I grew up on film noir. It would be years before I learned the term but for me, even though the themes are generally adult, the images are iconic of a part of my childhood.
Wikipedia advises: “Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood’s classic film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.
That makes sense in hindsight but I did not know it at the time. It was the mid-late 1960’s. Television was a major part of my pre-adolescent life and, at least in our home, television was black & white. Much of the television programing time in those days was filled with old movies; black & white movies.
I have no scholarship to support my theory but I’ve always thought the popularity of ‘noir’, especially in the 1950’s, was driven as much by economics and technology as by artistry. Movie theaters were competing with the new technology of television. To get people to continue to leave their homes for entertainment, the movie theaters wanted color features. At the same time, it was cheaper to make b&w films. The ‘noir’ genre’s visual aesthetic was uniquely capable of making the lack of color a strength and not a weakness. The images are beautiful in black & white and starkly dramatic. Eventually, the industry moved away from b&w as pressure from the exhibitors grew but by then most homes had a television. The studios had large catalogs of black & white films and the television folks, especially the local affiliates, had lots of hours to fill. Long-story-short, by the 1960’s black & films were a staple of American television.
Not all black & white movies were film noir, of course. There were comedies and musicals, war pictures and westerns, and costume epics. Many of ‘noir’ films were completely forgettable but some are classics. The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Shanghai Express, Gilda, Sunset Boulevard; even Citizen Kane would all fit into the genre. There have been more modern films that captured the ‘noir’ feel; Chinatown is probably my favorite. But as television changed (again, my unsupported theory) from black & white to color, film noir became an art-house novelty rather than a mainstream entertainment.
My best friend, Wikipedia, confirms something I did know. “Film noir’s aesthetics are deeply influenced by German Expressionism, an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s that involved theater, photography, painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as cinema.” There are masterpieces in this genre as well [Pabst’s Pandora’s Box is an example] but the film that first leaps to mind is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. That could be because it is a wonderful film, and it is, but I suspect it has more to do with the 6-foot reproduction of one of the film’s posters hanging where it is one of the first things I see each morning. I bought it in the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art on one of my first trips to New York and thought I was oh-so sophisticated.
I mentioned in a recent post that I was enjoying the book “If You Ask Me” by Libby Gelman-Waxner. On the subject of film noir Ms. Gelman-Waxner writes: “Film Noirs explore the dark underbelly of America, which certainly beats Colonial Williamsburg as a weekend getaway, and they always feature the same characters: a hot dangerous male drifter, a hot dangerous, bored small-town slut; and at least one disgusting fat man who gets brutally killed, right after which the drifter and the slut have really great sex, usually near a ceiling fan and venetian blinds.”
I would also add they smoke a lot.