Classic film noir is a form of entertainment characteristic of the 1940s. That’s when its popularity reached a peak, for many different reasons and also for social, cultural and economic situations that pertain to that specific time.
The hard-boiled novels had been popular for some twenty years before Hollywood took it up and transformed it into the tough thriller film. Because of their popularity, there had been attempts to turn hard-boiled novels into films in the 1930s. The treatment they received to make them viable for both the Hollywood industry and its audience had transformed the original stories so profoundly that those early attempts at hard-boiled films could hardly be considered hard-boiled at all. The Maltese Falcon was made into a film twice (once in 1931 and once in 1936) before its more faithful adaptation of 1941, the first that proved to be successful. By that time, Hollywood had started turning to war anxiety and a way to depict it on screen.
War brought a series of difficulties that helped to popularise film noir. First of all, a shortage of everything. Stars were drafted, leaving Hollywood with the ‘problem’ to cope with less known actors. Funds shrunk because the money went to the war effort and cinematographers had to find new ways to produce films with a lower budget.
At the same time, the war also produced a shortage of paper, which led to fewer novels and newspapers be printed. This meant less hard-boiled novels were available and Hollywood replaced them with films that were in the same vein. Besides, novels as source (a story created by a professional, specialised writer) were one of the alternative values B movies like film noir were able to offer with no additional cost.
From 1944 to 1948 film noir was one of the most popular forms of films and this is indeed its golden age. In most accounts, film noir is explicitly or implicitly regarded as a reflection of the various social and cultural upheavals experienced by the US in the 1940s. But as America entered the 1950s, the interest of the public once again shifted, postwar problems were elaborated, and a new society came along.
By the mid-1950s noir had grounded to a halt. There were still a few notable struggles, with Touch of Evil (1958) considered by many the very last classic film noir produced (though many critics consider the film noir season ended by the early 1950s).
A new style of crime fiction had become popular, a more ‘bourgeois’ kind of thriller where criminals were smooth and elegant, and the lone hero was replaced by the professionalism of the ‘mobile unit’. There’s no place for grime and twisted personality in these new films, the audience now wanted something safer.
The way the audience consumed films changed too. In the 1950s, television became more and more common, to the point that most American families had a set in their house. Film production started to adapt to that new form, serials were produced especially for television, and a new type of lighting that was the exact contrary of chiaroscuro became popular and familiar.
The kind of distribution that had allowed so many B movies to be produced and sold came to an end too. Studios could no longer force movie theatres to buy bundles of B movies to have one A movie, so the production of B movies sank.
At the moment critics started to discover film noir, film noir itself faded away. It would be nearly twenty years before it would rise again.
White Heat (1949) by Raoul Walsh
Gang leader Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) lives for his mother, planning heists between horrible headaches. During a train robbery that goes wrong, Cody shoots an investigator. Realizing Cody will never be stopped if he knows he’s being pursued, authorities plant undercover agent Hank (Edmond O’Brien) in Cody’s cell. When his mother dies, a distraught Cody breaks out of jail, bringing Hank along to join his gang. With Hank in communication with the police, Cody plans a payroll heist. (Google synopsis)
Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles
When a car bomb explodes on the American side of the U.S./Mexico border, Mexican drug enforcement agent Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) begins his investigation, along with American police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). When Vargas begins to suspect that Quinlan and his shady partner, Menzies (Joseph Calleia), are planting evidence to frame an innocent man, his investigations into their possible corruption quickly put himself and his new bride, Susie (Janet Leigh), in jeopardy. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Schrader, Paul. Note on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971