Over the last year or so I've been getting into film noir and reading a couple of books on the subject as well. It's changed my understanding quite significantly. It's always been a genre that I've enjoyed, but previously my understanding of it was primarily centred around adaptations of Chandler-esque novels such as The Big Sleep rather than a more nuanced definition.
Indeed part of the problem seems to be that as a genre it almost defies definition. Some would argue they know it when they see it, but often they disagree. Is, for example, Spiral Staircase part of the canon or not? For those not that familiar with it let me dispel a few myths. Film noir does not have to be black and white, it doesn't have to be made in the 40s on cheap sets, and it doesn't have to be about crime.
The consensus seems to rest much more readily on aspects such as the use of a weak male anti-hero, who is known to us and through whose eyes we view the events unfold. Thus the audience associates with his viewpoint, in fact often he will be the narrator. Typically there is also a female character present, (femme fatale) but she is less known to the audience and the leading man. He cannot figure her out, yet nevertheless he is drawn to her. Thematically questions of guilt, paranoia and identity are paramount.
There's a great definition of the genre in one of the books I'm reading at the moment, Andrew Spicer's "Film Noir".
Noir's highly complex narrative patterning is created by the use of first-person voice-overs, multiple narrators, flashbacks and ellipses which often create ambiguous or inconclusive endings. Noir narratives are frequently oneiric (dream-like), where every object and encounter seems unnaturally charged….The noir universe is dark, malign and unstable where individuals are trapped through fear and paranoia, or overwhelmed by the power of sexual desire. Noir’s principal protagonists consist of the alienated, often psychologically disturbed, male anti-hero and the hard, deceitful femme fatale he encounters. But the range of noir characters is more complex than is usually thought. (p.4)
So one day I found myself pondering on which Bible Films have the most noirish elements and it didn't take me long to land on Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Noir is usually set in the present (although The Spiral Staircase is a much debated exception) which few Bible films are really, but otherwise most of the elements are present. Jesus provides the narration, we get to hear his thoughts but not even he understands why he is drawn to Magdalene, who remains alluring but unknowable throughout the film. Dafoe's Jesus is weak, paranoid, riddled with guilt and unsure of his identity.
It turns out that this is not coincidental. Turning to Spicer's book to find the above quote I'm reminded about the fact that one of the most influential pieces on the understanding of the genre is a 1972 essay called "Notes on Film Noir", written by one Paul Schrader.
Schrader predicts the resurection of interest in the genre, and nudged his prophecy along the way by writing the screenplay for Scorsese's 1976 film noir of sorts Taxi Driver. Spicer takes an in depth look at the film in his first chapter on Neo-noir. Twelve years later Schrader and Scorsese collaborated again, with Schrader penning the script for Last Temptation.
Before everyone thinks I've gone a little bit mad, I should qualify my point. I'm not saying that Last Temptation is a film noir, but certainly a great number of noirish elements are to be found in the film and knowing Schrader's expertise in the genre certainly suggests another lens through which we should view the final production.