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  • Carson (Elu/Delu)


Throughout history, human beings have always felt the need to create art as a way of dealing with the political and economic climate of their time - whether it be in the form of paintings, music or literature. The result of this act of self-expression continually proved itself to be one of two things: either an escape from reality, only showing the good aspects of life – love, joy, an overall sense of optimism –, or the worst and most difficult aspects of our lived experiences, and even, of ourselves. From the impressionists to the realists, the romantics to the gothics, and so on. All proved exactly that - and film noir is no different.


Some of the films that will be exhibited by NUCIVO (nucivo_flul). Click on the photos to access the programme of the Noirvember Cycle.


Having first appeared in early 40s Hollywood, under the name of “melodramas”, during a time of great anxiety, pessimism and suspicion – WWII -, it opposed itself to everything cinema was at the time. While American comedies and musicals were very popular, with happy endings and uplifting mood and storylines, film noir showed the darkest sides of life. It portrayed the violent, greedy and criminal perspectives of anti-heroes, which served as metaphors for society’s evils, shown through displays of despair, paranoia, mistrust, fear and loss of innocence, and rarely (if ever) ending happily. The name itself conveys exactly that: coined first by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946, who noticed how dark and downbeat the themes and looks were in American crime and detective films released in France during and after WWII (for example, Murder, My Sweet – 1944 -, and Laura – 1944). This part of cinema was heavily inspired by German Expressionism from the 20s and 30s – which included features such as Metropolis (1927) – and French sounds in films from the 30s; and, although it’s still very heavily debated by both scholars and cinephiles whether film noir is a genre of film or not, according to cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir continues to be an “elusive phenomenon… always out of reach”.

These films were based on American literary works from best-selling pulp novels and crime fiction, written by authors such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, along with others. Its stories were often non-linear and complex, involving flashbacks, witty razor-sharp monologue and/or reflective first-person voice-over narration. They mostly revolved around a cynical and hard-hearted male character, stereotypically a fedora-wearing detective who comes across a beautiful but promiscuous woman, the famous “femme fatale”, that later would use her feminine qualities and sexuality to manipulate him into “taking the fall”, usually after a murder. However, after a betrayal, she too would become ruined, often at the cost of the hero’s life.

This trope, the “femme fatale”, shows us that, even in films made to criticise the most inhumane sides of human nature, perhaps unbeknown or not on purpose, but most definitely ironically, they fail in a very important aspect: their treatment of oppressed groups. In the case of women, they were divided into two categories: the loving, dutiful, submissive and reliable kind, or the mysterious, gorgeous, manipulative and predatory kind – the latter being the “femme fatale”. In almost all cases, the male protagonist had to choose what “path” to take, therefore reducing women to simple plot devices, and almost reinforcing the “madonna-whore” complex theory, in which the people of this group can either be almost saint-like, or, on the other hand, prostitutes, with men always loving the first and desiring the second — though never mixing both. Since women, during the war period, were given more freedom, independence and better job-earning power, they would suffer in these films from the 40s.

Another group treated with prejudice in these films was the queer community. In the case of noir lesbians, these were less evident, since they were paid not as much attention to in the culture of its time. However, when they did appear, they often took the form of the lesbian predator, and sometimes, predators. An example of this is Michael Curtiz's Young Man with a Horn (1950), where neurotic Amy North (Lauren Bacall) abandons her macho boyfriend Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) for another woman. In the case of gay men, their portrayal in these films can be divisive: they were either shown to be directly queer or simply queer-coded, but most times evil and sadistic villains (in M, Peter Lorre plays the tormented child molester and in The Maltese Falcon, he is a mincing criminal; in Joseph H. Lewis's The Big Combo (1955), gangsters Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) are clearly supposed to represent gay lovers, this being done by them working and relaxing with each other, even sleeping together in the same bedroom – they are, however, killed before the end of the movie).

Still, although prejudiced and, at times, flat, these movies remain a very important and influential part of cinema history, having developed iconic cinematic motifs and tropes that still inspire not only film-makers, but also many genres like psychological dramas, neo-noirs and crime thrillers, to this day.

Edited by Inês Cândido


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