Film Noir: Critical Origins

Thomas Leitch of the University of Delaware, in his book, Crime Films: Genres In American Cinema (Cambridge University Press, 2004), gives a nice introduction to the critcal origins of film noir (my emphasis):

The term film noir was first coined by French reviewer Nino
Frank when the end of the wartime embargo brought five 1944
Hollywood films – The Woman in the Window, Laura, Phantom
Lady, Double Indemnity, and Murder, My Sweet – to Paris in the same
week in 1946
. All five films seemed to take place in a world marked by
menace, violence, and crime and yet distinct from the world of the
gangster cycle of the 1930s. In christening the young genre, Frank was
thinking not so much of earlier movies as of earlier novels. The label
film noir was adapted from Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire translations
for Gallimard of British and American hard-boiled novels. The private-eye
stories of Dashiell Hammett and of Raymond Chandler, whose gorgeously
overwrought prose made him the most obvious stylistic patron
of noir, had broken the decorum of the formal detective story
from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie. But an even closer analogue was
to be found in the breathless suspense novels of James M. Cain (The
Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934; Double Indemnity, 1936) and Cornell
Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black, 1940; Phantom Lady, 1942), which
trapped their heroes in a nightmarishly claustrophobic world of evil.

Except for their common breeding ground in anonymous, claustrophobic
cities that dramatized postwar alienation and disillusionment,
noir heroes could not have had less in common with their gangster
forebears. The principals of this new breed of crime films were not
promethean challengers, or even professional criminals, defying the
repressive institutions of their worlds, but hapless, sensitive, often
passive amateurs who typically were seduced into criminal conspiracies
through their infatuations with the sultry, treacherous heroines,
femmes fatales who had no counterpart in the man’s world of Hollywood
gangster films. Unlike gangster films, which traced the rigidly
symmetrical rise and fall of their outsized heroes, films noirs more often
showed their heroes fatalistically sinking into a pit after the briefest
of come-ons. The heroes of noir often dreamed of dabbling briefly
in crime before returning to their normal lives, or found themselves
trapped in the criminal plots of others despite their own innocence.
In either case, the way back to normalcy was barred; they were so
completely doomed by the slightest misstep, and their doom so openly
telegraphed to the audience from the opening scene, that the very
idea of heroism, even criminal heroism, became hopelessly distant…
(pp. 126-127)

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