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And while a healthy share of neo-noirs make our list, the classic period remains the most telling—context is critical.Then there are the sub-classifications within the subgenre: proto-noirs, foreign noirs (like the British “Spiv” cycle), neon noirs, and, of course, neo-noirs.The world was a cruel and perilous place, be it the crowded streets or open road, the inner city or a rural outpost. In fact, perhaps the only clear-cut element of noir was the razor-sharp, imminently quotable dialogue, and its venomous sense of humor.And so noir cast its misfits—gun-toting, hard-drinking, lipstick and stiletto-wearing human chimneys of neuroses—into a seductive, violent postwar labyrinth, in which the terror was internal and external.You couldn’t say the same for the ladies, what with that Madonna-whore complex running rampant through noir’s icky Freudian gender dynamics.Unless they were a good, subservient girl, women were brazen, sexual bitches, more often than not smarter, and more powerful, than the guys—at least at the outset.Maybe that’s what makes a list like this so problematic—Raging Bull has strong noir elements, as do Hardcore, Klute, To Live and Die in L. The first Sin City is a terrific pastiche, as is Carl Reiner’s more sincere homage, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.
As Angel’s investigation takes him south from New York City to the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers—a change of scenery suggested to Parker by the story’s author, novelist William Hjortsberg—the color-drained, highly stylized production reflects his descent into hell.
) as it departed from accepted cultural norms and, sometimes, basic humanity—film doesn’t get more perverse, or more unapologetic about it, than the noir environment. It’s pretty tough, given the very deliberation of filmmaking, to think noir was just a happenstance bunch of flicks that expressed the same anxieties and subverted the same sociopolitical conventions—at least after the first few years, when World War II had ended.
And while by the time of 1958’s Touch of Evil noir was a shrewdly self-aware conceit, it’s worth going back to who coined the term just 12 years earlier. A bystander observing a uniquely American phenomenon.
Noir was nothing if not a reaction, a reflection of a nation reeling from despicable evil overseas and revolutionary upheaval on the domestic front. The men—including the screenwriters—had gone off to fight, and as the women stepped up, into the public sector and newfound independence, studio chiefs turned to the fast-and-cheap pulp mysteries of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. International directors like Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, and Robert Siodmak, who’d honed the dramatic visuals of German Expressionism, fled their war-torn homes for the plentiful opportunities in Tinseltown. Some define noir as or by a tone, and it’s very much a mood, a sensibility.
For the purposes of this introduction, let’s call it a response. We think of noirs as urban stories, but that’s not always the case—for every L. Though its blueprints were everywhere, noir forged its own language, its own playbook, its own universe.