Roger Ebert Lists the 10 Essential Characteristics of Noir Films

A Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion list of Roger Ebert’s 141 “Great Movies” includes only two films noirThe Third Man and The Killing—yet the late great crit­ic had quite a lot to say about the genre. In an inter­view with radio show To the Best of Our Knowl­edge, for exam­ple, Ebert described noir films as teach­ing their char­ac­ters a les­son: “that they’re weak­er than they thought they were and they’re capa­ble of evil that they didn’t think they could com­mit.” His deeply philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion will draw you into the nihilis­tic abyss at the heart of noir. And yet many of his reviews of such films com­ment as much on sur­faces as depths. For all their psy­cho­log­i­cal bru­tal­i­ty, noir films were noth­ing if not styl­ish.

Ebert’s enthu­si­as­tic review of 2005 neo-noir Sin City, for exam­ple, calls it a movie “not about nar­ra­tive but about style… a com­ic book brought to life and pumped with steroids.” Ten years ear­li­er, he wrote on the noir explo­sion of the mid-90s: “Not since its hey­day (rough­ly from 1940 to 1955) has film noir been more pop­u­lar than it is right now.” Ebert’s exam­ples are such hyper-styl­ized films as Pulp Fic­tion, Exot­i­ca, Sev­en, and even Bat­man For­ev­er, all of which ges­ture toward clas­si­cal noir loca­tions and cos­tum­ing fetish­es. And in our post yes­ter­day on 25 time­less noir films, we quot­ed from anoth­er 1995 Ebert piece. This time he writes on clas­sic noir char­ac­ter­is­tics, and brings togeth­er much of his think­ing on the grim themes and louche styl­is­tic man­ner­isms of the genre. Below, we have Ebert’s ten essen­tial com­ments, slight­ly abridged, on what “Film noir is…”

1. A French term mean­ing “black film,” or film of the night.
2. A movie which at no time mis­leads you into think­ing there is going to be a hap­py end­ing.
3. Loca­tions that reek of the night, of shad­ows, of alleys, of the back doors of fan­cy places, of apart­ment build­ings with a high turnover rate, of taxi dri­vers and bar­tenders who have seen it all.
4. Cig­a­rettes. Every­body in film noir is always smok­ing, as if to say, “On top of every­thing else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today.”
5. Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice ver­sa.
6. For women: low neck­lines, flop­py hats, mas­cara, lip­stick, dress­ing rooms, boudoirs… high heels, red dress­es, elbow length gloves, mix­ing drinks […]
7. For men: fedo­ras, suits and ties, shab­by res­i­den­tial hotels with a neon sign blink­ing through the win­dow, buy­ing your­self a drink out of the office bot­tle, cars with run­ning boards, all-night din­ers […]
8. Movies either shot in black and white, or feel­ing like they were.
9. Rela­tion­ships in which love is only the final flop card in the pok­er game of death.
10. The most Amer­i­can film genre, because no soci­ety could have cre­at­ed a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betray­al, unless it were essen­tial­ly naive and opti­mistic.

Be sure to see Ebert’s full piece here. Ebert loved all things noir, includ­ing com­ic book films like Sin City and Bat­man Begins. One of his favorite neo-noirs was Leav­ing Las Vegas (per­haps in part due to his own acknowl­edged alco­holism). But as he avers in his radio inter­view and in book The Great Movies, per­haps his favorite clas­sic noir film was Detour, “a movie so filled with imper­fec­tions that it would not earn the direc­tor a pass­ing grade in film school.” All the same, he writes, the film “lives on, haunt­ing and creepy, an embod­i­ment of the guilty soul of film noir.” Watch Edgar G. Ulmer’s “ham-hand­ed” yet unfor­get­table 1945 Detour above and learn more about the film in this pre­vi­ous post from Col­in Mar­shall.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

25 Noir Films That Will Stand the Test of Time: A List by “Noir­chael­o­gist” Eddie Muller

The Third Man: Film Noir Clas­sic on YouTube

Roger Ebert Talks Mov­ing­ly About Los­ing and Re-Find­ing His Voice (TED 2011)

The Two Roger Eberts: Emphat­ic Crit­ic on TV; Inci­sive Review­er in Print

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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