A Book Review by Dávid Szőke.

While acknowledging the broadening of the debated canon, this volume, edited by Elyce Rae Helford and Christopher Weedman, focuses on how liminality extends beyond physical spaces, emphasizing the fragmented psychological and social realms onscreen after the war.”

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” muses Philip Marlowe, the hero of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), a primary work in the genre noir fiction and the basis of Howard Hawks’ 1946 film.[1] Noir, on some metaphorical level, is all about dead men and broken hearts. Spanning across films, novels, or short stories, noir works are mostly existential tales about profoundly flawed and morally ambiguous outsiders, whose internal struggles, driven by their inclinations toward deception, murder, and greed serve as the thematic core of storytelling. Indeed, to get a somewhat comprehensive picture about the otherwise ambiguous concept of the noir genre, suggests James Naremore, one must recognize the impact of French existentialism blended with lingering surrealism, since both philosophical undercurrents used cinema to disrupt bourgeoise art and challenge the sanctity of ordinary life.[2] In this view, noir hero is an anti-John Wayne type, physically mature and not particularly attractive, while the noir heroine, the femme fatale, is a modern representation of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, using their sexuality as a powerful weapon to manipulate and instill terror in others.[3] In other words, noir interrogates traditional norms, delves into the complex terrains of our human condition, and reflects our fascination and discomfort with our own mortality.

Liminal Noir in Classical World Cinema

Liminal Noir in Classical World Cinema, edited by Elyce Rae Helford and Christopher Weedman (Edinburgh University Press, 2023) is a collection of academic essays about the way noir, transcending cultural and national boundaries, tends to share some common emotional disposition. As the editors of this volume observe, noir cannot be confined to a specific set of films but rather represents a diverse realm of thought and emotional resonances with its visual storytelling. Liminality in this context refers to a form of “in-betweenness,” capturing the discrepancies between the urban and the rural, the flights across countries and cultures, and the shifts from studio settings to on-location shoots. This idea indicates that noir is a typically post-Depression and postwar genre, delving into the states of alienation and disorientation and extending the boundaries of traditional filmic categories. While acknowledging the potential broadening of the debated canon, the volume primarily focuses on how liminality extends beyond physical spaces, emphasizing the fragmented psychological and social realms after the war.

The chapters of the first part “Exposing Cultural Anxieties” revolve around the generational angst amid social and political upheavals within diverse national landscapes in the aftermath of the Second World War. Alan Woolfolk delves into Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958, see top image), investigating how personal conflicts, national identity, and historical context shaded the new generation’s self-image. Woolfolk highlights how, for the noir generation, war signified a historical transgression where violence and mass destruction were fully normalized. Thus, noir points toward the uncanny presence of the past, fostering an intergenerational divide and underpinning notions of patriotism and ideology following the Polish resistance against the Third Reich and during the postwar Polish nationalist struggles against Communism. The postwar American feminine mystique appears as a central topic in Julie Grossmann’s reassessment of Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (1950). Grossmann contends that noir adeptly captures the delusionary marks of the American dream and the shattered image of the idealized American womanhood by portraying a young aspiring dancer with a polio. For Grossmann, Lupino’s film is realistic in its preference of on-location filming instead of studio settings and by addressing how traditional patriarchal ideas on the perfect female body contribute to the heroine’s internalized feelings of guilt and failure. Noir as a genre rooted in fragmented narrative and structured upon the frames of modernity, provides a much unsettling portrayal of social realities. As Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns tells us in his study on Ignacio Iquino’s Camino Cortado (1955), during its heyday under Franco’s regime, Spanish noir was a perfect representation of the country’s grim historical epoch when social asphyxiation created a sense of entrapment in an oppressive sociopolitical command. Elyce Rae Helford reflects the generic, cultural, and narrative border crossings between Western and noir in John Sturges’ The Walking Hills (1949). Helford highlights that The Walking Hills is an unappreciated pioneer of critically white noir films made in the 1950s, examining the social systems that perpetuate racial inequalities through its Mexican, native American and Black characters.

Liminal Noir‘s inclusion of previously sidelined works of world cinema into the established canon sets this collection apart, along with those that might otherwise not be classified within the traditional setting of the noir genre.”

The focus of chapters in the second part “Reconceptualising National Cinemas” is on how visual storytelling represents notions of state and the malleability of national boundaries.  Discussing Anatole Litvak’s Blues in the Night (1941), Vincent Brook describes how the “Jewish émigré noir” breathed new life into the American cinema of the 1940s, among which Litvak’s film stood out for infusing a generic hybridity into its narrative, while prompting debates on race relations, and the role of Jewish émigré filmmakers during World War II-era Hollywood. Milan Hain locates Vaclav Krška’s Scars of the Past (1958) within the context of the dominant Communist system in late 1950s Czechoslovakia. As Hain explains, the film’s ban upon its release illustrates how Eastern bloc filmmakers were abused by higher authorities in case their products took on darker themes with questions about individualism and shaken morals, aspects deemed ideologically problematic. Christopher Weedman deals with the neglected legacy of Joseph Losey. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the United States due to his alleged association with leftist or communist political beliefs, Losey found greater recognition in Europe for films like The Servant (1963), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), and Mr. Klein (1976), notable for their themes of societal pressures, self-discovery and the intricacies of identity. Here, Weedman revisits Losey’s “lesser” work The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), which film is particularly controversial in today’s lens for its portrayal of the hypersexualized half-British, half-Romani femme fatale, whereby it carries the risk of reinforcing the “Gypsy” stereotypes. Although Weedman does not explicitly deals with the “Gypsy-face” filmic narratives of the 1950s, he nevertheless highlights the Carmen-esque narrative in The Gypsy and the Gentleman, i.e., the dangerous encounter of a sexually charged upper-class man with an alluring yet perilous “Other,” the “Gypsy” woman. The last chapter of this part, Osvaldo Di Paolo Harrison and Nadina Olmedo’s analysis of Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire (1953), a Gothic noir and an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), stress how the film recaptures elements of barbarism during Argentina’s Peronist era and its aftermath. A particularly strong statement of this study is that since film noir challenges the idea of white supremacy, the “monster” as the uncanny and dark “Other” of the sociocultural construct of “whiteness” discomforts viewers by passing over multiple social binaries.

The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958), a liminal noir focusing on the dangerous encounter of a sexually charged upper-class man with an alluring yet perilous “Other,” the “Gypsy” woman.

The volume’s third part “Aesthetics and Antecedents” draws attention to the how the distinctive visual presentation commonly associated with noir cinema might shape the overall experience of films that would otherwise not fall under the noir genre. In the first chapter, Alicia Byrnes considers Agnès Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte (1955) as an unwarranted candidate of being labelled as a noir picture for its response to a postwar modernizing France, and drawing from American modernist fiction, particularly from Faulkner’s The Wild Palms (1939), which altogether inspired Godard’s Breathless (1960). Through the fusion of multiple binaries, the film unveils liminal spaces, capturing the intricate dynamics of postwar modernity, and offering perspectives that dwell within the existential concerns of the beat generation. Matthew Sorrento examines liminality in his study on Richard Brooks’s The Brothers Karamazov (1958) in the film’s claustrophobic interiors, reminiscent of the baroque style of noir in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). This analysis allows for intriguing comparisons with the lavish Soviet film adaptations of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly those by Sergei Bondarchuk, which, through their grand visuals, portrayed the psychological conflicts and challenges faced by individuals in a manner akin to Western storytelling traditions. In the volume’s concluding chapter, David Greven approaches the intertextual relationship of Hitchcock and the noir genre with the American Gothic in his analysis of I Confess (1953). Here, Greven identifies Hitchcock’s visual symbolism and tabooed homoerotic desire as driving forces that potentially unsettle noir’s well-established conventions.

Thus, it can be argued that the works in this volume broaden the scope of noir, particularly by inviting an international perspective on understanding liminality. Liminal Noir‘s inclusion of previously sidelined works of world cinema into the established canon sets this collection apart, along with those that might otherwise not be classified within the traditional setting of the noir genre. Despite the volume’s exhausting coverage of a particularly wide-ranging subject area, the discussed works within it pave the way for renewed and enriching interpretations of noir, marking a significant stride toward more globalized interpretations of this genre.


[1] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (London: Penguin, 2009), p. 46.

[2]  James Naremore, “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea,” Film Quarterly 2 (29) : 18.

[3] Naremore, 19.

Dávid Szőke is a senior lecturer at the Univrsity of Nyíregyháza, Hungary and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Szeged. His area of research revolves around the cultural and literary representations of ethnic, racial, and gender minorities. He previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Heidelberg University in Germany.

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