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Film buffs ask: Know your noir?

Debate on definition surges as the hard-boiled genre revives.

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Is it possible to develop a workable definition of a film noir? In general, says Devin Orgeron, associate professor of film studies at North Carolina State University, films noirs "tend to be urban; the plots tend to be convoluted; the distinctions between good and evil are often quite blurry; there is often a duplicitous female character at the center of the narrative; and, of course, [there's] the darkness!"

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For his part, Muller thinks noir movies "are stories in which the audience is asked to empathize with a protagonist who is willfully doing something wrong."

But the definition isn't written in stone. "It's a kind of amorphous category," says James Naremore, professor emeritus of communication and culture at Indiana University. "There are certain films that everybody would agree are films noirs, but if you tried to generate a definition based on those films you'd leave a lot of films out."

The classic "Laura" of 1944, for example, seems to have plenty of film-noir trappings – except a femme fatale. (Although some argue that the dearly departed Laura herself fits the bill.) Other so-called noirs lack overt violence or take place in unusual settings.

The debate over noir is a centerpiece of the Noir City film festival, which regularly includes movies that stretch the definition of the genre. This year's festival included 1949's "Reign of Terror," which Muller describes as "the French Revolution as a noir gangster story," and 1943's "The Hard Way," a hard-to-define melodrama starring Ida Lupino and lots of unnoirish singing.

"I suspect in some ways I'm partially to blame by using the term [noir] to direct a spotlight on lots of old films, not all of them bona fide noir, that might otherwise have been forgotten," festival organizer Muller told a film-noir conference in Baltimore in October.

But he doesn't have regrets. "I've played up the argument [over noir] and have consciously programmed films to ask the audience: What do you think?" Muller says. "The debate is lively, and I think it's terrific. How often do people actually discuss the minutiae of modern popular art in this way?"

In the big picture, Mr. Naremore says, the definition of the genre may be unimportant. "Even if we never had the term 'film noir,'" he says, "we'd still be watching these old movies because they're pretty interesting."

Muller puts it this way: "I love all the movies whether they're noir or not."