into an alley, some sixty-year-old landlady getting hacked to pieces with an axe.”[40]

If the denizens of the swamp couldn’t vent their violent and sexual impulses with the prostitutes, they’d take them out on little girls and old ladies. So it’s a good thing we have the pros.

Last, I’ll mention in passing that the femme fatale of this story, Lita, is married to the gangster who runs The Swamp. When Bradford first meets her, Goodis describes her thus: “She was of medium height, very slender. Her hair was platinum blonde. Contrasting with her deep, dark green eyes.” And she’s holding a book: “Corey could see the title on the cover. He didn’t know much about philosophy but he sensed that the book was strictly for deep thinkers. It was Nietzsche, it was Thus Spake Zarathustra.”[41]

What we see here, and what makes this story noir, is the tone and mood, and the sensibility, the outlook on life, that the critics and writers mentioned above discuss. We see bleak cynicism (Durgnat), for example, in the protagonist saving the boozehound from getting mugged, only to keep the latter’s money for himself. We witness the loss and lack of clear priorities (Schrader) in the same scene, and in the Bradford’s appraisal of the prostitutes. Alienation is clearly present (Borde and Chaumeton); the whole story is one of a man adrift, a man who has lost balance and the meaning and value of his life. And we see existential pessimism (Porfirio). This is clearly evident in the image of the boozhound going back into the bar to spend his last dollar on another drink; and in the dark picture of human nature that Goodis paints when he discusses the need for prostitutes to vent our violent urges.

One other thing, which is related to all these other elements, and which some writers discuss, but which I want to emphasize, is what we might call the inversion of traditional values, and the loss of the meaning of things. That is, at the heart of the noir mood or tone of alienation, pessimism, and cynicism is, on the one hand, the rejection or loss of clearly defined ethical values (we can’t “get together on what’s right and what’s wrong”)[42]; and, on the other hand, the rejection or loss of the meaning or sense of human existence. In essence, I think Porfirio is on the right track in talking about the noir sensibility as a kind of “existential outlook” on life.

Further, I’m agreeing with those who say that what makes a film a film noir is a particular mood, tone, and sensibility, an outlook on life. This is clear because it’s that tone and sensibility which, as I said, links the literature and the films. Thus, I think that the narrative elements (story-telling conventions), and the filmmaking techniques (oblique camera angles, deep focus, low-key lighting, etc.), are secondary to the mood and sensibility. They are used to communicate that mood and sensibility,[43] but it’s the latter which makes the film a noir.


The Death of God and the Meaning of Noir

As I mentioned, Nietzsche can help throw light on what film noir is, despite his skepticism about truth, essences, and definition. One of Nietzsche’s most infamous and provocative statements is that “God is dead.”[44] What he means by this is that not only Western religions, but metaphysical systems such as Plato’s, have become untenable. Both Platonism and Christianity, for example, claim that there is some permanent and unchanging other-worldly realm or substance, Plato’s forms or God and heaven, respectively. This unchanging other-worldly something is set in opposition to the here and now, the changing world around us (forms vs. particulars; heaven vs. earth, etc.); and it’s the source of, or foundation for, our understanding of human existence, our morality, our hope for the future, amongst other things.

Again, Nietzsche says that the fiction of being is generated originally through the falsifications involved in reason and language. This concept of being is exposed as a fiction beginning in the modern period, Nietzsche argues, when natural empirical science begins to replace traditional metaphysical explanations of the world. We cease to believe in the myth of creation, for example, and modern philosophers tend to reject Plato’s idea of other-worldly forms. Thus, throughout the modern and into the contemporary period, religion and philosophy—as metaphysical explanations of the world—are supplanted by natural science. At the same time, we try to hold onto our old understanding of human existence, our ethics, an ever-more-feeble belief in an afterlife, etc. What finally, and gradually, dawns on us, says Nietzsche, is that there’s no longer any foundation or justification for these adjuncts of metaphysics, once the latter is lost. We realize more and more the hollowness and untenability of our old outlook, our old values.

The result of this is devastating. We no longer have any sense of who and what we are as human beings; there’s seemingly no foundation any longer for the meaning and value of things, including ethical values, good and evil; there’s no longer any hope for an afterlife—this life has to be taken and endured on its own terms. Before the death of God, as good Platonists or Christians (or Jews or Moslems), we knew who and what we were, the value and meaning our lives had, what we had to do to live a righteous life; and now we’re set adrift. We’re alienated, disoriented, off-balance; the world is senseless and chaotic; and there’s no transcendent meaning or value to human existence.

This death of God, then—the loss of permanence, a transcendent source of value and meaning, and the resulting disorientation and nihilism—leads to existentialism and its worldview. Porfirio characterizes existentialism as:

“an outlook which begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept. It places its emphasis on man’s contingency in a world where there are no transcendental values or moral absolutes, a world devoid of any meaning but the one man himself creates.”[45]

As a literary/philosophical phenomenon, set in its particular place in history, existentialism is continental Europe’s reaction to the death of God.

My proposal, then, is that noir can also be seen as a sensibility or worldview which results from the death of God, and thus that film noir is a type of American artistic response to, or recognition of, this seismic shift in our understanding of the world. This is why Porfirio is right in pointing out the similarities between the noir sensibility and the existentialist view of life and human existence. Though they are not exactly the same thing, they are both reactions, however explicit and conscious, to the same realization of the loss of value and meaning in our lives.


A (Slightly) Different Approach

Seeing noir as a response or reaction to the death of God helps explain the commonality of the elements that thinkers have noted in noir films. For example, it explains the inherent pessimism, alienation and disorientation in noir. It affirms that noir is a sensibility or an outlook, as some say. It explains the moral ambiguity in film noir, as well as the threat of nihilism and meaninglessness that some note.

As I said, the death of God doesn’t just (or even necessarily) mean the rejection of religion. For Americans, our belief in what Nietzsche is calling “God,” the sense, order and meaning of our lives and the world, is encapsulated in American idealism: the faith in God, progress, and the indomitable American spirit. Consequently, as Palmer notes, “Film noir…offers the obverse of the American dream.”[46] Most argue that the sources of this obversion or reversal are (or include): anxiety over the war and the postwar period; the Communist scare; the atomic age; the influx of German immigrants to Hollywood; and the hard-boiled school of pulp fiction. Indeed, it’s via these influences that an awareness or a feeling came upon us, seeped into the American consciousness, that our old ways of understanding ourselves and the world, and the values that went along with these, were gone or untenable. We lost our orientation in the world, the meaning and sense that our lives had, and clear-cut moral values and boundaries.

The similarities between European existentialism and film noir are apparent, as Porfirio points out in his essay. In the classic existentialist work, The Stranger, for example, Camus depicts the alienation and disorientation of a post-Nietzschean world, one without transcendent meaning or value. In the book, the main character reacts little to his mother’s death; shoots and kills a man for no good reason; and seems indifferent to his own trial and impending execution.

Similarly, when Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) shrugs off his partner’s murder, or turns his lover, Bridgid (Mary Astor), over to the police in The Maltese Falcon; or in The Killers when Ole Andersen passively awaits his assassins, even after being warned that they’re coming, we get a sense of the same alienation, and lack of sense and meaning. And, since film noir is a visual medium, these noirish elements are also conveyed through the lighting and camera techniques. So, for example, extreme close-ups of Hank Quinlan’s (Orson Welles) bloated face in Touch of Evil (1958), or the tilted camera shot of Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in a hospital bed in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), further serve to express alienation and disorientation.

Finally, considering noir to be a response to the death of God also verifies J. P. Telotte’s claim that noir films are “fundamentally about the problems of seeing and speaking truth,”[47] since it’s in a post-Nietzschean world, in the wake of the death of God, that seeing and speaking the truth become problematic. Consequently, and ironically, what makes truth problematic, and what makes definition impossible, according to Nietzsche—the abandonment of essences, the resulting flux metaphysics, rejection of anything permanent and unchanging in the universe, i.e., the death of God—is the same thing that makes noir what it is. That is, the death of God is both the meaning of noir, and—if we’re to believe Nietzsche—also what makes noir impossible to define.[48]


[1] The relationship between Plato and Socrates is somewhat complex. Socrates never wrote anything. He much preferred to engage people in conversation. Plato was one of Socrates’ friends and pupils. Most of Plato’s writings are in the form of dialogues, they’re narratives, and Socrates is very often the main character. Consequently, when we talk about Socrates saying something, we’re most of the time referring to one of Plato’s dialogues.

[2] See Plato’s cave allegory in Republic, Book VII (514a – 517d).

[3] For a discussion of Plato’s theory of forms see his Phaedo, 65d, or Republic, 475e – 476a.

[4] There are many other ways of thinking about definition, both ancient and contemporary. I mention Socrates because his is a classic approach to the issue, and because he makes a nice foil for Nietzsche.

[5] I’m not pretending that the history I’m giving is complete or that it mentions every important work or statement on the topic. I merely want to provide the reader with a flavor of the discussion and point out some of the definitions provided in some of the canonical works on noir.

[6] Wes D. Gehring, in the Introduction to Handbook of American Film Genres, says a genre in film studies “represents the division of movies into groups which have similar subjects and/or themes.” Wes D. Gehring, “Introduction,” Handbook of American Film Genres,” ed. by Wes D. Gehring, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 1.

[7] Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Da Capo Press, 1981, p. 72.

[8] See James Damico, “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal,” in Film Noir Reader, ed. by Alain Sliver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1996, p. 103.

[9] Ibid., p. 105. This is in contrast to those like Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, who explicitly identify noir as a visual style (see their essay, “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” in the same volume). In Somewhere in the Night (Henry Holt and Company, 1997), Nicholas Christopher also argues (though less explicitly than Damico) that film noir is a genre because of a certain narrative pattern. See p. 7 – 8.

[10] Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” trans. by Alain Silver, in Film Noir Reader, p. 25.

[11] Andrew Spicer, Film Noir, Pearson Education Limited, 2002, p. 4.

[12] Ibid., p. 24.

[13] The term “film noir” was coined by French film critics, unbeknownst to American filmmakers during the period of classic film noir (i.e., while they were making these movies), and wasn’t part of the American film vocabulary until after that classic period had ended.

[14] To be fair, Damico calls his plot description simply the “truest” or “purest” example of film noir, and admits that there are other noir plots. However, the sheer number and variety of the other plots would seem to undermine his argument.

[15] Ibid., p. 25.

[16] Raymond Durgnat, “Paint it Black: the Family Tree of the Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, p. 38.

[17] Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, p. 53.

[18] Ibid., p. 58.

[19] Robert Porfirio, “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, p. 78.

[20] Ibid., p. 80

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 82 – 83.

[23] R. Barton Palmer, Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, Twayne Publishers, 1994, p. 30.

[24] Ibid., p. x.

[25] “This overview of film noir’s main narrative techniques should come with a warning: like the films themselves, this taxonomy provides but a partial, although valuable, view of their workings, while it points toward, if it never quite satisfactorily resolves, the question of noir’s generic status.” J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir, University of Illinois Press, 1989, p. 31.

[26] Ibid., p. 12.

[27] Ibid., p. 31.

[28] James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, University of California Press, 1998, p. 5.

[29] Ibid., p. 6.

[30] Ibid., p. 5.

[31] Ibid., p. 6. Amongst others, Naremore has Ludwig Wittgenstein in mind here. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues that there isn’t a set of essential properties or necessary and sufficient conditions that link games together (how are football and tic tac toe related?); rather there is only a loose network in which each game is connected to at least one other by a “family resemblance.” This would seem to be the case, too, with noir.

[32] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, Vintage Press, 1989, p. 45.

[33] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Reason in Philosophy,” from The Portable Nietzsche, ed. by Walter Kaufmann, Penguin, 1976, p. 483.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, trans. Daniel Breazeale (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Paperback Library, 1979), 84.

[36] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 80.

[37] I choose Goodis because not only is he one of my favorite hard-boiled authors, but also because he’s much less well-known than Chandler or Thompson, e.g., and undeservedly so, I think.

[38] David Goodis, Night Squad, First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992, p. 3. Admittedly, Night Squad is a later work of Goodis (1961), and so comes after the classic film noir period. However, it is still representative of Goodis’ work and of hard-boiled pulp literature generally.

[39] Ibid., p. 8.

[40] Ibid., p. 11.

[41] Ibid., p. 44 – 45.

[42] In film noir “Good and evil go hand in hand to the point of being indistinguishable,” say Borde and Chaumeton, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” p. 25.

[43] As Porfirio says: “This sense of meaninglessness is…not the result of any sort of discursive reasoning. Rather it is an attitude which is worked out through the mise en scène and plotting.” “No Way Out,” p. 89.

[44] This is first expressed in a passage called “The Madman,” in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. (See Walter Kaufmann’s translation: Vintage Books, 1974, p. 181.)

[45] “No Way Out,” p. 81.

[46] Hollywood’s Dark Cinema, p. 6.

[47] Voices in the Dark, p. 31.

[48] Many thanks to Jason Holt, Bill Irwin, Steven Sanders, and Aeon Skoble, who gave me assistance and excellent comments on earlier draft(s) of this essay.

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