Film Noir

The Development of Post-war Literary and Cinematic Noir

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

The years immediately following the end of World War Two marked the start of a crucial phase in the creation, definition and popularising of both literary and cinematic noir. There were several concurrent developments: the Hollywood production of a growing number of pessimistic, downbeat crime films, the post-war release in Europe of a large backlog of American films, the publication in France of a new series of crime novels and the appearance in America of a new kind of book, the paperback original. Films released in America just before the end of the war, such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (both 1944), were taken as evidence, when they appeared in France, that ‘the Americans are making dark films too’.

In 1945, under the editorship of Marcel Duhamel, Gallimard started publishing its translations of British and American crime novels in the the Série Noire. In 1946, echoing the Gallimard label, the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote the two earliest essays to identify a departure in film-making, the American ‘film noir’. Although they were not thought of in the United States as films noirs (the French label did not become widely known there until the 1970s), numerous post-war Hollywood movies seemed to confirm the French judgement that a new type of American film had emerged, very different from the usual studio product and capable of conveying an impression of ‘certain disagreeable realities that do in truth exist’.

The Hollywood releases of 1945 included Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce and three films noirs directed by Fritz Lang – Ministry of FearScarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. In 1946 David Goodis published the first of his crime novels, Dark Passage, and Delmar Daves began filming it; in the spring and summer months of 1946 alone, Hollywood released Blue Dahlia (George Marshall), Dark Corner (Henry Hathaway), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett), Gilda(Charles Vidor), The Killers (Robert Siodmak) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks). In the same year Gallimard brought out French translations of two of Horace McCoy’s novels, the first American novels to be included in the Série Noire.

The Iconic Figures of Film Noir

The figure of the hard-boiled detective is often taken to be one of the defining features of film noir, particularly as exemplified by Humphrey Bogart, whose performances as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and as Marlowe in The Big Sleep established him as the iconic private eye. Revisions of the detective story were, however, only one element in the phenomenon, and Bogart’s place as ‘a key iconographic figure in all of film noir’ was secured by the fact that he was cast, as well, in a range of non-investigative films noirs, such as High Sierra (1941), Dark Passage (1946) and In a Lonely Place (1950). Bogart’s roles in them suggest the different forms noir took as it developed during forties. In addition to the weary integrity of the private eye, there was the pathos of the ageing gangster (Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle in High Sierra), the desperation of the ‘wrong man’ (the escaped convict wrongly accused of his wife’s murder in Dark Passage) and the violence of the suspected psychopath (the self-destructive writer in In a Lonely Place).

In creating this range of films noirs, Hollywood drew on the work both of earlier writers (especially, of course, Hammett and Chandler) and of the late forties-early fifties novelists who were writing crime fiction that very often had no role for the private eye. Amongst those whose work was adapted during this period were W.R. Burnett, David Goodis, Dorothy B. Hughes, William Lindsay Gresham, Horace McCoy and William P. McGivern, all of whom produced novels that had as their protagonists violent, self-deceived men, criminals, crooked cops, killers, psychotics.

One of the most important influences on noir characterisation was the work of Cornell Woolrich, whose novels embodied in an extreme form the noir sense of helplessness and paranoia. Between 1942 and 1949, there were eleven Woolrich novels or stories made into films, the protagonists of which include a man hypnotised into thinking he is a murderer (Fear in the Night) and a mind-reader who predicts his own death (Night Has a Thousand Eyes), as well as alcoholics, amnesiacs, hunted men and fall guys. Private eye films continued, of course, to be made, but if investigative figures were included, they tended to become increasingly vulnerable and flawed – for example, Bogart’s confused, hunted Rip Murdoch in John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), Robert Mitchum as the traumatised Jeff Markham in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Edmund O’Brien as the dying protagonist hunting his own killers in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950).

The other key iconic figure of noir is, of course, the fatal woman, who poses seductively both on film posters and on hundreds of mid-twentieth century pulp covers. The elements of the image are a kind of visual shorthand for perilous attraction and steamy corruption. Sometimes the dangerous woman is simply a sexual predator who tempts and weakens a male protagonist; sometimes she actually imitates male aggression and appropriates male power. On the poster or pulp cover she perhaps holds only a cocktail glass and a smouldering cigarette, or she might hold a gun and might by the end of the narrative have pulled the trigger. Constrained by the Hays Code, Hollywood tended to package the femme fatale narrative in ways that ensured the defeat of the independent female, but such was the power of the image of the sexual, aggressive, strong woman that she in many ways, in the minds of audiences, resisted this formulaic reassertion of male control.

Definitions of Film Noir

Both literary and cinematic noir can be seen as closely related to the modernist crisis of culture – as reflecting the feelings of nightmarish alienation, disorientation and disintegration that are often taken as hallmarks of the modernist sensibility. James Naremore, in his recent analysis of the contexts of film noir (More Than Night), suggests that the French critics who, in the mid-1940s, first applied the term ‘film noir’ might well have agreed on a formulation that defined noir as ‘a kind of modernism in the popular cinema’. Modernism might seem to be separated from both Hollywood and pulp fiction by such qualities as its formal complexity and technical display, its aesthetic self-consciousness, its association with high culture and its rejection of classical narrative. But with its ‘extraordinary compound’ of apparently contradictory elements, modernism did encompass many impulses that found natural expression in a popular genre engaged in undermining the essentially optimistic thrust of other popular forms, such as detective and action adventure stories.

Discussions of noir often centre on visual and specifically cinematic elements – on things like low-key lighting, chiaroscuro effects, deep focus photography, extreme camera angles and expressionist distortion. But it is essential as well to take account of themes, mood, characterisation, point of view and narrative pattern. Both literary and cinematic noir are defined by: (i) the subjective point of view; (ii) the shifting roles of the protagonist; (iii) the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and society (generating the themes of alienation and entrapment); and (iv) the ways in which noir functions as a socio-political critique.

The representation of the protagonist’s subjectivity is crucial – his perceptions (both accurate and deluded), his state of mind, his desires, obsessions and anxieties. The need for attending to the handling of perspective in film noir is concisely summed up in Fritz Lang’s explanation of his subjective camera work: ‘You show the protagonist so that the audience can put themselves under the skin of the man’; by showing things ‘wherever possible, from the viewpoint of the protagonist’ the film gives the audience visual and psychological access to his nightmarish experiences.

We are brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed. Treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another constitute key structural elements in noir narrative. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, noir is a deliberate violation of this convention.

Shared guilt is often the only common bond amongst noir characters, who are usually doomed to be isolated and marginalised. The main themes are generalisations of the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and his society. Characters suffer either from failures of agency (powerlessness, immobilising uncertainty) or from loss of community (isolation, betrayal). Obsessed, alienated, vulnerable, pursued or paranoid, they suffer existential despair as they act out narratives that raise the question of whether they are making their own choices or following a course dictated by fate.

The noir narrative confronts the protagonist with a rift in the familiar order of things or with a recognition that apparent normality is actually the antithesis of what it seems to be: it is brutal rather than benign, dehumanised not civilised. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that the things that are amiss cannot be dealt with rationally and cannot ultimately be put to rights.  The dispersal of guilt, the instability of roles, and the difficulties of grasping the events taking place all mean that there can be no ‘simple solution’. Even if there is a gesture in the direction of a happy ending, the group reformed is damaged and cannot return to prior innocence. It is in the nature of noir that guilt never disappears, and any resolution will be coloured by the cynical, existentially bitter attitude that is generally taken to be one of the hallmarks of noir, creating a tone that can be blackly comic but that, if it modulates too far towards light humour, or becomes upbeat or sentimental, will lose its ‘noirish’ quality.

Copyright © 2002 Lee Horsley

For further discussion of the the relationship between literary and cinematic noir, see:  Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2009).

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