U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Film Noir and U.S. Intellectual History

This week, USIH is proud to take part in For the Love of Film (Noir), this year’s Film Preservation Blogathon.  The Self-Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme (the formerly [thanks, Farran, for getting me up to speed–Ben] pseudonymous hostess of The Self-Styled Siren, a marvelous film blog) and Marilyn Ferdinand of the also wonderful blog Ferdy on Films host this Valentine’s Day (week, really) event to benefit the cause of film preservation. This year’s blogathon will benefit the Film Noir Foundation, which is raising money to restore a nitrate print of The Sound of Fury (1950).  Last year’s blogathon raised over $30,000 for the National Film Preservation Foundation.  Help us beat last year’s total by donating generously to the Film Noir Foundation at this link! Donors will be entered into a raffle for a variety of film-noir related prizes.  Throughout the week, USIH’s team will be blogging about film noir.  This post kicks off our participation in the blogathon with some thoughts about the place of film noir in U.S. intellectual history.  Enjoy!  

“If we want to understand it…we need to recognize that film noir belongs to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema.”

–James Naremore1

“A fourth important trend in the movies of the late twentieth century is an obsession with the ambiguities and the consequences of crime.  Film noir of the 1940s and 1950s was predicated on such ambiguities and consequences, of course, but the sensibility of that moment seems to have become a directorial norm by the 1980s.”
— James Livingston2

I

One of the courses I regularly teach is a seminar on film noir.  I’ve taught it numerous times at the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College.  And I’ve taught it in the American Studies Institute at the University of Leipzig, where I spent a year on a teaching Fulbright in 2007-2008.  I tend to open the course by having my students write down three things that they think of when they hear “film noir.” I then go around the room and ask the students what they’ve written down.  In Germany, this request yielded little response. While my German students had heard of film noir, they weren’t sure what it was.  My U.S. students, on the other hand tend to have a rich sense of what film noir is. This semester, my students’ responses were particular impressive. They covered a wide range of noir thematics (e.g. crime), spaces (e.g. the city), iconography (e.g. trenchcoats, cigarettes, venetian blinds),  and characters (e.g. private eyes and femmes fatales).  Some mentioned specific noirs and neo-noirs.  As we’ve gotten into the semester, I’ve discovered something interesting about their noir literacy:  while some of my students are film noir buffs, many of them had never actually seen a film noir before. Yet even this latter group have a sense of what film noir is, without having much experienced it themselves.   I should add that the contrast with my German students is particularly striking because American Studies majors in Germany generally have a very rich sense of American popular culture.  What can we make of the fact that Americans–even those who have never seen a film noir–know what film noir is?

II

My single favorite book on film noir is James Naremore’s More Than Night.  As the quotation above suggests, in many ways the starting point of Naremore’s book is his sense that, to begin thinking about film noir, we should see it first as an idea.  As many readers of this blog probably know, the term “film noir” was coined in 1946 by French film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier, who used it to describe a series of American movies from the first half of that decade that they saw as similar to each other….and fascinatingly different from the usual Hollywood fare.3 At the time, Hollywood classified the films that the French called noir in a variety of genres.  But the French continued to identify films noirs among Hollywood movies from the late 1940s and 1950s, though the leading French writers on noir, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, declared the cycle of film noir over by the end of that decade.

While most scholars begin their discussion of film noir by tracing the literary and cinematic precursors of the films that came to be known as film noir (these usually include pulp fiction, Weimar film/German expressionism, Hollywood gangster and horror films, and, more occasionally, French poetic realism), Naremore instead starts with the roots of the idea of film noir: what did the French critics see in these films that fascinated them?  why did they call them film noir?  Interested readers can grab a copy of More Than Night (which is now available in a nicely priced Kindle edition for those so inclined) to see Naremore’s answer to these questions in detail.  But he emphasizes that, for French critics, these films resonated with a number of important aesthetic and intellectual movements in France, notably surrealism and existentialism.  In a very real sense, film noir began life not on the screen, but in the world of ideas in post-war France, among intellectuals longing both to recapture the lost world of Popular Front French culture and to forge a critical response to the (American dominated) world in which they found themselves after the War.

III

Although the classic film noirs (as identified by the French) were products of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, and many were well-known by American audiences at the time, the idea of film noir did not enter American cultural discourse until the 1960s at the earliest.  Only then did large number of Americans begin to read the French critics on film noir.  And a number of Anglophone film critics, most notably Raymond Durgnat, began to write about film noir (meanwhile, French film criticism had largely moved on to other obsessions).

By the 1970s, the idea of film noir had gained real cultural prominence in the United States.  American critics begin to write their own works on noir.  And the young “movie brat” filmmakers of the New Hollywood had encountered both the French critics and the films they called noir in their film-school educations.  The idea of film noir thus played an important role in their understanding of classical Hollywood cinema and its legacy.  As they sought to recapture and rework Hollywood’s glorious past, they self-consciously created neo-noirs (in a way that Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s had not self-consciously created noirs).

The single most important early U.S. essay on film noir was Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir” (written for the 1971 Los Angeles International Film Exposition and published in Film Comment in the Spring of 1972). A film critic and recent graduate of UCLA film school, Schrader was about to embark on a filmmaking career of his own, first as a screenwriter and later as a director. Since its publication, Schrader’s essay has in many ways framed the discussion of film noir in the U.S.  Schrader was interested in both noir thematics and noir aesthetics.  And he saw noir as distinctly a product of post-war America.4  Schrader sensed that both young filmgoers and young filmmakers were fascinated by film noir, and that this fascination reflected deep and disturbing facts about the U.S. in the early 1970s:

American movies are again taking a look at the underside of the American character, but compared to such relentlessly cynical films noir as Kiss Me Deadly or Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the new self-hate cinema of Easy Rider and Medium Cool seems naive and romantic. As the current political mood hardens, filmgoers and filmmakers will find the film noir of the late Forties increasingly attractive. The Forties may be to the Seventies what the Thirties were to the Sixties.

IV

Neither Paul Schrader nor his essay are mentioned by James Livingston in The World Turned Inside Out, his fascinating and provocative account of American thought and culture at the end of the 20th century.5  But Livingston’s cover features an image from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), whose screenplay was written by Paul Schrader, shortly after his essay on film noir.  Although it’s rarely spoken of as a neo-noir, Taxi Driver is, among other things, a meditation on the themes that Schrader had explored in his “Notes on Film Noir.”  To mention just a few examples: The first “catalytic element” that Schrader notes as a necessary precondition to film noir is “war and post-war delusion.” Taxi Driver takes place in an updated version of this milieu; practically the first thing we learn about its protagonist, Travis Bickle, is that he is a Vietnam veteran. Taxi Driver takes full advantage of the “love of romantic narration” that Schrader also associates with noir. Just as Schrader sees the central theme of classic noir to be the dashing of the hopes of the Thirties, so Taxi Driver revolves, at least in part, around the dashed hopes of the Sixties.  And it most resembles what Schrader identifies as “the third and final phase of film noir, from 1949-’53, [which] was the period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse.  The noir hero, seemingly under the weight of ten years of despair, started to go bananas.”  Unlike other critics, who, Schrader notes, prefer earlier noirs, he considers this phase “the cream of the noir crop.”

Paul Schrader, the (public) intellectual-turned-screenwriter, reminds us of an important fact about modern (and post-modern) culture industries in general, and film noir in particular.  Not only must historians of recent U.S. thought and culture pay attention to both “high” and “low” culture, but (what we think of as) “high” and “low” culture are in constant discussion with each other, such that one cannot be understood without the other.

The idea of film noir, a fundamentally intellectual creation designed to explain a series of (at the time slightly disreputable) films, traveled from its “high” 1940s French (modernist) cultural setting to a “high” 1970s U.S. (postmodernist?) cultural setting only to become firmly lodged in the much broader (“low”) culture. 

This is a point akin to the one James Livingston makes throughout The World Turned Inside Out.  And yet, while I share his sense that we always have to keep both “high” and “low” in view when thinking about recent U.S. thought and culture, I think the picture is a little different from the one painted by Livingston.  “You could say,” he writes in his book’s Coda,

that when the professors started talking about gender trouble in the big words of postructuralism, they were translating the evidence available on screen, for example, from I Spit on Your Grave, a truly awful movie.  Or not–think of The Matrix, which makes Jean Baudrillard and Cornel West, two professors, its patron saints.  You could say, in conclusion, let’s get over the either/or choice. By now we know this postmodern impulse goes both ways, up and down, as the line between lowbrow and highbrow culture dissolves in the late twentieth century.6

I have a number of problems with Livingston’s ways of framing this point.  To take the end of this passage first, as the case of film noir suggests, the easy commerce between high and low is not simply a postmodern phenomenon.  As James Naremore suggests, both the films that became known as noir and the idea of film noir itself were products of a very active high-low dialogue taking place within the horizon of mid-twentieth-century high modernism.   Secondly, “evidence available on screen” does not necessarily come from some pre-intellectual (or even pre-academic) space.  To return to film noir: intellectuals played key roles in making film noir an important part of post-1975 US culture.  In a way, The Matrix series–with its unusually conspicuous display of academics and their works–is a bit of a distraction.  By focusing on its presentation of a Baudrillard book and Cornel West himself, we lose sight of the many more usual–and direct–ways in which intellectuals like Paul Schrader affect what shows up on screen.

V

As James Naremore tells us, the French film critics who named film noir in 1946 were, among other things, thinking of the first films that the French had called “noir,” the poetic realist thrillers of the Popular Front era.  At least for French critics on the left in the 1940s, these films, although often grim, evoked positive memories of an era before the horrors of war and occupation.

Among many similarities between the newer U.S. film noirs and the older Popular Front thrillers was the role that the past itself played within the films’ narratives.  Protagonists of American film noirs, from Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past (1947) to Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Detour (1945) to both Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) and the title character (played, of course, by Rita Hayworth) in Gilda (1946) are often trapped by their past.

In the French noir precursors, too, the past often sealed the protagonists’ fate.  But more often than their U.S. successors, characters in the French poetic realist films of the 1930s could also be more simply nostalgic about their pasts.  There’s a wonderful scene toward the end of Pépé le Moko (1937) that perfectly displays this tendency. Pépé (Jean Gabin), a master criminal on the lam who is unable to leave the Casbah in Algiers, has apparently been stood up by Gaby (Mireille Balin), a beautiful tourist whose presence reminds Pépé of the Paris that he longs for but can never see again.  Tania (Fréhel), a fellow resident of the Casbah who is also waiting for her man and is similarly nostalgic for her past as a singer in Paris, tells Pépé that “when I feel down, I change eras.”  She then puts on a record while describing how in her youth she’d sing to crowds in Parisian music halls.

The record is “Ou Est Il Donc?,” a song that was a hit for Fréhel herself over a decade earlier and whose lyrics are themselves about nostalgia for Paris.  On screen the middle-aged Fréhel sings along with her younger self, as Tania and Pépé share a moment of nostalgia for a city they’ll never see again.  I imagine that French audiences in 1937 probably felt some nostalgia, too, for the less threatening world of the mid-1920s in which Fréhel recorded her song.  We know that French critics of the ’40s felt nostalgia for Popular Front films like Pépé. And, decades later, Paul Schrader and other American film critics and filmmakers felt nostalgia for the great Hollywood film noirs of the ’40s and ’50s and the industry that produced them.

However much the past tends to spell doom for the protagonists of film noir, and however much those who made noirs in the ’40s and ’50s–and neo-noirs in the ’70s and beyond–were often drawn to the form by rather grim social realities, from even before Americans began writing and thinking about film noir in the early 1970s, these films have been objects of nostalgia.  Even a cynical neo-noir like Chinatown simultaneously debunks the history of Los Angeles while, as an aesthetic object,  glamorously evoking the greatness of Hollywood’s past.

Like Tania playing her phonograph record in Pépé le Moko, when Americans see, or make, film noir, we are, in a sense, changing eras.

__________________________________________________

1 James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 10-11.

2 James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 65.

3 France had, of course, been deprived of Hollywood films for most of the War, so when the occupation ended, they experienced a half-decade or so of Hollywood movie making in an unusually concentrated fashion. The movies that the French initially designated “films noirs” in August 1946 included The Maltese Falcon; Double Indemnity; Laura; Murder, My Sweet; and The Lost Weekend

4 More recent scholars like Sheri Chinen Biesen have argued that film noir should be seen as product of the War years themselves. 

5 Andrew Hartman reviewed Livingston’s book on this blog here.  Livingston’s response to Andrew’s review can be found here.

6 Livingston, 134.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a great essay, and I largely agree with your problem in Livingston’s framing (not to mention that I disagree that I Spit on Your Grave is a truly awful movie). Naremore taught a noir course here in Chicago last fall, and set up an interesting line-up of films. I was particularly taken with Murder by Contract, in which the idealist dreams of the 30s, which you assay, were replaced by the superficial economic aspirations of the post-War boom era. Classic noir was doomed when Americans found they could buy their way out of despair.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Marilyn!

    And thanks for the link, Peter! I should have been more clear above; Naremore makes the same point about the French use of the term “film noir” in the 1930s to describe some French films of that era, including Pépé le Moko. I’ve just had a moment to glance at William Ahearn’s essays on noir to which you linked. Seems to be lots of interesting stuff there! At first glance, however, I’d disagree a little with the way he frames his debunking of the “noirists.” While I agree with him that much of what got written about film noir, especially in the ’60s and early ’70s, was more mythmaking than good film history, that myth has truly taken on a life of its own. And one cannot understand what is now known as “film noir” without understanding that myth (though, of course, it’s great to understand the better film history, too). Especially when dealing with neo-noir, however, there’s some sense in saying: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend!

  3. Thanks to your contribution to the blogathon, I now have new (old) books to read as well as movies to see! And I’ll have to think through the high/low art question, something that speaks to me quite a bit. Thank you.

  4. This is a fascinating essay. A combination of Capra, Hitchcock and film noir movies more or less turned me into an old movie fan, but I’ve never paid much attention to film criticism.

    I can understand how the idea of film noir itself has attracted so much comment, but reading this, I also wonder what relationships there were between the American films of the 1940s (not yet considered as noir) and the films of the early 1930s, particularly the pre-code movies. Both Heroes for Sale and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang are, in their way, about post (first world) war disillusionment, for instance. And one could argue that there’s more lingering disillusionment in those films than in the post-WWII noir genre. But aesthetically and politically, those films are very different from later American film noir.*

    At the same time, there’s a whole range of 1930s crime (not necessarily detective) films that must have influenced the later development of that genre. Similarly, some of the same people – cast and crew – who worked on American noir movies also worked on 1930s movies.

    Personally, I haven’t found the noir category, to the extent that I understand it, all that helpful, beyond getting me to start watching old films. (In some ways, neo-noir seems like a more cohesive grouping.) Police/detective films like The Maltese Falcon and Murder My Sweet really do seem distinct in important ways from films where people are caught up in crime, like Detour or Act of Violence, and I tend to think of the latter as noir. But there does seem to be a continuum between what I’m calling noir here and the more straightforward police procedural crime film that no one would seriously call noir.

    *There’s another issue here, which is the relationship between pre-code American films and French noir (or noir precursor) films of the thirties. I haven’t seen enough of the French films to be able to say for myself, but it sounds like some of these earlier American films do have a fair bit in common with French films in terms of realism and depictions of behavior and morality. (This is not to say that the American films were as good, just that they covered a wider range of subjects than later American films.) With the production code in place, and in the pre-video era, I wonder how many of the critics who wrote about American noir had access to these earlier American films?

  5. Thank you for the tips about reading, especially “More Than Night”. Interesting comment about your German students vs the Americans on film noir. I have wondered how much influence movies like Renoir’s “La Chienne” and “La nuit du carrefour” had on noir.

  6. I enjoyed the article and I’d be interested in your feedback. I am an American Studies scholar (at Tulane) and I find the noir discourse to be pretty weak in terms of its historical context — including Naremore and Biesen. I challenged it in the Journal of American Studies (UK) in “‘Emergent Noir’: Film Noir and the Great Depression: High Sierra (1941) and This Gun’s For Hire (1942). If you’re interested, check it out; criticism and comments welcome, of course.

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