“As it has come down to us through the decades, it is an object of beauty, one of the last remaining to us in this domain, situated as it is between neo-realism and the New Wave, after which rounded objects like these will no longer be made… because there is always an unknown film to be added to the list, because the stories it tells are both shocking and sentimental… film noir is like a Harley-Davidson: you know right away what it is. The object being only the synecdoche of a continent, a history and a civilization…”
– Vernet, Marc (1993). “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom”, in Copjec, Joan, ed. (1993). Shades of Noir. London and New York: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-625-1, pp. 1–31.
This edited quote is from the opening paragraph of the cited article by French film academic Marc Vernet. The full paragraph is set out below.
Vernet here is cheekily setting up the reader. We nod yes, and yes, as we read through this metaphysical paean to film noir, but Vernet’s purpose is to demolish this mythic edifice. Vernet sees the conception of film noir as a deluded idée fixe conceived by the French film writers of the immediate post-WW2 from a corpus of films released in a flood of American movies screened in liberated Paris in 1946.
In essence Vernet considers film noir an invalid construct. For Vernet, what noir aficiniados see as films noir are simply crime movies; chiaroscuro filming was evident in Hollywood movies since 1910; and German expressionism is hardly an influence. I can buy this up to a point. I have always thought that Expression has only a tenuous connection with film noir, and Vernet argues the chiaroscuro angle strongly by reference to a number of pre-code Hollywood films – talkies and silents. But his justification of the view that film noir is an idée fixe is scoped so narrowly as to negate his own argument. He insists that the noir canon comprises only crime stories featuring a private detective and a femme-fatale, and he has nothing to say about French poetic realism.
I do though like Vernet’s explanation of why post-war French film scholars and the enfants terribles of the New Wave so loved film noir. I don’t fully agree with how get’s there though. He sees film noir – as he narrowly defines it – as ‘conservative’: the hard-boiled hero is a defender of traditional values against the conglomerate; as the individual against the collective – a sort of proto-superman – like Gary Cooper’s architect in King Vidor’s expressionist bizarro noir of Ayn Rand’s unreadable novel ‘The Fountainhead’. For me the idea that film noir is not subversive does not stand up to any fair analysis. I have dealt with this issue at length in many articles posted at filmsnoir.net, and will leave it to the reader to explore those arguments more fully in those posts.
Getting back to why Vernet thinks the French noiristas of the 40s and 50s loved noir. Those leftist intellectuals – the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Claire, and Rivette, according to Vernet had to sublimate their hatred of American imperialism to their love of Hollywood movies, particularly films noir and b-movies, by seeing in those pictures a critique of capitalism and its alienating institutions. To my mind he reaches a pretty fascinating conclusion albeit for the wrong reasons. Classic film noir is subversive and many of the classic noirs were critiques of traditional values, and were made by committed leftists and others not comfortable with the ethos of American capitalism.