© 2009 William Ahearn

There are two articles that mention “film noir” in 1946 and that are cited in the film noir mythology. Oddly, the critic whose usage is the slimmest is the critic whose reference is more often used and who is credited with coining the term film noir. That critic is Nino Frank and his article appeared in L'Écran français. Prior to the war, he had been editor-in-chief of Pour vous, a French publication dedicated to cinema.

In August 1946, L'Écran français published Nino Frank’s article A New Kind of Police Drama: the Criminal Adventure. He begins by citing “seven new American films that are particularly masterful: ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Little Foxes,’ ‘How Green Was My Valley,’ plus, ‘Double Indemnity,’ ‘Laura,’ and, to a certain extent, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Murder My Sweet.’” He then focuses only on the crime films.

“They belong,” Frank wrote of the crime films, “to a class that we used to call the crime film, but would best be described from this point on by a term such as criminal adventures, or better yet, such as criminal psychology.” He goes on to note the passing of the Golden Age of mysteries – as practiced by S. S. Van Dine – to the new writers such as Dashiell Hammett.

“Laura,” he notes, belongs to the “outdated genre” and it is “lacking in originality but perfectly distracting and, one can say, successful.” What saves “Laura” as a film for Frank is “a complicated narrative, a perverse writer who is prosaic but amusing, and foremost a detective with an emotional life.”

“For the other three, the method is different. They are,” Frank wrote, “as what one might call ‘true to life.’ The detective is not a mechanism but a protagonist.” He notes that the films end with scenes that “are harsh and misogynistic, as is most of contemporary American literature.” And he adds, “I would not go so far as to say these films are completely successful. While “The Maltese Falcon” is “quite exciting,” “Murder My Sweet” is “very uneven and at times vacuous.”

Frank is often cited in writings about “film noir” for noting the “misogynistic” quality of American crime films. Whether American crime films are any more misogynistic than other American films is not the question although it is one rarely asked. What is interesting in Frank’s statement is how he frames the description of misogynistic. In discussing “The Maltese Falcon” and “Murder My Sweet” he writes “And it cannot be by accident that the two films end in the same manner, the cruelest way in the world with the heroines paying full price. These final scenes are harsh and misogynistic, as is most of contemporary American fiction.”

In “The Maltese Falcon,” Brigid O’Shaughnessy takes the fall for killing Miles Archer, which, in fact, she did do. In “Murder My Sweet,” Mr. Grayle kills Mrs. Grayle (aka Velma Volente) in order to save Marlowe’s life. Mrs. Grayle has already savagely beaten Lindsay Marriott to death.

If two dames ever rated paying “full price” it’s Brigid and Velma. Frank adds “We rediscover this hardness, this misogyny in ‘Double Indemnity.’” Since he doesn’t elaborate any further one can only assume that he means that Phyllis’ death is also misogynistic. That’s hard to understand since she set up Walter and then shot him. Walter gets the gun and shoots her. It sounds closer to equality than misogyny unless portraying women in this light is misogynistic. One could have a case arguing that Brigid and Velma are projections of male insecurities or whatever. In the case of Phyllis that might be more difficult since the character is based on Ruth Snyder who – with her lover – killed her husband after buying a life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. She was executed for the crime at Sing Sing Prison.

The misogyny is played out in “Laura” quite clearly where a man kills a woman for not living up to his expectations or exceeding his plans for her or denying him the love he thinks he’s owed. That story gets played out in the newspapers almost every week in the US and I doubt it’s a new story in France. Yet, Frank never even mentions it. In these four films women pay the ultimate price or face prison. In one, “Laura,” the woman who is killed is an innocent bystander gunned down mistakenly by a disappointed suitor. That event, according to Frank, isn’t worth mentioning.

Then Frank writes about “Double Indemnity.” After writing “there is no mystery here, we know everything from the beginning, and we follow the preparation for the crime, its execution, and its aftermath.” He adds, “Consequently our interest is focused on the characters, and the narrative unfolds with a striking clarity that is sustained throughout.” He praises Billy Wilder’s direction and the script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler that “deftly details the motives and reactions of its characters.”

Now we get to the bone. The following paragraph is complete as it appears in Film Noir Reader 2. This is what started the theory of film noir and – until recently – was believed to be the first use of the term.

“In this manner,” Frank wrote, “these ‘noir’ films no longer have any common ground with run-of-the-mill police dramas. Markedly psychological plots, violent or emotional action, have less impact then facial expressions, gestures, utterances – rendering the truth of the characters, that ‘third dimension’ of which I have already spoken. This is a significant improvement: after films such as these the figures in the usual cop movie seem like mannequins. There is nothing remarkable in the fact that today’s viewers are more responsive to this stamp of verisimilitude, of ‘true to life,’ and, why not, to the kind of gross cruelties which actually exist and the past concealment of which has served no purpose: the struggle to survive is not a new story.”

[Frank doesn’t actually use “third dimension” prior to this paragraph and I’m assuming he means the ‘true to life’ quality and psychological aspects that he sees in these films.]

There is one of two things going on in this paragraph. Either we are lost in translation, or Frank thinks “Murder My Sweet” and “The Maltese Falcon” are “true to life.” Compared to what Frank refers to as the “outdated genre,” these films certainly have more depth even if they are part of it. It seems as if Frank is equating this “true to life” quality with the biting realism of the film noirs identified during the 1930s. Why else would he use that loaded term? That is a serious leap that just simply cannot be supported. “Murder My Sweet” and “The Maltese Falcon” are – however “psychological” the characters – mysteries that live in the cocoon of knowing that all will be solved and known at the end. To suggest that they are from the same tradition as “Port of Shadows” or “Hôtel du Nord” simply doesn’t make sense.

There is only one film that Frank wrote about that even gets close to the biting realism of the film noirs and that film is “Double Indemnity” and it’s a film that the Hollywood censors never wanted to see on the silver screen.

There are two mysteries surrounding how James M Cain’s Double Indemnity became a movie. The first is why Cain didn’t write the screenplay with Billy Wilder when Wilder’s then writing partner, Charles Brackett, judged the novel “filth” and refused to work on it. There are numerous stories floating around the internet and in books about Hollywood explaining why Cain wasn’t the co-writer and most are inaccurate and others are merely speculative. Rather than add to the list, let’s just say Wilder ended up hiring Raymond Chandler of The Big Sleep fame to work on the screenplay and although Wilder hadn’t heard of Chandler before, it ultimately proved to be an inspired choice.

Brackett wasn’t the only one who considered Double Indemnity “filth.” And that brings us to the second mystery of Cain’s novel coming to the screen. For a long time in Hollywood, producers, writers and directors wanted a piece of Cain on film. There was “She Made Her Bed,” released in 1934, based on the story The Baby in the Icebox that didn’t do too well at the box office and hasn’t been released on DVD. The French and the Italians had already done versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Hollywood, or so the stories go, wanted to tap that market or at least expand its market shrunken by the war by presenting more adult themes.

The Production Code Administration (PCA), commonly known as the Hays Office, had refused to even consider scripts based on the work of Cain in the past. Joe Breen, the driving force of the PCA, had rejected screenplays with similar content. There are numerous theories – some of them credible, some conjecture – about why Joe Breen allowed the PCA seal on the screenplay of “Double Indemnity.”

If you read the history of Hollywood during the war years, there is talk of a “window” – or similar word – that opened a crack in the PCA that allowed content not approved before to come to the silver screen in the United States. This window – the lore says – opened in 1943 and slammed shut in 1946. Some versions of the story bookend the time between Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” when it opened and Howard Hughes’ “The Outlaw” as when it closed.

“Double Indemnity” violated the PCA’s code on showing the method of crime. The film details how to murder and make it look like an accident and then defraud the insurance company, among other things. “Double Indemnity” isn’t a mystery by a long shot. Being lumped in with the hardboiled lot would plague Cain and one can see his point. While Dash Hammett and Raymond Chandler cut their teeth writing for Black Mask and other pulps, Cain edited The New Yorker and worked with HL Mencken on The Baltimore Sun. His work appeared in The Atlantic and The Nation and the New York World. Double Indemnity owes – in terms of influence – as much to Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin as it does to the murder of Albert Synder. There is absolutely nothing “hardboiled” about Cain’s writing and all it takes is a session of reading Chandler, Hammett and Cain out loud to see the difference. (Although it can be argued reasonably that Farewell My Lovely is not a hard-boiled detective novel.)

“Double Indemnity” is a seminal film – not because of its “A List” stars or excellent production values – but because Wilder kept to the notion of the realists and made the film about real people who cross the line. The film rises above the others and it’s difficult to see how Nino Frank missed that. Not every critic missed it.

There is a September 7, 1944, New York Times movie review of “Double Indemnity” that contains an interesting observation. “For Billy Wilder,” wrote critic Bosley Crowther, “has filmed the Cain story of the brassy couple who attempt a ‘perfect crime,’ in order to collect some insurance, with a realism reminiscent of the bite of past French films.”

It may seem a little late in the game to point this out: Nino Frank is not an impressive critic. His confusing misogyny with just desserts in “The Maltese Falcon,” and “Murder My Sweet” and missing it in “Laura” is one thing. Since we now have a much better idea of what the French critics meant when they wrote “film noir” in the 1930s, his assertion that these three films are part of a similar tradition can’t be taken seriously.

Forget Frank, Crowther, Silver, Ursini, Naremore or any of the theories, interpretations, spin or what is written here. Take any two films from the list that the French critics identified as film noir. Then watch “Laura,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Murder My Sweet” and “Double Indemnity.” “Double Indemnity” will seem part of the group. The others won’t. It really is that simple. The films are always right. Nino Frank missed it. Jean-Pierre Chartier – the other French critic – didn’t.

Next: The Other Critic




The Death of Film Noir: Nino Frank