Raymond Durgnat – “Paint it Black – The Family Tree of Film Noir’ (Laurie Dix)
In this short essay, Durgnat identifies the top eleven themes or plot synopses that noir stories tend to follow. A brief summary follows:
1. Crime as Social Criticism
This heading is the most self-explanatory, but also the most complicated. Although the main plot may revolve around a crime which is a reflection of the authors views of Society or the Economy or the Government, etc. at the time, it splits into several categories, each of which represent their own theme or criticism. They break down thus:
1a. Prohibition type Gangsterism: A typical criticism of corruption and exploitation.
1b. A Corrupt Penology: Which represents miscarriages of justice, etc.
1c. The Fight Game: Often representing Presidential candidacy, etc. A power play.
1d. Juvenile Delinquency: A comment on society, with the ‘Juveniles’ representing new society. Often representing morality versus sociology.
Gangsters and organised crime were a not uncommon theme in film noir. Occasionally we see protagonists representing the face of organised crime as a Nietzschean representative of the honour in corruption, or flipping the archetypal hero on its head and painting him as what we often recognise as the bad-guy. Films such as these are not uncommon now, but they owe themselves to the gangster films of these times, where they were a little more rare.
3. On the Run
Criminals or Framed-innocents are forced into a passive role trapping the audience in a quandary: morality against pity and self-identification. Forcing the characters into a situation where they are on the run adds an element of tension throughout the story.
4. Private Eyes and Adventurers
The stereotypical film noir narrative. Although not the most common, it is the most romanticised and one of the most important. It has its limitations, but evokes the most emotional response from the audience, whether they be supporting the honest Private Eye or the Corrupt. The audience will side with the criminal just as easily as the honest man if his story is good.
5. Middle Class Murder
The middle and upper classes return to the screen, but not as the honest people we would usually associate with this tier of society. They have succumbed to the corruption and depravity the rest of the country has fallen to, and so they too sell themselves to the highest bidder. These mimic the Confession stories of the 1930s, with slight alterations which leave us with less pitiful and more deadly characters, treated with suspicion and fear.
6. Portraits and Doubles
Not uncommon, depending highly on the ‘figure in the mist’ trope. The ‘Double’ theme brings elements of farce into the world of noir and turns comedy into thriller with a couple of simple sleights of hand and hints of misinformation.
7. Sexual Pathology
This theme can be described as the ‘Yin/Yang’ theme. Love-hate relationships, purity and corruption, egoism and paranoia. This focuses on the ideas of homosexuality and sadism, entering less common (for the time) sexual ideologies into the mix. Sadism enters not only for sexual gratification, but conversations between certain characters allude to much more than the subject given at face value. Sexuality was not an uncommon theme, but new territories were being explored, and perhaps the misogyny so common in films was merely a product of paranoia, relating back to the general paranoia of the time and the theme of noir.
Psychopaths make up for a majority in noir characters, and divide into three subcategories:
1a. Heroes with a tragic flaw
1b. The unassuming monsters
1c. The obvious monsters
These break down into complexity, however my brief summary would be thus:
Psychopaths make moral ambivalence impossible. It is okay not to feel bad when gunning down an obvious psychopath, as they are mentally deranged and therefore make for an acceptable target. The reasons for their mental decline can be many, but ultimately unimportant when seen as a threat to the mortality of the protagonist, and no pity need be felt when removing one.
9. Hostages to Fortune
Imprisonment of one form or another is not uncommon, and in noir takes a turn for the more violent, often implicating some form of domestic violence.
10. Blacks and Reds
A twist on war stories, wherein Nazis or the Gestapo can be replaced with Gangsters, or the common fear of the Red Army can be inserted metaphorically or literally into almost any story. As with much science fiction of the 1930s, it does not often take much to make the link between the characters or the plot and the apparent threat from Communist invasion. Americas paranoia makes itself known once again and represents itself as a non specific ‘Foreigner’.
11. Guignol, Horror, Fantasy
The most removed and obtuse forms of Noir, now fitting into other genres. These can often be linked back to the German Expressionist movement, and thus the links to noir are made evident by tracing them both back to their roots.
Whereas I have by no means conveyed at all the complexities conveyed in this study, I have hopefully shown an outline of the themes of noir. Raymond Durgnat references so many films and stories in this study that it was difficult to keep up, but hopefully I have successfully outlines the themes in order that an outline of the themes or noir can be gleaned.