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Film Noir is back. explores the evolution of the elusive form

We’re all familiar with it right? No? That dominant aesthetic which developed in Hollywood post World War Two, with its dangerous, sustained innuendo, pouting femme fatales, its whisky-ridden, cigarette-smoking, anti-hero detectives and its shadowy, German Expressionist mis-en-scenes? No?

For some such a cinematic term is certainly alien. “Don’t like Black and Whites” is a sentence heard just a little bit too often and the involvement of French vocabulary certainly doesn’t reduce the perceived pretension. However, colour elitists are about to get their comeuppance. Why? Cos Film Noir’s back, baby.

Critics have marked its glorious return in recent years through the appearance of its themes, concerns and aesthetics springing up across the film world. A figure-head feature for this so-called revival is Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City with its monochrome rain-slicked streets, dangerously seductive females and voice-over narration. Alongside this are such features as The Black Dahlia, Public Enemies and Mulholland Drive, all in varying ways waving the flag for swell dames and alcoholic P.Is. This latter piece by David Lynch paying homage to the Noir Films of the forties and fifties; in this instance Sunset Boulevard, a Noir classic which also lays at the foundation of William Monahan’s recent feature film London Boulevard.

This interest clearly continues as the remake of another famous Noir work Brighton Rock hit British screens last friday. Reviewers have commented on its Noir stylisation, embracing the melodrama in Graham Greene’s novel whilst utilising “chiaroscuro lighting, swooping camera movements, vertiginous set ups and an old fashioned orchestral score” (Tom Charity).

The key aesthetic and thematic elements of Noir have also cropped up in such recent blockbusters as Black Swan and Inception. Whether it be the battle of dark vs. light and the vindictive femme fatale in the former, or the drab and shadowy lighting, gothic city-scapes and anti-hero of the latter, Noir coats the reels of both these works. Furthermore, this past week there has been evidence of a renewed attention being paid to directors of the Noir era.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of Orson Welles, one of the most critically acclaimed Noir directors, known for such timeless features as Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil. To the delight of Welles fans worldwide, an unfinished piece filmed by the auteur in the 1970s titled The Other Side of the Wind seems to be finally set to hit the screens, despite furious ownership disputes. What is more, the BFI is engaged in fundraising to allow for the restoration of nine early silent films by Alfred Hitchcock; a director who gave the world such canonical Noir features as Psycho, Strangers On a Train and Vertigo. And to top it all off film Noir classic The Big Sleep saw its UK re-release just two months ago, finding itself once again gracing our cinemas.

But wait just one second. Is this really a Noir revival? Is this really a retrospective revolution of cinematic concerns; an abandonment of the contemporary in favour of classical Hollywood? Or has Noir never left?

Just a casual glance at film history will answer this question. From films such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Manchurian Candidate in the sixties, to the blatant re-invented Noir of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Farewell My Lovely in the seventies, to the sci-fi noir of Blade Runner and Noir films like Body Heat and Against All Odds in the eighties, up until such hits of the nineties as The Usual Suspects and Se7en, one can be sure that our good friend was never the absentee. This is due to Noir’s sheer adaptability. A great majority of critics in this area have concluded that Film Noir is not a genre but merely a collection of thematic, aesthetic and technical styles. In this way it can appear in just about any feature, making its mark through a character, camera movement or merely how a set is lit. Thus, it has traversed genre boundaries, being used in science fiction (The Matrix, Alphaville), graphic novel adaptations (Batman Begins, Watchmen); even comedy (The Big Lebowski).

Along-side its strong visual attraction, the Noir film concerns itself with melancholy, disillusionment, paranoia, moral corruption, guilt and alienation, themes which are never going to be irrelevant in any given society. The timelessness of these elements guarantees that as cinema evolves, twisting and turning into new territories, there will always be a shady fedora-adorned character clinging on. Bogart and Bacall are no doubt smiling in their graves.

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