N ote

© 2009 William Ahearn

Once the context and reference was missed from what Frank and Chartier wrote, writers began creating meaning and sources for the term “film noir.” One favored story involves the French publishing imprint Serié Noire as the inspiration for the term “film noir.” Serié Noire began publishing in 1945 and according to this theory French critic Chartier was actually referencing the publishing imprint.

During the German occupation of Paris, French writers began publishing novels – and using American-sounding nom de plumes – that imitated American hardboiled detective fiction. This is where serié noire (as a genre) began. In 1943, Léo Malet published 120, rue de la Gare that featured an ex-prisoner of war as the detective hero. Numerous imitators of the imitator followed. In its original meaning, serié noire meant a faux American hardboiled novel written by a French writer posing as an American.

Serié Noire – the publishing imprint – began publishing in 1945, yet Marcel Duhamel, the imprint’s founder, didn’t write an introduction to the series until 1948. (In an interesting aside, Marcel Duhamel, also an actor, appeared in “Le Dernier Tournant.”) The first two books published by the new imprint were by British author Peter Cheyney – This Man Is Dangerous and Poison Ivy. (Cheyney created the character of Lemmy Caution.) The third publication was James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids For Miss Blandish.

Horace McCoy’s No Pockets In A Shroud also appeared in 1946. Since the McCoy book is listed in the Gallimard catalog as Serié Noire number 4, it’s obvious that the new imprint wasn’t flooding the Paris market and it certainly wasn’t flooding it – in 1946 – with American writers. Serié Noire wouldn’t publish any other American writers until 1948.

In Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward write:

To begin with, it may seem strange for a group of films indigenously American to be identified by a French term. This is simply because French critics were the first to discern particular aspects in a number of American productions initially released in France after World War II. They also noticed thematic resemblance between these motion pictures and certain novels published under the generic title “Serié Noire.” [. . .] As it happens, the majority of the ‘Serié Noire’ titles were translations of American novels and featured the work of such authors as Hammett, Chandler, James M Cain and Horace McCoy. The association between films such as ‘Double Indemnity,’ ‘Murder My Sweet,’ or ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and the ‘Serié Noire’ novels – which was discussed in a typical article in 1946 under the title: ‘Americans also make “noir” films’ – was all the more apparent because such films were adapted from, and occasionally by, authors who figured prominently in the ‘Serié Noire’ catalogue.

With the exception of the reference to Horace McCoy, everything in the above extract is patently incorrect. First off, Raymond Chandler’s novels didn’t show up in translation in France until 1948. Second, Hammett and Cain were well known in France during the 1930s – long before Serié Noire was a glimmer in editor Marcel Duhamel’s eye – and Serié Noire wouldn’t publish any of their work for years after 1946. Serié Noire had published none of the titles or authors – except McCoy – mentioned above at that time and McCoy’s work isn’t part of the discussion of film noir. To boot, the extract seems to suggest that Jean Pierre Chartier mentions Serié Noire in his article. He doesn’t. There is nothing to suggest – either explicitly or by implication – that Jean Pierre Chartier had even heard of Serié Noire in 1946.

Serié Noire had nothing to do with the creation of the term “film noir” because it couldn’t. It simply did not publish the material in question at the time that the author supposes it did. By appearing in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, this information was accepted as gospel and solidified the notion that “noir” and “hard-boiled” were somehow synonymous and that “film noir” as a term was created in the postwar years. This reference shows up in countless essays and articles about film noir such as Film Noir: Style and Content by Dale E Ewing, Jr originally published in The Journal of Popular Film and Television in 1988. Whether it is referenced or not, the result has been devastating for a serious study of film noir since so much scholarship relies on the blatant inaccuracies of Silver and Ward.

Notes on Film Noir