Film Noir


The critical and theoretical commentary upon film noir has been extensive. The history of film noir begins with international criticism—essays written in postwar France assessing new developments in American film. The context and historical moment is important. New Hollywood films had not been available in France since the time of the German occupation in 1940. When those films at last appeared in postwar Paris, critics like Nino Frank saw evidence of a new sensibility in them, which he termed film noir . Frank contrasted this sensibility with the work of Hollywood's older generation—directors like John Ford. Frank's use of the term film noir carried with it associations of "black" French films of the 1930s, such as Marcel Carne's (1909–1996) Hotel du Nord (1938) and Le Jour se Leve (1939), as well as with Marcel Duhamel's Serie Noire books. The first book-length study of film noir , Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton's

Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), which began a wave of neo-noirs.
Panorama du Film Noir Americain , appeared in 1955. By the time the term caught on in English more than a decade later, film noir had come to mean a historically superseded film movement. These three critical perspectives—that of the mid-1940s, describing a vibrant, emerging sensibility; that of the 1950s, categorizing an established cycle; and that of the 1960s, describing a historical, archival category—should not be conflated. They come with different vantage points and different assumptions. They often presume a different body of films (with the post-1960s perspective expanding the canon exponentially). The first two draw upon primarily Modernist presumptions; the last often includes a post-modern sensibility.

The expansion and academicization of film discourse in the 1960s gave film noir its first widespread attention in English. Important articles by Raymond Durgnat in 1970, Paul Schrader in 1972, and Janey Place and Lowell Peterson in 1974 laid groundwork for exploring film noir , posing major questions such as whether it is a genre or a visual style to the growing academic and journalistic film culture in Europe and the United States.

In 1981, Foster Hirsch's The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir detailed historical contexts and proposed major tropes of the form. Three years later, Spencer Selby took a virtually opposite approach in Dark City: The Film Noir . Lamenting what he considered to be the contemporary tendency to fit the films into grand categories, Selby provided detailed (primarily narrative) analyses of twenty-five individual films, along with appendices of historical and bibliographical data, to illustrate his premise that the films must be evaluated individually.

Since the late 1970s, psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis, has become the lingua franca of much discourse on film noir ; it inflects many approaches. One such approach, as evidenced in collections of essays by E. Ann Kaplan and Joan Copjec, draws

b. San Diego, California, 30 June 1906, d. 29 April 1967

Although Anthony Mann's reputation as a director rests primarily upon his turbulent, complex 1950s westerns starring James Stewart, his style coalesced in the 1940s with a series of important films noirs . These films, with their disorienting, often baroque cinematography, malevolent environment, and violent, tortured characters, presage his later work. His Technicolor westerns of the 1950s and historical epics of the 1960s were shot with a broader palate and a resonant sense of landscape, and retreated farther into history, but they share with the noirs an entrapping environment populated by embattled, anguished men.

Mann began his directorial career in the 1940s making B films whose minimal budgets allowed him considerable creative freedom. Particularly in his 1940s work with cinematographer John Alton, Mann developed a distinctive visual style that made extensive use of oppressive darkness, intermittent light, and off-center, disorienting camera angles in complexly textured images. Such images are often as potent a component of the films as their characters and stories. Mann's films often erupt with shots of excruciating agony that make viewers gasp. An abrupt, low-angle shot in Winchester 73 (1950), for example, shows Stewart brutally clawing a villain's face. The murderous savagery evident in Stewart's contorted face indicates that little difference exists between this "hero" and the villain.

T-Men (1947), perhaps the most distinctive of Mann's films noirs, deals with undercover US Treasury agents investigating a counterfeiting syndicate. Two scenes reveal much about Mann's compressed techniques. In one, a gangster locks an informer in a steam room to roast him to death. In a single shot, we see the trapped, terrified victim clawing at the room's window while his sadistic killer quietly watches from the other side of the window, only inches away. In the second scene, one treasury agent watches in impotent agony while another undercover agent, a close friend, is murdered. Both scenes painfully foreground the physical proximity, repressed terror, impotent psychic agony, and sadism pervading Mann's enclosed, masculine world of embittered rivalries.

T-Men is framed as a documentary-style film about an actual Treasury Department case. Its unseen narrator, unlike the tormented narrators of many films noirs , speaks in a declamatory, newsreel-type tone, touting the glories of the Treasury Department. Shots of the department seem to belong in a different film—brightly lit, frontal, with monumental exteriors of its Washington, D.C., headquarters. These differ radically from shots of the criminal world—the nightmare-like, dark, cramped, sweaty images classically associated with film noir . These two styles provide contrast within the film and also presage the open landscapes of the westerns and epics to come. Although the palate of later films is broader, their oppressive universe breeding endless, useless masculine conflict and torment remains similar to that of Mann's films noirs .


Desperate (1947), Railroaded (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (uncredited, 1948), Border Incident (1949), Winchester 73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953), Man of the West (1958), El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)


Basinger, Jeanine. Anthony Mann . Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood . London: British Film Institute, 2004.

Smith, Robert. "Mann in the Dark." The Film Noir Reader , edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, 167–173. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

White, Susan. "t(he)-men's room." Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture , edited by Peter Lehman, 95–114. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

Wood, Robin. "Man(n) of the West(ern)." CineAction , no. 46 (June 1998): 26–33.

William Luhr

Anthony Mann.

upon post-structuralist, feminist film discourse to examine gender constructions within the films. Another psychoanalytically inflected approach is Frank Krutnik's In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991), which relies on some of the tools of Structuralist genre study to focus upon issues of masculinity. Another approach is offered by Tony Williams (1988), who applies Gaylyn Studlar's work on masochism to films related to Woolrich's fiction and attempts to shift discussion of film noir from tropes of content to tropes of affect. This approach is also evident in recent work on trauma and anxiety done by E. Ann Kaplan and others.

In addition to gender-based approaches, recent articles dealing with racial representation in film noir have opened up an important new area of exploration, examining, for example, the erasure of peoples of color in many films noirs and the use in those films of highly coded racial imagery. As with so many other topics, this functions differently in films made during the classical noir period from the way it functions during the neo- noir era. Films made during the classical era are Anglo-centric and seldom directly engage issues of race. However, significant patterns exist in ways in which many of those films not only erase or marginalize peoples of color but also symbolically associate them with the exotic and the dangerous. Neo- noir films, to the contrary, often explicitly address issues of race, commonly from a perspective sympathetic (while patronizing at times) to peoples of color. A number of such films have been based upon fiction by African American authors such as Walter Mosley (b. 1952), Chester Himes (1909–1984), and Donald Goines (1937–1974).

SEE ALSO Crime Films ; Expressionism ; Genre

Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. Panorama du film noir americain, 1941–1953. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1955. Published in English as Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953 . San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002.

Copjec, Joan, ed. Shades of Noir: A Reader . New York and London: Verso, 1993.

Gorman, Ed, Lee Server, and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. The Big Book of Noir . New York: Carroll and Graff, 1998.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir . San Diego: Barnes, and London: Tantivy Press, 1981.

——. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir . New York: Limelight, 1999.

Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Women in Film Noir , 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity . New York: Routledge, 1991.

Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film , 2nd ed. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1991.

——, ed. The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, Director . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir . Farmington Hills, MI: Twayne, 1994.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader . New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

Spencer, Selby. Dark City: The Film Noir . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984.

Telotte, J. P. Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

William Luhr

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