The great thing about film noir, probably the greatest purely cinematic genre ever, is that the best way to learn about it is to watch it. And listen. Film noir presaged the rise of postmodernism in some ways by quickly adding self reverential allusions as part of its metatext. Pay attention to film noir dialogue and, as Keats might observe, you’ve got all ye need to know about the genre.
“Someday fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no reason at all.”
If you know no other film noir quote, you need to know this one from the seminal low budget noir “Detour.” Nothing else is as important for an understanding of film noir than knowing that fate is a big, angry female dog experiencing canine PMS in these movies. The reason most film noirs are black and white is because great black and white filmmaking is actually about the grey shadows that are cast. Nothing is definite in the noir world; everyone is open to being the target of karma gone mental.
“First is first, and second is nobody.”
Another convention of film noir is that nobody is either all good or all bad. Well, the big bad crime boss from “The Big Combo” played to stunning perfection by Richard Conte is nearly an exception to this rule. His observation is vital to realizing why so many otherwise intelligent people do so many incredibly stupid things in film noir. When the world around you has ceased to make the sense that it seemed to make for several millennia and you realize you are all on your own, you have to go for the gusto. Being in charge of your own response to the whirling hand of the bitch goddess Fortuna is the most power you can ever hope for.
“She can’t be all bad, no one is.”
“Well, she comes the closest.”
The leading female figure in most film noirs—and any good one—is the femme fatale. After going to work when men left to save the world from democracy, the distaff side of America realized they didn’t necessarily have to head back into the kitchen when the boys came marching home. Unfortunately, nobody told those boys that their gals had become empowered while they were away. Women are treated the same as they always were, but their response is quite different in film noir. And quite often it’s not what men want. Fortunately, women know how to get around this and the hotter the woman, the easier it is to complicate things. Not even Phyllis Dietrichson from “Double Indemnity”, the highest ranked film fatale on the AFI list of villains, is all bad, but she comes even closer than the subject of the dialogue above from the movie “Out of the Past.”