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Thomas Hibbs

Seeking with Groans

The moral universe of film noir.

"I don't want to die."

"Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I'm gonna die last."

That's a bit of romantic dialogue between two characters from Out of the Past, one of the films featured in the Film Noir Classics Collection. The fifteen films in these three box sets were originally released between the mid-1940s and the early 1950s. (A fourth volume, featuring ten films, is promised later this year.) They thus bypass the early period of noir, defined by such classics as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, films whose viewing by French critics in the middle of the decade gave rise to the noir tag in the first place, but they include such gems as The Asphalt Jungle, The Set-Up, Murder My Sweet, Dillinger, On Dangerous Ground, and Narrow Margin. Clearly there's a growing contemporary interest, both popular and critical, in film noir. Book-length analyses of the historical, cultural, and philosophical roots and implications of film noir continue to multiply—including two noteworthy recent examples, Mark Conard's edited volume, The Philosophy of Film Noir, and John Irwin's Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them. Even this limited sample of films and books gives evidence of the rich philosophical resources in noir; its penchant for subversive, anti-Enlightenment themes; and its revival of a peculiar kind of quest.

As the discussion of the essence or nature of film noir in the books from Conard and Irwin indicates, critics seeking a unifying definition of noir as a genre have failed to achieve consensus. Still, the films grouped under the noir label exhibit what philosophers call family resemblances, including recurring themes (criminality, infidelity, get-rich-quick schemes, and seemingly doomed quests), dominant moods (anxiety, dread, and oppressive entrapment), typical settings (cities at night and in the rain), and peculiar styles of filming (sharp contrasts between light and dark and tight, off-center camera angles). Noir is certainly a counter to the optimistic, ...

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