When we talk film noir, we’re talking about a very specific place at a very specific time: The United States in the 1940s.
At this time in America, anxiety was rising, and Hollywood caught and expressed it, primarily through a series of crime thrillers that were later named ‘noir’.
Most critics agree that the first film noir is The Maltese Falcon (1941) from the novel by Dashiell Hammett and featuring a favourite star of the film noir, Humphrey Bogart. It looked like a promising start, and still there followed three years of nothing on the film noir side. Why?
The entry of the US into WWII set in motion an intense process of cultural mobilisation. Official propaganda agencies (like the Office of War Information) required that all cultural discourses converged on a message of unity, purpose and struggle that would displace any division caused by class, race or sexual inequality.Hollywood response was a series of films where the male hero is part of a team (often a war squad) which function as a microcosm of American society. Only by being united and working together, the team may achieve the ultimate goal.
But while this was happening on the screen, massive changes were underway in real society. The mass drafting of men into the armed forces left many jobs vacant. As part of their ‘patriotic duty’, women were strongly encouraged to take up those jobs, which they did in large numbers. This cause a massive, rapid redefinition of their social role: not just wives and mothers anymore, they took up and successfully covered positions previously only covered by men.
When soldiers came back from the war, they found that America had dramatically changed during their absence, and they found it hard to be integrated into it. Women shifting position, in particular, caused a temporary confusion about traditional sexual roles and sexual identity for both men and women.
As a cultural institution, Hollywood sought to address these changes but was hindered by the wartime cultural mobilisation and its logic of unity. This was in stark contrast with the new reality of women who sought economic and social advancement, thus upturning traditional sexual roles. So, during the war year this change, that was actually happening, remained under the radar of entertainment cinema.
But in 1944 the climate changed drastically. With victory in sight, ‘wartime’ issues started to give way to ‘postwar’ issues, and the ‘problem’ of working women and the social insecurity they cause came to the fore. Themes that had been glossed over during the war in the name of a necessary unity exploded on the screen.
Film noir picked up those anxieties, uncertainties and fears. With its damage male hero and its dangerous and ambitious femme fatale, it became one of the most popular forms of entertainments of the 1940s.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston
Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets more than he bargained for when he takes a case brought to him by a beautiful but secretive woman (Mary Astor). As soon as Miss Wonderly shows up, trouble follows as Sam’s partner is murdered and Sam is accosted by a man (Peter Lorre) demanding he locate a valuable statuette. Sam, entangled in a dangerous web of crime and intrigue, soon realizes he must find the one thing they all seem to want: the bejeweled Maltese falcon. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC