Film noir is a form of psychological thriller that emerged in the time of the war and were directed by a new generation of European expatriates newly arrived in Hollywood.
It expressed the feeling of people trapped in the webs of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false. Mirroring the insecurities of postwar America, in the end, evil is exposed, though often just barely and the survival of good remains troubled and ambiguous.
Film noir is so strongly bound to the 1940s in so many ways that we could trace the arc of the change in American society by looking at the evolution of these films.
- Wartime period (1941-1946) is the phase of the private eye and the lone wolf, and in general, there is more talk than action. This is when the war started to impress its fear and insecurities upon American people, who felt alone and unprotected in the face of a huge disaster. Hollywood began to find new ways of expressing this in films.
- Postwar realism (1945-1949) Films focused more on the problem of crime in the street and political corruption. Less romantic heroes make their appearance. These heroes face insecurity and displacement in a world that they can’t call their own anymore and they seem to have very little tools to navigate it (let alone control it).
- Psychotic action and suicidal impulse (1949-1953) The psychotic killer (who barely existed in the first period and who was just at the fringes of the story in the second period) takes central stage. Anxiety turns into paranoia as the Cold War becomes a pervasive presence in the lives of so many people.
So, can it be said that film noir depicts the zeitgeist of the 1940s?
Critics don’t seem to agree. In spite of all the many connections between film noir and the period it was produced in, there is still something more to these films. Something that goes beyond the limits of time and that in later decades would produce the neo noir.
By depicting the 1940s with characteristics that were closely bound to that time, film noir produced something universal, something that is still able to speak to viewers decades later.
Kiss of Death (1947) by Henry Hathaway
Offered parole from Sing Sing in exchange for information about one of his old partners in crime, jewel thief Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) reluctantly cooperates with district attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy), who’s trying to take down violent murderer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). But when Udo goes free despite the district attorney’s best efforts, Bianco and his wife, Nettie (Coleen Gray), are in the killer’s sights, and he’ll stop at nothing to settle the score. (Google synopsis)
Schrader, Paul. Note on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971
Vanity Fair – Day Into Noir