Light Changes to Dark: Film Noir

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
in The Big Sleep

Film noir changed the way films were made, the way films were viewed, and changed the very way we look at ourselves. It changed how we see ourselves in society, in the universe. It changed who we are.

The world changed dramatically in the first half of the twentieth century, and North America especially changed during that time. America became an urban rather than an agrarian culture; two world wars demonstrated how dangerous the world was, and how difficult it was to avoid that danger; the dust bowl and the Great Depression proved how vulnerable we were to the vagaries of nature and a corrupt economic system. The role of women in society changed, and with it the role of the family. All that had seemingly been stable had shifted by the middle of the 1940s.

Film noir examines how we must come to live within this new world order. It makes this new world and all its issues accessible not just to the intelligentsia but also to the regular Joe in the audience. Seen through the eyes of the quintessential existential man—the private detective—the world’s misery, its ennui, the corrupting influence of money and materialism, the dangers of lust, and the seductive attraction of cruelty, become palpable and direct. We see on the silver screen how one man (for it was often a man) comes to grips with a world in which he often does not belong.


Jack Nicholson in Chinatown


This seminar will focus on five masterpieces of film noir, from its early days to more recent times. Each is representative of aspects of the world which existential man must face. Each offers a great viewing experience. At Toronto Pursuits, each film will be screened the afternoon before the discussion of that film. Read more in David’s blog post, The Deliciously Dark World of Film Noir.


Quinlan: Come on, read my future for me.
Tanya: You haven’t got any.
Quinlan: Hmm? What do you mean?
Tanya: Your future’s all used up.

Touch of Evil, written and directed by Orson Welles


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David Schmitt has been involved with Great Books for nearly three decades, and loves to read and re-read great and even very good books. As a wee lad, he ditched school far too many times to stay home and watch movies. He spent many, many evenings at the Music Box, the Parkway, and other theaters in Chicago that had double features every day. He probably should have become a film critic, but had no idea that was even a profession when he was growing up. He still loves movies but is a bit more discriminating.

Double Indemnity,
directed by Billy Wilder, 1944

The Big Sleep,
directed by Howard Hawks, 1946

Touch of Evil,
directed by Orson Welles, 1958

directed by Roman Polanski, 1974

Blood Simple,
directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 1983

All five films are available on and in a variety of streaming and physical formats. Your local library and video store may also carry them.

Some of these films have been made available by different distributors over the years. There is no need to get a particular distributor's product; just be sure you have the right director.

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Toronto Pursuits 2016