Color Noir

There has been enough scholarship challenging the idee fixe of film noir* that another challenge to the way it has been constituted as a genre and object of study may be beside the point. Still, I wonder what to make of color noir, and how it challenges generic, even stylistic, definitions of noir that film scholars use and that cinephiles circulate. I'm not referring to neo-noir that has been popular since the 1970s, but, rather, features Hollywood made in the 1950s in color (and usually CinemaScope) that corresponded generically to key narrative tropes of noir. For ages, I'd considered Henry Hathaway's Niagara the only true color noir, but that judgment reflected the impoverishment of my film historical knowledge. I'm starting to suspect that the practice was more widespread than I'd initially thought. At the very least, Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo provides a nice example, with all the iconography we expect from noir, particularly in the final shootout:

A few questions I have:
  • What stylistic accommodation did makers allow in shooting noir generic material in color? How did they distinguish these productions from more high-key (metaphorically speaking) material?

  • Was Fox the locus of these productions, or did other studios get into the act?

  • How did studios understand the generic development of these films?

At the very least, these questions provide me a reminder of how much I need to expand my own historical knowledge of the 1950s cinema. And, too, I suspect that there remain plenty of assumptions within the field about how a period that everyone thinks they already know actually was more complex than we sometimes allow.

* Marc Vernet's essay "Film Noir on the Edge of Doom" is a good start.


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