There are two terrific film-noir series taking place in New York right now, one at Film Forum, “Femmes Noir,” the other, at the Museum of Modern Art, “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932-1957.” But only the Film Forum series uses the word “noir,” and moma’s avoidance of the term makes perfect sense.
Film noir is a peculiar genre. A Western is identifiable by people on horseback in the West; a musical involves singing and dancing; a war movie shows war. Even the so-called women’s picture was a movie that featured women prominently. But the directors who worked in film noir didn’t use that term to describe their work. One searches in vain for the term in the interviews with some of the genre’s crucial creators—Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Fritz Lang, Robert Aldrich, and Edgar G. Ulmer—by Peter Bogdanovich in his great collection “Who the Devil Made It.” The first appearance of the term “film noir” in this magazine is from 1971; the first in the New York Times is from 1973.
For that matter, the term wasn’t even endemic in French cinephilic circles. When François Truffaut discussed his film “Shoot the Piano Player” soon after its release, he spoke of it in terms of “B movies” and “gangster films”; when Jean-Luc Godard talked about “Breathless,” he said that he wanted to make a “gangster film” and also referred to “films policiers.”
The documentation on the subject is ample and fascinating, as provided in a richly detailed historical post by M. E. Holmes at a Web site devoted to the French critic Nino Frank, who coined the term in 1946. Holmes’s meticulous discussion of the use and rise of the term cites Frank’s work liberally, and highlights what he found so remarkable in the films in question:
Thus these “noir” films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel. They are essentially psychological narratives with the action—however violent or fast-paced—less significant than faces, gestures, words—than the truth of the characters, this “third dimension” I discussed a short while ago.
The movies in question, Frank argued, aren’t procedurals or whodunits, they’re character studies and sociological investigations. Holmes traces the fascination with these Hollywood crime dramas of the forties through the work of other French critics of the postwar years:
It is clear that one of the key elements in the welcome given by the French critics to the American “films noirs” was the feeling that serious European influence lay behind their modern American settings and panache. Later commentators have pointed to stylistic influences from prewar German films, but for the 1946 critics the primary consideration was not one of style. It was rather that they believed in cinema’s twofold function: as an absorbing entertainment and as a potential force for good, not through reinforcing conventional morality but through its ability to expose corruption and injustice. They had seen at first hand the prewar struggles of European filmmakers to speak out against evil in their films, and felt that the new American crime films could represent the opportunity for a surreptitious continuation of that work within unashamedly entertainment films.
In other words, Frank and the critics who joined him in his praise of the newly dubbed genre were interested in exactly the sorts of things that the young enthusiasts of Cahiers du Cinéma—Truffaut, Godard, and company—didn’t care about at all: the politics and sociology of cinema, the cinema of social criticism. The big French book on the subject of film noir was written, in 1955, by Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton—two critics associated with the magazine Positif, Cahiers’s bitter rival. French Wikipedia sums up the opposition well, if tendentiously;
Raymond Borde was a member of the editorial board of Positif from 1954 to 1967. A member of the Communist Party until 1958, he was a partisan of [politically] engaged cinema and took a stand against Cahiers du Cinéma and the filmmakers of the New Wave, whose politique des auteurs and rightist tendencies he denounced.
The term “film noir” has come down to us as a product of a subordinate strain of French criticism, different from the one that came to dominate cinematic discourse with the concept of auteurism, as well as to dominate filmmaking itself through the innovations of the New Wave. It had no currency among Hollywood filmmakers of the forties and fifties, for the simple reason that French criticism over-all had little influence in the U.S. until the rise of the New Wave. (Though it would be interesting to try to trace the term in Cahiers through the years—a concordance is needed.) And, even as film noir has become firmly entrenched in the cultural vocabulary, its strangeness remains. That’s why I’m partial to the choice of moma’s curators to cite the simplest unifying factor in their series—the element of crime—that both predates the rise of film-noir style and, above all, that survives it.
I wrote here a few years ago about the genre, and I cited four factors that contributed to its rise: “the influence of German Expressionism, the liberating innovations of Orson Welles, the new importance of independent producers, and the probing of wartime traumas.” German filmmakers fleeing the Nazi regime, such as Lang, Preminger, Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Max Ophuls, and Billy Wilder brought their shadowy, fragmented aesthetic to Hollywood. Welles (who was also a director of film-noir classics, including “The Lady from Shanghai”) gave directors, including his venerable elders, a sense that anything was possible, even in Hollywood. The sudden weakening of studio control over production (the result of court battles) gave independent producers, many of whom were very sympathetic to artistically original directors, a much freer hand. And then there’s the war, with its terrors and disruptions.
The four movies that Nino Frank cites in his primordial 1946 essay are “The Maltese Falcon,” “Laura,” “Murder, My Sweet,” and “Double Indemnity.” All of them were made during the Second World War (though “The Maltese Falcon” was made in 1941, before the United States was involved in combat). The film historian Sheri Chinen Biesen makes a convincing case, in her book “Blackout,” that there are two separate strains of film noir—one arose during wartime, the other followed it:
These early noir films created a psychological atmosphere that in many ways marked a response to an increasingly realistic and understandable anxiety—about war, shortages, changing gender roles, and “a world gone mad”—that was distinctive from the later postwar paranoia about the bomb, the cold war, HUAC, and the blacklist, which was more intrinsic to late 1940s and 1950s noir pictures.
I’m not sure that the distinction is as precise or as clear as she suggests. For instance, I don’t think that there’s a difference in kind between Siodmak’s “Phantom Lady,” from 1944, and “Criss Cross,” from 1949, or between Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” from 1944, and “While the City Sleeps,” from 1956. But I do think that she’s right to call attention to the historical specificities on which the genre (if, indeed, it’s a genre) thrived. Many of the crime dramas of the nineteen-thirties had much to do with the Depression; those of wartime reflected the war (though it’s a critical temptation to read the war into any film contemporaneous with it), and those that came after the war—well, by definition, they reflect postwar life.
That’s why it’s strange to think of film noir as a genre—at least, as an open-ended one. A Western is a Western is a Western, whether it’s filmed by Thomas H. Ince in 1916, by John Ford in 1939, or by Clint Eastwood in 1992. The same is true of war films, comedies, and, yes, crime movies. But the film noir is historically determined by particular circumstances; that’s why latter-day attempts at film noir, or so-called neo-noirs, almost all feel like exercises in nostalgia.