Appeal

Given its doom-laden world, film noir offers the voyeuristic pleasure of watching transgression play itself out. Audiences saw morally compromised people doing immoral things; stories involved the forbidden, the sin ful. The films pushed the boundaries of contemporary censorship: their ads promised the titillations of easy women, violent men, and doomed enterprises—cheap thrills with dire consequences. In soliciting viewers' identification with doomed people, the films court masochistic pleasure.

A cliché about classical Hollywood films is that they required happy endings. Film noir challenges this generalization. Many films noirs develop virtually no expectation of happy endings; to the contrary, they quickly establish a foreboding of disaster. Characters in many films describe themselves as walking dead men. Part of the appeal of film noir lies in the expectation that things will turn out very badly.

Often, the retrospective, voice-over narrative structure of many such films removes the traditional pleasure—found particularly in mysteries—of wondering how the plot will turn out. The narrator often reveals the outcome at the beginning. The narrator of Double Indemnity, for example, confesses as the film begins that he committed murder for money and a woman and then tells us that he didn't get the money and he didn't get the woman. For the rest of the film, then, the audience knows that his plans will fail. The central character in D.O.A. (1950) announces at the beginning of the film that he has been murdered by poison and has only hours to live. The audience does not have to wonder what will happen to him; they already know. What, then, is the appeal?

Much of noirs appeal is voyeuristic—the pleasure of watching the specifics of how it all came to this. Tabloid journalism provides a useful narrative analogue. A headline may announce ''Man murders lover and her husband for insurance money: Gets nothing.'' The reader knows the outcome from the beginning but reads on to savor the crime's gory details. Virtually all films noirs from the 1940s and 1950s were set in the present. Characters looked and generally behaved like people that audience members might see when they left the theater. Noirs dealt with the kinds of tragedies, scandals, and duplicities that bordered on their audience's everyday experiences and that appeared regularly in tabloids.

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