Why aren't film noir movies more popular?

A few months ago I watched Payback via Netflix. Based on Richard Stark’s Parker novels (which are currently being adapted into graphic novel form by Darwyn Cooke, and are fantastic), it’s not so much a detective movie as it is a “bad guy goes and gets revenge on even worse guys”. It wasn’t a great film, and had a lot of flaws. But the major elements of a film noir were there (I’m not an expert or anything, but it’s definitely a different feel and flavor that I associate with noir).

With the exception of that as well as movies like Sin City and The Spirit (do not see this movie - going from Payback in 1999 up to The Spirit in 2008, there’s a serious drop in quality), I can’t think of any other recent examples. I fear that if The Maltese Falcon were released today, it would be more The Spirit than Payback, and that’s still a major decline.

Am I missing a giant treasure trove of movies out there (from recently), do people just not like these movies anymore, or something else?

Could you clarify first, how you define film noir? And do you consider neo noir and Cyberpunk to be sub-genres or are they too different to be pooled together? Your inclusion of Sin City seems to suggest that you might be willing to add the new Batman movies too, maybe even Watchmen?

I think they’re incredibly well-liked among film buffs – I went through a period of a few months watching every film noir I could find, which could have been well ahead of a hundred, depending on the definition of films noirs, but even then missed some classics I couldn’t track down locally.

If you check the film criticism section at a library – university or public – you’ll probably see more books about “noir” directors (I’m including people like R. Siodmak, Lang, Hawks, Huston, Welles, Wilder, who didn’t just do noirs but did some of the best) and films than anything else.

I would guess the neo-noirs get less play because people like me are still rewatching the originals and have less patience for revisionism, because the classics of the 40s and 50s are so cherished, as well as that there are so many sort-of-noirs like “The Small Back Room” that are still out there to be found, as well as noir-related genres like heist movies and so forth, as well as the complete oeuvres of those directors who directed some of the classics.

Other than a few outliers (whose noir elements were overshadowed) , noir was never massively popular. It was just too dark for most people and many of the classics of the genre were cheap second features (which adds to their appeal these days) and B movies. The things that make noir are just too mannered for modern audiences.

The heyday of the genre was in the 40s and 50s; most critics point to Touch of Evil (1958) as the last of the genre. In any case, the style of noir is probably too mannered for modern audiences to accept, and people don’t go in much for tragedy these days (which the best noir was). (And an unhappy ending is not automatically tragedy, BTW.)

There is a HUGE noir festival in San Francisco every year that is very, very well attended. I am a tremendous fan and have amassed over 175 titles of noir in my collection.

At last year’s festival (held in the decidedly decadent and stunning Art Deco theater, The Castro), the opening short was this amazing ditty.

Check out “Comic Book Villains” if you have a chance. It is not LIT like a noir films, but the underlying dark themes of human nature are definitely there.

I don’t know much at all about those subgenres - got any examples?

And I wouldn’t consider any of the Batman movies or Watchmen to be noir at all. It seems like they’d be close - but just not quite crossing into whatever category Sin City and The Spirit are in. I think the presence of a narrator is what they lack.

Well, one of the key ingredients to a “black film” (or “film noir” in french) is that it be photographed in black & white. One of the key elements to the noir style - as beautifully illustrated in Fried Dough Ho’s link - is the use of shadows and darkness in these movies and of characters moving in & out of them. You just don’t get the same visual effect in a color movie.

And as silly as it may seem now, the repressive Hayes code that censored Hollywood material for decades was a crucial element in the success of noirs. Basically, these movies were coded “sex movies” in an age when sex couldn’t be discussed onscreen; people didn’t go to film noirs to see a man choose a life of crime - they went to see a Femme Fatale lure a man into a life of crime, and get him to behave sinfully. Nowadays though, sex is blandly discussed on your average network sitcom. A noir film made now simply couldn’t connect with an audience in the same way that it did in the 40s. The subtext is gone.

I’ve argued here before - we seem to do these noir threads regularly - that noir hasn’t existed for more than 50 years. It was a very specific response to a time and atmosphere post WWII. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t noir and neither was the post-war Big Sleep. Noir is not the same as hardboiled or crime or gritty. It was a particular kind of disillusionment and cynicism.

Are there small dark crime films that don’t turn into explosion-fests? Sure, lots of them. I didn’t see Payback, but I can’t imagine anything with Mel Gibson, who can’t do anything small and personal, could possibly qualify next to something like The Ice Harvest or Brick or The Grifters, with a Donald Westlake screenplay. (Westlake was Richard Stark. I’d also argue that none of Westlake’s books were ever noir. He started in the 1960s and noir was gone by then.)

If you liked Payback, you should check that IMDb page about Westlake. Five other Parker books have been made into movies over the years, starting with one by Jeann-Luc Goddard. And there’s also the classic Point Black with Lee Marvin, based on the same novel that spawned Payback.

Sin CIty was a parody of noir styles that I didn’t take seriously for a moment. A truly funny parody of that type of private eye movie is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I’d definitely recommend.

First this:

Then this:

Based on your definition, I would argue that Maltese Falcon was definitely noir. It has all the elements; cynical protagonist, femme fatale looking to bring down the protagonist, urban setting…

Big Sleep? Same…

No, I’d agree that The Maltese Falcon wasn’t noir. Spade was too witty and too much on top of things. If Brigid had betrayed him, it would have been noir, but she didn’t.

Same with The Big Sleep.

In both cases, justice won out. In noir, it rarely does.

And though film noir was black and white and used shadows, there are some films that used a noirish cinematography but still don’t qualify. He Walked By Night, for instance, is often listed as film noir, but it’s actually a police procedural like Dragnet (Jack Webb got the idea for the show from the movie – he was in the cast). While the B&W is necessary for film noir, it no more defines it than 3D defines a genre of film.

The Maltese Falcon is practically a fantasy. The Falcon isn’t real and the story is a child’s tale. The characters are bizarre Eurotrash caricatures. It isn’t about the corruption of official values as expressed by the systematic takeover of a police force or the love of a good woman sold as merchandise. It isn’t even about life and death. It’s just greed that drives everyone. It’s a 19th century romance told in modern dress. As such, it’s an odd and almost unique book in the history of the American crime novel and the very faithful film (presumably we’re talking about Huston’s, the third and only faithful version) replicates the book.

The Big Sleep also shares nothing but a crime setting with noir. It’s not even based on Chandler’s later works, which do say that the police as a whole are corrupt thugs. The villain here is a gangster and the class display is skewed toward the glamorous life. A millionaire’s rare book drives the plot. (Noir is almost entirely about ordinary working stiffs.) The movie is composed of three almost separate films, with Bogart playing three almost separate characters, so it’s hard to say anything coherent about it that applies throughout, but it’s not about the system or values or society or the failure of America to live up to the ideals it mouthed during the War, any more than Falcon is.

Having a hardboiled private eye as the lead doesn’t make a movie a noir. Most of the classic noir movies don’t use private eyes at all. The problem today is that people do tend to lump them all together. My argument - and it can only be an argument since there can’t be any official or factual definitions - is that they shouldn’t all be lumped together. Noir is very specific and fascinating enough in its own right. Spade and Marlowe get enough attention. Leave them out of this.

Noir, like jazz, is great because of its lack of popular appeal. It has snob appeal. That’s what its perceived greatness is rooted in.

My opinion about this post applies equally to what you say about jazz and noir: hogwash.

Hardboiled detective movies are about the steep price you pay for living by a code. Film noir is about the steep price you pay for breaking that code.

What about The Friends of Eddie Coyle? Would you consider that a film noir? I’d argue it has the classic noir elements despite being made in 1973 (and being in color).

FYI, here is Wiki’s list of noir films, which does include Payback.

Though having looked through the list, I’d say that it’s a pretty poor list using an overly broad definition. I tend to think of noir as more about mood and a certain cinematic style.

I’m not sure I would go as far as saying that there have been any noir films in 50 years. My nominees for more recent noir films include Blade Runner and The 13th Floor, which IMO have both the mood and style. LA Confidential has a noirish mood, but doesn’t really have the look of ‘classic’ noir.

There’s a bunch more, particularly sci-fi near future dystopias, that might be called noir. Children of Men comes to mind. I see it didn’t even make Wiki’s list.

By this definition Payback fits. But it’s the other guys who broke the code, and Mel’s the guy making them pay the price.

The Coens solved the problem of time by setting The Man Who Wasn’t There in the late 40s. It’s a perfect noir.

Interesting. Your timeframe also excludes a reconstruction like Polanski’s Chinatown and Ertraud’s Pitie pour les Rats, Lucidi’s La Vittima Designata and Melville’s Le Samourai – or are European films in general not germane?

Of course, all these European films are usually pooled together under the label neo noir (unlike the classical L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud by Malle which is as film noir as possible, imo - or do you disagree?) or postmodern noir (which was mostly defined by Besson’s Subway) – but Nolan’s Memento and Fincher’s Seven have also been added by some critics to the neo genre and I have seen them appear side by side with the previously mentioned movies in retrospectives (which - by itself - doesn’t mean anything, of course).

Btw, I agree with your recommendation of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and I’d consider Brick a noir-parody too (and not just because of its settings), though definitely not a funny one.

The pictorial language of film noir is focused on the translation of troubling emotions and states of mind in visual symbols, and the stylistic devices of expressionism look like they had been invented particularly for this genre: the overwhelming, always creeping presence of the darkness, the shadows and silhouettes in confined spaces that predict and signify the unsettling events, spotlights to isolate a thing or a being from its surroundings and to haul them out of them into our focus without given them context, the point-of-view shot, etc.

It’s not surprising that colour is not on par with B&W to achieve the same impression of focus and fragmentation.

I hope, I’ve added the examples in the preceding paragraphs to illustrate the differences.

Film noir is a very specific genre but it’s not isolated in film history; its precursors can be found in the expressionists movies of the 20s and 30s: Lang’s Spione (Spies) and his well-known M have a similar pictorial language and an almost identical idea about the use of urban space. Max Ophüls’ early expressionist movies will also look to you quite similar to film noir - though they are quite different in their … conclusions.

You might also be interested in Wiene’s Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (from 1920) that uses shadows and silhouettes already in the same meta-context as the later noirs.

Oh yes, and do yourself a favour and watch Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) - and you will see, how much inspiration Hollywoods film noir found within the Poetic Realism. And if you liked it, don’t miss Lang’s Scarlett Street.

And if you want to see for yourself whether film noir is exclusively an American phenomenon, watch the already mentioned L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) by Malle (the film’s music, btw, was played by Miles Davis and other icons of Jazz).

Among the neo and postmodern noirs are many movies that purists wouldn’t put under one roof with the classics - and I quite often agree with them. But you should at least take a look at Altman’s The Long Goodbye (which is, imo, not a noir) and Beineix’ La lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter).

And though they are definitely not film noir, you might like Beineix’ Diva (which plays with elements of noir in a very postmodern way) and Betty Blue, a film that is related to the noir genre on an emotional level (though a totally different kind of movie in every other aspect). His IP5: L’île aux pachydermes returns to a more neo noir feeling but it’s not a good movie, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Some critics add Before the Devil knows You’re Dead to the neo noir genre, a debatable point of view, but the already mentioned The Man Who Wasn’t There definitely is not just a neo noir but also a consistent further development of the genre.