Genre study: film noir

Essay by shesacliche April 2008

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Erotic crime drama, first filmed in the 1940s, is a sub-genre of film noir and influenced films for the next four decades. Sexual desire is central to this sub-genre, with the blockage of that desire resolved within or outside of the law. 'Out of the Past' described a social crisis and constituted a critique of that crisis, while 'Angel Face' and 'Out of the Past - Against All Odds' dealt with the same issues but drifted into melodrama.

This essay explores the problems encountered in attempting to apply a generic category or categories to a body of American films made in the 1940's and 1950's that became known as film noir as well as to a body of later films influenced by the noir tradition. By way of illustrating these problems, I will focus on two noir films with remarkably similar narrative structures- -Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur 1947), Angel Face (Otto Preminger 1952)--and on Taylor Hackford's 1984 remake of Out of the Past--Against All Odds.

In Outside Literature, Tony Bennett describes what he considers the two primary approaches to genre theory. The first of these, which Bennett labels the sociology of genres, holds that one can define genres by identifying a trait that is present in a given body of texts and that performs the function of the dominant around which other traits are organized. This generic dominant is then seen as a reflection of the social conditions in place at the time of the production of the text.

The second approach holds that genres cannot be defined in terms of a dominant formal property but are instead institutions which organize a framework of expectations. Hence generic belongingness is determined by cultural reading (and viewing) practices. Clearly the key distinction between these two...