1940s American Film Noir
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In the years immediately following World War II, French film critics began to identify a new darkness American films.

In 1946, Nino Frank – writing about a small group of Hollywood movies that had been produced during the war, but only recently released to European markets – was the first critic to apply the term film noir, or "black film," to these films.1

This American film noir movement – characterized by deep, moody shadows, violent death, moral uncertainty, determined women and conflicted male heroes – reflected the darker undercurrents of anxiety found in American society during the 1940s and on into the 50s.


The entire decade of the 1940s was marked by conflict and contradictions.

The decade began on an unsettled note. The devastating domestic and global economic depression of the 1930s was now overshadowed by the war raging in Europe. Americans were divided on what their role should be in the growing conflict. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, the questions were answered, and America entered World War II. Virtually everyone in American society became part of a complete and total mobilization effort focused on winning the war.

America's intense and widespread feelings of patriotism and national unity against a common enemy were contradicted, however, by uncertainties about rapidly escalating changes throughout American society - social, economic, and cultural. Films produced during the first half of the 1940s began to reflect this dichotomy.

While many movies, such as Sergeant York (1941), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and Since You Went Away (1944) expressed wartime patriotic spirit and faith, a darker and more pessimistic ambivalence began to appear in Hollywood films, sometimes in movies not often thought of as classic film noir.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) were among the films French critic Frank was exploring when he remarked upon the new noir in American films. Although not a traditional film noir, Casablanca (1942) was a romance with patriotic overtones and noir undertones.

Even so-called patriotic films began to present a darker view of wartime stresses as the war went on. In discussing the 1945 film, The Story of G.I. Joe, Colin Shindler remarks in Hollywood Goes to War that the heroic film treatment of the fighting man had "yielded progressively" to the version of the soldier as a "battle-hardened, weary, disillusioned veteran whose only concern was to stay alive without deserting his post."2


When World War II ended, the contradictions felt by Americans were greater than ever.

The euphoria of their victory over fascism was tempered by a growing knowledge of the Holocaust in Germany and the fearsome power of the atomic bombs their nation had dropped on Japan. Americans – indeed people around the globe – found themselves with a complex mixture of optimism and anxiety as they faced the hopes and uncertainties of a new, modern world.

In September 1945, less than a month after Japan surrendered, The Nation published an essay by one of Britain's leading younger scientists, J. D. Bernal, in which he wrote that, "people have been quick to see how the actuality of the atomic bomb has implicitly changed the whole existence of man in this universe."3

At home, the excitement of families being reunited with fathers and sons was often offset by more disruption as family members found themselves struggling to get to know each other again after years apart. William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), although not a film noir, portrayed many of the adjustments feared by or facing returning veterans and their families – acceptance of physical disabilities; discouragement with bad marriages and working wives; frustration of women who had joined the workforce during the war only to be asked to give up their job when the war ended; and, disillusionment with careers that no longer held the same meaning they had before the life-and-death war years.

These issues of conflict and uncertainty could also be found indirectly in film noirs such as The Blue Dahlia (1946), which centered around a returning veteran and the mysterious murder of his unfaithful wife.

Although there was still tremendous faith in progress and the American Century that Henry Luce wrote about in 1941, there was also anxiety about the fragility of progress and a flawed and dangerous humanity that intensified in the postwar years.

All of this uncertainty began making its way into American films throughout the 1940s. Film noir is a unique body of work that provides insights into the darker side of that conflicted decade.

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