The Dark Self: The Origins of Film Noir

Nighthawks: Edward Hopper

Lloydville of has responded to my post yesterday, Light in the Shadows: Noir and Redemption:

Hibbs writes: “In its assumption that a double” — that is a “dark self” — “lurks just beneath the surface of the most ordinary individuals, noir punctures naive, conventional assumptions about human behavior.” This I think is exactly right, and I can’t understand your position that the emergence of a film tradition with this underlying theme precisely in the wake of the global catastrophe of WWII and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation had nothing to do with those phenomena. To me, the connection is self-evident, and if it’s a cliche, it’s a cliche because it’s true.

While I believe the origins of film noir lie elsewhere, this is not to say that the experience of WWII did not influence or inform the themes and development of the noir cycle in the post-war period. But the shadow of nuclear annihilation was cast only by the US until the classic noir cycle was already mature, so I don’t see this as particularly relevant.

The origins of film noir and why it flowered where and when it did are complex, and we can’t be definitive, but it is fairly evident that noir emerged before the US entered the War, and had it’s origins principally in the new wave of emigre European directors and cinematographers, who fashioned a new kind of cinema from the gangster flick of the 30’s and the pre-War hard-boiled novels of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Woolrich. We can also clearly see the influence of German expressionism, the burgeoning knowledge of psychology and its motifs, and precursors in the French poetic realist films of the 30’s.

Noir was not only about the other, the “dark self”, but the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression. Cornell Woolrich, for example, was a lonely and repressed individual, who spent his life in hotel rooms, and Edwards Hopper’s study of the long lonely night in Nighthawks was painted in 1942.

Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WWII.

Philip Slater prefaced his study of American culture, The Pursuit of Loneliness (1970), with these words from Paul Simon:

‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
‘I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.’
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike.
They’ve all come
To look for America.

2 thoughts on “The Dark Self: The Origins of Film Noir”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I myself see a big, indeed a profound difference between the hardboiled literature and film of the 30s and early 40s, which was prompted by the hard times of the Depression, and the deeper existential bleakness of the post-war noir cycle, which I think can only be explained by the experience of global war and the atom bomb.

    The influence of European artists and styles and attitudes, while important, can’t explain why noir played so well and so long in Peoria. It reflected something new in the collective American psyche.


  2. Disenchantment or Disillusionment?

    The recent debate here on the origins of film noir with Lloydville led me to review some of the writing on film noir. Under the paragraph heading, The Cinema of the Disenchanted, the Encyclopedia Britannica Daily in the entry for film noir, says:

    “The darkness of these films reflected the disenchantment of the times. Pessimism and disillusionment became increasingly present in the American psyche during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the world war that followed. After the war, factors such as an unstable peacetime economy, McCarthyism, and the looming threat of atomic warfare manifested themselves in a collective sense of uncertainty. The corrupt and claustrophobic world of film noir embodied these fears. Several examples of film noir, such as Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse (1947), and John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), share the common storyline of a war veteran who returns home to find that the way of life for which he has been fighting no longer exists. In its place is the America of film noir: modernized, heartless, coldly efficient, and blasé about matters such as political corruption and organized crime.”

    Could it be that the returning vets’ disillusionment is rooted in the realisation that there has been no change: that a life that never existed before the war still doesn’t exist despite the suffering and the sacrifice?


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