Behind the Cigarette Smoke. Hidden Truth and Transmediality in Noir and Neo-noir Creations

Master's Thesis, 2019

100 Pages, Grade: 5


Table of Contents


CHAPTER ONE: Truth, Transmediality, and Noir genre

CHAPTER TWO: Out of the 40’s

CHAPTER THREE: A journey into madness

CHAPTER FOUR: A simple crime

CHAPTER FIVE: Would you kindly light my cigarette?




Fiction is powerful. It is an infinite playground for the human imagination. To create fiction is equal to becoming a god; moreover forming a fictional world is an art of description. The real world is also based on descriptions; certain word describes a certain object. A chair is a chair because it is described as such. These settled definitions help to comprehend, understand and define the surrounding, material phenomenon people call reality. The core of understandable matter has to remain stable in order for humans not to go insane. It is the essence of truth. The truth simply is, and denying it undermines common sense. Philosophers have eagerly tackled the very idea of basic truth, and often came up with elaborate explanations that the truth actually does not exist. The credit for this goes mostly to postmodernist philosophers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Lyotard. Then it is important to acknowledge that without basic truth there would be nothing to question; this primal equation that two plus two is four, a model true statement, is a starting point for any further debates. Back in ancient times, Aristotle presented the most elementary definition of the truth: “An affirmative simple belief, or assertion, is true when and only when the object it concerns is true; an affirmative simple belief, or assertion, is false when and only when the object it concerns is false” (Crivelli 9). Holding on to the simple definition of truth is crucial in my opinion, although it always proves to be illusive. Let us take for example the crime fiction; the detective is after the truth. Whodunnit? There was a murder, and it is a fact, but no one knows the whole truth. People love to be deceived but only if they know the truth exists, somewhere out there, under the deep mud, dirt, thick fog, clotted blood, or behind the wall of heavy rain or blurred cigarette smoke. The genre that developed truth hiding near to the perfection seems to be noir and later neo-noir. Various devices, and borrowing from other genres by the handful, are used by noir creators to complicate the simple answer. What significantly expands their possibilities in that field is transmediality – an access to various media; not just the written word but also visuals, sound and the most recent ability to immerse an audience through videogames.

In my dissertation I want to look at the truth as an abductee kidnapped by the noir genre. I am a rookie detective, an undercover agent sent into the dark limbo that is noir. I found a couple of suspects, members of the noir mob, that I want to closely analyze in order to find out what techniques are used by the shady genre to hide its hostages. My infiltration serves as a means to draw a map of how this suspicious genre works. Whether the truth will be found or I will be corrupted and join the noir mafia is yet to be discovered.

Truth to be told, plenty of literary genres and not only (for example post-truth constructs) are based on blurring fundamental statements like “white is white and black is black”. All of these creations can be compared to different crime organizations like the Italian mafia and the Japanese Yakuza. Gothic, crime fiction, psychological fiction and noir are such complex structures building on and, therefore, hiding fundamental, simple truths. I chose noir fiction because its main focus seems to be to deceive and drive an audience toward unfamiliar territories. It appears as one of the most dangerous truth-hiding mafias in the fiction factory.

The first chapter of my dissertation is an introduction to the subject; I will look broadly into the theories of truth – broadly, because it is a subject worthy of whole another work. Further, I will proceed to explain transmediality. Finally, I am going to discuss what the noir genre is, where its roots are and what elements of other genres it consists of.

The second chapter will concern the first suspect: a movie by Jacques Tourneur from 1947 called Out of The Past. It is a transparent representative of the noir genre, a model example of a classic formula, an old date mob boss, as far as the noir mafia goes. This motion picture made in the golden era of noir films, the times of Humphrey Bogart and Rita

Hayworth, provides most familiar, yet at the same time mysterious, tropes. In the world of hardboiled detectives and dangerous femmes fatales, nothing is what it seems to be. In his text from 2004, the American critic Roger Ebert writes about Tourneur’s classic: “Most crime movies begin in the present and move forward, but film noir coils back into the past. The noir hero is doomed before the story begins -- by fate, rotten luck, or his own flawed character” (1). This quote serves as an introduction, already showing some of the genre’s characteristics. I am going to analyze different scenes from the movie and discuss what techniques are used by creators to hide the truth from the audience; already one of them proves to be a vast use of retrospections.

To complete the previous research I will be closing each chapter with a subchapter concerning another noir work of art which will not only add some new information to the big picture, but also provide a closure for each part of my work. The first subchapter will involve a noir pulp fiction, and a pulp magazine published in September 1946 called Dime Mystery Magazine, volume 33, number 4. The popular pulp magazines included illustrated mystery stories, and were fairly cheap, so anyone could afford them. They are a valuable contribution to the development of the noir genre. Also, referring to the old detective stories, I will discuss how modern Batman comic books are deeply inspired by the noir tradition, and how noir works in another medium – a graphic novel.

The third chapter of my work will deal with the second suspect: a book by James Ellroy, published in 1987, The Black Dahlia. The jump in time from the 1940’s to the 1980’s is significant because it will reveal how the genre had grown in four decades. Moreover the medium is also different; so the aspect of transmediality is present. Ellroy, famous American writer of crime fiction, created a complex story set in Los Angeles, in the 1940’s, the times when the noir genre emerged. I will consider how multiple literary techniques help the author hide the truth behind many false layers. The traditional detective mystery is expanded here into dark journey towards insanity and deviations, a text which explores not so glamorous side of the city of angels.

The second subchapter will complete the third main chapter with an insight into the film adaptation of another Ellroy novel: L.A Confidential from 1997, directed by Curtis Hanson, and David Fincher’s movie Seven from 1995.

Moving forward in time, the fourth chapter will revolve around the 2001 motion picture created by the Coen Brothers, called The Man Who Wasn’t There. By this point I will already have some elements of the noir puzzle figured out on my pin board in a metaphorical detective bureau. With this chapter I will be focusing on how the genre has evolved into neo- noir, and where that leaves the truth.

Then, in the third subchapter I will take a step back, to compare the new with the not so old. The subject of this part will be yet another neo-noir movie from 1987 called Black Rain, directed by Ridley Scott, starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia.

The fifth and the final chapter will conclude my research with most modern media of all, that is video games. I am going to analyze the game from 2013 called Bioshock: Infinite Burial at Sea. What this analysis will reveal, and how this media conceals the truth, is a mystery for now.

To wrap up my investigation, in the last subchapter I will refer to the neo-noir creation of modern times: a video game, re-released in 2017, that can be played in Virtual Reality, called L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files.

Conclusion will provide an overall look at the big picture of the noir mafia. I would like to compare the investigation provided in my dissertation to the case of the Zodiac serial killer, presented in a disturbing, detailed manner in David Fincher’s movie from 2007, Zodiac. This picture can also be enlisted to the noir genre. It is a journey into a rabbit hole.

Just like Zodiac's crimes, the noir genre's malevolent practices will be brought to the light, in order to discover whether there is anything left but bleak shadows, or maybe the shadows will tum out to be more real and true than what casts them.

CHAPTER ONE: Truth, Transmediality, and Noir genre


“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” – Emily Dickinson

The foregoing quote from Dickinson’s poem, number 1263, summarizes the point of view I want to pursue in this work. The nineteenth century American poet suggested that the truth can be too much to handle. Nevertheless the truth exists, and it is so “bright” that it can “dazzle” and blind the person who is facing it. What I am interested in is what “slant” means metaphorically and what forms of communication stand behind it, and whether telling the truth in such a way changes, diminishes or uplifts its value.

Most prominent philosophers of ancient times wondered about the nature of truth. As I have already noted in the introduction, one of them was Aristotle who defined truth in the simplest of terms. In Metaphysics he wrote that “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that is not, is true”. This theory fits perfectly to the established law’s point of view, a search for the facts, as they are. For example there was an event, and it is true that it happened. A man died; another man stabbed him through the hearth with a knife, that is also true because humans cognitively share certain descriptions of material things – an event happened, that is the ultimate truth, but it is described with words in order to gain actual, physical shape for humans. It definitely is not the whole truth, as an inquisitive detective would say, but it is the simplest truth there is – a factual event that is physical and also described.

Moving fast forward in time, over two thousand years later, the twentieth century was home to postmodern philosophers, who took the old theories, shattered them, then put them back together, and built something new on such foundations. As Graham McFee admits “(Lyotard thinks) we should deny any single discourse the right to judge others on its terms: all discourses are equal” (84). Every point of view started to be equally valuable in postmodernism, and truth, when it was not rejected totally [like in Nietzsche’s theory of truth, in which the philosopher “vacillates between the denial of truth and its affirmation” (Lanier 185)] became relative. The next quote focuses on Lyotard’s thought: “With no ‘metanarratives’, no overarching explanatory frameworks, the model of knowledge based on the (supposed) qualities of scientific knowledge is undermined by the postmodernist tendency to claim science as just another ‘narrative’—just one description among many, with no further claim to authority” (McFee 85). Yet even behind all the postmodern ways of looking at world, the “fundamental” truth has always been there, behind nihilism, skepticism and perspectivism. Graham McFee quotes Richard Rorty in Education, Knowledge and Truth: Beyond the Postmodern Impasse: “only descriptions of the world can be true or false’ (Rorty 1989:5). Then, ‘it is difficult to think of the world as deciding between…’ alternative descriptions of events, once these are seen as whole ways of describing” (McFee 85). This quotation confirms that not only are descriptions true, but also adds that such assumption raises a ton of doubts, for example: If one description is right, then why should all the others be wrong? It seems that for a description to be right it has to be attached to a factual, physical event perceived as such by the onlooker, and that synthesis would be a definition of the truth.

As traditionally viewed, science describes the world around us reductively, treating colours as optical effects, sensations and emotions as brain-states, etc. So are there really red postboxes, blue cars, toothaches, depressions and loves? These seem contingent features of our contemporary account of the world, with natural science offering a preferable alternative—a view of how the world is, abstracted from any particular historical or cultural position: the View from Nowhere. (McFee 85)

Such reductionism might just be the bare truth—only facts. The synecdoche is showing the big picture; the small fragment or event reflects the surrounding mess and explains it. Now the question appears – is that the truth people have always been looking for? It seems to be the most obvious answer, similar to the one proposed by Aristotle, suggesting that truth is relational (Correspondence Theory of Truth), but not necessarily to reality. There is a word, for example “tree”, and it is associated with a physical object, anything, because it is just a name; let’s assume that a car is called a tree but with an extra “e” and “u” after “t”. Then if a person would saw two crashed objects called in English “cars”, that person would say: “Oh, there was ‘tureee’ accident” and that is a true statement. Postmodernists were against such simple explanations, and showed the elusive side of truth, questioning whether it can be even called truth. Every depicted world, or narrative presents its own events, which are true in that world (on the same correspondence rules); therefore they are true. Postmodern philosophers applied broader perspective, expanding the very idea of truth, and through that they showed its complexity, therefore often hiding the reductional core, the bare truth. Postmodernism provided many interesting theories, tools for future creators to depict complex stories, where truth is as questionable as in the twentieth century philosophical, skeptical way of thinking. This complexity can be often observed in noir fiction.

Other thinkers like C.J.F Williams try to figure out the nature of truth through logic. In the final pages of his book What is Truth? the author agrees with the Correspondence Theory, but also decomposes it into prime factors. Williams writes that “there is nothing wrong with the Correspondence Theory if it limits itself to pointing out that ‘What Percy says is true’ means the same as ‘What Percy says corresponds to the facts’. So much is evident to anyone who knows how to speak English” (96). He rather concentrates on the notion of correspondence, that is dissecting the sentence with the help of quantification, identity, truth- functions and sentential variables (Williams 96). Nevertheless, the elaborate analysis comes down to the confirmation of the Theory of Correspondence with the statement that: “The apparatus does not include anything explicitly relational, but the analogies which exist between the sentences we are enabled by its means to construct and sentences which can properly be called relational are sufficient to make talk of a relation of correspondence understandable and natural. There is nothing more to be done” (Williams 96).

Then there is the theme that directly touches the subject of this dissertation: the truth in fiction. Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen point out in Truth, Fiction and Literature that “For the important question regarding literature and truth is not whether any connections at all can be found between the two but whether there is anything integral to works of imaginative literature which makes the expression, embodiment, revelation, etc. of truths indispensable to their value, aesthetic or otherwise” (5). This citation presents, in short, the aim of the authors of this book, concerning truth in literature; that is finding out how the literature can be true therefore valuable for people in the real world – providing a satisfactory account of the mimetic aspect of a literary work (321). Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen look upon the literature and fiction from the perspective that views the real world as superior toward any fictional, in the basic sense of value. In their book, the authors claim that if there were an equals sign between reality and art, art would no longer be art. Looking for truth in noir fiction I intend to take each fictional world (created in movie, book, game etc.) as a separate construct with its own truths, that is leaving aside the mimetic aspect, although not neglecting it.

For example, a described, physical event in the story is true in that story, but it has nothing to do with reality, on the basic level, taking aside the fact that everything is relative, and could be a metaphor if examined more closely. Respectively a described, physical event in the real world has nothing to do with some fictional world, because these are two, separate narratives, even if they are referential in the way of how they are constructed, or what elements they consist of. Each fictional world has its own set of rules. In most cases we transcribe rules from the real world to the fictional one – for example, in a classic detective story set on Earth in recent times, if a man’s heart stops he is thought to be dead. Only if the creator chooses to introduce new rules to his fictional world does the perception change. If the author chooses that people in fictional world use the brain as a heart, destroying the heart would not kill a man. Before evaluating the truth it is crucial to determine the rules by each world is governed, and at the same time apply the Correspondence Theory of Truth (description and a factual event) to the particular world – the fictional world has to be looked and evaluated from the diegetic point of view. At this point we know what we are looking for as far as the truth goes – A big, complex structure that is truth, with a foundation in a Theory provided by Aristotle but also with equally important further levels, which are various, usually postmodern theories, like the one proposed in perspectivism, coined by Nietzsche, that suggests everybody look at truth from a different perspective, changing its value.

The older and postmodern theories of truth, if combined, acknowledge both the truth of factual, physical events, and the truth of complex human emotions, and perspectives. Then, as to fictional worlds, mimesis is important because it shows the similarities between worlds, and how are they related to each other, but diegesis seems to be more important as it focuses only on the particular world, not putting the real world above any other. In the modern world of simulations and simulacra, where, as Baudrillard holds, reality is no more (19), there is only hyperreality, it seems to be right thing to do to bring our “reality” to the same semantic level as any other narrative. Michael Riffaterre focuses on “redefining referentiality” (13), and maintains in his work Fictional Truth that, “diegetic implementation of narrative models, […] is achieved through the complementarity of the narrative and of the descriptive, a mutual dependency that can roughly be expressed by saying that the syntax is narrative and its lexicon, descriptive” (Riffaterre 13). Thus the general truth people tend to find in fiction lies in the means of storytelling understandable to every human. The grammar used to describe reality and fiction is the same, and the “fiction relies on codes, that is, on arbitrary conventions that can be identified independently of the narrative” (Riffaterre 15). Riffaterre stresses that it is verisimilitude that emphasizes the fact of story’s fictionality and at the same time states that the story is true (15). Thanks to it we as the readers can understand the story. To do it we have senses and only thing that makes our world real is the cognitive aspect we use to learn the world around us. Without the smell, touch, hear, eyesight, the only thing left would be an unreadable narrative – not unreal one, just the one that cannot be understood by humans. Jan-Noel Thon writes in Transmedial Narratology and Contemporary Media Culture that “Marie-Laure Ryan understands fictional worlds not as semiotic objects but as ‘constructs of the mind’ (Possible Worlds 19), emphasizing what she describes as ‘fictional recentering’: ‘once we become immersed in a fiction, the characters become real for us, and the world they live in momentarily takes place of the actual world’ (Possible Worlds 21)” (Thon). This quote shows that narratives can overlap each other. Moreover Ryan proposes that receivers use all their knowledge of reality to read the narratives, and to fill the gaps in them, in order to make such world make-believe (Thon). The representation of the narrative is what noir creators use to confound the receiver. The syntax serves as a dirty window into the fictional world. The lexicon is never fully known. To think of it, the same goes for the reality – people tend to think that everything on Earth is discovered, and they know everything, but one man can never accomplish that. A single man is just another character in the narrative of reality. Thus in my dissertation I intend to analyze each fictional world presented in each media on equal terms as reality.


“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story”—Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture

The above quote, from acclaimed American media scholar Henry Jenkins, provides the essence of transmediality. However it suggests that the process should be deliberate. I want to look at the whole genre (noir) through the prism of transmediality. The changing, evolving media enable the creators of the noir genre to use multiple devices to construct their art. Each noir work of art – movie, book, game – adds to the overall experience of the genre; helps to dive deeper into the dark world. Moreover, it not only shows how each noir creation is different, but also how it includes well-worn elements, refreshing them in the creation process. Each medium has different tools to present the story, and hide the truth. In the books it is the literary aspect. A movie has also visuals and sound. Games introduce the interactive value. All media immerse the audience on a different level, yet they play in the same team, so to speak; they are all members of the noir, truth-hiding mafia. Gabriele Rippi explains and shares critics point of view on transmediality:

The term “transmediality” literally means “across media” and is used to refer to textual elements such as plots and characters that appear in a variety of different media. Some critics argue that contents such as characters and/or story-worlds are not dependent on a particular medium but, on the contrary, can be put into narrative form in different media. (Rippi)

In the case of the genre, specifically noir, characters, reappearing in a different media are stock characters like hard-boiled detective or femme fatale. Further Rippi gives examples of transmediality in the modern reality:

Transmedial examples include Disney films that have led to the creation of entire franchises comprising comic books, musicals, collectable figurines, physical and digital games as well as theme parks, or the The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern-day multi-platform adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which began as a web series before it also came to include a book and Tweets on Twitter. (Rippi)

The noir genre is much more subtle in spreading its influences on different media. To be immersed, in this case, the audience has to be somewhat interested in the subject – it is not modern day Disney, which basically shoves its product down the consumers’ throats. The recipient has to become a detective to discover by himself/herself the clues, left in a different media, which together create and expand the noir genre. Transmediality provides unlimited methods of hiding the truth.

Coming back to the example of Disney, provided by Rippi, the entertainment mogul is a master of illusion, by means of transmediality. Disneyland is the best example. As Baudrillard writes in Simulations and Simulacra, the famous theme park exists only to hide the fact that the whole of America is Disneyland (19). The characters of Disney movies and their storylines are used to keep visitors of the park unaware of the fact that “an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter” (Baudrillard 21). A theme park is the perfect product of transmediality – a physically real place, full of made up entities interacting with guests through various media. Putting aside the Baudrillard’s claim that a theme park is basically smoke and mirrors for the infantile crowds existing in a hyperreality, the very concept of theme park, which uses multiple media to immerse its visitors physically in what they think is made up, is an interesting phenomenon.

This idea was explored broadly in Westworld, first a movie with Yul Brynner from 1973, then in a TV series by HBO structured like puzzle, which first aired in 2016. The story presented there shows that such simulations are difficult to tame and control, with the example of western theme park with human-like androids. When fiction is too real it consumes the current reality and takes it place. The HBO show adds the polemics on the nature of human existence, introducing androids, and with them asking again the famous question: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (Philip K. Dick). Whether they do or do not is not the point here. The point is that they are just another media used to tell the story. There is a character of a script writer in the Westworld TV series, who creates narrations and later has to confront his characters face to face. As this happens, he and his characters are brought to the same narratological, semantic level. Their worlds collide and melt into one. The wall of fiction between them disappears. For a human to be stripped of the protective reality shield, a physical shock or trauma is required – for example the bloody rebellion of angry cowboy-androids fighting for their rights. Otherwise we view the fictional worlds as separate from ours even if we interact with their visible elements, like in Disneyland.

Transmediality shows how this order is being torn down with the latest technological marvels, like the virtual reality goggles. It is harder and harder to place border between real and fictional. For now however, before comes the time when the nightmarish creations of a horror writer would come to haunt him in real life, or Fredo Corleone’s body would be washed out on the shore of real lake Tahoe, or a bullet fired by the gang member in the videogame, Grand Theft Auto would pop out of the screen and kill the player; for now let’s keep each world separate, with its own timeline and reality.

The important aspect of transmediality is intertextuality. As is stated in Teorie Literatury XX wieku the term coined by Michail Bachtin, was given new meaning by Julia Kristeva in 1968 (334). According to her, each new text absorbs all the texts that had been created before (334). The same applies to transmediality, the usage of different media. Every other media learns from the previous, evolves thanks to its predecessors, and also combines all their characteristics (the book is a written fiction, the movie has a written script, a visuals and sound, the game has it all, but also gives control to the receiver).

The world is moving forward and it would be interesting to see a noir theme park/virtual reality immersing its visitors on a scale never seen before, maybe with some new media. Telling the almost ideal noir story would be then possible thanks to transmediality. Supposedly in the future, the year 2418, the fiction is getting out of hand and it is required by the law that every human took part in a fictional narrative once a year; the compulsory theme park. Moreover this action has real life consequences so the narrative is not so fictional anymore. A hypothetical John once did not obey the law and the coercive apparatus forces him to wear virtual reality goggles that let him wander around the reality but in a fictional narrative. John enters a shady building downtown, through a dark alley in the back, it is raining. He slowly climbs onto third floor and walks into the private detective bureau. A virtual hologram of Humphrey Bogart gives him a cigarette and tells him in a harsh voice that John has to get close to the very dangerous, and beautiful woman, who is suspected of murdering young men. The task is difficult, John can die. John does not smoke but he will after this, and also John’s real life wife will not enjoy his new job. The creator of such fictional realities, and there always has to be one, would probably become a god, and of course the revolution against such god or gods would come next, because two worlds cannot exist in the same space, on the same narratological level. Jan-Noel Thon ends his work with the mention of transmedial universes like the one of Star Wars, The Walking Dead and Batman, and underlines that there are specific attributes to each media, which are yet to be discovered, that make one thing work on certain platform and fail on another: “why a film adaptation such as Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Doom struggles to captivate what makes Doom 3 a compelling first-person shooter” (Thon 86). The issue seems to be that while the story is conveyed from one media to another its form has to change, storytelling has to be fluent and adaptable in order to work properly. That is the point of transmediality. It enables people to tell the same story in a new way, enriching the overall experience.


“We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your two hundred dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you’d been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right” – Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) The Maltese Falcon 1941

The above quote from probably one of the most famous noir motion pictures The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, presents what treatment the truth gets in the genre, in general. The approach to it can be easily called “criminal”. The private detective played by Humphrey Bogart acknowledges its existence but also diminishes its value, by accepting that it has an actual price: two hundred dollars. There is the definition of film noir at the very beginning of The Hollywood Noir Filmland: Mysteries and Murders by Dina Di Mambro:

Film noir – translated from French as “black film” – is a genre that encompasses the elements of highly charged sexuality, cynical male characters, femme fatales, and moral ambiguity. Or as author Charles Pappas described it, “the language of losers…always about the same things: sex, violence, and money.” Swirling cigarette smoke; high balls on ice; murky rain-soaked nights; ill-fated plots between gangsters and grifters; and hard-boiled detectives and duplicitous gorgeous women with agenda were all readily evident in The Maltese Falcon (1941)…etc. (Di Mambro 1).

The “ambiguity” is the key word in describing the noir genre. Further, the author of this definition states how noir was a contrast to the “happy-go-lucky musicals and screwball comedies” which dominated the screen in the pre-war era (Di Mambro 1). After World War II, everyone was consumed by the overwhelming pessimism and disillusion. There where no more easy truths, easy answers, and the cinema reflected it. Ambivalent screenplays like the one for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and the way they were filmed, corresponds to the era of anxiety and fear. Therefore, the metaphorical layer of smoke laid on truths is thick in these creations.

Another entry that describes hard-boiled fiction comes from the anthology of American crime stories Hard-Boiled: “it deals with disorder, disaffection and dissatisfaction” (3). That implies that the very aim of noir is to hide the truth or to question its existence, therefore leave the receiver dissatisfied and lost. This is the staring point of the noir story. Adding to the mixture the typical noir characters and crime, completes the picture so popular through 1940’s in American cinema. Referring to the Maltese Falcon, William Park sums up what the genre is about: “What makes Sam Spade and his offspring different is not just the down and out milieu of the dark city, the femme fatale and the double cross, but the fact that the hard-boiled protagonist becomes enmeshed in treachery and falsehood of the other characters, most often through his sexual involvement with a female client or a prime suspect” (21). Further the author claims that “noir” cannot be defined in a simple terms (Park 22). Critics cannot achieve a consensus on what are characteristics of noir, which apply to all of noir creations. This genre seems to be a hybrid, but the one so distinctive everybody recognizes it. What marks each of these works of art is a sense of anxiety, ambivalence, and surrounding corruption. There is always a tormented, lost protagonist, man or woman, who has to face the unfamiliar reality. It does not have to be detective or femme fatale. Park provides a list of characters in classic movies that proves that point (24); among them are housewife, doctor, mechanic, secretary, tycoon, priest, etc. Therefore noir is not defined by stock characters, but rather by how they hold up while being affected by feeling of constant uncertainty, lack of hope, and danger.

The corruption and uncertain reality often reflected by the dark tone, black and white visuals, are main characteristic of noir genre, which served as the bases for its development. In time it became neo-noir, a genre that is more than its predecessor but also that praises its original core. In the book Film Noir I kino braci Coen Kamila Żyto cites Paul Schrader. To him noir is to be known by tones not by actual elements (Żyto 27). He also cannot reach a consensus for the final definition of noir – the very uncertainty of how to explain it marks this genre. Thanks to the fact how broad range has noir, it evolved in plenty various ways.

The neo-noir genre consist of creations influenced by many other genres, which build on noir bases: futuristic science fiction (Blade Runner, 1982, dir. Ridley Scott and Blade Runner 2049, 2017, dir. Dennis Villeneuve), police drama (L.A Confidential, 1997, dir. Curtis Hanson), psychological thriller (Lost Highway, 1997, dir. David Lynch), Pynchonian social anxiety fiction (Inherent Vice, 2014, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) to name a few. The crossing of genres can even lead to the emerging of “weird noir” (Laity 5). K.A Laity writes in the introduction to the anthology of weird noir stories that such adjective implies “thugs who sprout claws and fangs, gangsters with tentacles, and the occasional succubus siren: The ambience is pure noir but the characters aren’t just your average molls and mugs” (Laity 6). The great example of neo-noir, transmedial storytelling is the case of Wolf Among Us. First there was a comic book series Fables created by Bill Willingham; the story is as follows: the famous characters form fables like Snow White, Beast, Prince Charming, Briar Rose, Doctor Swineheart etc., are exiled from their lands and are forced to live in New York City. Their community is dark and dense, with real human problems, use of drugs, and murder mysteries. Later, in 2013 came out the game by Telltale studio, based on the comic books, entitled Wolf Among Us, in which the player controls the Big Bad Wolf, who is depicted as hard-boiled detective. This game’s trick is that “the story is tailored by how you play” (Telltale game studio). The player chooses the lines that Wolf named Bigby will say, and the consequences change according to each choice. Nevertheless the overall tone of the game and the comics is visibly noir – there are a lot of shadows, dark colors, and gritty dialogs. The presence of fable characters adds both “neo” and “weird” to the noir in this case.

The movie director John Dahl, one of my favorites, created movies which consist of defining noir tones and live up to the prefix “neo”, without reaching for the supernatural. Coming back to the origins of the genre, the term “noir” was introduced by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 (Monaco 32). Further, “in Frank’s original definition of film noir, he referred exclusively to what he identified as a new psychology in the minds of the characters who committed crimes in noir films…” (Monaco 33). The visibility of the psychological aspect lies in the fundaments of the genre; using it, noir creators focus on the tensions between conflicted characters, and the conflicts inside their minds. We, the audience, see the pain in their tired eyes, read it in the descriptions of their appearance. Monaco also cites the man who introduced the term “neo-noir” – Todd Erickson (40). Erickson said that the genre shows “dark side of American lives and dreams” (40). To present the “dark side”, a psychological insight is required. The characters in neo-noir always have to struggle with their demons. John Dahl provides a perfect example of neo-noir in his 1993 movie Red Rock West. It is recorded in John Dahl and Neo-Noir: Examining Auteurism and Genre, that

the production designer for Red Rock West, Rob Pearson, observed, “the essence of Red Rock West is a strong, gritty reality. The reality is slightly emphasized, and the dark palette of colors combined with the choice of props created an eerie, hard little town…. I wanted to present a town that makes the viewer as ill at ease as it does Michael, Nicholas Cage’s character.” (Monaco 79,80)

The visuals of a shady, ugly town fit the disturbing atmosphere of noir. The movie is shot in color and yet the toned down intensity with the contrast to red sky at moments, serves its role as well as black and white visuals of the classics. Moreover the main character played by Nicholas Cage is a troubled looser/wanderer who looks for a job in Red Rock – it is a model noir character but at the same time more modern one. There is a femme fatale played by actress known from Twin Peaks TV series Lara Flynn Boyles, and a psychopathic killer (a figure deeply loved and developed by neo-noir) played in a truly insane manner by Dennis Hopper. Another character developed in a modern fashion is the angry husband played by J.T Walsh, who is seemingly unnecessary, but turns out to be crucial to the story. The movie feeds on the rising of tensions as the characters clash, interact and their agendas are brought to light. The truth is somehow muddled into this mix, disguised, hidden behind the wall of suppressed emotions. These are the perfect ingredients of the noir soup, or most efficient capos of the noir mafia, if you prefer.

CHAPTER TWO: Out of the 40’s

“I never told you I was anything but what I am. You just wanted to imagine I was. That's why I left you” – Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) to Jeff (Robert Mitchum) Out of the Past 1947

The investigation begins, and the first suspect is located in a dark alley, in the back of dream factory, among shady bars and dives, under the banners of 1940’s American noir fiction. The target is the movie from 1947, directed by Jacques Tourneur, entitled Out of the Past. At the first glance the truth in the story is invisible because of the clouds of smoke, coming out of the multiple cigarettes smoked by almost every character of the film, especially the protagonist, detective Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum). It is impossible to grasp the truth, from the back seat in noir fiction. The investigator has to take the wheel, as undercover officer of the narcotics department has to take drugs in order to blend into the inner circle of addicts and find their supplier. The audience receives a window to another world, which is strange and deceptive. There is the metaphorical wall, a glass between our world and the movie world. The noir creators, however, have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to immerse the spectator without destroying the wall; therefore the worlds do not collide and a viewer seems to be save and sound in a cozy chair, in front of a screen, while still being played with.

The noir welcomes the audience with its unfamiliar grey colors. Although movies in color existed at the time, classic noir’s most recognizable feature was black and white format. The term noir was first of all ascribed to cinema, “by French critics to a number of American films that, over a six-week period, made their way to France at the end of World War II” (Keaney 2). Jacques Tourneur, a French director, signed a contract with MGM Studios, and later created Out of the Past among other noir pictures (Cat People 1942 or I Walked with a Zombie 1943), which were marked by exceptional sense of fear, and can be assigned to the gothic noir genre. Andrew Spicer writes in his Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, that

“Tourneur’s style is suggestive and understated, drawn to complex, ambiguous stories that reflect the protagonists’ own doubts about their motivations, and even their identities” (Spicer 304). This description of Tourneur’s style proves that he is an excellent example of noir filmmaker. Further in the preface to the Film Noir Guide, the author states that the element which interested French audience the most, at that time, was crime, but not cold-blooded, 1930’s, gangster cinema kind of crime (Keaney 3). The characters in noir were much more human, down-to-earth and, therefore, relatable to and yet, at the same time they were criminals: “Watching these film noir characters was like secretly watching neighbors or friends indulging in illegal and immoral behavior. What could be more exciting and provocative than that?” (Keaney 3).

The individual that Out of the Past lets the audience peek at is Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum). Mitchum often played simple men with inherent charm and striking charisma; the author of Film Noir Guide underlines that, “when casting directors needed someone who could play a handsome but gullible sucker for a dame, did they always check first to see if Bob Mitchum was available?” (Keaney 19). The character of Jeff Markham is a focalizer in the majority of the movie, and at most times the audience accompanies him throughout the story. However, before he appears on the screen, the viewer is thrown into the middle of nowhere, exactly 349 miles from Los Angeles.

The movie opens with a magnificent landscape accompanied by elevated film music. The views are gorgeous, yet as they change the viewer can get the vibe that he/she has been taken into the wilderness, far away from civilization. Later the music tones down, the camera shows crossroads in plain fields and then the sleepy town called Bridgeport. Noir grapples audiences with a hook in the form of the unknown, hidden truth, and to lure them further into the story it feeds people with scraps of information.


Excerpt out of 100 pages


Behind the Cigarette Smoke. Hidden Truth and Transmediality in Noir and Neo-noir Creations
University of Gdansk  (English and American Studies)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Die Note 5 in Polen entspricht der deutschen 1,0 oder 1,3.
Noir, Neo-noir, transmediality, Bioshock, Out of the Past, The Coen Brothers, Batman, The Black Dahlia, Truth
Quote paper
Mikołaj Marks (Author), 2019, Behind the Cigarette Smoke. Hidden Truth and Transmediality in Noir and Neo-noir Creations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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