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3 The Necessary Fiction of Noir

3 The Necessary Fiction of Noir

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The Idea of Noir: Fiction, Signifier, Genre


for a Scientific Psychology” to “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (and then

as one of Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis), has selfevidently been preserved and functioned for psychoanalysis. Lacan notes

that Freud suggests the drive belongs to “our myths” but adds that he

(Lacan) ignores the term “myth” (for all its Lévi-Straussian connotations)

and instead prefers Freud’s other given term: “Konvention, convention,

which is much closer to what we are talking about and to which I would

apply the Benthamite term, fiction”.64 A fundamental concept or fundamental fiction, the drive—in relation to metapsychology—is, I argue, yet

another algorithme qui sert, which is of use.

In fact, Freud himself recognised the value of fiction when constructing his metapsychology. For instance, in a discussion of repression in

the theoretical section of The Interpretation of Dreams, he noted that

he had “already explored the fiction of a primitive psychical apparatus”.65 Furthermore, in their discussion of metapsychology, Laplanche

and Pontalis also describe the “conceptual models” of psychoanalysis in

terms of, for example, “the fiction of a psychical apparatus divided up

into agencies”.66 Freud’s metapsychology, we could say, thus constituted

a set of models, tools and devices employed better to understand the

human psyche. Moreover, in another example of the intersection of psychoanalysis with the Theory of Fictions, we could note that both Bentham

and Ogden align the language of psychological investigation with the

discourse of fictions: the former stated that “[f ]aculties, powers of the

mind, dispositions: all these are unreal; all these are but so many fictitious

entities”, and the latter noted that “[Bentham’s] chief contention, that

every sort of psychological description is fictional … relegated the ‘faculties’, which dominated both the associationist and nineteenth century

schools, to the position of mere heuristic conveniences”.67 Bentham, like

Freud, realised that a specialised, abstract language must be employed in

the discourse on psychology.

It is at this point, therefore, that I can suggest a new approach to

the understanding of noir. Epistemologically speaking, the most interesting (and most difficult) points in Freud’s work are his most speculative: the twists and turns, false steps and revisions of his late work,

such as “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and “Analysis, Terminable and

Interminable”. It is here, I argue, that Freud most clearly recognised the


Out of the Past

necessity of such fictions in order to proceed, in order to further the

theoretical understanding and thus practical development of psychoanalysis. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, he framed his work as speculation, “an attempt to follow out an idea consistently, out of curiosity to

see where it will lead”.68 It in fact leads to what is, I would contend,

one of the most startling and compelling pieces of the Freudian oeuvre

and to the concept of the death drive, which came to characterise—via

Lacan—the very character of the drive as such. In “Analysis, Terminable

and Interminable”, Freud was even more emphatic: when faced with the

(ultimately unanswerable) question regarding the “taming” of the drives,

he had no choice but to appeal to “the Witch Metapsychology. Without

metapsychological speculation and theorizing—I had almost said ‘phantasying’—we shall not get another step forward”.69 Freud’s abiding principle in his theoretical endeavours was then the one set out in the Papers

on Metapsychology: “[a] gain in meaning is a perfectly justifiable ground

for going beyond the limits of direct experience”.70 The metapsychology,

I suggest, provided Freud with heuristic principles: a set of useful, even

necessary fictions that took his understanding further, deeper and into

new territory.

This leads to a question: Is the concept of “film noir” such a fiction, a

(critical) construction brought about in order to take further the understanding of “a certain type of crime film”? Iser notes that “fiction becomes

a contrivance enabling discourse to open up realities”.71 As I explored in

Chap. 2, the intervention of a signifier qua point de capiton (in the form

of the fiction, “noir”) enabled an entire critical discourse. Film noir as

a category is crucial to the functioning of film criticism and filmmaking (as I will discuss below) and yet, in a very real sense, it did not exist.

Despite the claims of a critic such as Biesen for a consistent, American

discourse on “noir” contemporaneous to the films themselves, “film noir”

did not exist—literally—as a signifier in the Anglo-American tradition

until thirty years after it was said to have appeared as a phenomenon.72

And the revisionist works of critics such as Vernet and Elsaesser have

shown any common understanding of the concept to be fraught with

difficulty. In this way, beyond existing simply ex post facto, film noir, I

suggest, could be considered to exist in absentiā factī: it “does not exist”

and yet has a very palpable effect on the reality of the cinema. In fact, this


The Idea of Noir: Fiction, Signifier, Genre


is Miran Bozovic’s very definition of a “fiction”, as an entity that has an

effect on reality “despite its inexistence”.73

Bould compounds this sense of fictitious noir when he suggests that

film noir is neither an objectively existing entity nor an ideal to which

particular films more or less conform. He notes—in harmony with

Naremore (and indeed with my conclusions in Chap. 2)—that “film noir

is an intersubjective discursive phenomenon: a fabrication”. However,

referencing Dudley Andrew’s Mists of Regret, Bould concludes that

“[a] fabrication … is by no means a fiction”.74 Of course, fiction here

is meant in a pejorative, non-Benthamite manner: as somehow valueless. Andrew’s remark is made apropos of the original French films noirs,

Poetic Realism, and further exploration of his own commentary, I argue,

shows that Andrew is, in fact, working with fictitious discourse: like the

American noir, Poetic Realism was—he suggests—“in effect a fabrication

of the critical establishment, and it remains so today”. It was, however,

an incredibly useful fabrication that provided a label “to help sort out

the increasing number of films that displayed at least a common ambition”.75 This fabrication is therefore indeed a (Benthamite) fiction, one

that opens out critical possibilities and deepens understanding.

I insist therefore that noir must be retained, like Freud’s metapsychology, as an heuristic device—un algorithme qui sert—that enables both the

practice of film criticism and, in turn, the practice of filmmaking and that

has established for itself a prominent place within the cultural imagination. This, as I noted above, returns the formulation of film noir set forth

in this book to one of its starting points: the work of Naremore, who—

having recognised noir as a discursive construct—concludes in his introduction that noir “nevertheless has heuristic value, mobilizing specific

themes that are worth further consideration”.76 Here, I find Naremore

almost echoing Freud’s own desire to pursue “speculative phantasying” in

order to take a step forward, to take up the fiction—with full knowledge

of its fictitious state—and use it to better understand the realm of Film

Studies. Noir is then, I suggest, like Freud’s Konvention of the drive, a

necessary fiction, which is indeed subject to critique, deconstruction, even

dissolution and yet must be retained. Indeed, in this light, the “as if ”

process of definition that I outlined in Chap. 5 can now be understood

as a fictitious construction.


Out of the Past

Moreover, I propose that Freud’s “speculative phantasying” recalls an

observation in the Panorama on Borde and Chaumeton’s analysis of Gilda.

In a translator’s note, Paul Hammond explains Borde and Chaumeton’s

(mis)description of Gilda’s long evening gloves (as “a pair of black stockings”) as a “délire d’interprétation”: in psychiatry, this is a “delusion of

reference”, the paranoid inference of specific meaning where there is

none, or more loosely a delirium of interpretation or, I would even risk,

an outreading or unreading (dé-lire after Roland Barthes’s déjouer) of

the film.77 Indeed, the fetishistic overtones of a stocking fantasy or even

“stocking frenzy” (délire) are, I suggest, very much in keeping with the

surrealist tendencies of Borde and Chaumeton and their peers: an erotics

signalled by Marcel Duhamel’s recollection, in the Panorama’s preface,

of the ecstasy of cinema-going in the age of noir. As Naremore explains,

methods such as serial viewing and Louis Aragon’s “synthetic criticism”

emphasised the libidinal implications of shots or scenes and served as a

“springboard for … poetic imagination”.78 And so I must ask the question: Is Hammond’s commentary necessarily any less true of the rest of the

work? What Borde and Chaumeton produced in their analysis was a certain delirium or “fantasy of noir”: finding meaning where there was none

and thereby constructing the very fiction that enabled their endeavour

and engendered their category.

However, my formulation here leaves the classic films of the 1940s and

1950s in a rather nebulous position (particularly in relation to the original French criticism). Seen retrospectively as noir without being noir—

which is to say, understood as “noir” in France and yet almost wholly

innocent of this appellation in America—they figure as a sort of void,

even a proton-pseudos at the very heart of critical discourse. I suggest that

this term “noir” could be understood as a “primordial lie”: like the Falcon

statue, although this time a cinematic rather than filmic MacGuffin, setting the wheels of discourse in motion. In this way, just as Althusser

claimed that he published works in order to conceal the fact that he did

not exist, so too, I contend, could the seemingly endless stream of works

on noir (to which my project, of course, contributes) be understood as

an attempt to conceal this proton-pseudos, this “first lie” of film criticism, so crucial is it to the coherence of Film Studies as a discipline. In

fact, Bentham suggested that when fictions are thus regarded as realities,


The Idea of Noir: Fiction, Signifier, Genre


“many an empty name is considered as the representative of a correspondent reality”, and in the following, final sections I will explore the way

in such an empty name—or an “empty signifier”—as “noir” came to be

regarded as a reality in Hollywood through the critical generification of

the concept—as an “empty name” or master signifier—and the concomitant emergence of neo-noir as a filmmaking practice.79


Neo-noir, Genre and the Master Signifier

Any understanding of the classic noir, of the very idea of noir itself is

intimately bound up with both the films and filmmakers of the period

associated with the appearance of “neo-noir” in Hollywood. As my overview of critical literature in Chap. 2 has shown, the Anglo-American idea

of noir emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the same moment

in which films such as Point Blank (1967), The Long Goodbye (1973),

Chinatown (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976) signalled a renewed interest, in

Hollywood, in the filmic possibilities of noir. A term attributed to Todd

Erickson, neo-noir—as the name suggests—constitutes a renewal of noir

that is aware of its heritage while moving with distinct motivations.80

Erickson contends that,

[c]ontemporary film noir is a new genre of film … The term for this new

body of films should be “neo-noir”, because these films still are noir films;

yet a new type of noir film, one which effectively incorporates and projects

the narrative and stylistic conventions of its progenitor onto a contemporary cinematic canvas.81

This confluence of both the filmic and cinematic possibilities of noir, in

particular in the 1970s, will form the necessary, final stage in my investigation of the idea of noir.

An in-depth exploration of noir in this period would be beyond the

scope of this book, but broadly following Richard Martin’s model in Mean

Streets and Raging Bulls, I will organise the stages in the development

of post-noir movements here by decade: from 1960s revival, to 1970s

revisionism, 1980s pastiche, 1990s irony, and (to supplement Martin)


Out of the Past

2000s hyper-stylisation or re-mediation. Indeed, in each case, there is an

instance of the “return with difference” under the signifier of noir that I

first identified in relation to substitution/repetition in Chap. 2: noir was

resuscitated almost immediately following its “demise” in 1958, when

the idea of noir once again flourished in France with the Nouvelle Vague.

Instigated in large part by Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), the

critic-filmmakers associated with Cahiers du cinéma in particular were

fascinated by the tropes of classic films noirs, reworking them in films

such as Franỗois Truffauts Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) and Jean-Pierre

Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967). Parallel to this, in America noir subsisted

on television during the 1960s in series such as The Fugitive and Dragnet.

And by the end of the decade the hard-boiled crime story had returned

to Hollywood with Harper (1966) and Point Blank.

It was, however, not until the 1970s—when the Franco-American cultural dialectic turned once again and the influence of the Nouvelle Vague

began to be felt in Hollywood—that the idea of noir was (re)established

in the USA. Anticipated first by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967),

the Hollywood New Wave filmmakers—e.g., Martin Scorsese, Robert

Altman, and Penn—incorporated the experimentation of Godard and

Melville with a more critical regard for their own heritage (a history of

Hollywood drawn largely from formal training at film school or in television) to produce films such as The Long Goodbye and Taxi Driver that

once again rethought the possibilities of noir. And here, I suggest, film

noir begins to resemble Benjamin’s Angel of History, with its face “turned

toward the past” and yet “irresistibly [propelled] into the future to which

[its] back is turned”.82 Neo-noir, I propose, is a case of Hollywood turning to its own past in order both to repeat and transform what is found

there and thus to carry it forward. It is, as Martin notes, “informed by a

growing awareness (in industrial, critical and academic circles at least) of

the concept of ‘film noir’”, and to that extent we could say that neo-noir

amounts to a cycle of films about film noir.83

By the 1980s, this awareness had become increasingly comfortable,

and the overarching tendency of the period was towards pastiche, in the

Jamesonian sense, as “a neutral practice of … mimicry, without any of

parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse”.84 Critical

interest was sustained in the idea of noir at the end of the 1970s and into

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3 The Necessary Fiction of Noir

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