Physics Noir

Last week, while I was indisposed with the ‘flu and faced with the imminent danger of having to watch daytime TV, I suddenly remembered that I had bought a boxed set of classic Film Noir on DVD and had only watched one or two of the films. I took the opportunity to watch the whole lot, and very enjoyable it was too. I’ve always been a big fan of this type of film, starting with the glorious Maltese Falcon (which has featured in a previous post of mine) and the classic Double Indemnity. There are probably hundreds of films belonging to this genre and, if the selection I watched last week is anything to go by then they are decidedly variable in quality. Among them, though, was one I had never seen before – Out of the Past – which I think is a masterpiece, containing all the quintessential elements of film noir and many unique features of its own.

It’s difficult to define exactly what turns a film noir, but there are some common characteristics. First the male lead protagonist is far from the dashing romantic character portrayed in mainstream Hollywood fare. Often a troubled and dysfunctional character, cynical and hard-bitten, distrustful and alienated, the classic noir anti-hero is often a private investigator or in any case a loner who lives in a moral vacuum. To counterpoint this, the female lead is usually a femme fatale, glamorous but duplicitous, sexy and dangerous, manipulative and assertive. There are definitely shades of Macbeth in that the female lead is usually a more compelling and impressive personality than the supposed hero. The inversion of stereotypical roles also serves to hold a “dark mirror” up to society, an effect which other elements of these films also strive to achieve.

The plots usually deal with the seedy side of human life: crime, betrayal, jealousy and revenge, much of it sexually motivated. Narrative strategies involve repeated use of flashbacks, first-person voiceovers, dream-like sequences, and unresolved episodes that emphasize the overall lack of moral direction. The photography is dominated by high contrast lights surrounding the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows while odd angles and unbalanced framing produce unstable, disorienting images. The chiaroscuro lighting makes even mundane encounters seem charged with danger or erotic suspense.


This is a still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver so this image suggests that he is already on his way to the underworld.

Noir settings are almost exclusively urban: the resulting iconography consists of images of dark night-time cities with rain-soaked streets reflecting dazzling neon lights that intrude into the picture and fracture the composition. Interiors are almost always cramped and claustrophobic: dingy hotel rooms, night clubs or even the backs of taxi cabs. The dark outside world presses in on the characters and is full of danger. Soundtracks often include jazz in the bebop style from the late 1940s or early 1950s, with its jagged melodic lines and stuttering rythms, emphasizing the psychological instability displayed by the characters and settings.

The protagonists are trapped, perhaps just by mischance, in an alienating lonely world, usually a night-time city, where they are constantly in danger for their lives. The chaotic, random violence of this world gives rise to feelings of persecution and paranoia and a sense that life is absurd, meaningless, without order or purpose, and governed by contingency rather than design.

Much has been written about the origins of Film Noir, but it does seem clear to me that, although it is essentially an American style, it owes many of its roots to European existentialism, a point further reinforced by the fact that many great movie directors of the noir period (including the great Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity) were in fact European emigres.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say really was that during the course of watching all these wonderful films from a bygone age it struck me how much the language and iconography of modern cosmology shares this existentialist heritage. Our new standard cosmological model is full of references to the “dark” sector (dark matter and dark energy) which dominates the energy budget of the Universe, but which not just invisible but also unfathomable. The cosmos is lit by garish starlight from small islands of luminosity embedded in this sea of darkness. Long chains of bright galaxies stretch across space like rows of streetlights whose glare fractures and disturbs the celestial dark. We cling to a precarious existence on a tiny rock that is surrounded by danger. Even the stuff from which our atoms are made is completely overshadowed by alien matter. The universe is oblivious to us and we are irrelevant to it.

But it’s not only the surface imagery of cosmology that resembles that of a noir movie. The exisentialist trend runs deep. Cosmology seems to be abandoning the idea that there is a design behind it all. The idea that there is a single explanatory principle “a theory of everything” that accounts for why our Universe is the way it is and why life is possible within it, is losing ground to the idea that there is a multiverse in which all possible laws of nature are realised; we just live in a place where life happens to be possible. I’m not at all convinced that it is a good route for science to follow, but many cosmologists seem to be accepting this kind of thing as the best we will ever do to explain the Universe.

But if the idea of a world without meaning fills you with existential angst, then don’t worry about it. At least there are plenty of good films to watch.

5 Responses to “Physics Noir”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The multiverse is a copout. It reflects only the presuppositions of contemporary cosmologists *before* they start to do science.

    If you believe there is order in the universe then you will do your best to find it. That is the vocation of scientists. If you don’t believe there is order (and if there is in fact order) then if you find it at all it is by stumbling chance. Moreover you won’t be very motivated to look. The multiverse is an untestable rationalisation *why* scientists should give up and go to the pub. I believe it is a betrayal of what it is to be a scientist.

    Why did science arise in Western culture? This was a culture in which everybody believed that a God existed who created the world and put order in it – moreover, order than we could comprehend, because we were made with things in common with that God (“in his image”). I hesitate to call the West a “Christian society” given its frequently unChristian behaviour – that is because many people did not care about God. But they certainly accepted his existence, and hence that order in nature existed and might be found. In contrast, pagan worldviews (I simply mean that descriptively) believed in no such order. Is it really coincidence that science grew in the former culture and not in the many pagan alternatives?

    The belief in order in nature persisted into secular modernism, but since the 1960s Western culture has moved into post-modernism – no such thing as truth (except that there is no such thing as truth!). The present generation of cosmologists were brought up in that culture. Technically they are as good scientists as their predecessors, but some carry beliefs that are subtly inimical to their vocation. I hope they learn to recognise that.

  2. What a strangely dark and beautiful way to express that.

    I also am bothered by theoretician’s recent propensity to say, well, that’s just the way things are – end of story. They never let anyone else get away with that. šŸ˜‰

    I think it may well be a symptom of reductionism being played out, and people getting bored and tired.

    If we can just make pretty pictures, and make them all fit together right, that’s good enough, right? Never mind the table, or the paper. Or goodness me, the pen!

  3. […] to be known as film noir, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions on this blog; see here for example. Like many noir movies the plot revolves around the destructive relationship between […]

  4. […] low-key visual style to name but two – but I’m not sure I would categorize it as “noir“. On the other hand some classic examples of film noir don’t display many of the […]

  5. […] be known as Film Noir , which I’ve written about on a number of occasions on this blog; see here, for […]

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