The obvious starting point is to define film noir. Most commonly, noir has an archetypal femme fatale (often an unfaithful wife persuading her lover to kill her rich, boring husband) and a private eye (“down these mean streets a man must go . . . “, preferably in a trenchcoat), operating within darkly-lit scenes and even darker narratives. Rain-soaked streets at night and smoky bars are haunted by characters with tortured pasts, evil intentions and doomed futures. Lighting and camera angles suggest German Expressionism and Italian neo-realism.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that such tight parameters tend to be relaxed so often so that noir also includes multifaceted, common-or-garden mobster films, boxing films, journalism films and other pictures inhabited by bad-ass types; after all, if all the defining characteristics of noir were tightly applied, just how many pure noir films would there be? Not many.

So, sometimes it seems that any old crime story that takes place at night, or in a cruel city, is going to get the N word slapped on it. The whole problematic topic may be a subject without a definitive answer, though many have attempted in commentaries, essays and books over the years.

As Brookes observes, the classic noir period is generally considered to have begun with either “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940) or “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), and to have concluded with “A Touch of Evil” (1958). But, he notes, really there is no such straightforward definition and classification.

What about “pre-noir”? For instance, “The Maltese Falcon” had actually been filmed twice earlier, in a 1931 version with the same title and then as “Satan Met a Lady” in 1936, yet neither of these are considered noir. And what about “post-noir”, such as 1981’s “Body Heat”, which is about as noir as it gets but is filmed in colour, for one thing, thus precluding strict noir visual style.

Brookes, who teaches courses in the subject in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham, UK, takes a wide view and covers the entire spectrum, from pre-1940 antecedents to wartime and postwar incarnations of the classic noir cycle, and comes up with a disparate bunch of American films of the 1940s and 1950s. Thus his study is not so much an account of what film noir is, but rather what it is said to be.

Interestingly, when these films were produced they weren’t known as noir; it was a term that was only retrospectively applied in the late 1940s by French critics, which is why we have “film noir” instead of “black film”, and “femmes fatale” instead of “deadly women”. And the tagline that “The Americans made it and then the French invented it”.

Brookes surveys the whole scholarly discourse, looking at the genre’s history, its visual style and narrative themes, and – an angle that perhaps hasn’t been touched upon much before – he devotes much space to the "veteran problem" of returning servicemen from the war, whose sense of dislocation and anxieties see them become embroiled in noir escapades.

There is an analysis of the star persona of Humphrey Bogart, who was the only actor to play both Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, a bibliography, filmography, selection of photographs and more.

The Budapest Times has seen the majority of the films mentioned by Brookes, and as a result we now speak out of the corners of our mouths and shove people in wheelchairs down stairs if they get in our way.

We remember murderess Audrey Totter dripping venom in “Tension” (1949), or Jean Gillie becoming positively orgasmic as she forces a man to dig for the buried loot in “Decoy” (1946) before shooting him when he’s finished (the box is later found to contain USD 1 and she is shot dead too), or “Outrage” (1950) when Mala Powers is raped but thanks to the mores of the time the word is never spoken in the film, only that she was the victim of an “attack” or an “assault”.

Join Ian Brookes in this dark world but remember noir should be watched first and read about later. Don’t worry too much about plot holes and try something like the amazing “Detour” (1945), starring the wonderfully named cigarette-puffing femme fatale Ann Savage (born Bernice Maxine Lyon) in a classic “poverty row” B-production filmed in a mere six days by low-budget director Edgar G. Ulmer (it’s on YouTube, all 67 wham-bam minutes of it).

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