Iconic image from The Big Combo, directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1955, starring Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace, Richard Conte, and Brian Donlevy.
Iconic image from The Big Combo, directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1955, starring Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace, Richard Conte, and Brian Donlevy.

Film Noir with Prof. Maureen Harkin.

English 261 takes a close look at an iconic film genre.

September 8, 2020

Reed offers some of the most intense and intellectually stimulating undergrad courses of any college in the nation. Since we’ve spent so much time staring at tiny screens recently, we’ve also been thinking about the big screen—and if we could go back to Reed and be a student again, we’d love to take English 261: Film Noir with Prof. Harkin.

From around 1940 to the end of the 1950s a series of black and white films focusing on crime, detection, and the inexorable stranglehold of the past—especially our own past transgressions—on the fragile hopes of the present flourished in American cinema. The genre was dubbed film noir by an appreciative post-war French critical audience, and its titles tell the story: Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil, and Odds Against Tomorrow.

The iconography of these films is immediately recognizable—guns, fedoras, and trench-coats for the male protagonists, tightly tailored dress for the femmes fatales who play such powerful roles in this cinematic world, and cigarettes all round. Everything is characteristically framed in a gritty, urban, night-time milieu. Yet it is really the plot lines and striking ways of telling stories, experimenting with flashback, voice-over, and the (un)reliability of narrators that links these films together more than visual style, and readings for the course focus on how they narrate and how the events of the various plots produce their strikingly consistent tone. Animating classroom discussions is the question of how this aesthetic of bleakness relates to its wartime and post-war moment.

Prof. Maureen Harkin teaches courses on 18th and 19th century literature and visual arts, Irish literature, narrative theory, and film. She is the author of numerous articles on 18th and 19th century narrative and its intellectual backgrounds. She earned her B.A. from the University of Melbourne, and an M.A. in Art History and Ph.D in literature from Johns Hopkins University. She joined Reed’s faculty in 2002.


  • The Killers. 1946. Directed by R. Siodmak
  • Murder My Sweet. 1944. Directed by Edward Dmytryk
  • Double Indemnity. 1944. Directed by Billy Wilder
  • Mildred Pierce. 1945. Directed by Michael Curtiz
  • The Big Sleep. 1946. Directed by Howard Hawks
  • Out of the Past. 1947. Directed by Jacques Tourneur
  • The Lady From Shanghai. 1947. Directed by Orson Welles
  • Gun Crazy. 1950. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
  • Sunset Boulevard. 1950. Directed by Billy Wilder
  • The Big Heat. 1953. Directed by Fritz Lang
  • Kiss Me Deadly. 1955. Directed by Robert Aldrich
  • Odds Against Tomorrow. 1959. Directed by Robert Wise
  • Touch of Evil. 1958. Directed by Orson Welles
  • Chinatown. 1974. Directed by Roman Polanski

Required Reading 

  • Cain, Double Indemnity, Vintage, 1989 (1943)
  • Kaplan, Women in Film Noir 1978/1998
  • Luhr, Film Noir Wiley-Blackwell 2012   
  • Naremore, Film Noir: A Very Short Introduction Oxford 2019 
  • Pramaggiore and Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction 2018 
  • Silver and Ursini, eds., Film Noir Reader, Limelight Editions 1996   
  • Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir U. Illinois P 1989


Tags: Academics, Courses We’d Love To Take