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Between the pages, Past
A Mystery Column
By Dennis Collins


We often see and hear the term Noir applied to movies and novels. But do we really know what it means. I remember mystery author Elaine Viets saying “You won’t usually see a cat in a noir novel.”

A few years back I attended a mystery writer’s conference in Florida. One of the discussion threads was “Defining the term, Noir.” Some panel members were screenwriters with decades of history in the movie industry. The official cinematic term is film noir. The designation basically replaced the word melodrama. The French used the term black film or black novel.

According to these experts, in order to be considered noir the story must take place in an urban setting, preferably a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. The action must happen in the city’s underbelly, avoiding the tenderloin or any attractive feature of the area. The characters must be cynical, social misfits, malcontents, rebels, or just plain misanthropic.

The theme must be pessimistic and gloomy. And the film should be shot in black and white in case there is any doubt regarding the overall mood. They are dark stories so don’t look for happy endings in noir films.

Unlike the current Hollywood action films full of spectacular special effects these old movies relied on convincing performances from the actors. I wouldn’t expect to see any noir films at your local theater any time soon.

The golden age of noir had to be the late forties through the fifties. A few of the films that are universally accepted as noir would be Night in the City, The Big Sleep, D.O.A., Gun Crazy, and The Big Heat. Even the titles sound depressing.

The good news is that noir is alive and well in mystery novels. Authors like Loren Estleman and Harlan Coben often rekindle the noir sprit in their stories.

2011 Past Columns