Notes On Film Noir

© 2014 William Ahearn

InNotes On Film Noir,” published in Film Comment in 1972, Paul Schrader begins by citing the postwar French critics. At that time, that was the only known usage of the term “film noir” and one of the critics was given credit for “coining” the term.For the real history of the term and what the French critics actually wrote, go here: The Death of Film Noir.

Since its publication, Schrader’s essay has been highly influential in defining “film noir” and Schrader outlines several “cultural and stylistic elements” that any definition of film noir “must” contain. The essay also created a frame – both of time and place – that makes it clear that “film noir” is not only a US postwar creation, but that it was – no matter how many precursors may exist – a product of Hollywood that was in the throes of “an acute downer” and that led to films filled with “postwar disillusionment” and “a new viciousness toward the American society itself.”

While these elements have become part of what can only be described as a mythology, the reality is that most of what Schrader asserts in Notes On Film Noir is utter nonsense.

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 wrote, “was directly demonstrated in films like ‘Cornered,’ ‘The Blue Dalia,’ ‘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.”

What hasn’t happened – apparently – in the intervening decades since the publication of the essay, is that no one has kicked the tires, slammed the doors or turned the key to see if this essay holds any bearing whatsoever with reality. There was “postwar disillusionment” in small segments of US society such as the 3.9% unemployment in 1946, and among the Japanese-Americans who released from wartime internment camps returned to find their homes, farms, and businesses sold to whites, and among the black Americans who served in the war only to return to an apartheid US rampant with Jim Crow laws and explicit racism. That disillusionment would become the seed of the modern civil rights movement. In the insular confines of Hollywood, none of these people or their circumstances, even registered with the white elite.

This supposed “postwar disillusionment” doesn’t show up in newspaper editorials or trend in polls or manifest itself in any detectable way whatsoever. In fact, consulting vital statistics shows the exact opposite of an “acute downer.”

Not only is this “postwar disillusionment” absent from the history books and vital statistics, it’s also missing in the contemporary film criticism. Not a single reporter from Variety, nor Bosley Crowther (or any other critic) at The New York Times, nor James Agee writing for Time or The Nation, or J Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms, ever suggested an “acute downer” in American society being portrayed in the films and “disillusionment” never enters the conversation let alone “a new viciousness toward the American society itself.” That last one would be hard to miss yet every critic working at the time missed it while Schrader clearly sees it from several decades away.

In the case of Schrader’s assertion of “post-war disillusionments” being reflected in the films – and, once again, the idea of post-war disillusionment only shows up in Schrader’s essay – a close look at the four films he cites as examples reveal a far different story.

Of the four films, “Cornered” is the most enlightening in regards to Schrader’s thesis. Starring Dick Powell and directed by Edward Dmytryk (who were previously 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 new bride. The serviceman follows the Nazi’s trail to Latin America and – after some hard-boiled detective-style tricks – finds the Nazi and beats him to death. He doesn’t intend to beat him to death and everyone is very understanding and he gets the girl.

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. Contrast this with a similar film, Fred Zinnermann’s “Act of Violence” where the avenger and the turncoat reach some understanding and where the turncoat loses his life in an act of redemption, and redemption plays a major part in these postwar Hollywood crime films.

The serviceman being Canadian is the key to unraveling Schrader’s misconceptions. 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 (or the US Navy, depending on some stories) demanded that he change the ex-serviceman as the killer to some other character. The original killer – if that story is indeed true – 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), “The Crooked Way,” (1949) and “The High Wall” (1947). In every case they are innocent and US ex-servicemen are also innocent in every other crime film of the time with the sole exception of “He Walked By Night,” that was loosely based on a true story and was shot in documentary style. There are at least two films that involve ex-GIs with larcenous behavior and in both cases – Anthony Mann’s  “Side Street” (1950) and RG Springsteen’s “Out of the Storm” (1948) – they are nonviolent crimes of opportunity.