Take original sin, a big, fat helping’s worth of original sin. Mix with equal parts fatalism and Greek tragedy. Sprinkle lightly, and blindly, with existentialism. What you’ve got is either the history of Western philosophy or the makings of noir.
Noir, meaning dark or black–its artistic use is derived from roman noir, “black novel,” the French critics’ take on the British Gothic novels in the 18th and 19th centuries. European critics recycled the phrase in response to the American flicks of the 1940’s and 1950’s that created a dark environment with even darker inhabitants. French critics in particular were stunned by what appeared to be a new, American genre after cold turkey where Hollywood was concerned for the duration of World War II. (Can you try to imagine that post-war experience? Forget all the legends and icons and images in your head and dig it: picture “Gone With the Wind” side by side with “Double Indemnity.”)
When set down in black and white, noir quickly becomes hazy around the edges, no more or less difficult to define than many motifs and themes in art. Noir is no exclusive genre, often classified as a sub-genre. The form can pop up in within almost any other genre, especially in film, from horror to western to suspense. There are, however, some elements that are strictly elemental to true noir.
Let there be darkness
In this rare instance, the passive or negative voice is actually more to the point. The best noir should be conspicuous for its lack of light. Lots of night scenes, a lot of interiors. Preferably the less nature the better. Smoke-filled rooms work. Alleys work. Bars, backrooms, boiler rooms, etc. That’s an easy one, sure.
A sense of doom, or
Screw you, screw me
Every noir-trapped character has his or her cross to bear and is accountable for every good or bad action. Noir is an equal opportunity fatalist. Ain’t that beautiful? And maybe that’s part of the draw, a level playing field where rich and poor, the powerful as well as the victimized, are equally screwed.
Call it nihilized karma
Noir is the most efficient literary form of justice since Greek tragedy. Its moral code is lifted directly from the Ten Commandments, but we don’t have to wait for the afterlife to witness rewards and penalties (mostly penalties).
The past determines the future. Every noir character will answer for his or her action in this life. And is drawn to do so, compelled to so, sometimes races to do so. Maybe that’s because every player in a noir yarn is part hero, part villain, part sucker.
You’re Killing Me
To paraphrase the Troggs oldie, “Death is All Around Us.” Noir without a liberal dose of death is like a pig without a poke, like a day without sunshine, like Mike Hammer with a Girl Scout attitude. Noir ain’t for sissies. After all, people die–that’s life.
Maybe it’s our eternal optimism that makes noir play so well, play off us so successfully. There are no clear-cut champions in the world of dark narrative, never an out-and-out winner, and everyone is a bit of a loser. In the end, we resolve ourselves to the order of things as seen through the lens of noir—the ending might never be happy, but at least a twisted, in-side out sense of justice has been served. That’s more than we usually get in this life. Sure.