I fell in love with noir because of Humphrey Bogart’s face.
There is something about how his eyes can shift from perennial sadness to raw anger at a clip. The deep lines in his face, if you look close enough, mark an intimate tapestry for a life that is hard won and harder fought. There is vengeance and swagger and the sort of bitter existentialism that comes with living in the big city and knowing its terrain too well. You can find all of noir in Bogart’s face. Almost.
Such a belief hinges upon the idea that noir is primarily centered on and created primarily by the neuroses of white men. To look at the genre — yes, I believe it is a genre, not a mood or style — from such a narrow lens is to rob noir of its complexity.
In my teens, Bogart films like The Maltese Falcon and To Have and Have Not sparked my curiosity. And it was women like Barbara Stanwyck that turned my interest in noir into a full blown obsession.
Using Stanwyck, you can chart an interesting arc for female characters in noir’s early years — from the icy, gold standard of femme fatales that Phyllis Dietrichson represents in Double Indemnity (1944) to the self-destructive Mae Doyle in Clash by Night (1952). It has always been the women in noir I’ve been drawn to. Watching women like Stanwyck, Ida Lupino and Gloria Grahame carve a bloody, difficult path toward autonomy thematically reflects many struggles in my own life.
Last summer for Vulture, I wrote an essay (“Modern Noir Has Atrophied”) using the overwrought yet undercooked second season of True Detective as a jumping off point to discuss noir’s current state. Since then, I have had an intense desire to write a book delving into the genre’s style, narratives and socio-political underpinnings. It would interweave my own personal perspective while offering an alternative, womanist take on a genre that has mistakenly been defined by and for white men.
Noir has always carried with it America’s ugly history with racism. At times, this is made explicit like in films The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). The late 1950s were a strange, wonderful time for noir. The genre had a powerful strain of venom and hostility taking hold then — an obvious reflection of the studio system and Hollywood itself going to rot around it.
While discussing the evolution of noir, style and dialogue is unavoidable. The stylistic markers that usually draw people to the genre and are often parodied — high contrast lighting, rapid fire dialogue — barely touch the surface of what noir truly is. More Than Shadows is a series powered by the same impulses that guide all my writing: a need to bring order to the chaos of my mind, trying to make sense of the world around me, my passion and the desire to burn down the canon. Or at the very least, to question why certain films and directors are canonized in the first place.
Considering how the definition of noir shifts depending on who you’re talking to, it’s important to understand what I mean when I talk about it. Since I still feel my Vulture article best encapsulates my beliefs, I’ll quote from that.
“In the early 1940s, noir began as a movement born of a number of factors: the changing gender and racial landscape of America during and after World War II, the Expressionist influence of European-refugee filmmakers like Billy Wilder, and studio-system economics. To quote City of Nets by Otto Friedrich, “At Warners, a studio so frugal some of its employees called it ‘San Quentin,’ shooting a film in the moody darkness and rain tended to disguise the cheapness of the sets.” (Warner Brothers gave us arguably the earliest noir in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart.) In the 1940s and 1950s, films like Ace in the Hole and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers viciously skewered the American Dream, and exposed the weaknesses and contradictions of the American psyche. It removed the masks of modern men and women to reveal the horrors below, challenging notions of gender, race, and desire.”
“Noir quickly solidified itself as a genre with a series of consistent stylistic (voice-over, high-contrast lighting, poetic and rhythmic dialogue), thematic (existentialism, free will, gender politics, fear of the “other,” white men losing or gaining power, obsession with the past, dread of the future), narrative (non-linear storytelling), and character archetypes (detectives, femmes fatales, criminals, people on the fringes of society), all typically within urban settings. Noir’s elasticity is its greatest strength, but it also makes it hard to define. You know it when you see it. Save for the theme, these attributes can be laid on thick or nearly nonexistent, which is why films as vastly different as In a Lonely Place, L.A. Confidential, and The Letter can all be called noir. It can twist from pulpy vulgarity to gritty realism. But at its core, noir has always been a political genre.”
One of my favorite things about 1940s-1950s noir is how the fear of the “other” provides an electrifying undercurrent for the genre. Which is something, woefully, that is almost entirely absent in modern noir.
“The fear of the other” is crucial to noir, and it was born out of new tensions in post–World War II America. The Red Scare and Hollywood blacklist instilled a sense of paranoia and ambiguity that translated into one of the genre’s most ubiquitous (and important) motifs: no one can be trusted, not even yourself. This is consistent in a wide variety of noirs, whether it be Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, scraping herself up from the poverty line but never pleasing her malevolent daughter, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall dancing around each other’s affections in Martinique while aiding the French Resistance in To Have and Have Not, Sidney Poitier playing a doctor caring for people who hate him for his blackness in No Way Out or Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as doomed lovers bound by a murder plot and fatalistic lust, trying to reach their own version of the American Dream in Double Indemnity.”
More Than Shadows will be more structured than The Feminine Grotesque. But while not as obvious, it is just as personal since I write from a place of obsession. I love noir more than almost any other genre except for the women’s picture. I love the voices you find in noir, which can be everything from cutting like barbed wire (James Cagney) to fizzy effervescence like pink champagne (Marilyn Monroe). I love the way people slink and rush and stagger across the screen. I love the way Gloria Grahame can seemingly just look at a man and pinpoint exactly what kind of woman he wants her to be. I love how noir can cross-pollinate with the women’s picture (The Letter, Gaslight, Sudden Fear) and science fiction (Blade Runner) while still retaining its black heart. I love the energy and anger and existential quandaries of the genre.
This is a series about madwomen and broken men. I’m using noir to take a look at the loneliness that festers in the modern metropolis and the surprising cruelty simmering beneath the surface in small towns. American noir is a central focus since I am interested in using the genre to discuss the history of race and gender in this country. But I’ll be exploring stories beyond these shores to touch on how the genre manifests internationally. I’m particularly excited to discuss the collaborations of Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon through the lens of masculinity and male beauty. This series will chart noir’s history so I can take an even closer look as to why it currently finds itself in such a confused, creatively nil place.
Right now, I’m in a curious place in life defined by loneliness and isolation. Noir is a genre ripe with these ideas. There will be unrequited love and monstrous desires amongst these essays. In these words, you’ll find blood and madness and passion too. With More Than Shadows, I’ll take a deeper look into the shadows of modern America and my own life to hopefully find some truth.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.