More About Film Noir’s Roots in Print


I’ve previously noted that film noir has its roots in the book world. Such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and James M. Cain all made contributions to the genre.

If you’d like to read more about how film noir relates to the literary world, I suggest this book review, which reads in part:

[P]oet Weldon Kees drew upon the visual and tonal qualities of another medium, film noir, with its interest in fate, human fallibility and mortality, and its sense of social order undercut by a substratum of delirious disorder. To that mix he added a murder, or, at any rate, a body, and his own icy black irony — and that became the first modern poem noir, “Crime Club.”

Ironic Lynda Hull is not, but among poets of our own time none has employed noir’s signature motifs and captured in language its pervasive atmosphere more strikingly and persistently. One poem in particular stands as such a singular achievement that it deserves notice from readers — all readers — whether or not they like the noir sensibility, whether or not they like poetry.

But first, what is noir? The term gets blithely tossed about (well, maybe not all that blithely) as if everyone knows, everyone agrees on its meaning. Everyone does not.

Noir, as a genre term, has roots in print. It began with Série Noire, a French press founded in the 1940s that published hard-boiled American detective novels in translation, particularly Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. In 1946, when American films became, rather suddenly, available again in France following the Allied forces’ defeat of the Nazis, critic Nino Frank, perhaps taking a cue from Série Noire, employed the term “film noir” to describe a number of startling new releases that seemed to mark a departure from the earlier police procedure movies. He noted that these plots did not focus on “who did it,” with the assumption that the culprit would eventually be revealed and the murder solved through the investigations of flat, thinly drawn, law-enforcing protagonists. Instead they fixed upon the psychology and behavior of the central figure, be it the detective or criminal. He cited the example of Double Indemnity a tale of adultery and murder daring for its times — and praised its “precise script which deftly details the motives and reactions of its characters.”

The review goes on to mention poetry, as well as the 70s movie Chinatown! Which will start the next phase of reviews on this blog. Time to cover the neo-noir films that owe so much to the film noir classics!


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