Philosophical Film: Trapped by Oneself in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past

The belated genre classification, “film noir,” is a contested one, much more so than “Western” or “musical.”2 However, there is wide agreement that there were many stylistic conventions common to the new treatment of crime dramas prominent in the 1940s: grim urban settings, often very cramped interiors, predominantly night time scenes, and so-called “low key” lighting and unusual camera angles.3 But there were also important thematic elements in common.Two are especially interesting. First, noirs were almost always about crime, usually murder, often cold-blooded, well-thought-out murder. Even more surprisingly, the larger social context for such deeds, the historical American world in which they take place, was itself just as bleak, amoral, and ugly as the individual deeds and the characters themselves. Secondly, and perhaps most distinctively, many films challenged, in sometimes startling ways, many of our most familiar assumptions about psychological explanation. In ways that seemed both mysterious and credible, characters who had been righteous, stable, and paragons of responsibility all their adult lives were seamlessly and quite believably transformed in a few seconds into reckless, dangerous, and even murderous types, all suggesting that anyone, in the right (or wrong) circumstances, was capable of almost anything, and that one’s own sincere avowals of basic principles could be ludicrously self-deceived.4 This last theme—that a virtuous character can be as much a matter of moral luck (of having avoided by mere chance the particular temptation that would reveal the fragility of one’s principles) as an individual accomplishment—is connected with an even larger philosophical issue.
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