No one trusts anybody

Film noir gets its payback at the Oak Street Cinema

Niels Strandskov

With all due respect to the western, the costume drama, the comedy and the musical, film noir may very well be the most important genre in the history of film.

The original film noir directors of the late 1930s and 1940s had to work within the rigid boundaries of the Hayes Code, which forbade explicit sexual situations, the triumph of evil over good and other ambiguities judged harmful to the morals of the U.S. moviegoer.

Perhaps because of these restrictions, film noir developed ingenious methods of describing American nightmares without riling the censors. By introducing this level of subtlety to Hollywood movies, film noir paved the way for later directors to combine the concerns and aesthetics of art- house films with big budgets and high production values in the 1970s.

Despite its significance, film noir can be somewhat tricky to define. French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier coined the term in the 1940s to describe a number of Hollywood films that seemed different from the usual product. Broadly, the genre consists of crime, thriller and detective pictures that feature high-contrast lighting, a femme fatale, an anti-hero and a cynical outlook on life.

The Oak Street Cinema continues the project of defining film noir this month with an extraordinarily wide-ranging and complete survey of the genre.

Included are indisputable classics like 1944’s “Double Indemnity” and 1946’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” as well as neo-noir from the Coen brothers – 1984’s “Blood Simple” and 1990’s “Miller’s Crossing” – and David Lynch’s 1986 magnum opus “Blue Velvet.”

Students and aficionados of film owe it to themselves to become familiar with film noir. Without these groundbreaking films, there would not have been room for directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino to make their highly stylized gangster films. Nor would there have been a space for considering social issues and individual alienation in American film and television.

Film noir has penetrated your consciousness, whether you realize it or not. The Oak Street Cinema’s retrospective presents a unique opportunity to realize and deconstruct the real, cool killer inside you.