The Term Noir is Frequently Misused

Wow, a post on James Bond and I get 4-5 times the usual number of hits. Maybe what the Internet needs is yet another James Bond blog. No, I think I’ll keep doing film noir.

A couple of posts back I referenced that any mystery-thriller with a flawed protagonist is automatically deemed “noir” by today’s critics.

A good example is the film “The Nice Guys,” which came out a few years back. It was called, “Comic noir” by the Atlantic, “scuzzy noir” by the LA Times, “70s LA noir” by and “LA Action Noir Buddy Comedy,” by the Village Voice. And on and on.

To be clear, “The Nice Guys” is a pretty good movie and worth seeing on DVD or Amazon or HBO or wherever. Crowe and Gosling have a good chemistry, the writing by Shane Black is sharp, and the plotting is decent.

But it’s not film noir.


Because although the two protagonists are flawed, they are not fatally flawed. Their flaws do not lead to their downfall. In short, they are not self- destructive. At the end of the film, they are better off than they were at the beginning.

I would propose that an unhappy ending is an essential component of noir. Usually, this means the death of the protagonist, which provides catharsis, meaning an intellectual clarification of the themes of the work.


Would “Double Indemnity” have been the same if Walter Neff didn’t die in the end? What about “Out of the Past?” Would the film have the same impact if Kathie didn’t shoot Jeff? Or what if Norma Desmond didn’t shoot Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard” and Joe went back to a newspaper desk in Ohio? What if Harry Lime survived in “The Third Man,” spent five years in prison, and came out a reformed man? What if Hank Quinlan was simply allowed to retire at the end of “Touch of Evil?”

Would any of these movies have been the same?

No, I don’t think so.

Why is the death of the protagonist cathartic in these films?

Because we’ve seen it coming since the beginning of the film (literally in “Sunset Boulevard”). At some level we know that “our hero” with all his flaws and weaknesses isn’t going to make it out of this movie alive. Walter Neff is too cocky, Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham is too weak and trusting, Joe Gillis is too weak and gullible, Harry Lime and Hank Quinlan are too corrupt.

In “Touch of Evil” Quinlan (Orson Welles) asks Tanya (Marlena Dietrich) to tell him his future and she says “You haven’t got any. Your future’s all used up.” This could be applied to any true film noir protagonist.