There may be debate about the exact definition of Film Noir – whether it’s a style or a genre, or if it’s confined to a specific post-war period – but one thing’s for sure: these films provide a rich source of interpretation and analysis. Some align the chiaroscuro compositions with the influence of German Expression, some compare the heavy atmosphere of brooding fatalism with existential philosophy, with the paranoid threat of the cold war and McCarthyism and uncertainty in the dawn of the nuclear age. The French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema coined the term, comparing Film Noir with the dark crime fiction of "Serie Noir", some going on to make their own interpretations, most famously Jean-Luc Godard in A Bout de Souffle. Robert McKee suggests Film Noir is the modern successor to classical tragedy, high drama made in the image of a crazed and confused, self-destructive modern age.
Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo take the academic route in Noir Anxiety, sometimes dry and unengaging in style but consistently full of fascinating insight. Their interpretation of the "free-floating anxiety" in these films is rooted in Freudian rhetoric as developed by feminist critics like Melanie Klein and Julia Kristeva, treating the films as Freudian "dream-work", a field of interpretative symbols. The anxiety comes from an identity crisis brought about by changing social conditions, the threat to traditional patriarchal power structures in the shifting relationships of race and gender. The Freudian concepts of condensation and displacement inform the motifs and obsessions of noir, unconscious processes disguising repressed fears and desires as they become manifest in conscious experience. Film Noir, they argue, is full of ambivalent mothers: both dangerous femme fatales and effeminate male gangsters.
Most of the book’s format is devoted to an in-depth deconstruction of a specific film per chapter, thereby converting vague ideas into detailed interpretations that are difficult to dispute. You might be doubtful about the prevalence of homosexual desire in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet until you’re presented with pages of examples: Marlowe’s homo-erotic one liners, calling the police captain "darling", their bickering relationship reminiscent of the screwball comedies, his flirtatious behaviour with the heavy Moose Malloy and effeminate criminal Jules Amthor. Even the casting of baby-faced crooner Dick Powell as Marlowe sheds an interesting light on the film’s sexual politics.
In the chapter on Vertigo, the authors interpret Hitchcock’s exploration of obsession as the logical limit of noir: madness. The two aspects of Film Noir that Hitchcock takes to an extreme are style over narrative and the investigative narrative structure. The former obscures the latter and images of women dominate the screen: "the mystery of film noir… is not whodunnit? but what is the power of female sexuality?" It shows us the subjectivity of truth, in that the femme fatale is a man-made construction, literally in the case of Vertigo, in which James Stewart’s character Scottie pressures Kim Novak’s Judy into altering her appearance to resemble a character she had formerly impersonated, who never really existed.
Noir Anxiety also deconstructs more recent films: "neo-noirs" like Chinatown (a fascinating emphasis on the Freudian analysis of jokes in the film), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress and most interestingly, the Wachowski brothers’ Bound. The film is interpreted as "a way out of Noir’s fatalism" in the empowerment of the female characters and their ability to make choices, exploiting their own patriarchal stereotypes to manipulate the male characters around them. The gangsters are easily persuaded to believe the lies of their "molls" because they are only acting as their stereotypical expectations dictate. It’s a persuasive interpretation of a new film, and typical of a book which offers a genuinely original analysis of a much-discussed subject.