Interview Series
Session with Foster Hirsch   September 29th 2006  
  The author of sixteen books on the theatre and film, including 'FILM NOIR: The Dark Side of the Screen' one of the first books on the subject, published in 1981. And 'Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir' in 1999.  




Foster is a professor in the film department of City University of New York's Brooklyn College,  He received a B.A. from Stanford and holds M.F.A, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. In 1967 Hirsch joined the English Department of Brooklyn College and in 1973 the then newly established Film Department  

Writer Don Malcolm led the interview 'live from New York' with Foster Hirsch which was followed by a Q & A session with Blackboard regulars. This was the first Big Chat in 3 years and a wonderful session to kick off a long overdue round of events.


Due to the whining and continued nastiness on the board, tonight’s interview has been CANCELLEDDDD!! ,.... Just kidding.


I know we all are excited to have our special guest here tonight, so on behalf of my Blackboard co-creator Alan Rode and my fellow Blackboarders it is an honor to welcome Professor Hirsch and Don Malcolm to the Big Chat.


Don & Foster, as they say in Dark City “Fire at Will”





Don Malcolm:  The BIG CHAT is about to begin....

Foster Hirsch and I are here in New York and will shortly be posting questions/answers from our interview. Please allow us to complete this phase of the Big Chat before posting any questions for Foster. We hope you find it interesting and entertaining!!



Don Malcolm:  Question #1 for Foster

1. What was the first noir you remember seeing and when?


Foster Hirsch

MURDER MY SWEET, in 1978 at the old Thalia (95th and Broadway), as I was beginning to think about writing about noir.





Don:  Question #2

2. At that time did you recognize it as film noir?



Noir was not in common usage back then, in the critical dark ages, about 1978-9. Often the films we now call noir were called mysteries or thrillers; nobody then used noir with the familiarity of today. Noir was not a marketable term then, and in fact my publisher, A.S. Barnes, was skeptical about taking on the book, thinking it had a very limited appeal because almost nobody had heard of noir.





Don:  Question #3

3. What is the difference in relationship between the sexes in noir as opposed to other film genres?



Sex is more dangerous in noir: a trap for the bourgeois male, something that derails him. Desire of all kinds is usually lethal in noir; there’s little chance of a romance blooming, or a happy ending, especially if one of the partners is a sexpot.





Don:  Question #4

Is there any antecedent for the "femme fatale" in noir from earlier films? If so, how did noir change the relationship between the sexes?



Yes. Wicked women, women who derail heroes, can be traced back to ancient tales: Circe in The Odyssey. In film women as temptresses are there from the beginning: Theda Bara, the vamp, Greta Garbo steering John Gilbert off his courses. In noir, the wicked woman specifically enfolds the errant male in a crime scenario; earlier women, pre-noir, tended to create emotional havoc in the men, but did not lead them into crime scenes.





Don:  Question #5

Which noir elements strike you as being the most significant: ones that revolve around the characters and their flaws, ones that revolve around the visual aspects, or ones that revolve around the narrative strategies? Does a noir film need to embody all of these elements equally or can it succeed by emphasizing only one of these?



I think a true noir would lead at least two of the above: visual idiom, say, and a certain kind of narrative played out by characters we recognizer as noir types. You can have a noir that follows none of the visual insignia common to the style – a noir story can take place entirely in the light of day. The story must be noir to qualify: I think there has to be a crime, not just a “dark” element to qualify a film as noir.





Don:   Question #6

“The inner criminal” is a key thematic principle in energizing the noir story. Which character most embodies the principle for you?



Easy: Walter (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY: one look at Phyllis’s legs, and he is ready to forsake his life of bourgeois order and containment. The seeds of rebellion are obviously within him, they just need a little provocation, and Phyllis supplies it.





Don:  Question #7

Is the “inner criminal” more provocative as narrative technique than what we see in the standard crime/gangster film?



Yes, it’s what makes noir noir. Gangster stories are not noir; they are gangster films. Noir in the classic phase was about middle class characters who go bad. And this type was especially prevalent in the 40s; it’s what gave noir its accent and force, separating it from the crime sagas of the 30s about professional criminals.





Don:  Question #8

What five actors were most instrumental in creating the noir hero?



Humphrey Bogart for the private eye; and Dick Powell also for the private eye; Dana Andrews for the loner with inner wounds; Fred MacMurray for the regular guy ripe for a fall; Richard Widmark for the noir psychopath.





Don:  Question #9

What five actresses were most instrumental in creating the noir “heroine”?




Barbara Stanwyck, a tough cookie in everything

Jane Greer, the quintessential woman of mystery in OUT OF THE PAST

Joan Bennett, cold-hearted to a “t”

Joan Crawford, SUDDEN FEAR, fabulous: the victim who won’t be defeated.





Don:  Question #10

What are the 5 most memorable performances in noir to you?



Edward G. Robinson, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET; Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY; Richard Widmark, NIGHT AND THE CITY; Marie Windsor, THE KILLING.





Don:  Question #11

11. What five noir films deserve far more attention and acclaim than they have gotten thus far?








Don:   Question #12 (final, controversial!!) question for Foster

12.What is the most overrated noir?



THE BIG SLEEP or, as it should be called, THE BIG BORE--or, better yet, THE BIG SNORE!!





Don Malcolm: The floor is open for your questions...

...please feel free to post in the question thread or as a new thread depending on your question for Foster.





Carl:    Guest question ,,


Mr. Hirsch,

Thanks very much for participating in the Blackboard chat. I consider your original 1981 book as something akin to the Old Testament of film noir critical evaluation since nobody was doing it back then. That first book recommends some 120 classic noirs. How did you ever find so many of them back before full-scale VHS and DVD issues, Turner Classic Movies and pre-Internet sources of information?


And having corralled so many films as certified film noirs 25 years ago, do you ever make exciting new discoveries today, what with so many obscure noirs being released on DVD? Or are too many films begin peddled as noir that really aren't noir?



In those days: at the Thalia in New York: invaluable resource; television; the Museum of Modern Art; and the Library of Congress.


Yes, there are new discoveries; this is what makes the study of noir so exciting: the thought or hope that out there is a terrific classic no one has seen in fifty years. Highway Dragnet is an example, an unknown film for decades that seems to be coming back into consciousness. And yes, far too many films are being released as noir; noir is obviously felt to be commercial by the studios, but saturating the market with inferior noirs or films that don't really quality is not good for noir!


Thank you for your generous words about my book.





OX:   Question for Mr. Hirsch

The subject is character Vera in "Detour". Many Blackboarders regard her character as a Femme Fatale. I refer to her as merely a "Psycho B**ch."


What's your take on this role?



Most viewers do call Vera a femme fatale: she is after all a fatal woman, driving the protagonist to doom. But since he is not attracted to her -- she has no sexual hold over him -- this does open the question that you raise. It is ambiguous. I haven't seen the film in a while -- it is not one of my favorites: very overrated -- and I would have to see it again to give a more definite response.




Abby:  Question

I love "FILM NOIR: The Dark Side of the Screen" but I wonder if any examples of noirs have come to light since it was written that merit a new, revised edition? Any chapters you'd like to add?



Certainly there are many films that have come to light since I published the book, but no, I don't think I would want to add new chapters. I did try to bring the subject up to date by writing a book on neo-noir, DETOURS AND LOST HIGHWAYS.





Chris Bennett:    Guilt and Desperation question for Mr. Hirsch

What role does guilt have in Noir and how does it relate to the increasing desperation of characters as they move towards their fate?



Good question! Guilt is essential to noir, it's what separates its adjacent genre, the gangster film, the serial killer film, the slasher film. Guilt is what makes noir characters figures of identification for the audience; in my understanding, noir is about middle class characters slipping into crime and discovering their "inner criminal", which is linked to their sense of guilt.





Dan in the MW:    Film Restoration

What noir films would you most like to see fully restored using the best available technologies? In answering, feel free to include movies that are not necessarily lost film titles, but those available in inferior prints.


Are you aware of any restoration projects that are underway?



You know about the good work of the Film Noir Foundation, setting the model for activist concern. I would like to see pristine restorations of THE THIRD VOICE, THE STEEL TRAP, JEOPARDY, BEWARE, MY LOVELY.





Dark Marc:  Semi-Documentary Style

Hi Foster

Thanks so much for coming to the Blackboard. We talked about this for quite some time and it took Don and yourself to this pull together.


In Palm Springs back in June we discussed Louis De Rochemont and his pictures House on 92nd Street, Boomerang, Walk East on Beacon. We both agreed that these films are not noir and that it was the beginning of the end for the Classic period. Have you had any thoughts on how much film noir was an influence on this producer and if his work branched off noir, if you will?   Or should we be looking at his films as just something else all together?



I think De Rochemont is anti-noir; he was influenced by Italian neo-realism and postwar documentary, both of which in my mind have nothing to do with noir. I think his films helped to end the kind of noir that I am interested in: stylized studio noir, not realistic stories of detection and crime-fighting: that's not our genre.





Don Malcolm:  SLEEP apnea...

C'mon folks, isn't anyone out there going to take issue with Foster's assessment of THE BIG SLEEP???





Carl: Mr. Hirsch, a question about noir acceptance and study on today's campuses.

As an academian, I'm curious about how colleges and universities undertake noir as a serious form of film study. Here's why I ask: I recently did a critical comparison on the Blackboard of Joseph Losey's 1951 version of M compare to the Fritz Lang 1931 original. In my preparation, I found reams of astute analysis and critical dissection on Lang's version, which I saw in college way back in 1973, but almost none for Losey's compelling remake.


How are these so solidly American period films viewed looked at? Are they art? Are they sociology? Are they post-war documents of American history? Are they all of the above, and if so, is film noir an important area of study for today's college students, and since these films were once merely viewed as cinematic extrapolations of pulp fiction, is it a tough sell in the university environment?


Sorry, a lot of questions, but perhaps you could summarize how noir is being treated on campus these days.



Noir is taken very seriously on college campuses; the films are part of the canon, the best of them regarded as the finest examples of American filmmaking. Noir needs no one's protection. It is an extremely popular course, one with its own expanding critical literature and many fine films to choose among.





Don Malcolm:

Apologies for technical difficulties and request for final questions...






Chris Bennett:    The Hero's Journey

Amazing book, by the way. It's my noir "bible".

I'm curious if you have noticed any similarities in narrative or plot structure between noir and older forms of storytelling such as Joseph Campbell's 'Hero's Journey'? Was there a 14th century Chandler?



Carl:   I have to ask about ``Kiss Me Deadly" ...

A few of us here view Kiss Me Deadly -- OK, maybe just me -- as the ultimate noir, the epitome of emotional and societal corruption, desperation, detachment and hopelessness, and more than just a little seedy and tacky on top of all that. What are your thoughts about KMD, and can it possibly be compared to it to a classically stylistic noir like Out Of The Past, Double Indemnity or Criss Cross?


Ken Z:    Favorites

Thanks for participating - it's an honor to have you here.

Just wondering if you'd care to list some more of your favorites: not necessarily the genre's most important films - I'm thinking more of the half dozen or so that have a place in your heart.


For instance, I think "Ride the Pink Horse" is a terrrific film - it's no "Out of the Past," but I really enjoy watching it.



Return to The BIG CHAT Home Page  
                 Sponsored by: