Register Tuesday | November 30 | 2021

Back in Black

The seminal film noir handbook - half a century late and right on time

Fifty years ago, when the distribution rights to Edward Dmytryk’s film noir Murder, My Sweet were about to expire, the Toulouse Ciné Club decided for curiosity’s sake to rescreen and discuss it. Originally released in 1944, the film—adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely—had introduced moviegoers to the private detective Philip Marlowe, whose adventures on the threshold between order and criminality, in a strange and cynical underworld of shady motives, had inspired bankable discomfiture in audiences and critics alike. But by 1953, in Toulouse at least, Marlowe and his milieu were considered self-parodic, and evoked unintended laughter. The experiment proved that the so-called film noir form had by then passed its apex, fractured and diluted by other trends and preoccupations of cinema technique, like neorealism and Technicolor. Not even a decade old, and already a whole genre seemed hopelessly dated.

Today, in America at least, “film noir” is to movie talk what “art deco” is to the chitchat of urban design: a term as likely to be bandied about as it is unlikely to be fully comprehended. One reason for this must be that the genre’s literally definitive text, first published in France in 1955, hasn’t been fully available in English until now—demonstrably late by half a century. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953), translated by Paul Hammond for City Lights Books last year, is itself a curious ex post facto experiment. Given the overuse of the noir name now, not to mention the banality of American cinema, is the book doomed to seem obsolete and laughably provincial?

It shouldn’t. Certainly not now that the genre’s legacy—among other things, it bestowed such troublesome delights as dystopian despair and what Borde and Chaumeton call the “eroticization of violence”—is really thriving. Not merely with alleged neonoirists like Paul Schrader, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Curtis Hanson et al., whose most popular works are often considered innovative only because they cleverly escape being discovered as derivative. The noir influence also pervades blockbuster fare, which currently devotes more resources to eroticizing violence than some small countries devote to feeding their citizens.

But the question remains: what is film noir, anyway? It was born of haunted, contrasty German Expressionism and the Surrealist notion to replace Hollywood’s pre-fab pipe dreams with the startling ambience of real dreams, to replace the certitudes of narrative logic and moral clarity with opacity and ambivalence. It shaded events with world-weary cynicism. “The vocation of film noir,” Borde and Chaumeton write, “has been to create a specific sense of malaise.”

They cite The Maltese Falcon as its first exemplar, and locate its “glory days” late in the 1940s, when more than half the movies made by Hollywood were about criminals and their cruel and unusual adventures, “whose final stake is death.”

French critics had already found the term “noir” useful for mapping their own literature, from Gothic novels to contemporary pulp paperbacks. When applied to American movies, though, it became elemental—and transformative. We know what noir did for its leading ladies, permanently dislodging the chaste and unassertive women of American adventure-film convention and originating the femme fatale. And, as elaborated by Borde and Chaumeton, we have a similarly iconic understanding of its leading men:


The private eye had been the standard character of 1940s film noir. Arriving from the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he moved around in a twilight world, on the borderline of legality. Accepting of dubious clients, mixed up in suspect affairs, he symbolized the rottenness that comes inevitably from contact with crime. Yet at the same time he played the scapegoat’s role, he stomached all the wrongdoing so that the police might remain above suspicion. In that sense, he was American cinema’s alibi, and it interposed his pervasive myth between spectator and society.

To return to Marlowe and Murder, My Sweet, it’s amusing to consider that slight modification of the title from the Farewell, My Lovely of Chandler’s book. Among the attributes that the two titles have in common is what you might call a distilled noirishness—a peculiar braid of endearment and doom. Fred MacMurray put it well in Double Indemnity, when he shot Barbara Stanwyck and told her, “Goodbye, baby.”

Chandler also cowrote that script, and it too was adapted from a novel, by James M. Cain. Noir’s early servitude to literature was profound—Borde and Chaumeton remind us to consider the often overlooked contributions of Graham Greene, and drop small but well-targeted doses of Baudelaire, Brontë and Rimbaud for context. But with the swift expansion of cinema language came a dramatic emancipation. “Just think,” the authors write, “of the striking image of the killer honing his razor in a barber’s salon (The Enforcer). In a few years, all those hard-boiled novels will be mixed up or blurred in our memory, but we’ll still remember the close-up of that criminal hand and its professional ways.”

Point taken. These authors are nimble describers, and their style is at once breezy and committed, just right for the hustling and sometimes elusive noir narrative—not to mention that of cinema on the whole, whose images strike us so immediately as they rush past at twenty-four frames per second.

This aptly named Panorama doesn’t seem so dated at all. It feels fresh, attentive, engaged by and in love with cinema in ways that are, if not impossible today, at least less familiar. The book serves the tired buzzword “noir” well, focusing its meaning instead of blurring it, rescuing it from its fate as the catchall cliché of lazy commentary.

So yes, the English version, overdue though it is, has a way of making up for temps perdu. What’s more, if the distance of time is an asset, so is the distance of distance. Benefiting from their apartness, French critics have long been helpful to the cause of American movie maturation. French critics, of course, gave us the auteur theory, which, although it has perhaps unduly stimulated the megalomaniacal aspect of the American personality that drives some people to become film directors, has also given directors permission, and the mandate, to really take ownership of their art. Indeed, the presumed language barrier inherent to discussions of American movies by French viewers has offered not misreadings but closer readings, and fresh perspectives.

“Let us add that the American public has not experienced certain of the horrors of war as directly as European audiences,” Borde and Chaumeton write. “The tortures of the Gestapo unfolded on the other side of the ocean and retained an exotic, unreal aspect … In America, things were easier, and film noir was able, there, to create a synthesis between realism and cruelty.” Americans reading those lines may wonder whether they’ve been insulted or complimented. Zealous patriots will make accusations of hypocrisy and cowardice, invoke Normandy and Private Ryan and secretly shiver to think that they might ever owe anything to the French. Dissenting lefties will nod guiltily, admonish the callow American pop culture once again, then ready their passports and revisit the fantasies of moving to Europe once and for all.

If we’re to concede that Borde and Chaumeton’s judgements seemed correct in 1955, and might have remained so, even despite American war memorials and Spielbergian baby-boomer apologias and September 11, then we should also allow that the same ocean’s worth of distance had likewise affected the European vision of American films—a vision all the more clear-eyed for its recognition that the “synthesis between realism and cruelty” should carry cultural currency and that cinema, unencumbered by Puritanical self-censorship, could and should be high art.

Happily, this creative compact between France and the United States has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. The canonization of film noir might be the only truly significant bicultural effort between the two nations since the end of World War II. It’s a shame to let the genre’s murky malaise and murkier legacy obscure that encouraging fact. American film noir is forever half French, a rich conglomeration of mores, not in dialectic opposition so much as tense collaboration.

Borde and Chaumeton’s book reminds us that long before the indie film renaissance, such as it is, a stylish and serious tradition of cultural self-criticism, a tradition of subverting Hollywood’s cookie-cutter, mass-entertainment formula, was firmly established in America. Yet, if it weren’t for a few French cinéastes, who knows how long it would have taken to realize it, to really make something of it? Who but a pair of French film-buff critics could make the point almost better than the filmmakers themselves?

“A happy end has always been somewhat ridiculous in the case of Bogart,” they write, “whose sad, desperate look it is essential to vindicate.” That’s why Bogart, who initiated the genre with The Maltese Falcon, and who took over the role of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, has been so important. Substitute “America” for “Bogart” in that sentence, and it becomes clear just how high the stakes then were. They still are; film noir as such may be long out of style in Toulouse, but the pervasive Marlowe myth holds up among Americans, who still need their endearment and doom.