The term film noir was coined in 1946 by a French critic who, when viewing a number of recently imported American films (The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, and others), described them all as noir or “black,” referring not only to their stylistic features (deep shadows, claustrophobic settings) but also to the existentially bleak and morally ambiguous vision that seemed to unite the films. Initially, noir was a critical term describing a post-war group of American crime films and the pulp novels that inspired them (stories by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, to name a few). At the time, however, none of the directors involved set out to make a film noir. They made thrillers, gangster films, detective films, police procedurals, and various types of melodrama. This course asks, how and when did film noir become a genre, and what does it mean to call it that? Where does genre come from, and how does it originate? On another level, this course explores the films in terms of their historical contexts: war, exile, trauma, race, gender, sexuality, modernism, and modernity. Finally, it touches on the notion of “neo-noir,” to see how genre changes over time and across cultures. How can we explain the enduring appeal of noir as a global phenomenon?
Assignments include online discussion posts and two in-class exams.