The Death of Film Noir: The Other Critic

© 2009 William Ahearn

Jean-Pierre Chartier – the other French critic who used the term “film noir” – wrote Americans Also Make Noir Films for La Révue du Cinéma in November of 1946. In that article he discusses three films: “Murder My Sweet,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Lost Weekend.”

Chartier notes that the tagline for the movie poster of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” – “She kisses him so that he’ll kill for her” – “would work just as well for Edward Dmytryk’s ‘Murder My Sweet.’” He goes on to add, “We understood why the Hays Office had previously forbidden film adaptations of James M Cain’s two novels from which ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Postman [Always] Rings Twice’ are drawn. It is harder to understand, given this censor’s moral posture, why this interdiction was lifted, as it’s hard to imagine story lines with a more pessimistic or disgusted view regarding human behavior.”

Chartier also notes one of the conventions of crime films: “with a detective as protagonist and a few innocent bystanders in support, human nature’s tendency to do right can still be affirmed. In ‘Double Indemnity,’ as in ‘Murder My Sweet, all of the characters are more or less venal. And while there is a pure young girl in both films, which permits some hope about future generations, the females are particularly monstrous.”

After recounting the “monstrous” behavior of Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity”(played by Barbara Stanwyck) and Velma Valento aka Mrs. Grayle in “Murder My Sweet” (played by Claire Trevor), Chartier makes an interesting observation. “We can see,” he writes, “how significant sexual attraction is in the through line of these narratives. It’s a sort of contradiction that, from convention, the film censors, insensitive to the pessimism and despair which radiates from these characters, forbids putting the real emphasis on the sexual drive that dooms them. The result is that the actions of all these figures seems conditioned by an obsessive and fatal attraction to the crime itself. The sexual expropriation that Phyllis Dietrichson exercises over the free will of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), if it were underscored even more, would make his character even more hapless, as he actually is while under her spell, and this would be a sort of relief for the viewer.”

There is a difference between Velma and Phyllis. Velma is a killer and a criminal. Phyllis is a sociopath or psychopath (or whatever term that the ICD-10 or DSM IV is using these days). That’s the bitch that bites Walter on the butt. Phyllis – as she says herself – just can’t help it and that’s one reason that “Double Indemnity” is far superior to the pale knock-offs such as “Body Heat” and “The Last Seduction.”

While Nino Frank sees first person narratives in these films and equates them to a style he doesn’t seem to understand, Chartier sees the difference in how those narratives are used.

“The narrator of ‘Murder My Sweet,’” writes Chartier, “is a private detective. [ . . .] [It] is no ordinary crime drama where from scene to scene more of the mystery is revealed: the script is not a whodunit designed to draw the viewer into guessing the outcome, it aims not to intrigue but to create an atmosphere of fright. Precisely because we don’t understand them, we sense the menace of unknown dangers. ‘Murder My Sweet’ genuinely deserves the label of thriller, as the first person narrative is used to make the viewer shudder with the thrill of fear.”

Thriller is a good description. Farewell, My Lovely (the source material for “Murder My Sweet”) was written by Raymond Chandler and features Philip Marlow. For all the fedoras and femme fatales, it isn’t a hard-boiled detective story. For more on that, go here.

He then points out that “Double Indemnity” “used the narrative progression for psychological ends: as the guilty man is telling the story, there is no formal mystery; on the contrary, it is the psychological mechanism by which Walter Neff is dragged unrelentingly into the criminal action that unwinds before our eyes. The action doesn’t spring from exterior causes: the seduction of [a] law-abiding young man by a calculating bitch, the appeal of the perfect crime, the gauntlet thrown down to the friend in charge of investigating fraud have a verisimilitude that draws us personally into this sordid tale.”

Chartier notes that Chandler wrote the novel on which “Murder My Sweet” is based and co-wrote the screenplay for “Double Indemnity” and writes that “one can sense the same influence on both films.” He adds that “Double Indemnity” “doubtless owes its superiority to the source material of James Cain.” While Cain has been popular in France since the 1930s, Chartier can only “sense the influence” of Raymond Chandler since Chandler’s novels wouldn’t be available in France until 1948.

He then states, “But the hand of Billy Wilder is clearly evident, particularly in the first person narrative which is used as well in his other ‘noir’ film ‘The Lost Weekend.’” Here we have one of the legendary postwar French critics specifically citing a film as a “noir” and yet this film has been ignored in what is considered “film noir” by the noirists. In the pantheon of American so-called film noirs, “The Lost Weekend” could be known as “The Lost Noir.”

“The Lost Weekend” isn’t listed in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference of the American Style. In A Panorama of American Film Noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton mention “The Lost Weekend” as “having been classified, somewhat superficially, as belonging to the noir genre, doubtless because of the hospital scenes and the description of delirium tremens. Strangeness and crime, however, were absent from it, and the psychology of the drunk offered one of the most classic examples there are of the all-powerfulness of a rudimentary desire.”

When A Panorama of American Film Noir was published in 1955, the notion that a “film noir” described a crime film, it created a gospel from which the form would never recover. Dismissing “The Lost Weekend” as “superficially . . . belonging to the noir genre” doomed the film to be ignored by future writings on “film noir.”

On “The Lost Weekend,” Chartier writes, “The impressions of insanity, of a senseless void, left by the drama of a young man in the grip of singular addiction, makes ‘The Lost Weekend’ one of the most depressing films I have ever seen. Certainly a charming young lady helps our alcoholic hero sober up and permits the film to end with a kiss. But the impression of extreme despair persists despite this upbeat ending.”

While Chartier noticed the kiss, he should have been watching the gun. Near the end of the film, the alcoholic – who has swapped the woman’s coat for a gun at a pawnshop – has the gun in the bathroom sink where he was going to blow his brains out. The coat is not a minor item. It symbolizes their relationship. At the end of the film he doesn’t give the gun to the woman to retrieve the coat. He puts the gun in his pocket. And there it stays. And there it will stay because he’s doomed. It’s only a matter of time and he knows it. And if the audience is paying attention, they know it too. There is no redemption here and there is nothing ambiguous about it because he makes the choice to keep the gun and to blow his brains out and find the darkness.

Billy Widler slipped this subtlety past the censors and it would be a long time until another film could deal with the subject matter explicitly. Louis Malle, in 1963, with “The Fire Within,” dealt with same subject far more explicitly than Wilder and it raises the question of whether impending doom is more distressing than the arrival of doom. There would be many alcohol and substance abuse films in the coming decades – “The Man With The Golden Arm” and “A Hatful of Rain” among others – yet it wouldn’t be until Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 “Panic In Needle Park” that any film would surpass the realism of “The Lost Weekend.”

That “The Lost Weekend” harks back to the film noirs of poetic realism is obvious to anyone familiar with “La Bête Humaine” or “Les Bas-fonds.” Wilder insisted on shooting on location for the exterior shots in New York City, going so far as to build a box to hide the camera from pedestrians. Wilder insisted on the “realism” of the film and Don Burnam’s search for an open pawnshop on Yom Kippur – among other scenes – adds that dimension to the film.

Chartier then makes an interesting closing point. “Women as insatiable as Empress Messalina,” he writes, “animalistic or senile husbands, young guys ready to kill for the sexual favors of a femme fatale, unrepentant alcoholics, these are the charming types from the films we’ve discussed. There’s been talk of a French school of ‘film noir,’ but ‘Le Quai des Brumes’ and ‘L’Hotel du Nord’ contain some glimmer of resistance to the dark side, where love provides at least the mirage of a better world, where some re-vindication of society opens the door for hope, and even though the characters may despair they retain our pity and our sympathy. There is none of that in the films before us now: these are monsters, criminals and psychopaths without redemptive qualities who behave according to the preordained disposition to evil within themselves.”

This is an expansion of Chartier’s observation that “The result is that the actions of all these figures seems conditioned by an obsessive and fatal attraction to the crime itself.” That is the critical difference between the French film noirs and the later American crime films called “film noir.” The French films contain a more philosophical approach that could be summed up by the title of Jean Renoir’s “La Chienne” (Isn't Life a Bitch?). In the Hollywood films and in the Hollywood remakes of the French film noirs, the overriding philosophy is one of retribution. As always, the answer is in the films. Watch Renoir’s “La Bête humaine” and then Lang’s “Human Desire” or Renoir’s “La Chienne” and then Lang’s “Scarlet Street.” Or Duviver’s “Pepe Le Moko” and John Cromwell’s “Algiers.” In all of these remakes the politics, the philosophy and the suicides have been removed and replaced by the notion of crime and the impending retribution of the police.

There a lot going on in Chartier’s article and not the least of which is a clear and unambiguous reference to the prewar film noirs. Chartier specifically names two of the films in the “French school of ‘film noir’” – “Port of Shadows” and “Hôtel du Nord” and yet someone derived that the critics were coining the term. He also clearly equates the American films and the French films. How Alain Silver – who translated this article as well as the Nino Frank article – missed this reference is beyond my understanding. Whether the American films are film noirs based on the qualities of the French films isn’t the point as much as which films are being compared. Chartier doesn’t include “Laura” and “The Maltese Falcon” and does include “The Lost Weekend.” Does he dismiss “Murder My Sweet” as a “thriller” or is it a noir? It certainly isn’t a hardboiled detective story. There is no question about “Double Indemnity” and “The Lost Weekend” being considered as film noirs and anyone familiar with the prewar French films will immediately see the connection even if “Double Indemnity” is hobbled by the censors and focuses too heavily on the criminal aspects.

The end result of the analysis of the French critics is that Nino Frank’s superficial and vague use of “film noir” would go on to inspire even more superficial and vague writings about film noir and Chartier’s careful and insightful weighing of the films with its references to the original film noirs would be abandoned. One could argue that this is where film noir died. Once the idea that “Laura,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Murder My Sweet” and “Double Indemnity” were all cut from the same cloth, the notion of film noir being solely a definition for crime films was set and that definition would be based on utterly superficial aspects such as shadows and other “requirements” that once examined prove to be untrue.

As the notion that film noir and crime film became synonymous, Chartier disappeared from the references for articles about film noir in terms of how he assessed the films. Since all film noirs were now American films and film noir an American invention – in the mythology that grew up around the films – the “noirists” needed to explain how it had a French name describing American films.

And that gave birth to the myth of Séries Noire.