Generally speaking, the term film noir refers to crime thrillers, crime dramas, heist films and chase film produced from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, though many critics stretch the period as far as Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil (1958) and indicated that as the last film noir.
These film didn’t come from an organic, intentional creativity, but rather they spontaneously emerged from a particular social and historical context and very specific industry circumstances. At the time they were produces, nobody (neither the filmmakers, nor the audience) ever had a notion that this were anything other then common thrillers. It was only retrospectively (in the 1950s) and from an outside look (French cinema critics) that a unity of themes, narrational devises and visual effects was noted and consolidated into a new concept and possibly a new style or genre.
Neo Noir refers to post-1960s films of similar content and expression, but which consciously employ noir stylistics and conventions. Neo noir alludes to classic noir, either implicitly or explicitly, building on what is now recognised and accepted as a distinct body of films.
Where the unity of classic film noir happend spontanously in response to the time and society that kind of film spoke to, neo noir is the appropiation of that language so to contiously send a specific message. Neo noir self-consciously revised the noir tradition in a contemporary idiom.
Although neo noir started to present its first offerings in the 1960s, it’s in the 1970s that this form of film started to come into its own, with many critics indicating Chinatown as the first neo noir.
It was in this same period that Anglo-American criticism first started to recognise and discuss film noir as a unified body of films, whereas it had previously been mostly a European concern.
French Film Noir
I would like to mention French Film Noir as its own topic here. French Film Noir didn’t derive from American film noir. It developed independently and in parallel with it, during the same years – if over a longer stretch of time. In many respects, French Film Noir addressed the same kind of issues in slightly different ways, which may explain why the French film critics were sensitive in detecting a similar experience in Hollywood cinema.
Although dark melodramas and crime cinema already existed in France in the silent period, it was only with the advent of sound that French Film Noir really come into its own form of expression, around the early 1930s.
Many different elements worked toward its rise:
- Poetic Realism – A kind of dark, melodramatic film that fused together a realistic depiction of working class life with a poetic, lyric style. This is not confined to cinema. French writers had been fascinated with the underbelly of society, the bass-fonds (‘low depths’) from the very early modern period and particularly in the XVIII century roman noir. Authors like Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac wrote stories about poor people and criminals living at the margins of big cities.
The XIX century saw a shift in the attitude of authors towards these subjects, probably due to the Romantics’ interest with bohemian life. Revulsion turned to fascination as authors continue to represent poverty, vice and crime, but observed it with a greater poetic sensibility.
By the 1920s, this kind of sensitivity pervaded many stories and it’s in this cultural environment that Belgian author George Simenon wrote his mystery novels where crime is located in the everyday. When poetic realism migrated into cinema, George Simenon became one of the riches single sources for French Film Noir.
- German Expressionism – Just like in Hollywood, the Expressionist school had a great influence in how film were done in France as many German émigrés passed through France on their way to the US. Some of these directors and cinematographer only staid a little while, though left their mark on the French cinema. Others stayed and trained a new generation of French cinematographers.
- Photography – In the 1930s, Paris became a magnet for photography experimentation, attracting many foreign photographers, particularly Central and Eastern European émigrés fleeing from the rise of the Nazis. These photographers experimented with light and shadows, not unlike the Expressionists, and were fascinated, like French artist, by the underbelly of society.
Bressaï was one of the most famous. His collection The Secret Paris of the 1930s, with his nocturnal low life depicted in a dense, inky idiom is one of his most recognised works.
French Film Noir married an international visual style with a minute observation of French life.
As a production of popular culture, it didn’t take a particularly political stance toward social issues, but it wasn’t a mere representation of society either. French Film Noir definitely addressed traumatic social context, particularly between the wars and after WWII: the rise of the fascism in the 1930s, the left-wing Popular Front alliance of 1936-1938, the war and the German occupation of 1940-1944 as well as the postwar advent of American-inflicted modernity were all issues touched upon in these films.
Just like American Film Noir, French Film Noir is a masculine observation of life and an expression of male vulnerability and anxiety, brimming with men falling prey of a cruel fate or victims of an alluring female.
Women in French Film Noir are usually marginalised and often degraded characters, which speaks of the male’s anxiety towards women’s shifting role in French society. As in the American noir, these women don’t have much of a narrational agency, but – with very few exceptions – they are denied the transgressive power of the femme fatale or the alternative role of the ‘good girl’ of their American counterparts.
It was overall a very pessimistic outlook on life that attracted disapproval in many quarters (though not from the censors, as it happened in Hollywood) but certainly appealed to a vast audience well into the 1960s.
Chinatown (1974) by Roman Polanski
When Los Angeles private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s activities, he believes it’s a routine infidelity case. Jake’s investigation soon becomes anything but routine when he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and realizes he was hired by an imposter. Mr. Mulwray’s sudden death sets Gittes on a tangled trail of corruption, deceit and sinister family secrets as Evelyn’s father (John Huston) becomes a suspect in the case. (Google synopsis)
Pépé le Moko (1946) by Julien Duvivier
Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin), one of France’s most wanted criminals, hides out in the Casbah section of Algiers. He knows police will be waiting for him if he tries to leave the city. When Pépé meets Gaby Gould (Mireille Balin), a gorgeous woman from Paris who is lost in the Casbah, he falls for her. She also reminds him of all the things he loves about Paris. Even as Pépé knows he is being trailed by Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), he considers a future with Gaby. (Google synopsis)
Rififi (1956) by Jules Dassin
Out of prison after a five-year stretch, jewel thief Tony (Jean Servais) turns down a quick job his friend Jo (Carl Mohner) offers him, until he discovers that his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) has become the lover of local gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) during Tony’s absence. Expanding a minor smash-and-grab into a full-scale jewel heist, Tony and his crew appear to get away clean, but their actions after the job is completed threaten the lives of everyone involved. (Google synopsis)
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Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC