You want the dope on noir, call an expert.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln film professor and author of "Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia" (Rutgers University Press), has been interested in noir since he was a kid, watching the films of director Edgar G. Ulmer, whom he calls a patron saint of noir.
"Film noir," French for "dark films," flowered at the end of World War II. They were dark in subject matter, and literally in how they were lit.
"Everything was supposed to return to normal after the war," Dixon said. "But it didn't."
The atomic bomb, first exploded at the end of the war, now meant the world could be wiped out at the touch of a button.
Women, who entered the work force in large numbers during the war, didn't want to give up their jobs. It was the start of feminism, and 1946 saw more divorces than any year before, Dixon said.
Incredible inflation, teen crime, the rise of gangs in big cities — and servicemen scratching for jobs as soda jerks and gas station attendants — led to a sense of fatalism, despair, that there was no even break, that everybody was on the take.
To Dixon, "The Maltese Falcon," a 1941 classic starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, isn't pure noir. "Out of the Past," a 1947 flick in which private eye Robert Mitchum is brought down by Jane Greer, is.
"The essence of noir is that the hero is lured to destruction, but he doesn't give a damn," Dixon said. "True noir can't have a happy ending."
"M," a 1931 Fritz Lang film which Film Streams included in its lineup as a precursor, is not noir, Dixon said. "But Lang was a great noir director. 'Scarlet Street' and 'The Big Heat' are his."
Dixon praised Film Streams' movie choices for the retrospective overall but was disappointed no films by Ulmer were in it.
"He's the god of noir," Dixon said. "He worked for the most damned studio, Producers Releasing Corp. PRC was known in the business as Poverty Row Crap, because all their films had shooting schedules of six days and budgets of $20,000."
He cited 1945's "Detour" as the most noir of all Ulmer's films.
Dixon also took issue with a Film Streams press release that said movie experts debate whether noir is a style or a genre.
"That argument was settled long ago," he said. "It's a genre. It has style, of course. High key lighting, lots of shadows, run-down sets, threadbare costumes, low ceilings, confrontational in-your-face close-ups, off-kilter camera angles. Visual style it has, to burn."
To Dixon, noir was a postwar vision of an America in crisis, a psychic response to the social terrain soldiers discovered when they returned from war.
"There's no better way to depict a cheap, rotten universe than a cheap, rotten film," he said. Noir lighting, invented by director Edward Dmytryk, splashes a single light across the frame because a typical noir film had neither the shooting time nor the budget to light the whole set.
Dixon begins his book on noir film with a quote from Gertrude Stein: "There ain't no answer. There ain't never gonna be an answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."
That, he said, sums up the essence of noir: If you go looking for trouble, you'll find it. And we love to find it at the movies.
Neo-noir resonates today, Dixon said, in a world where you seemingly can't trust anyone, or any institution; where it can seem everyone is out to get you; where there's no safe place, no security or solid ground. He said you can make a case "The Hunger Games" is neo-noir.
"In this post-Madoff era, everything people believe is called into question," he said. "Look at the Wall Street occupiers. Noir says some people have it all, and they're not giving it back. And there are just two kinds of people: winners and patsies."
Yeah, well, one thing's for sure. I'm a patsy for the best of film noir.
Hear World-Herald reviewer Bob Fischbach's summary of what's opening each week at the movies Friday mornings on KQKQ-FM, 98.5, at 8:50 a.m.; and The Big O, 101.9, at 8:35 a.m.