Why are film noir movies such an enduring motif?

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Answered by: Christopher, An Expert in the Hollywood Movies - General Category

For a long time, crime stories centered on the genius investigator who, though intelligence, effort and ingenuity, figured out the bad guy and caught him. Starting in the 1920's, radical writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett turned that model on its head. Their heroes were highly flawed, with their own moral crises that were at least as interesting as those of the characters they pursued. It took Hollywood some time to catch on to the appeal of these stories... mostly because they appeared in the throwaway crime magazines of the day, with which no self-respecting studio executive would sully his hands. But someone... a hero lost to the mists of time... did connect with this new literature, and brought it to the attention of the entertainment cognoscenti. Thereafter, a flood of films emerged, staring in the Thirties, reaching their creative and economic crescendo in the Forties, and gradually tapering off in the Fifties. By all reckoning, that should have been that... film noir movies should have gone the way of two reelers and Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. But Hollywood refused to let the genre die. Every decade since the middle of the twentieth century has seen the rebirth of interest in the film noir, and that trend shows no sign of abating going forward. Why? A number of reasons. First, film noir places us in the center of the action. It asks us to imagine ourselves as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or whoever the modern day avatar of those individuals is. But unlike the blandly heroic character, who represents all we hope to be... the film noir detective is flawed. We look at him and see ourselves, which makes for a fascinating starting point. We know what it's like to be down and out... we know what it's like to fail. And, in the end, we can share some degree of his triumph, knowing still that the next day will dawn and we will have to go down those mean streets again. Second, there's the environment. There are no dragons here, no pirate ships, no battlefield, except for the metaphorical ones that make noir storytelling so interesting. These are the streets and buildings we know in our daily lives... perhaps darker, maybe a bit more dingy, probably more dangerous... but they don't ask us to imagine a whole new world. They say, "This could happen to you." Finally, film noir engages all our senses. Even as we try to figure out the next twist of the case, we're overwhelmed by the environment in which our hero travels. It's often night... frequently rainy... always depressing. We are engulfed by the mood of the piece as well as its narrative. Finally, all the tools of the filmmaker's craftsmanship are on display as he or she takes us on a roller coaster ride... not just through the sunshine of the amusement park, but hrough the darkest shadows of our own scary psyches. And that kind of storytelling will never go out of fashion.

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