the ‘meaning’ of the noir city is not to be found in the narrative’s surface
details but in its shadows, in the intangibles of tone and mood
– Frank Krutnik, ‘Something More Than Night’, The Cinematic City (ed David B. Clarke), p 98-99
The more I read about noir, the more I am convinced that few pundits, critics, academics, or film bloggers really know noir. Sure, there are many who write lyrically and compellingly, there are those who can mimic to perfection the hard-boiled lingo, and there are those who have a thorough knowledge of the history and the arcane, but most don’t understand noir.
Noir is a semiotic aesthetic. It is not about the surface, it is about the shadows. The noir narrative is only a framework for holding together a dark but deeply moral vision of life. Noir is not morally ambivalent: it is unforgiving and the transgressor pays for his transgressions. While the punishment of destiny is inescapable, there is the chance of redemption, and redemption comes from a deep compassion. A compassion that comes from the knowledge of the chaos and the utterly random contingency at the core of existence. Noir goes beyond the despair of the existentialists, it finds in the desperate and often violent failings of humanity, the soul. The soul that is not corporeal yet pervades physical reality by manifesting our sins and desires in the dark shadows of night, when the alienating mantel of awareness dissolves into those places where lost souls wander: the dives, the dark city streets, lonely desolate beaches, dust country roads, squalid tenements, and dank stairwells.
Forget all you have read about noir and look at noir with your own eyes and ears. Welcome to the shadows.