Published: 14 Mar 2014

This perspective on noir is almost certainly different than what you might read elsewhere. At least I hope it is. Everything in folding is about how the work engages viewers by acknowledging and coopting them. Noir is central to this because it is pervasive, the basis of many elaborations and way, way cool when seen for what it is.

Consider the last 60 years in film, which I believe reflect a significant and accelerating evolution in the way we think. Of interest here are the ways we mix writer, reader and characters. Originally these were distinct. From time to time, one might acknowledge another. A character may address the audience, or remark on the way she was written. But these were single devices without a framework of being that carried from film to film.

My concept of noir serves this role of being a framework that was picked up and used in several films and now is an agent itself, explicitly in films and the peer of the writer, viewer and some characters.

Noir is the simple idea that a character is chosen more or less at random. The more innocent and random the better. Now he (usually he) is put in circumstances that involve contrived coincidences that would never occur if he were not being manipulated for our amusement. We are implicitly placed in the film as invisible gods, manipulating the world for our amusement.

Often there is a girl involved to complicate matters. Almost always there is some camera device that reminds us that the camera is ours and not of a tacit world. Welles’ great noir in Citizen Kane used camera angles that reminded us that we were not invisible human-level ghosts, but agents in this world. Others use so-called dutch angles but neither the girl nor the angles are necessary. Most definitions of noir focus on these, plus notably artificial lighting.

Noir is a sort of master fold in the folding vocabulary because it has become so absorbed into the general film vocabulary. Plus it allows so many different ways of adding new perspectives and still retaining an identifiable nature. The basic notion has so infused film and hence all of art and much of life that I consider it one of the three great American inventions, together with jazz and liberty-centric representative democracy. Of the three, only it has adapted rather than becoming perverted in general use.

Pure noir in my opinion was first presented by Welles with Citizen Kane, though you can see in the Burgess Shale of film experiments (in the 30s) all sorts of precursors. Most of these were experiments in the detective story.

For me, pure noir ended with Welles’ Touch of Evil, though I am open to examples that show otherwise. In order for noir to be pure in this context, it has to organically be the framework for the film and not something that is referenced. It cannot be an adopted skeleton without understanding how to animate it.

Non-Film Precursers

Noir comes from a literary tradition that tries to break the wall of engagement with the reader, in contradiction with the tradition of Greek drama that persisted until the renaissance. In that tradition, there are two worlds acknowledged in the work: that of the humans (where all the effective action occurs) and that of the gods or God. The gods throw influences at the humans which they will see as fate. In some, the fate bounces back on the gods, producing celestial consequence. The important feature here is that the gods are in the story, and the subject of everyday stories outside of the theater.

Shakespeare’s great contribution was the many ways he played with this narrative construction. I am convinced that this was because he had been exposed to some prototo-scientists from whom would grow basic ideas of mathematical logic. But that is another story I explore elsewhere.

Shakespeare’s explorations were often deeply reflexive: being in the story and looking at one’s self being in the story; displaying a situation, describing the situation and living in it. With the experiences of performing in the reconstructed Globe, we know even better how he would write situations that would have one element of the audience remarking on another.

Novelists built on Shakespeare‘s devices to introduce new ones that would place the reader in the thing. The written word allows for more invention in these mental stances — those that let the viewer, say, into someone’s mind in ways difficult for drama to show.

In the Victorian era, a particularly strong and flexible device was introduced, the detective story. We followed the detective, seeing what he (usually he) saw, and struggling to make sense alongside him. At the end when he announced the solution, he had an audience that included us, but only us would replay the story in our minds re-inventing certain features. The character of the detective was one with us, watching and interpreting, and at the end was one with the writer, forcing us to rewrite what we just saw.

Now to examples:

Precursors of Noir

Early experiments not from the detective tradition.

Our main set of examples of this start from about 1930, when the nature of what it meant to be a movie changed and it took a decade of experimentation to settle down into the forms we still use today. A great disruption of course was the introduction of sound which gave movies the same narrative scale as literature while making them somewhat less internal.

But another disruption was in how the exhibitor infrastructure spread. All of a sudden, people in great numbers were going to the movies every week. It exploded not just as a business, but as a central part of life. After this period, the main storytelling medium (for long form) would not be books, but movies.

The Detective Story

The detective story as an origin of noir.

The first mystery novel apparently was The Moonstone of 1868.

The first detective stories were certainly the Sherlock Holmes serials for the popular Strand magazine in London. These ran from 1887 to 1927 so the latter stories were being created in parallel with films of Holmes.

In those 30 years of writing, the author experimented with a few things, but a fundamental characteristic of the form is that we encounter events in the same order and fashion that the detective does. In the case of Holmes, this is accomplished by inserting the writer of the story in the story, and having him shadow the detective.

Holmes (the original Holmes) is a man of science, of reason. Darwin had recently changed the nature of thinking about the world in 1859, eliciting in the general public the view that everything in existence was subject to detailed, logical understanding by a talented scientist.

Freud at the turn of the century and Einstein by 1921 became science celebrities, riding and reinforcing this trend. Holmes was very much in this tradition, which we can characterize as the ability to create the true story of a man or event by observation of facts and deduction. In other words, human behavior was to be no different than anything else in the world, amenable to science. And solving a crime is no different than finding the story.

Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, considered himself a scientist in this tradition and committed his celebrity status to the promotion of spiritualism. This was an attempt to explain afterlife existence scientifically.

To be true to the Holmes form, you are in the story, watching the story be made. The satisfaction of Holmes and Watson is your satisfaction. This mapping, folding, had not existed before.

Later, Agatha Christie modified the format with her Poirot stories that started in 1920. The innovations were two: she scrupulously presented enough clues to allow the reader to deduce the answer. Unlike Holmes, where most of his insights are revealed stepwise, Christie’s detectives kept the story secret until the end.

Her second innovation was making that story reveal into a big deal. Every suspect was gathered together, and Poirot (for example) would tell the story. The novelty is that as a group, they joined us as audience, putting us in the story. But each in turn became a character as Poirot revealed something previously hidden about how they fit in the story.

So just with these two best selling influences, we already had a means for folding us into the story as writer and separately as audience.


Our earliest Holmes movie is a silent:

Pure Noir

Basically what Welles wrought.

We have already gone on record that pure noir appeared in Citizen Kane in 1943. Welles’ influences were not directly the movies from the 30s, but the freedom they gave him to experiment with his stage and radio plays before coming to Hollywood.

His MacBeth with the Mercury Theater completely shifted the play. Shakespeare had already shaped it as a man controlled by forces outside himself, including witchcraft. Most who watch the play as originally written focus on his wife, but there are many threads in the fabric that controls him. Welles recast this in a different era and repositioned the esoteric force from the witches to the audience. So he already came to the film with a notion of what he wanted to do.

The script had already been written by a skilled screenwriter. An accomplished production team, including one of the all time great cinematographers were on the team as gifts. Welles shifted the character to that of a widely known newspaper power broker — someone who could write something and have if become the truth. This is not just being accepted as the truth, but becoming the truth. Here was the fulcrum he needed. Now the film became a matter of who are the writers and what truths are inside the situations they govern and which are outside.

Reverse Noir

Where noir is turned around and used against the audience.

Where the on-screen detective becomes the manipulator and the chief character is able to apparently bend the world so as to orchestrate coincidences to successfully 'make his story.'

Examples: Hitman, Salt, Bournes