The Birth of Film Noir

In Paris in the 1940s there were many cinema clubs at which audiences could view a good variety of films and then discuss them all night long.  

The Cinematheque was for many young people a place of learning as much as it was a place of entertainment, and although they were generally small, these clubs were popular because they weren't owned by any studios and didn't feature tiresome newsreels, or the more well-known presentations that packed out the larger movie-houses.

During the Occupation of France by the Nazis, the import of Hollywood films was banned, which meant that that the French missed out on an amazingly fertile period of Amercian cinema, and this included many of the early crime-thrillers we now call film noir.
After the war, these films arrived in France in quick succession, and it must have been a real feast, as the young French audiences of 1946 and 1947 caught up on nearly ten years of American cinema, including masterpieces by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

One of the effects of this was that it was easier for these audiences to spot trends and recurring themes, and this was how film noir came to be first identified.  One other aspect of this was the birth of the idea of the auteur.  Again, this came about by dint of all of these films from America arriving in short succession, allowing audiences to quickly bracket what they were watching by director, as well as by theme.

Odd as it may sound, nobody in the 1940s went to the cinema as they do today saying 'let's go and see the new Woody Allen film . . . or the new Lars von Trier . . . ' because this was a convention that had not yet materialised.

But what we recognise today as film noir was immediately apparent in the films of the French New Wave.  Many of the French directors of the 1950s and 1960s had digested these American movies and this is clear in what they produced - films featuring suave men and powerful and attractive women, cigarette smoke, and a deep-set urban paranoia; all of these things came from the American films of the 1940s, images and ideas that the French new Wave directors very much enjoyed.

Film noir was a stylistic and thematic trend as opposed to a genre, and for many years, as I've said, the idea of film noir was known only to the French.  

In the late sixties however, the term began appearing in English and American film criticism, and one of the first times it was discussed at length in English-speaking criticism was in 1970 in an article called The Family Tree of Film Noir which was by by Raymond Durgnat.  This article contained what Durgnat identified as eleven film noir themes, and although he was helpful in defining the movement, it was a very broad article, which also created a little confusion.

In recation to this essay, and in 1972, a more coherent view of what film noir might be appeared in an essay by Paul Schrader called Notes on Film Noir, in which he pointed out that one of Raymond Durgnat's key concepts was that film noir was not a genre, but more of a movement, or a style.  He says:
"It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood."

Paul Schrader then went on to describe what he believed to be some of the key components of film noir, such as the strong contrasts in lighting, the use of voice-over narration and the flashback structures often employed.  He also pointed out noir's roots in German expressionism and French poetic realism and the hard-boiled tradition in American writing.
Raymond Durgnat, early essayist on film noir

With the contrast between Raymond Durgnat's rather vague description of what film noir was and what Schrader felt it to be ...  so began the debating about what was and what was not film noir.  

Some define film noir narrowly (Schrader) and others define it broadly (Durgnat). 

Most folks tend towards the Schrader side of things, because it was Paul Schrader who, in particular, restricted the trend to the 1940s and 1950s.  This means that a film like Scarface (1932) can definitely not be classed as film noir, despite what some like to argue.

Despite their now being hundreds of books (and blogs) on film noir there is still stuff to investigate in those films.  First, there is a political aspect of film noir, and its reaction to the HUAC hearings, and the influence the Production Code had on it.  Double Indemnity as an example was critical in addressing the Code.  It is incredible to think that all through the 1940s and 1950s, this Code dominated movie production.  Even when Billy Wilder came to make The Seven Year Itch in 1955, he was still severely restricted by the Code, which stated that adultery could not be shown in a comedy.

Then there are a lot of film noir women's pictures, about paranoia and about new gender roles - proving that there is still a lot to discuss.  

Even though this trend we call film noir is restricted to two decades in American cinema, there is still a lot of arguing to be had, not just about what is and isn't film noir, but what it said about the Amercian society of the day.

Paul Schrader's seminal essay Notes on Film Noir


Raymond Durgnat Online



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