Sunday, March 17, 2013

film noir - discovery or invention?

Books about film noir will usually tell you that film noir reflected a certain mood that afflicted American society in the 1940s. Postwar disillusionment and all that stuff. The problem with this is that film noir did not exist in Hollywood in the 40s. Film noir as a concept was invented by French intellectuals in the late 40s but for at least the next thirty years it remained a concept known only to a handful of French intellectuals.

Film noir did not exist in the English-speaking world until the 1970s. In that decade American film critics suddenly discovered film noir. But the key question is, did they discover film noir or did they invent it? Did they take a theory that appealed to them and then cherry-pick the vast output of American crime movies of the 40s and 50s looking for movies that they could shoe-horn into their cool new theory?

If it’s true that movies reflect the era in which they were made, it’s also true (possibly to an even greater extent) that film criticism reflects the era in which it is written. Books on film noir written during the 1990s tell us more about the cultural attitudes of 1990s intellectuals than they tell us about the cultural attitudes of 1940s film audiences. A book on film noir published in 2013 will tell you a great deal about the way the author views the world of today, but will it tell you anything about the way people in 1945 viewed the world?

Much of the disillusionment and disaffection of 1940s and 1950s film noir is actually the disillusionment and disaffection of modern intellectuals.

It’s also important to remember that one of the key sources for film noir was the hard-boiled school of crime-writing, and that this school flourished in the 20s and 30s. That school started to be mined for source material for movies in a big way in the 40s, but the cynicism and disillusionment they reflected was the cynicism and disillusionment of the 30s, not the 40s.

It’s also worth remembering that every decade of film history has produced its crop of bleak and cynical films. Writers tend to like that sort of thing so there will always be screenplays that reflect that taste. Writers can always find something to be miserable and pessimistic about. Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s were really no more bleak and cynical than the movies of any other decade. To the extent that film noir existed it was a tendency amongst writers and film-makers rather than being a reflection of the attitudes of American society as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. Well argued, but I think something is there even if it was largely defined in retrospect. Do you take any visual elements into account, given that noir is presumed to look a certain way? Also, in terms of influences noir is thought to have flourished during a transition in crime fiction from the hard-boiled style to the different emphases of the paperback originals, say from Cornell Woolrich to David Goodis and beyond. If something's going on in publishing it's probably going on in movies as well. Still, you're absolutely right to call critics out for sometimes reading the concerns of their own times into the works of the past.