The Post-War Rise Of Film Noir
August 15, 2007 4:34 PM   Subscribe

What's the relationship between the rise of film noir and the national mood of post-war (WWII, that is) America? "Was noir simply a way of reanimating the tired conventions of the pre-war crime film? Or did we need melodramatic illusions potent enough to overcome whatever disillusions strayed briefly into our minds as we surrendered to the mighty engines of prosperity? Or was it one of those cycles - like biopics, westerns, sci-­fi, etc. - that Hollywood mysteriously embraces and then just as mysteriously abandons?" Via.
posted by amyms (8 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Previous Metafilter posts about film noir are listed here.
posted by amyms at 4:35 PM on August 15, 2007

dude watches way too many movies.
posted by quonsar at 4:57 PM on August 15, 2007

Difficult question in a crowded field of theories. The body of film noir was noticed after the fact by French critics, roughly spanning the era between Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil ('41-'58), with the broadest example being Double Indemnity. The individual possible reasons for the suddenly strange phenomenon of film noir number over a dozen. They include the many social and psychological explanations, but also include some interesting observations that assume film noir was just waiting for the right innovation to happen.

These "innovation theories" include: low-budget experimenting with the relatively new ability of cheap "on location" shooting in fast film stock and deep focus without being able to afford lighting, and finding this all to demand gritty stories to accompany the mood altering style; the new developments in film financing and studio equipment leasing that allowed fringe and new directors to experiment as solo artists, preferrably with something quick and pulpy, but still serious enough to show depth of talent; the structure of the double-feature distribution scheme which demanded a cheap B-movie on the sleazy or suggestive side as the double bill.
posted by Brian B. at 5:11 PM on August 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

New Yorkers can catch the tail end of a pretty awesome New York Noir festival, if they don't mind going to that Waiting Room of Death that is the Film Forum. They certainly stretch the definition of noir (I saw Mean Streets this weekend), but there's a lot of movies to choose from.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:03 PM on August 15, 2007

Interesting read.
Style stuff aside, as a social matter I like the “mean spirited and hypocritical” angle. Post WWII, unlike other more recent wars, you had a large mass of individuals who had been outside the country, some enduring hardship, some just getting away from home for the first time, all of them seeing more of the world than they had either way. I think, worldwide, that created an audiance for the themes film noir addressed. And the anti-hero.
‘Kiss Me Deadly’ might be a good metaphor for all that. Hammer simply doesn’t care about, well, anything but himself. Certainly not conformity or any mores, and can’t handle Medusa’s head as Perseus could (’course, that’s a myth, which is the point).

I remember one time I came home on emergency leave for a funeral. Came practically right out of an engagement to come home, hadn’t showered, still had bits of nastiness on my boots, pit rash and bloody balls and the rest of it. So I’m coming down from being Captain Badass and I’m getting into my home mindset, still dealing with the post-funeral, etc. I tell my mom I’m going to go downtown to a bar. We’re in the ‘burbs you understand. My mom says “Smed, be careful. It’s dangerous downtown. I want you home early.”
Now I didn’t say “That’s the stupidest fucking thing anyone has ever said to me” because y’know, it’s my mom. But she knew some of what I’d been through. I didn’t write her about everything, but she knew the training I had. In addition I was decently past old enough to drink and hadn’t lived at home for a bit and I had a fist full of money from not having anything to spend it on for a while so I could afford a cab out to, hell, California if I wanted.

In retrospect though, you do feel supernatural at home, immortal, untouchable. I can see elements of that in Hammer in that film and in other characters. The whole “Given what I’ve been through, what can possibly harm me?” attitude.
Hammer tells the cops in one scene “Yeah, I’m a real stinker.”
And indeed, the wind up is that there are dangers at home and some of them are more horrific than the past. The nifty thematic thing is that the social facade is inert in that context. It’s still a facade.
Society, the cops, whatever is supposed to ‘help’ or make it better remains an illusion, it doesn’t help at all, you’re still on your own, so Noir resists becoming a morality play.
Which I think is one of the stark departures from what had gone before (“Is this the end of Rico?” etc.) where the gangster or ‘bad’ guy always got his in the end.
(Me, I just got hammered with some biker friends of mine at the Exit and caught a ride home with some Outlaws who got me some acid. Not much of a story really.)

In Noir it’s hard to spot the ‘bad’ guy much less assign blame in any traditional sense. Which requires a far more complex set of tools from the audiance than the “he’s bad, geddim!” sort.
Plus more people had more money to go and see the movies across wider ranges (cars) so you could have a wider variety in the entertainment beyond just catharsis. People were equipped to deal with angst, given the war and the depression and so forth.

I think ‘Children of Men’ would run in the same vein. Certainly not Noir, but makes use of similar stylistic elements of the day and references modern issues.
Very loose association here of course, but it is makes advances in a pattern similar to noir and addresses social disillusionment.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:06 PM on August 15, 2007 [7 favorites]

Didn't it just follow the trend in literature and crime fiction of the preceding twenty some years?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:57 AM on August 16, 2007

I was wondering the same thing. I always think of noir and the tradition as being a reaction to WWI and WWII. Things like T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland ("I think we're in Rat's Alley/ Where dead men lost their bones"), Yeats all the way to Raymond Chandler all seem a kind of retching in reaction to the claims of Progress. Where the admen see the Glories of a New Industrial Age, they see the "glories" being used to mow down humans in a more efficient fashion.
posted by yerfatma at 9:06 AM on August 16, 2007

Mod note: Wikipedia has a thorough film noir article. They say Stranger on the Third Floor 1940; IMDB "most commonly cited as the first 'true' film noir."

The cultural antecedent is the hardboiled/pulp fiction fiction school pioneered by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain in the '20s and '30s. Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" (published in The Atlantic in 1944 s a great analysis of the hardboiled style.

I think noir is more of a reaction to World War I than World War II. It reflects a similar disillusionment to the Lost Generation. Cain and Chandler both served in France, and Hammett was an ambulance driver (although he missed the war due to illness).
posted by kirkaracha (staff) at 12:02 PM on August 16, 2007

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