Ed McBain

Criterion Files

As discussed in last week’s entry in the cannon of the Criterion Files with Carol Reed’s The Third Man for our themed month dubbed “Noirvember”, the delineation of what is considered film noir is as gray as the pictures that encompass the genre (if genre is what it’s believed to be). It’s many things yet nothing distinctive.

In many cases, the aesthetics of low-angles and dark photography dominating the image mark a common visual signature that’s distinguishable, but not always definitively ‘noir’ and not always present in film-noir. Yet, somehow, we kind of know it when we see it.

In other instances, visual style takes the backseat of the police car in a picture with literary elements of crime, corruption, betrayal and other sinful activity found quite often in the films considered undoubtedly ‘noir,’ yet their presence does not define their categorical placement amongst films like The Third Man. Yet, somehow, we sort of just know it when we feel it.

Taken in its literal context the word ‘noir’ simply means dark. Dark what? Dark anything, really; and that’s part of what makes the genre so non-distinct and occasionally contradictory. A dark film is not necessarily noir, but noir films are in one way or another dark; and some in ways that non-noir films can be.

Therefore, the only definitive fact about film-noir is that it’s an abstract concept thanks to films like Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), loosely adapted from Ed McBain’s crime novel “King’s Ransom”, and is in many ways the antithesis to what would be considered dark for nearly eighty-percent of its running time. Yet, when you see it, you feel it, and its inclusion in consideration for what is noir further expands what the genre can be, or doesn’t have to be.

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