I wrote about the greatness that is Drew Morton’s first installment in the What IS Film Noir? series about a month ago here. His intention with these monthly installments is to make the video essay equivalent of an encyclopedia entry, but that makes them sound dull when, in fact, the combination of video with definitive aspects of the genre prove engrossingly edifying. Click through the link below to watch the video, which is sadly not embeddable.
While in the first video he talked about the basic semantic conventions of noir–the detective, the high-contrast lighting, the femme fatale, voice-over narration–this time around he addresses the syntax. By syntax he means the how these semantics are strung together. If the semantics are the pearls, the syntax is the chain that makes them a necklace.
The first of these syntactic elements is grotesque violence. The fair fight of action films was scrapped. This can be clearly seen in the physical trauma Brendan undergoes in the movie Brick. Though Morton doesn’t mention it in the video, film noir often skirted the requirements of decency set out by the Hays Production Code. This meant graphic violence by the day’s standard, and as noir has gone from classic to neo, those standards have changed. So have the films. The grotesque violence of The Long Goodbye was far more explicit than that of The Maltese Falcon. And The Long Goodbye’s violence was outdone by Pulp Fiction.
The second of these is a criminal point of view. We sympathize with the criminals (or fallen private eye) while the cops are shown as corrupt. The lines of good and bad are blurred if not completely unrecognizable.
The third of these is amour fou (“mad love”). The femme fatale and the protagonist will fall in love and stay together though it will almost certainly be the end of one or the other of them. Often that means death, and if not, it means prison. One of the reasons The Big Sleep isn’t considered noir by some audiences is because the femme fatale and protagonist get to ride off into the sunset together, considerably lightening the normally deep shadows of the genre.
The final syntactic element Morton details is fatalism. Film noir generally doesn’t end happily for anyone. There might be some level of justice, but that justice will come at a high cost. Chinatown offers an amazing example of this. SPOILERS! In it a woman who has suffered sexual abuse and hopes to protect her daughter from the same takes drastic steps to escape the hold of her father (and the father of her daughter). Although she is prompted to let the police handle him, she knows he owns the police. The police end up shooting her and the daughter ends up with her father/grandfather. There’s nothing the protagonist can do about it.