1. War and crime
The film noir came to the screen with the beginning of Word War II.
At a time when heroism was asked, the dark sides of war remained hidden. In the movies they came to the fore only when war conspicuously was not mentioned, although the films are set in times of war. Violence, fear and betrayal were central themes of the Film noir. The ethical questions raised by the war and existential doubts were treated on two different levels: on an official, national one which signaled approval, and an individual, psychological one which expressed fear and rejection. This dichotomy became the theme of the films themselves. In 1941, shortly before the United States entered the war, two movies reflected this dual relationship.
In Sergeant York Gary Cooper embodied America’s greatest hero of the First World War, who for religious reasons refuses to kill at war, but realizes his true combative purpose in the need of the hour. The Bible as a source of his pacifism was replaced by the draft board with a history book which made it clear to him that fighting had always been necessary to establish the rise of the United States.
The other movie of 1941 is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A doctor (Spencer Tracy), well established and married, discovers his own dark sides and tries to make out the evil inside scientifically in a second existence as a Mr. Hyde. He believes to master this discord by splitting off Mr. Hyde in the same way as the farmer Alvin York pays off his conscience by outsourcing it as a patriot in uniform. Science does not help though, patriotism does.
A different reading of Stevenson’s story is suggested by the title of a book about Germany, published in London in 1940 by the journalist Sebastian Haffner who had emigrated to England: Germany, Jekyll and Hyde. The splitting of the society in humanistic and liberal citizens on one side and fascists on the other was treated in films such as Four Sons and The Mortal Storm (both 1940) and None Shall Escape (1944), telling of families in which one son becomes a Nazi. But not only in Europe fascism split society, even the United States were threatened by ideological aberration and betrayal. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) is based on a court case which took place the year before. The film differs between Americans of German ascendance, loyal to their country, and traitors recruited by the Nazis. (A movie theatre in Milwaukee which showed the film was burned down by Nazi sympathizers.) The change of the apparently familiar to strange forces in society is incomprehensible. After the trial against German spies the FBI agent (Edward G. Robinson) explains how unreal everything seems to him: „… like an absurd nightmare“.
In The Man I Married (1940) and None Shall Escape an American and a Polish woman marry German men. When the men get under the influence of fascist ideology the women come to see them as strangers, so they separate. In The Stranger (1946) Orson Welles plays a school teacher in an American town who turns out to be the runaway commander of a German concentration camp. In war time the familiar becomes strange and the stranger turns out to be an enemy.
Against the political backdrop, in film noir the Jekyll and Hyde theme received a special dynamic. The starting point was not the Stevenson screen adaptation, but the development of the British detective fiction, which had supplied numerous movie templates for Hollywood (particularly for MGM) since the beginning of the sound film. Instead of the killer search game in the style of Sherlock Holmes, which ruled also the American crime novel in a modified form, from the mid-thirties onwards the psychological thriller dominated British literature and theatre and thus became decisive for the Film noir. This new crime genre developed within a short time. Psychoanalysts who had emigrated from Germany and Austria arose first in Britain and then in America a strong interest for psychology. Angst – the central motive of the thriller – became a loanword in English.
Three plays which successfully were staged in London initiated the change: Emlyn Williams‘ Night Must Fall (1935), Frank Vosper’s Love from a Stranger (1936, from a short story by Agatha Christie, 1934) and Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight (1938). Williams had worked on the script of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much the year before. In all three plays evil penetrates undetected in a righteous civil world, only to seize it in cold blood. The political changes in Europe heavily played into this issue. Patrick Hamilton and his brother Bruce were Marxists. Bruce Hamilton’s novel The Brighton Murder Trial, published in 1937, describes the murder of a fascist youth leader by a communist. Patrick Hamilton set his novel Hangover Square (1941) by the time between the Munich Agreement and England’s entry of war. A young man loves a beautiful but untalented actress who financially exploits and at the same time despises him. She admires strong men like Hitler and Mussolini.
Night Must Fall was brought to the screen by MGM in 1937, Love from a Stranger in England in 1937 and in the United States by Universal in1947. The 1944 MGM version of Gaslight followed the British one of 1940. Gaslight, the only work by Hamilton, which does not play in the present, is a variation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, replacing the sexual side of the story through materialistic motives. In 1945 Hangover Square was taken back to the 19th century by MGM and thus stripped of its political implications.
Instead of presenting the criminal at the end as usual , the audience could meet his troubled mind from the beginning on and watch him in the planning and execution of his deeds. Two motives were determining for the homme noir: the schizophrenia and the cold-blooded and violent treatment of women. The metaphor of the night applies to the Film noir to the same extent as to the war. As a further metaphor dawn was frequently used in movie titles at the end of the war.
Night Must Fall tells the case of a young man, Danny, who is hired by an elderly woman to keep her company. Her niece, a bluestocking (Rosalind Russell), succumbs to his charm, although her suspicion slowly turns out to be right that he has to do with the murders of women that took place in the area. In Under Cover of Night (1937), a film based on an original screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, who used to be in charge of Sherlock Holmes at MGM, a college professor murders his dominant wife, because his success in reality belongs to her. As with Dr. Jekyll, night must fall to bring about the evil in these men, because during the day they know nothing of their deeds. In Gaslight and Love from a Stranger naive young women marry charming men, although they know nothing of their past, and slowly find out that they are bent only on their assets and therefore want to kill them. Their inability to conceive makes the loving women crash in a paralytic condition, as desired by the men. The strangeness of the husband in both versions of Gaslight is emphasized by the fact that the actors, Anton Walbrook (= Adolf Wohlbrück) and Charles Boyer, by appearance and accent obviously are foreigners. The young woman (Ann Harding) in Love from a Stranger, who has gained in the lottery and takes a trip to Europe, learns to know a charming man (Basil Rathbone) on foreign ground.
The motive of deception and treachery, central for the Film noir, is promoted most commonly by casting the actors against their type. Robert Montgomery, who plays „Babyface“ Danny in Night Must Fall, turns of the nice young man who corresponded to the previous role type of the actor in a murderous Mr. Hyde. The characteristic betrayal of the homme noir is given already with the boy’s name Danny, which feigns innocence. „Babyface“ however is a reference to the immature psychopaths who had free reign over women in the gangster and horror film in the guise of James Cagney, Charles Laughton and others. These two genres disappeared when the war began, because they merged in the Film noir.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s first films in Hollywood the beloved man turns into a dreaded foreigner more than once. The thought that her newly wed husband is a killer torments the innocent Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941) as well as in Rebecca (1940). In Rebecca, she must assume that Laurence Olivier had killed his first wife, in Suspicion that she herself will be the next victim of Cary Grant. The visual gloom that gave the Film noir its name, can be found already in these movies. The transition from Film gris to Film noir is gradient.
The black series developed a substantive and stylistic variety which contrasted the smooth if not slick aesthetics of the New Deal era. Many directors, script writers, cinematographers and actors from Europe emigrated to America and brought with them a variety of already successful themes and styles. Two directions met perfectly the gloomy mood of the night side of the 1940s: the German Expressionism with its menacing shadow world and the magical realism of the French cinema with its foggy forlornness. In both worlds day never breaks. The expressionism of German silent films had been picked up in Hollywood in the horror film of the early 1930s as a relatively cheap means to beam style in B-movies. The Film noir took it up again for cost reasons, but reached a revival at a high artistic level due to the influx of the European filmmakers.
Towards the end of the war the world of the Film noir became more realistic. Morning would come, but the sun never shines. The change owes itself not to the Italian neo-realism, as often claimed, but to the documentary films and newsreels of war time, made by well-known directors and cameramen of Hollywood.
Like the visual stylization, the language of Film noir had a long development. The sharp, often funny dialogues, the short-cracking and slang of the street came not only from the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, but found in Hollywood itself first class script writers like Ben Hecht and Jules Furthman, who were instrumental in the shaping of American idioms and characters. Their long career makes it evident that between the cynicism of the language of the gangster films – Hecht and Furthman both worked on the screenplays of Josef of Sternberg’s gangster films of the late 1920s – and the shrewd wit of the screwball comedies of the 1930s there consists a direct linguistic connection that is taken up again in the Film noir in the 1940s.
2. L’homme noir – man’s crime
I Wake up Screaming (1941) is regarded as the first film noir. In this thriller schizophrenia is present by the fact that the policeman who investigates a murder himself is the killer. Laird Cregar – also a „baby face“ type – kills an aspiring actress whom he desires but doesn’t get. Among the Living (1941) tells the story of twin brothers, of which one is mentally ill and breaks out of an asylum. The rest of the plot is reminiscent of Night Must Fall. In Rage in Heaven (1941) Ingrid Bergman must understand that her husband (Robert Montgomery), whom she knew only a short while before their marriage, is insane. He wants to kill himself and his wife, on the run from his inferiority complex. The splitting into good and evil is relativized in This Gun for Hire (1942), based on the novel by Graham Greene, as the woman (Veronica Lake) stands between the nice policeman (Robert Preston) and the physically and socially crippled contract killer (Alan Ladd), without condemning the outcast . Gene Kelly, who just had danced with Cover Girl Rita Hayworth, played in Christmas Holiday (1944), based on a novel by Somerset Maugham of 1939, a husband who drifts into madness and becomes a killer. The title of the film as well as the casting of Gene Kelly plays with false expectations and refers to the abyss behind the so far lived normality.
Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is located in a small town where a young woman must discover that her charming uncle (Joseph Cotten), whose visit promises to bring some variety in her unsophisticated life, is a killer who focuses on wealthy widows. The way he speaks of the „unworthy“ life of these women, in 1943 could be understood only as fascist and an intrusion of war into the peaceful lives of American citizens.
The crack in the familiar image of the man who becomes a stranger was presented as the experience of women. The audience watched the events from their point of view. Naive young women could believe the truth only at the very last moment. Having escaped the attacks of murdering men, they look back at an incomprehensible nightmare as did the FBI agent at the Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
After the war the men who came back found themselves in the same situation as before the war: they had no work and no money. And they were confronted with women who earned money and had taken advantage of the war situation. Their new independence was a challenge men had to come to term with. The film which connects the situation after the war with the one before, was Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The story goes back to an idea by Orson Welles, who wanted to make a film about the women murderer Landru, with Chaplin in the title role. Chaplin refused and took up the subject himself. Verdoux is a charming elderly gentleman who acquires the money of single and wealthy women by taking their life. During the great depression Verdoux has lost his job as a bank cashier. To be eligible for his family – he is a tender husband and father – he murders 13 women. (The title of Chaplin’s first film, Making a Living, in which he was not yet the tramp but a mean swindler would suit here too.) When his wife and his son die at the beginning of the war his „work“ loses its purpose and he lets himself be arrested by the police. In court, he defends himself by comparing his struggle for survival with the killing in the war. If one person is killed, he argues cynically, it is murder, but if thousands are killed it is heroism. Arms manufacturers, he says, were responsible for many more deaths than he.
The post-war murderers avoided to fight the self-determined women who had gained independence during the war. They rather choose the distinctly old-fashioned type, unprotected and dependent on men, always the ideal product of patriarchal society. The most obvious reason is that they are the weakest and easiest-to-reach victims, in Sorry Wrong Number (1948) stressed by the fact that the murderer’s victim is sick and tied up to the bed. Some movies play in a Victorian London (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Gaslight, Experiment Perilous, The Suspect), at a period when women were dependent on men. This type of woman was down and out now. A woman who needs protection was just a burden. The man needed help himself and women had to have a benefit for him. Since the war had abolished the moral limits, Verdoux like the friendly uncle in Shadow of a Doubt follows his own understanding of „worthlessness“. He spares only one of his chosen victims, a young vagabond, because in her he recognizes a resemblance to himself. She is equal to him, so he lets her go.
Between 1946 and 1949 a series of films raised again the ethical question from the beginning of the war, whether the extremes of war make men guilty. Invariably, the answer is: No. In real life the men who returned from war might have problems with their time as soldiers, but in the movies their supposed guilt has nothing to do with the war. Cornell Woolrich’s novels, which dealt with this issue, were used as a template for several films. After a night of drinking or a car crash the men must come to terms with the suspicion that they committed a crime. Waking up in the morning might confront them with a dead woman beside them, who may be their own wife or an unknown stranger. Suffering from amnesia, they don’t know whether the charges levied against them are justified or not. The following films, based on Woolrich’s novels, conform to this pattern: The Black Angel and Deadline at Dawn (both 1946), Fall Guy and Fear in the Night (both 1947). From other authors originate films like Somewhere in the Night and The Blue Dahlia (both 1946), Dark Passage, Boomerang! and The High Wall (all 1947), The Crooked Way and The Clay Pigeon (both 1949).
In post-war film the psyche of the war veterans remained in the same dark that the Film noir had spread over the war time. That the loss of memory not just meant one night but years, is easy to see. At the end of the war the conscience settled not with the same ease like that of Sergeant York at its beginning, what made the situation of those affected all the more difficult. In the movies the real cause of the conflict largely remained taboo.
John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) clearly expressed that soldiers dutifully had to make sacrifices and therefore were expendable. Returning from the war, the survivors had to find out that they not only could be replaced in the large community of the army but also in their small family. The remarkable honesty which the film’s title expressed – after all, it was a propaganda film – did not hold on the home front.
The films of the postwar era create a sense of futility and bitterness. Titles such as The Fall Guy and The Clay Pigeon express that the protagonists see themselves as losers, because they were meant to serve as clay pigeons which had to „fall“. The individual consequences and psychological deformities caused by the war were nothing more than collateral damage, which the public did not take notice of. Only in the wake of the Vietnam war the term post traumatic stress syndrome became widely known. In 1946, John Huston made on behalf of the Pentagon the documentary Let There Be Light about the treatment of soldiers traumatized by war. The film was not released until 1981, in order that the myth of the heroic fighters would not be tarnished. After 1946, the war on screen was over, nobody wanted to see uniforms any longer.
Since the problems of the war veterans could not be openly discussed, the Film noir once again spread the dark over conflicts without really hiding them.
In the movies the long absence from home is often explained with a time in prison which is a clear cipher for war and prisoner of war. The men who escape prison are as innocent as the soldiers who come home from abroad. Dark Passage (1947), based on a novel by David Goodis, tells the story from the point of view of a man who attempts to rehabilitate himself. Vincent Perry (Humphrey Bogart) does not return from the war, but breaks out of prison, in which he has come for the supposed murder of his wife. The title of the film means the dark period of transition after the war. The man must reach the light again to find his identity. He is lonely and desperate, while Irene (Lauren Bacall), the woman he meets, is strong enough to help him to get away. The crisis of confidence between man and woman is overcome at the end of the film, because the woman accepts the condition of the man to give up her present life and follow him into a new beginning.
As in Dark Passage the events are almost always told from the point of view of men. With a weary voice they tell in flashbacks of the stations of their journey into the night. When they believe to have left the dark passage, new problems out of the past catch up with them. The violence experienced in the war results in a number of films in uncontrolled outbreaks. The ex-soldier in The Blue Dahlia briefly loses his memory and plunges into a murderous frenzy just as the escaped convict in Deep Valley (1947). In In a Lonely Place (1950) Humphrey Bogart almost becomes a murderer, so that even a tough woman, as played by Gloria Grahame, turns away from him. In On Dangerous Ground and Beware, My Lovely, both in1952, Robert Ryan suffers of his eruptive violence and unintentionally becomes a murderer.
The affinity of these men to violence lets many of them end up as gangsters who cannot hope to find sympathy any longer. At the beginning of the war the split up of Jekyll and Hyde made the films explore the dark side of the psyche of Mr. Hyde, while Dr. Jekyll was lost sight of. Now he comes back as the good guy, well equipped with a moral order. As a policeman he will cautiously contact the homme noir who has reorganized his life as a gangster. The violent and callous mobster becomes vulnerable when a policeman befriends him undetected and brings him out of his shell. Jekyll and Hyde confront each other again, as in T-Men and Kiss of Death (both 1947), The Street with No Name and Cry of the City (both 1948), White Heat (1949), The Sleeping City (1950), The Mob (1951).
3. La femme noir – man’s fear and desire
At the beginning of the war women were hesitating to take up jobs in the industry and it had to be appealed to their patriotism to make them leave their kitchen. „Woman-power“, they were told, would help shorten the war . When men returned, ready to take up their previous positions, women’s withdrawal from the newly learned professions happened for them not quickly enough. Still, in 1946 four million women lost their jobs, which they found now more interesting than housework. (Leila J. Rupp: Mobilizing Women for War. 1978, p. 162.)
The two authors, Marynia F. Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg, explained in their then much-discussed bestseller Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), that working women were exposed to masculinization, less by the work itself, but because the pursuit of a career demanded male characteristics. „As the rivals of men, women must, and insensibly do, develop the characteristics of aggression, dominance, independence and power. These are qualities which insure success as coequals in the world of business, industry and the professions.“ (pp. 223-241) Such male characteristics lead women, the authors say, to hostility and destructiveness, which gives rise to a feeling of weakness and failure and therefore sexual impotence in men, which in turn contributes to women’s own mental disaster. Not only the “masculine woman“, but also the sexually active woman should therefore give way to the “eternal feminine“ as it always was defined by the patriarchy. This would happen in the 1950s, but in the years in-between on the screen the war between the sexes that had begun with World War II continued to rage, merciless as ever.
The film which most enduringly coined the image of women of the black series was Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder. The underlying narrative of James M. Cain was published already in 1935/36, the screenplay was written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. The story, set in the year 1938, is told in a flashback by the insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred Mac Murray). His job makes him come in contact with his client’s wife, Phylis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who does not hesitate to reveal that she wants him to help her to get rid of her husband.
The character of Phyllis Dietrichson is very complex. She always sought a social advancement that gives her independence. Although she is cold and dangerous like a gangster, men fall with open eyes into her trap Her weapon is the sex she promises. She gives only what the men demand of her, her corruption is their work after all. She retaliates by estimating them low and using them for her own purposes. She operates a cold war of emancipation. She only married to escape the dreary conditions of her youth. Neff she uses to get rid of the unloved husband. Him she cannot love either, because he is weak: like the others he does what she wants. Neff’s superiority and her love for him she realizes only when he wants to kill her. Only then she gives the victory out of hands: she leaves the gun to Neff, even though she knows that he has come to kill her. Her kind of emancipation has removed her too far from a possible partner, a man cannot catch up with her.
While from 1946 on men began to suffer from amnesia and their criminal deeds evaporated like dreams, from that time on the women in a large number developed deep black qualities. Life experience had taught them to use dirty tricks like men. Those tired and existentially wounded men who came into their vicinity would escape only at the very last moment. Unloved husbands hardly survived.
The most interesting women on screen in these years were beautiful and extremely dangerous. They had come around, seen other places than suburbia and knew what they wanted. That the war had made them equal to men was now not only a challenge but a danger, because women were ready to fight. The femme noire constantly strives to conceal her past and her intentions. Thus, she has a secret that makes her mysterious and appealing. Kathie (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past (1947) is cold and calculating, but compared with the good small-town girl that is waiting for Robert Mitchum, she is a passionate woman who has dared to take it up with men, with life itself.
Laura made it clear already in 1944 that in a game of deception the role of the femme noir is very erotic. The story of the girl Laura (Gene Tierney), told in flashbacks and dream sequences, is an erotic fantasy of men, which dissolves in plain daylight. A successful writer (Clifton Webb) wants to transform a naive American woman into a dreamlike creature of a more foreign type. When he realizes that the reality doesn’t stand up to his image of Laura, he kills her. Laura makes it plainly clear that the femme noir was an erotic creation of men, less to be feared than to be adored.
Already in 1946 a film like Gilda showed that the story of a woman with a dark past must not end deadly if she accepted the conditions of men. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a night club singer in Montevideo, when Johnny (Glenn Ford), with whom she had a love affair before the war, meets her again. Rita Hayworth, actress in several musical movies since 1935, was at the time of Gilda at the height of her fame. She was the love goddess, the embodiment of erotic longing par excellence. Her photo in a negligee that appeared in LIFE magazine, was the icon among all pinups. Gilda’s affair with Johnny culminates in a scene when Gilda sings „Put the blame on Mame, boys“ in a bar and asks the male guests to help her with her strip-tease. The song, written for the film, makes Mame appear as a dancer who kisses strangers, raising no less than an earthquake, which makes of her a Madame (Ma’me) who is to blame, not the boys. Johnny slaps her in the face and forces her to leave the dance floor.
Johnny takes the pinup off the stage, where during the war it was collective possession and at the same time unattainable. When the sex idol admits only to have played this role, but in the bottom of the heart to be monogamous, the idol is again accessible and acceptable as a woman. Her power as a sex goddess she must give up, only then Johnny will return home with her.
Joan Crawford played the criminal career woman whose past catches up with her in several films of this period. In Mildred Pierce (1945) she is dissatisfied with her lot as a simple housewife, her ambition requires for a successful social life. In The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) she even makes a career among gangsters. Rita Hayworth as The Lady from Shanghai (1946/48) coldly rejects the man’s wish for pacifying the situation, because she does not want to give up her claim to power. The film was written, directed and played by Orson Welles with whom Rita Hayworth was married then. In The Postman always rings twice (1946), based on a novel by James M. Cain, Lana Turner plays the instigator to the murder of her husband. Even nice guys as played by Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946) and in Criss Cross (1949) have no chance against beauties like Ava Gardner and Yvonne de Carlo. Like Phylis in Double Indemnity all these women could call themselves „rotten to the heart“, and like Neff the men must admit that they are the „fall guy“ as they were the „clay pigeon“ in the times of war. But still, they survive while their loved enemies must die or are sentenced to death as in The Paradine Case (1947) and The File of Thelma Jordan (1949).
When all the variations of deceit, betrayal and murder in the dark had been played and the women turned out to be not so dangerous any more, they withdrew as an erotic enigma into other historic or even biblical times, such as in Duel in the Sun (1947) or Samson and Delilah (1950). The realism of the post-war period let the visual stylization of the film noir dissolve to some shadows in an otherwise bright world of rich colors, as in Niagara (1952). The femme noir became more real, as she became younger, less „outlandish“ and had much more sex appeal. Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock and Jean Simmons in Angel Face (both 1952), Arlene Dahl in Wicked As They Come (1955) or Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958) did not possess any longer the calculated power of the sirens of the years before, their evil intentions are explained with a twisted mind. The same goes for the remains of the homme noir. When a murderous husband reappears on the scene as in Secret Beyond the Door (1948) his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) does not fall in a stupor, but calls a psychiatrist because she has read Sigmund Freud.
Women who still claimed independence and power and even dressed like men were to be found in the western, as Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954) or Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957). In the 1950s the western became the scene for all the ethical and moral questions that the film noir had raised. The theme of the antagonistic friends would shift from the gangster films to the western and end in an inevitable showdown.