© 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.

This sort of unchecked scholarship is typical of the writings about film noir as evidenced by Paul Schrader’s work in Notes On Film Noir.

In Notes On Film Noir that was published in Film Comment in 1972, Paul Schrader outlines several “cultural and stylistic elements” that any definition of film noir must contain. After describing the “acute downer” that hit the US after World War II and other questionable assumptions about postwar America, he focuses on four films that exemplify the “disillusionment” felt by returning veterans after WWII.

“This immediate post-war disillusionment,” Schrader writes, “was directly demonstrated in films like ‘Cornered,’ ‘The Blue Dahlia,’ ‘Dead Reckoning,’ and ‘Ride The Pink Horse,’ in which a serviceman returns from the war to find his sweetheart unfaithful or dead, or his business partner cheating him, or the whole society something less than worth fighting for. The war continues, but now the antagonism turns with a new viciousness toward the American society itself.”

A soldier coming home and finding his wife or business partner cheating on him is a situation. It can be described. Disillusionment is a response and it requires being played on screen by some means for it to be understood. Viciousness is extreme behavior and if that viciousness is directed toward “American society itself,” then there should be some clear sign of it.

Schrader’s assertion of postwar disillusionment or antagonism may seem obvious or intuitive, but the facts as portrayed in the films don’t support the idea. There is no scene, inflection of an actor, line in a script or any other indication that the ex-American soldier in any Hollywood crime film of the time thought that the war was “something less than worth fighting for” and there is also nothing to support a “new viciousness” toward American society.

Of the four films, “Cornered” is the most interesting. Starring Dick Powell and directed by Edward Dmytryk (who were paired in “Murder My Sweet”), it’s the story of a just released serviceman who is on the trail of the Nazi officer who ordered the killing of French resistance members that included the serviceman’s bride. The serviceman follows the Nazi’s trail to Latin America and – after some Eric Ambler-style espionage tricks – finds the Nazi and beats him to death. It is not self-defense. It is murder.

What’s interesting about this plot is that the serviceman is not an American. He’s one of those bloodthirsty killers from the true north of Canada who also has the only flashback to the war I can find in a crime film of the time, even if the flashback is an audio one.

It would be difficult to see how a Canadian beating to death a Nazi officer in Buenos Aires shows any “viciousness” toward American society. It is clearly an act of revenge and there is no disillusionment in the character.

In postwar Hollywood, US ex-servicemen were off-limits as killers or criminals. Raymond Chandler found this out when he wrote “The Blue Dahlia” and the Hays Office demanded that he change the ex-serviceman as the killer to some other character. (At least that is one story that has been told.) The original killer was a wounded vet with a head injury and memory lapses. Similar stories of ex-servicemen with amnesia or memory problems believing they are killers also show up in “Somewhere In The Night” (1946) and “The High Wall” (1947). In every case they are innocent and ex-servicemen are also innocent in every other crime film of the time.

Isn’t it odd that in a genre that has the use of flashbacks almost as a definition, that there isn’t a single visual or audio flashback to the war in any of the movies with US ex-servicemen? Not only are there no flashbacks, there is nothing in any of the scripts that draws – even obliquely – any comparison between the war and the ex-servicemen’s current lives.

While “The Blue Dahlia” does feature a murdered wife, we know that not only did she cheat on her husband; she also killed their child in a drunken accident. The audience’s sympathies are with the hero because he’s suspected of the crime not because his good-for-nothing bimbo of a wife is dead. In the end, the hero proves himself and his friend innocent, catches the bad guy and then drives off with Veronica Lake. (I should be so disillusioned.)

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing to sustain the idea of “postwar disillusionment” because the Hays Office and the studio heads would not have allowed it. Whether postwar disillusionment was a reality in the real life of real America is beside the point and highly debatable. Hollywood did deal with the issue of veterans’ problems in its typical way: It made “message” movies such “The Best Years Of Our Life,” “Crossfire,” “The Men,” and “Monkey On My Back” to name the obvious ones. In “Home Of The Brave” flashbacks are used to draw correlations between wartime and being back in the US.

“Dead Reckoning,” is the story is of two paratroopers who are friends and being mysteriously transported to Washington DC. One is to receive the Medal of Honor and the other is to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. En route, one of them goes missing and the other (played by Humphrey Bogart) follows what little he knows to Gulf City to solve the mystery. What he finds out first is that his friend joined the Army under an assumed name because he was wanted on a murder rap.

While it’s a very nice start to a mystery film, it isn’t even remotely clever in how in lifts – in some cases almost verbatim – from other films. Coming a year after “The Blue Dahlia,” it uses the exact same formula and that is turning a returning service man into a shamus. As it turns out, the ex-serviceman’s friend was innocent and the deadly dame reeking of jasmine (the honeysuckle must not have been in season) gets her just desserts. There is no indication of the hero’s disillusionment or any “viciousness” toward American society.

“Ride The Pink Horse” is the only film mentioned by Schrader that could be debated as indicating some notion that some vets weren’t adapting well to being back from the war. The story is that Lucky Gagin got a job with a Navy buddy named Shorty after the war. Shorty was running a blackmailing scheme and it got him killed. Gagin ended up with the information that the blackmail is based on and goes to San Pablo, New Mexico to shake down the mobster named Frank Hugo who was the target of the scheme. The blackmail scheme is the check Frank Hugo wrote to someone in the US Government. Gagin is approached by an FBI agent – who knows that Gagin has the check – and as they have coffee the agent says “you fought a war for three years and all you got was a dangled ribbon.”

In another conversation between Gagin and the FBI agent, Gagin says that, “the government worked for Hugo all during the war” and that someone was on the take “while I was getting a tan in the Pacific.” Gagin also tells the FBI agent, “don’t wave any flags. I’ve seen enough flags.”

Later in the film Frank Hugo says that he was helping Shorty get over his “post-war problems” and that Gagin is a “disillusioned patriot” and one of those “haywire veterans.”

“Ride The Pink Horse” raises – or pays lip service – to the idea of post-war problems of war veterans, yet the film ends with the typical Hollywood ending and Gagin comes through for the red, white and blue and ends up pals with the FBI agent. There is no viciousness directed toward American society in this film and no indication of disillusionment.

What Gagin redeems is his soul. He allows society to exact his revenge. That isn’t surprising since the Hays Office had a strict rule: “Revenge in modern times was not to be justified.”

In these films we have vets coming home to a situation they didn’t expect. Yet the response isn’t disillusionment; it’s heroics. This is not a matter of opinion. There is no ambiguity here. Either the films indicate disillusionment or they don’t. Just watch the films.

Whether it’s Alan Ladd in “The Blue Dahlia” or Bogie in “Dead Reckoning” or any other crime film of the time there isn’t the slightest word or gesture or implication that there is an “antagonism [that] turns with a new viciousness toward the American society itself” by an American ex-soldier. The statement is completely unsupportable. Even in a film such as Fred Zinnemann’s “Act of Violence” where one man is considered a hero by the town folk and the media and is being stalked by a man who survived a Nazi POW camp and knows that the hero sold out the prisoners’ escape plans to save his own skin there is no “viciousness toward American society.” Nor is there any question of whether “the war was worth fighting.” In fact, the POW camp survivor has more animosity toward the “hero” then he does toward the Nazis or the war.

My research hasn’t been exhaustive, even so I have yet to find a single contemporary review of any crime film from the 1940s that suggests that these films were seen as being critical of the war or that the hero was disillusioned. Not one. This is more post hoc analysis by the “noirists” that creates information where there is none.

Does anyone seriously believe that after the war and at the dawning of the Red Scare a Hollywood movie studio would question the “worth” of fighting World War II in its films? To do so would have been professional suicide if in fact a writer would write it and the Hays Office would grant it a seal.

“Act of Violence,” as so many American “film noirs,” ends with redemption – and in this case forgiveness – as the hero rejoins society with the love of a good woman and that is a far cry from “viciousness.” There are numerous other “film noirs” with WWII vets as the main character. Anthony Mann’s “Side Street,” Ida Lupino’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” Jules Dassin’s “Thieves’ Highway” and the story is the same in every one. Not one character questions the “worth” of the war or displays “viciousness” toward American society.

The simple fact of the matter remains that if you actually watch these “film noirs,” not only is there no viciousness toward American society, there is no postwar disillusionment. The notion of post-war disillusionment and the material about Serié Noire aren’t isolated examples of slipshod scholarship. In fact, this kind of sloppiness and leaps of fancy are indicative of the work of the “noirists.” In the next section the idea of corruption, ambiguity, German Expressionism, and other myths and delusions of the theory of “film noir” are shaken, rattled and rolled.

Part II: The Films of Anthony Mann