Whether film noir is a genre or a style has been endlessly debated but either way it is extraordinarily popular among film school types. It’s easy to see why. Film noir is all about victimhood. The film noir protagonist is always doomed. In our modern age, an age that sees victimhood as the highest achievement to which anyone can aspire, this is clearly going to be a very popular film form. And since academics have been to a large extent responsible for creating the cult of the victim their enthusiasm for film noir is hardly surprising.
Of course true victimhood requires that the victim should have no responsibility for his own fate. Ideally society, or capitalism, or the patriarchy, should be responsible. This creates a minor problem since many film noir victims are clearly victim of their own personal inadequacies or poor judgment. Film academics however are not going to let such trifles bother them and they have been able to produce interpretations of most of the films of this type that satisfy their political agendas.
That’s one of the reasons that there’s such an immense amount of writing on the subject of film noir. Without guidance there’s a danger that viewers might fail to interpret these movies correctly. Academics are only too willing to offer that guidance. One of their favourite methods of dealing with film noir (and with many other Hollywood movies as well) was to see such movies as explorations of the dark side of the American Dream. It goes without saying that to a modern film academic the American Dream only had one side and that was the dark side.
In fact quite a few movies in this genre were written or directed by people who were blacklisted. This increases the appeal of film noir enormously. The left-wing political slant doesn’t always have to be added by the film academics; in many cases it’s there already. By the time American film noir began to emerge in the early 1940s whining was already well and truly established as a favourite liberal pastime. Most of the writers or directors who were blacklisted really were communists or communist sympathisers and they did their best to give their movies a left-wing slant. The communist domination of Hollywood uncovered by the HUAC investigations was no figment of the conservative imagination.
Most film noir however was more than just political propaganda and many of these movies were not inherently left-wing at all. Some of the finest examples of the form such as Out of the Past (1947) and Double Indemnity (1944) deal with people who are clearly doomed by their own weaknesses and their own poor choices. Film academics nonetheless manage to twist all movies of this genre into the correct political shape.
Some of the most interesting examples of film noir were directed by German expatriate Fritz Lang. If you read interpretations of Lang’s movies by academics you’d be likely to conclude that Lang regarded the United States with loathing. Actually Lang liked the United States very much. You’d also be forgiven for concluding that Lang was first and foremost a political film-maker. In fact Lang was a Catholic and his religious faith was the major influence on his work. Lang is often described as a fatalist whereas he described himself as a fervent believer in free will. You Only Live Once (1937) is the most obviously Catholic of his American pictures but his Catholic beliefs are present in all his movies. One of the most frequently misinterpreted of Lang’s film noir efforts is The Big Heat (1953). The accepted critical view is that the cop is the bad guy and that the movie is an indictment of the corruption and violence of American society. In fact Lang made it quite clear that the movie was about the devastating effects of crime on the individual. The cop is the hero, which is in fact quite clear to anyone who watches the movie without a political bias.
There’s a great deal to enjoy in film noir. These were some of the most stylish American movies ever made. Like most important art the best of them deal with universal and eternal themes. Some have irritating political elements but most are far more complex than mere political screeds. There’s no reason to let academics prevent us from enjoying them.