Rerunning Film Noir

Richard Schickel in The Wilson Quarterly:

Noir, despite its Frenchified name, is a truly American form, as Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward observe in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (1979). Yes, many of its leading directors (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur, André de Toth) were born in Europe and well versed in expressionism. But their ­source—­often directly, always at least ­indirectly—­was the American crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, W. R. Burnett, and others. Almost all noir actors and many of the directors’ significant collaborators (cameramen, editors, etc.) were American born and certainly American ­trained. “Film Noir,” he wrote, “The disillusionment many soldiers, small businessmen and housewife/factory employees felt in returning to a peacetime economy was directly mirrored in the sordidness of the urban crime film. . . . The war continues, but now the antagonism turns with a new viciousness toward the American society itself.” I’ve never seen this rather casual bit of sociology disputed, mostly because the many commentators on noir tend to focus on specific films, with little interest in the society that produced ­them.

How, then, to square the dark visual and psychological designs of this thoroughly American genre with the general mood of the country in the immediate postwar years? Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader thought that was easy. In his seminal 1972 article “Notes on