Noir Beat: The Death of Film Noir

The Death of Film Noir

Film Noir aficionado and prolific blogger Ray “Cigar Joe” Ottulich from Noirsville has pointed me to a series of on-line essays bearing the title The Death of Film Noir by a certain William Ahearn, where he expounds a fairly pugnacious thesis on the true origins of film noir scholarship.

Ahearn explores the origins of film noir in French poetic realism, the early critical writings of Nino Frank and other French film critics, and the influential post-war trauma thesis of Paul Schrader and American scholarly studies from the likes of noir scholar Alain Silver.

Ahearn has done his homework and the essays are provocative and informative. Not all will agree with his radical take on the established film noir canon, but his arguments are shrewdly and clearly presented.

Kirk Douglas’ Century

To celebrate Kirk Douglas reaching his first century – and many happy returns – I recently watched two of his movies: Champion (1949) and Lonely Are The Brave (1961).

Champion, the story of a boxer’s ruthless ambition and his demise is widely recognised as a noir, but has a lesser profile than the great boxing noirs Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). Still Champion packs a punch, with a bravado performance from Douglas and a compelling scenario. The demise of the protagonist, who ruthlessly betrays kith and kin, has an element of tragedy. As in Kurosawa’s seminal Stray Dog, a chance event and a decision, which is neither right nor wrong, sets off an unwavering trajectory that no force can stop or deflect – like that shooting star in High Sierra. The death of an all-round bastard can still be tragic.

In Lonely Are the Brave, Douglas plays an anachronism, a thoroughly decent man destroyed by modernity. A cowboy and his loyal horse ultimately failing to negotiate a highway that tears across the horizon. But not before a rifle shot brings down an army helicopter in hot pursuit. The cowpuncher breaks out of a local lockup after failing to spring his brother, who has been jailed for helping “wet-backs” crossing over the border from Mexico. The film definitely resonates today. Another bravura turn by Douglas. I see it as a noir. Others may quibble. But as Ray Ottulich put it to me in an email: “Noir is in all of us. Think of us all as having an internal tuning fork, these tuning forks are forged by our life experiences which are all unique. When we watch these films their degree of noir-ness resonates with us differently, so we either “tune” to them or we don’t.”

8 thoughts on “Noir Beat: The Death of Film Noir”

  1. Its good to see noir and neo-noir are still alive and well in this new posting. I am the author of
    3 books on film noir which you can find under my name, Dr. Ronald Schwartz at http://www.amazon.com. I have an author’s page there and you can find 8 of the 11 books I wrote there or just Google me. I liked your choices of 25 best film noir and have reviewed all of them except RIFIFI. I have to check out ALL your posts on this site.

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  2. Tony, I must admit to you that I did not see LONELY ARE THE BRAVE as a noir, but neither have I put a muzzle on arguments to the contrary. Ray Ottulich’s generalization is quite persuasive. I recall another film that was firmly in the noir camp set in and around the Mexican border that featured the wonderful actor Tomas Gomez, but I am failing to conjure it up, and it is oddly missing from his filmography. You did once pen a terrific review on it as I do vividly recall. Anyway I always side with the more liberal interpretations anyway. I also love CHAMPION but don’t find it as great a film as either THE SET-UP (the real masterpiece of the three, as cinematically economical as HIGH NOON) nor BODY AND SOUL. But both your potent points are well-taken.

    Ahearn’s essays sound pretty essential. I know Silver’s work of course from his seminal encyclopedias with James Ursini. You yourself have written some fabulous pieces on French poetic realism (in the context of some of the corresponding masterpieces of that era) that most assuredly sit with your finest work.

    Why do I now suddenly have an urge to re-watch both these Douglas films? 🙂

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    1. Thanks Sam as always for your comments.

      The Gomez film you refer to is the great Ride the Pink Horse – and coincidentally Mr Ahearn has some interesting things to say about it, though to my mind he misses the wood for the trees in his critique, and he significantly fails to mention the source novel which is darker and more nuanced than the film.

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  3. For your Bibliography:
    1. Schwartz, Ronald, NOIR, NOW & THEN: Film Noir Originals Remakes (1944-1999), Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 2000, 214 pages.
    2. NEO-NOIR The New Film Noir Style: From PSYCHO to COLLATERAL. Lanham,
    Maryland, Toronto, London: Scarecrow Press,2005, 157 pages, paperback.
    3. _____.HOUSES OF NOIR: DARK VISIONS FROM 13 STUDIOS.,Jefferson, NC. McFarland Publishing, 36 stills, 2015, 200 pages, paperback.
    Thank you, Tony. Ron S. 3/14 Blizzard in Manhattan.

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  4. Dear Tony,
    I have 2 other books which contain films noirs from Spain & Latin America. You can look them up on my Author’s Page on amazon.com and even open them. They are THE GREAT SPANISH FILMS and LATIN AMERICAN FILMS. Check them out!
    Best, Ron S. Blizzard Tuesday 3/14

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