Film Noir and the Classic Hollywood Narrative

American films noir from the classic cycle have essentially the same narrative structure as other Hollywood movies, and that the entertainment value of a movie lies in the delicate balancing of pleasure and anxiety.

Yesterday I started reading Frank Krutnik’s ‘In a Lonely Street: Film noir, genre, masculinity’ (2001), a book which explores the film noir narrative structure as a defining element with a focus on movies of the 1940s.  Early on Krutnik argues that American films noir from the classic cycle have essentially the same narrative structure as other Hollywood movies, and that the entertainment value of a Hollywood movie lies in the delicate balancing of pleasure and anxiety.  Krutnik says that “In submitting to an engagement with the fictional process, the spectator offers in exchange not just money (at the box-office) but also a psychical/emotional investment.” (p 5)

For me anxiety and the more prevalent downbeat resolution of the narrative in film noir are the defining aspects.

Krutnik outlines the classic Hollywood narrative in these terms: a crisis or destabilizing event occurs that is resolved by an heterosexual male to impress and win a passive female. (Any over-simplification is to my account.)  Where noir diverges is that the male is typically an anti-hero, the female not passive and many times the protagonist.  The latest movie I have watched nicely illustrates this.

A Dangerous Profession an RKO b from 1949 is an undistinguished crime movie competently made and well-acted.  A former cop turned bail bondsman is asked to bail out a guy charged with a heist and the killing of a cop, and who is the husband of a former lover, and he lets his infatuation take-over. The woman is attractive and we are not sure she can be trusted, but she does little anyway.  The protagonist has to sort things out after the husband jumps bail and is murdered.  He solves the mystery, apprehends the crooks, and gets the girl.  Order is re-established.  Some have classified this movie as noir, which it clearly isn’t.   A film noir would probe the psychology of the protagonists and perhaps uses expressionist stylistics to represent mood and character.  There would certainly be a degree of ambiguity as to the morality of the players and their motivations, and there would more than likely be a downbeat ending or a resolution that came at a significant cost.  A good example is The Big Sleep (1946) .

2 thoughts on “Film Noir and the Classic Hollywood Narrative”

  1. Krutnik’s volume does sound fascinating, but there is a fine line of differentiation between your own position with some fine lines of regard. I would agree that the film noir is marked by anxiety and the downbeat resolution; heck how many noirs end on a happy note, and of those how many are really memorable in a classic sense? I don’t think you are simplifying the fine line between 40’s melodarma and noir by (rightly) asserting that the lead male is usually and anti-hero in noir and that the female plays a more active role. This is irrefutable. I guess we can use DOUBLE INDEMNITY as one example, but obviously there is a long list that conform to these applications.

    Krutnil makes some telling observations, but I think I would have to read or know even more in a specific sense if I fully buy into his argument. I am suspecting Tony, you are at that same point right now yourself, even with your specific divergences.

    Anyway, fascinating piece here!

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  2. Sam, a very welcome elaboration.

    My summary of Krutnik’s position is severe, and more than likely misses important nuances, as pared down his view is pretty elementary. But when originally published in 1991 his aim was a corrective to the then predominant focus in the literature that saw film noir as a response to essentially historical phenomena and not as an outgrowth from the classic movie narrative.

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