Neo-noir (from the Greek neo, which means new; and the French noir, meaning black) is a contemporary dark fiction subgenre with long roots in publishing and film history. It can be found in many different genres, including drama, fantasy, sci-fi and horror. In recent years, we’ve seen it in feature films (Blade Runner 2049, Road to Perdition), TV (Westworld, Better Call Saul) comic books (Southern Bastards, Kill or Be Killed) and novels (Gone Girl, Penny Dreadful). I spoke with Road to Perdition author Max Allan Collins, comic book writer Christa Faust, and crime author Gary Phillips about the ever-popular subgenre.
“Noir is a term that derives from the French Série Noire publications,” said Collins, referring to an imprint based in Paris that released hardboiled detective thrillers. Collins credits American writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane with promulgating the genre.
Noir’s roots can be found in the hard-boiled crime fiction of the pulps — cheaply made magazines that saw record sales during the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II.
In the 1920s and ’30s, when readers could go to the newsstand to pick up a copy of a crime pulp, such as Black Mask, they’d discover private detectives with a penchant for alcohol, trench coats and fedoras. They’d find gangsters with pistols, cold eyes and hot tempers. They’d be immersed in shadowy atmospheres, and they’d meet male characters preoccupied with mysterious, seductive women known as femme fatales. Commonly written in first-person, the stories often highlighted the real-world issues of the prohibition years.
Due to a paper shortage during World War II, publishing costs rose and the pulps failed to make a profit. By the end of the war, many publications were closing their doors.
Meanwhile, however, other mediums flourished — especially film. Books like The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep and Thieves Like Us were adapted to film noir in the mid to late ’40s. Under budget and time constraints, filmmakers used ingenuity to create a style that produced the core elements of film noir. Collins said, “The ’40s black-and-white crime films that most identify as noir had to do with cost-cutting — using dramatic lighting effects to disguise scant sets — but also are heavily influenced by popular crime writers.”
In addition to financial constraints, filmmakers were limited by the Hays Code of 1930. The code restricted or outright banned perverse terminology as well as sexual acts between unmarried, interracial, or same-sex couples. To get around this, filmmakers implied off-screen scenes of violence and sexual content that would’ve otherwise broken the code. This gave rise to the voiceover narrative in a dim, smoky setting, which became iconic characteristics of film noir.
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