Film Noir
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Film Noir
Unexpected Noir


Film Noir • Characteristics • The Films


In "Notes on Film Noir," Paul Schrader divides film noir into three broad phases. These overlapping timeframes not only reflect changes in a dark movement of Hollywood films but in the unsettled mood of the country as well.

The first period of films lasted from 1941 and included some films of 1946. It coincides with the turbulent war years and a little beyond and is the phase of "the private eye and the lone wolf, studio sets, and more talk than action."1


The Maltese Falcon, along with Laura, Double Indemnity, and Murder My Sweet, was one of the original American film noirs viewed by French critics after the war and is still cited by many critics as the beginning of the film noir movement.

Directed by John Huston, the film starred Humphrey Bogart as the cynical anti-hero, private eye Sam Spade. The hero's new moral uncertainty wasn't lost on Philip T. Hartung as he wrote in The Commonweal that "in this tense film the chase for the falcon causes many bodies to fall with sickening thuds before the hero-detective, whose own hands are not too clean, unravels all."2

Other reviewers were simply grateful for the return of crime film. In "Some Pictures Move" in the New Republic, Otis Ferguson wrote, "The Maltese Falcon is the first crime melodrama with finish, speed and bang to come along in what seems ages, and since its pattern is one of the best things Hollywood does, we have been missing it. It is the old Dashiell Hammett book, written back in the days when you could turn out a story and leave it at that, without any characters joining the army, fleeing as refugees or reforming bad boys, men or women."3

Yet five years later, French critic Nino Frank wrote that "these 'dark' films, these films noirs, no longer have anything in common with the ordinary run of detective movies. Because they are purely psychological stories, action, either violent or exciting, matters less than faces, behavior, words – hence the verisimilitude of the characters."4


During the first half of the 1940s, the American psyche was dominated by the total war effort – and all of the contradictory feelings that come with wartime.

Some of the more widely-recognized film noirs were made during this time, including: The Blue Dahlia, Gaslight, This Gun for Hire, Mildred Pierce, The Woman in the Window, Spellbound, The Big Sleep, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Dark Mirror.

Philip Hartung's review "Simply Thrilling" noted that "The Big Sleep mixes violence and 'smart' wisecracks along with its suspense, and manages to achieve quite a scarey effect. [...] Various seamy characters wander in and out of the confusion – and most don't make it out of their own free will."5

All of these films contained the classic noir crimes and moral ambiguity and were marked by its stylistic, stark shadows and sense of claustrophobia – a mood that echoed the darker side of America at war.


Schrader uses Billy Wilder/Raymond Chandler film, Double Indemnity (1944) as a bridge to the postwar phase of film noir, writing that initially the unflinching dark vision of Double Indemnity was almost blocked by the combined efforts of Paramount, the Hays Office, and star Fred MacMurry. However, within three short years, "Double Indemnitys were dropping off the studio assembly line."6

Critics at the time recognized the moral contradictions that were beginning to show up in Hollywood films. The war was raging, and frustration with the overpowering war effort, along with anxieties about the role of women in society and a new American cynicism were beginning to make themselves known.

As James Agee notes in The Nation, "The James Cain story, [scripted by Raymond Chandler and] under Billy Wilder's control, is to a fair extent soaked in and shot through with money and the coolly intricate amorality of money; you can even supply the idea, without being contradicted by the film, that among these somewhat representative Americans, money and sex and a readiness to murder are as inseparably interdependent as the Holy Trinity."7

This cynical view of American morals was echoed by Manny Farber in The New Republic. In a review entitled "Hard-as-Nails Department" he remarks that the film is one in which "the only people who aren't deceiving someone are either ferociously soured on life, or as dyspeptic and wry as the claims manager, or too foolish to bother with." He goes on to note that the film contains "some very bright, realistic perceptions of the kind of people and places that rarely get into American movies."8

As the war ended, a new era of postwar realism was ushered into American society and into its films.


After World War II, nothing in America would be the same, including Hollywood films. An even greater sense of darkness and realism began to creep into film noir. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Schrader finds that America's "wartime antagonism turns with a new viciousness toward American society itself."9

Hartung's contemporary review of The Blue Dahlia (1946), "Violence with a Vehemence," seemed to bear this out."The Blue Dahlia's opening scenes indicate cynically and firmly that a man fresh out of uniform shouldn't walk in on his wife unannounced. Ladd does, and is greatly shocked to find that she is not the faithful little woman he thought he left behind. The script (written by Raymond Chandler and very hard-boiled throughout) paints this tramp in strong colors; and Doris Dowling's portrayal makes her inhumanly vicious."10

During the postwar phase which ran roughly from 1945-49, films tended more toward crimes in the street, political corruption and police. A new breed of less romantic heroes – Richard Conte, Burt Lancaster – made their appearance.11

Realistic urban settings were seen in films with violent titles such as The Killers, Raw Deal, Kiss of Death, Force of Evil, Dark Passage, Cry of the City, Ruthless, Pitfall, Boomerang!, and The Naked City.

In Somewhere in the Night, Nicholas Christopher writes of the new transformation of the city into an unsettling force within film noir. "In the explosive postwar American city of the film noir, violence becomes a delirious, everyday reality – a circus of horrors [...] where the pace of construction, demolition and rebuilding is incredible."12


Hollywood was fighting its own dark battles in the postwar years as filmmakers and other members of the film community were targeted by the government in their efforts to investigate and root out Communist subversives.

Hollywood wasn't their only target as Sklar notes in Movie-Made America. "The period of anti-Communist madness in American life was a time when accusations without proof were immediately granted the status of truth; when guilt was assumed, and innocence had to be documented."13

This atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust permeated much of American society in the late 1940s – and the moral ambiguity and cynicism of film noir was even more appropriate for the time.


The final, truly dark phase of film noir lasted from 1949 to 1953, and according to Schrader was marked by personal disintegration, psychotic action, and suicidal impulse. He states, "the noir hero, seemingly under the weight of ten years of despair, started to go bananas."14

The hero on – or over – the edge could be found in films like Gun Crazy, Out of the Past, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, D.O.A., They Live by Night, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Big Heat, Kiss me Deadly, and finally, Touch of Evil in 1958.

Charles Gregory, in "Living Sideways" sees this sense of bitterness and loss of control in The Big Heat (1953) as the "hero" punishes his mistress by throwing boiling coffee in her face – and later, with her face heavily bandaged, she responds by taking a deep breath, smiling weakly and saying "Well, I guess I can always go through life sideways." Gregory writes, "and thus in tone and metaphor she defines a whole way of life epitomized in the American films identified as 'film noir.'"15


As James Naremore notes in More than Night, "from the perspective of the mid 1950s, it appeared that noir was dying."16 Along with the possible exhaustion of a formula, he adds economic and political reasons, including the fact that Hollywood's response to television and the growing leisure industry was to turn to "Cinemascope, color, and biblical epics," and noting that many of the key noir writers and directors of the previous decade had been blacklisted by the major studios.16

Film noir's time was over, and it had been a good run. But even though filmmakers continue to rediscover and emulate film noir today, the movement itself could have only existed in the world of America in the 1940s.

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