Typically, I like to start these out with a personal story of some sort, a way of connecting my own experience to the subject matter of the issue I’m introducing. But, after starting and stopping several different drafts, I realized something that probably should have been obvious to me from the start: my life has literally no connection to film noir. I’ve never been a morally complicated man caught up in a labyrinthine mystery, never bantered with a femme fatale, never worn a fedora. The voiceover that runs in my head is far more neurotic than it ever is suave, sophisticated, or knowing. I smoked once, but that was long ago, and five cigarettes a day was enough to make me feel sickly.
And to be fair, I’m not alone. Most of us don’t live out our lives in black and white; we’re intrigued by the shadows but we mostly stick to the light. Perhaps that’s why noir fascinates and compels us. Maybe we like immersing ourselves in its complex worlds, its double-crossing narratives and staccato rhythms, its beautiful, smoke-filled scenes because it offers us a chance to play out various, tougher versions of ourselves. To imagine our tiny little boring lives as part of some hard-boiled, world-weary tapestry. Or maybe noir intrigues because of its slippery slopes, the sense that any of us is just one step or one fatal chance encounter away from falling into a darker abyss, from finding ourselves caught up in a maze of mystery we barely understand, struggling to keep up with its twists and turns, its life and death stakes. Maybe we like to believe that, should this moment ever come to pass, our inner Marlowe would arise, the lone wolf chain-smoking tough guy, the sad sack anti-hero called into active duty
In this issue, we’re focusing our attention on the world of noir, immersing ourselves in its dark waters. Doing the dirty work in this issue is our most diverse group of writers yet: a talented mix of young newcomers, seasoned BW/DR staff writers, and award-winning poet Michael Ryan, nominated for the National Book Award before most of us were even born.
We’re looking mostly at older films (The Big Sleep, Sudden Fear, Night of the Hunter, Shadow of a Doubt, Out of the Past) as is only appropriate for a true noir issue, but we’re also turning an eye toward Rian Johnson’s Brick (2006)—a film that takes noir’s stylistic trappings and conventions and places them smack dab in the middle of a high school murder mystery—and Dennis Potter’s 1986 television masterpiece, The Singing Detective, which mixes up noir, nostalgia, trauma, hospitals, and musicals. And just to stretch the definition out slightly further, we’ve also included an essay on Southland Tales, an “apocalyptic science fiction film noir,” whose roots somewhat lie in the classic Kiss Me Deadly, but whose story quickly grows in a hundred different messy directions. Finally, we tie things up with a look at the evolution of the femme fatale, from Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944’s Double Indemnity all the way through to Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne in last month’s Gone Girl.
Paul Schrader, in his “Notes on Film Noir,” once noted that “almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up… Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s.” And we’d agree—what does and doesn’t constitute true film noir is a sticky business. Still, as the old adage goes, we know it when we see it. Consider this issue, then, our attempt to capture its essence.