Chapter 11  Nino Frank and the Fascination of Noir


"Give critic Nino Frank credit for coining "film noir", as early as 1946. Trust me, no-one in 1940s Hollywood thought they were making films noirs." (2015)

Eddie Muller, President, Film Noir Foundation, USA
(Archivist, restorer and promoter of rare films noirs from the 1940s and 1950s)

 In 1945 Nino Frank joined the newly-formed film magazine, L'Écran français, co-edited by two of his erstwhile colleagues from Pour Vous, Jean-Pierre Barrot and Jean Vidal. It was while he was there that he coined the expression 'films noirs', later to become world-famous. This final chapter pursues the debate on films described in this way from Frank's first mention in 1946 until the end of the twentieth century and beyond, broadening out to critique the subtly-changing perceptions of later theorists, initially in France but increasingly especially in the United States of America. It can be read on its own, but a greater understanding of Frank's thinking, based on his own life experience and critical writing, from his first arrival in Paris in 1923 through until the summer of 1946, will be gained from a reading of the earlier chapters. Particularly significant for his 1946 article are Chapters 9 and 10, on the French cinema of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

1946 Paris, and American 'film noir'

The use of the collective term ‘films noirs’ to describe certain Hollywood crime films is generally held to date from an article by the critic and scriptwriter Nino Frank in L’Écran français on 28 August, 1946. In almost 70 years since he wrote the article, there has barely been a time when critics and film buffs have not argued over the meaning of the term, and what is to be expected from films described in this way. The purpose of this chapter is to summarise, from a range of their writings at the time, the original significance of the term for Frank and his colleagues; and to explore the extent to which modern commentators take into account the interpretations made co-temporaneously with the films in 1940s France, in formulating their own theories.

Frank's article concerned the four films The Maltese Falcon (from a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Laura (novel by Vera Caspary), Murder, My Sweet (novel by Raymond Chandler) and Double Indemnity (novel by James M. Cain). It was a long and complex article to be carried in a film weekly, with at its heart a feeling of excitement and a serious message: the concern of the new films was less with the solution of a crime than with an exploration of the human frailties of the protagonists and the psychology driving their behaviour. Frank had a passion for literature long before he became a film critic; and it was from the serious novel that he took his use of the word 'noir'. The exciting discovery for him was that it seemed it might no longer be the exclusive preserve of serious novels and plays to burrow into human psychology. He had long held the view – evidenced in his film journalism in the 1930s – that cinema could and should emulate literature and theatre in this respect, and was held back largely through the reluctance of producers to risk losing their mass audiences. Suddenly some talented directors appeared to be daring to disregard the conventional practices of Hollywood.

Later commentators have not always taken account of the seriousness with which Frank and his contemporaries, born in the early 1900s, took the rôle of cinema. They had always been passionate about the importance of cinema within the overall culture, but their postwar writings show a new urgency in emphasising the need for critics to play their part in securing and shaping its future. They were still haunted by the recent war, by France’s humiliation and the unspeakable horrors of the German death camps. They felt that a new world, in which such evil could not again rise up unchallenged, could be built only by truly confronting reality in every walk of life. The contribution which cinema could make was paramount for them, and these American films seemed a step in the right direction. For a full understanding of Frank’s argument and the implications of the use of the word ‘noir’, his article is here examined in the context of the opening up of cinema in France during the first postwar years, and the frustration felt by cinephiles at the lack of new material coming into the country from Hollywood.

It is impossible to overestimate the eagerness with which they had awaited the return of American films after a gap of nearly five years. Many critics thoroughly enjoyed the different experience offered by Hollywood films, but a central motivation in their critical reporting was also to further the cause of French films, assessing them against foreign competition and drawing attention to innovations of technique or style which French directors might do well to note. At the end of the war most European film industries were in ruins, but Hollywood had not ceased production, and the expectation was that some interesting advances must have taken place. Disappointment was the more acute because hopes had been so high; and there was bitterness that American distributors were seeing fit to fob off the French market with old or inferior films.

This was still the case in July 1946, when Nino Frank wrote a general article, entitled ‘Et la troisième dimension?’, on the failings of contemporary cinema, and this article epitomises the search for a fruitful new direction for French cinema, in direct comparison with Hollywood. The gist of his argument was that cinema practitioners were still working within the logic of the ‘cinéma pur’, the silent cinema, cinema as the art of appearances and trompe-l’œil in an artificial two-dimensional world; and that they were disregarding “la troisième dimension, celle de la vérité, de la vie et de la pensée”. He insisted that what postwar cinema needed was precisely:

a third dimension: a touch of substance, a touch of depth, the logic of cinema definitively replaced by the logic of truth.1 | original text

He suggested that Hollywood was so deeply embedded in technique and process that French directors would have the chance to shine if they took up the challenge of finding the means to convey ‘truth’. The importance of this article lies in the evidence it provides that Frank was already convinced of the need for a change in both technique and narrative approach in the cinema. As he himself would point out in his more famous article in August, it was an important step in the development of his ideas on the American ‘films noirs’.

It was into this atmosphere of temporary disillusionment with Hollywood that an intriguing new batch of American thrillers arrived, which seemed to bear little resemblance to prewar detective or gangster films. In the middle of July, seven Hollywood films reached Paris, all perceived as of a higher artistic quality and more up-to-date than the old stock previously received. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane had been eagerly awaited, as had John Ford’s How Green was my Valley and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes. Welles was reputed to be the new prodigy, the other two directors were known and admired, and these films would warrant serious attention from the critics. But what were the other four? The Maltese Falcon, from an unknown director, John Huston; Laura, from an Austrian émigré, Otto Preminger; Murder, My Sweet, from the little known Edward Dmytryk; and Double Indemnity, from Billy Wilder, a Jewish refugee originally from Galicia in Poland, known to critics as the director of one French film, Mauvaise Graine (1933-4), but mainly as a scriptwriter. (Ernst Lubitsch was much admired in Paris, and critics knew that both Preminger and Wilder had worked for him in Vienna.)

Between late July and mid-August, the critics at L’Écran français reviewed the last four films individually. All four were seen as ‘policiers’, all were thought to be enjoyable, and to have more depth of characterization and psychological reality than was usual in such films, and tribute was paid to the writers of the original novels, especially Hammett and Cain. They were also seen to be unusual in the level of emotional involvement evinced by the key protagonist, often the narrator, and in three of the films the investigator, who in the past would have been portrayed as immune to his quarry. Frank reviewed The Maltese Falcon, praising Hammett’s novels for their “caractère documentaire stupéfiant”, and saying that though on reflection the narrative of the film was nonsensical, it appeared so real that it was impossible not to be carried along by the story while watching it. He went so far as to dignify the film with a classical precedent in Corneille, speaking of “le caractère cornélien et impitoyable de l’épilogue”.2

None of the reviewers at L’Écran français took the films with great seriousness (any more than they did the novels on which the films were based), and none made moral judgments on them, Jean-Pierre Barrot indeed revelling lightheartedly in the viciousness of Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity:

a smile which is never tender, a sensuality which never lets itself go, give her the most delightfully perverse personality.3 | orig

However, from the moment they arrived on the Paris screens, the films were subject to disapproval from self-professed guardians of public morality; and the presence of Double Indemnity in this batch of films led Georges Sadoul to use his column in Les Lettres françaises to attack the decadence and defeatism he perceived in some current French films – via an attack on what he saw as a similar tendency from Hollywood. In an article headed ‘Grande saison de noir’, he also used the ‘noir-rose’ dichotomy common in French critical discourse. He argued that pessimism seemed to be the new conformism, and damning Double Indemnity with faint praise, he compared it unfavourably to The Thin Man:

The noir Double Indemnity is a good film. But the rose-tinted Thin Man was a better one.4 | orig

His real target was clearly the French cinema. Referencing specifically Pépé le Moko and Quai des Brumes, he claimed that producers, recalling the success of these films, were again demanding vice and blood; and he drew specific attention to Henri Decoin and his recently-released film La Fille du Diable:

Ten years ago he was barley-sugar, pink ribbons, country idylls. But now he understands the new tools he needs for his trade. He mixes together bile, absinthe, blood, mire. La Fille du Diable, film noir, is the height of conformity.5 | orig

The word ‘noir’ throughout this article evidently meant both pessimistic and perverted, in opposition to the optimistic ‘rose’, and he spoke in a tone as disapproving as that of politically-engaged critics of both Right and Left before the war. In doing so, however, he implicitly did the new crime films the honour of taking them seriously, as having some connection with real life. Standard French policiers of the period, like the Inspector Wens series, were not ‘real’ enough to be called noir. The Thin Man, as in the quotation above, was even light enough in tone to be seen as rose.

These harsh criticisms evoked a speedy response. Critics who loved the cinema for itself, those who believed in freedom of speech, mobilised against the pompous, disapproving criticism of those committed to the line of their newspaper or their political party. Nino Frank, reminding readers of his belief in the need for a “troisième dimension” of ‘reality’ in postwar cinema, went so far as to claim that the new Hollywood crime films could point the way towards the positive development they had all been seeking. On 28 August, in his article ‘Un nouveau genre “policier”: L’aventure criminelle’, he stood on its head the moral perception of noir films as unworthy because they dealt with marginal or immoral characters, and instead celebrated them for exploring the reactions and behaviour of quite ordinary people whose lives had taken strange or criminal twists. In contrast to old-fashioned films of mechanical crime detection, impersonal intellectual puzzles where no involvement could be felt with the unreal characters, he found in these new films a serious attempt, under the guise of crime thrillers, to probe genuine human motivations. The important argument here was that films about lost, inadequate people, with squalid settings and criminal backgrounds, could be compared with ‘noir’ classical tragedies, not condemned as ‘noir’ in the sense of vicious – providing the characters were portrayed, as in serious literature, as real, believable human beings.

To leave his readers in no doubt that he – like Sadoul, but in a positive way – saw a link to 1930s French films like Quai des Brumes, Frank talked of the urban settings of the new Hollywood films as the décor of the 'fantastique social'. This was the description given by Pierre Mac Orlan, author of the 1927 novel Le Quai des Brumes, to his works, and it was the label Marcel Carné preferred for his films, rather than ‘réalisme poétique’. It had been part of the vocabulary of cinema critics for two decades. It is important to emphasise this connection. Frank had been a friend of Mac Orlan for over twenty years, and it may well have been at his suggestion that Mac Orlan wrote an article in L’Écran français in late 1945 on ‘le domaine du fantastique’, in which he recapitulated what he meant by the ‘fantastique social’: in particular the lives of the poor in mean city streets, and the sense of menace in these streets after dark. He commented on the aptness of film as a medium for conveying this state of unease:

The street, confusing and sinister as soon as sleep overtakes the houses bordering it...The signs of death mixed with all-seeing fogs and ghosts of the noises preceding it. Animated black and white are excellent creators of anxiety.6 | orig

The close and long-standing relationship between Frank and Mac Orlan is central to the mental links which led Frank to the idea of the Hollywood crime films, as a group, as ‘noirs’. He had read all Mac Orlan’s books and was familiar with his dark imagination. Over many years they had spent hours discussing literature, cinema and ways of conveying the sense of the ‘fantastique social’. In the summer of 1946 they were working together on the development of a series of radio programmes in which Mac Orlan would reminisce about his life and work.7 All these thoughts and ideas must already have been exercising Frank’s mind when he saw the new Hollywood films. A further connection was that in the week of 3-9 July 1946, the week before the new Hollywood films began to arrive, Paris cinemas were showing Le Jour se lève, La Bête humaine, La Règle du jeu and Pépé le Moko (all banned during the Occupation), and enthusiasts had the opportunity to see these 1930s films again.

It was Frank’s article which made the leap from unconnected films with certain noir elements to the idea of a ‘series’ of ‘films noirs’, or a ‘school’ of directors making such films. A key to the article lay in its use of the expression “fantastique social”, a term invented by Pierre Mac Orlan and adopted by Marcel Carné for his own films, to position the American films. Frank was making the bold claim that the new-style crime films were taking over from the now dated Western genre, as a vehicle for the exploration of a man’s journey of self-discovery. Now the story hinged not on an action-packed pursuit, but on violent death; it was no longer set against the background of nature, vast, dangerous and romanticised, but in the frightening, dark streets and cramped living space of urban reality – "[le remplacement] du décor de la vaste nature romanesque, par celui du 'fantastique social'" – but the protagonist was similarly subject to real and imaginary terrors as he confronted his destiny.8

There were two further, related strands to Frank’s argument: the ‘reality’ of the situations portrayed, and the ‘realistic’ mise en scène and acting, which made the characters believable and sympathetic. What made the films ‘noirs’ was not just that they dealt with circumstances, motives and behaviour which might be shocking or tragic, but that such situations did exist in real life; and because psychologically the presentation of the narrative and the main characters (including the detective, now a real human being, with feelings and weaknesses) rang true:

Thus these "noir" films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel. They are essentially psychological narratives with the action – however violent or fast-paced – less significant than faces, gestures, words – than the truth of the characters, this "third dimension" I discussed a short while ago.9 | orig

Emphasising the point, he went on to say that today’s spectator responds to stories of ‘real life’, including the horrors that are a part of life:

There is nothing which moves today's spectator more than the imprint of life, of the "lived experience" ["vécu"] and, why not, atrocities which actually exist and which there has never been any point in concealing; the struggle to survive is not an invention of our age.10 | orig

Frank was a scriptwriter as well as a journalist, looking with a professional’s eye for new developments from which French filmmakers could benefit. He saw a moribund genre, the detective film, brought to life through the portrayal of detective and criminal alike as real people, with human feelings, ambitions and weaknesses, cogently expressed through frank and sometimes shocking personal musings. A key aspect which he felt contributed to the sense that the story was actually being lived was the presence of a narrator or commentator; and he noted how the story could move forward more rapidly through ellipses and half-explanations, static scenes could be made to appear dynamic, and an atmosphere of urgency could be created, by making the spectator share the narrator’s experience:

A narrator or commentator is introduced, making it possible to break the story up, to slide rapidly over transitional scenes, and to accentuate the sense of "living" the characters' experiences. It is evident that this procedure makes it easier to get the story going, and that it also puts a certain dynamism into a psychological treatment otherwise lacking mobility.11 | orig

After the war many critics were convinced that cinema must be unflinching in representing reality, including the horrors of which human beings had shown themselves capable; but in speaking not only of “vérité” but also of the “vécu”, Frank was additionally signalling a return to subjectivity and the exploration of the inner self. He was in the vanguard of this shift in emphasis, which can also be seen across the writings of Alexandre Astruc and André Bazin between 1945 and 1948, and formed a springboard for a new generation of directors and critics during the 1950s.

Frank’s use of the specific word “vécu” had a literary background: James Joyce, whom he knew well, was engrossed to the point of obsession with his heroes’ reflections on their own lives. Among French writers, André Malraux described the twilight of his protagonist’s life as “ni vrai, ni faux, mais vécu”, in his 1933 book La Condition humaine, and this quickly became a more general catchphrase in literary circles to encapsulate the reality of human existence. By 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre considered the central element of the “condition humaine” to be the need for man to accept willingly the practical and psychological limitations experienced – “vécues” – in his everyday life:

What never varies is his need to be in the world, to work there, to be there in the midst of others, and to be mortal...He experiences these limits, but they serve for nothing if he does not accept them, that is does not, of his own free will, live his existence according to them.12 | orig

As well as having close connections with Mac Orlan and the 'fantastique social', Frank moved in literary circles and knew both Malraux and Sartre; he had almost certainly been involved in discussions about the “vécu” for some time. Thus he was bringing together ideas from literary and film debates, to describe in a multi-faceted article the direction of his thinking. His fellow-critics seized particularly on the angle that these films were attempting psychological character-studies of genuine three-dimensional people, as opposed to Hollywood’s usual highly simplified narratives of Good versus Evil. This brought them back to familiar ground – to the ‘noir’ writings of Racine, Flaubert, Zola; to Renoir and Carné – and the new school of Hollywood directors with what seemed a similar bias in their work quickly became the talk of the season.

double indemnityNew York reviewers had reacted in a similar way to Double Indemnity when it was shown in September 1944, recognising real human characteristics in the protagonists, vicious as they might be, and also referring back to serious films of the past:

as grim a tale of human frailty as any since Eric von Stroheim shot the works on the masterpiece, Greed.

a realism reminiscent of the bite of past French films…he [Billy Wilder] has pictured their psychological crack-up as a sadist would pluck out a spider’s legs.

the most terrifying study of crime and of the behaviour of criminals that has ever reached the screen.13

To the French, cut off from Hollywood films since 1941, the impression was that the change had happened overnight. In fact, The Maltese Falcon was made in 1941 and the others in 1944, well before the end of the war. Huston claimed that his version of The Maltese Falcon, which followed two relatively unsuccessful versions, succeeded because he stayed close to the book, using Hammett’s original colloquial, racy dialogue. Cain’s Double Indemnity had dialogue by Chandler, and Murder, My Sweet was adapted from Chandler. The corruption, the scheming, the questionable morality, all came directly from the novels: the films were original in daring to reproduce accurately the spirit of the plots, and breathe life into their screen dialogues by using a linguistic register akin to that of the books. Frank began his article on The Maltese Falcon by saying that he would not insult his readers by telling them who Dashiell Hammett was, but he did remind them of the success of Hammett’s works in France – he mentioned specifically The Thin Man, The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon, all translated during the 1930s. Barrot, in his article on Double Indemnity, similarly spoke knowledgeably of the works of Cain.

In October 1946, after writing for L’Écran français, Jean George Auriol succeeded in relaunching his journal, La Revue du Cinéma.14 As a great admirer of Hollywood cinema, he would undoubtedly have been involved in the summer discussions at L’Écran français about the significance of Frank’s article. He determined to devote the main reviews in the second issue of his new journal to the new-style Hollywood films which were the subject of that article; and a key focus of the reviews would be the element of ‘real life’ the directors were succeeding in injecting into their films, leading the audience to believe in and empathise with the characters.

Auriol himself, with his new assistant Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, reviewed Otto Preminger’s Laura. They argued, even more strongly than Frank, that not only could a new aesthetic approach be perceived in film direction, there was also a general will in Hollywood to keep experimenting and moving forward. The new approach involved dwelling on the interior lives, the thoughts and feelings, of the characters, so that the spectator understood their motives and agonised with them over their choices. To prove the point more forcefully, they chose to demonstrate it in a simple thriller, rather than an auteurial work (though they knew Preminger’s pedigree as former assistant to Max Reinhardt and Ernst Lubitsch).

The central theme of the review was the director’s skill in making spectators believe in the reality of the characters, a skill which was not a factor of a specific film genre:

The characters in Laura – a rare experience – have a real existence...The fact that this is a crime plot is not important. Laura could equally well have been introduced into a family drama or a love story...The miracle is to have brought her to life.15 | orig

Even more impressive was his ability to create a fellow-feeling between the public and the young investigator, not normally an object of sympathy. The article linked Dana Andrews, somewhat fancifully but with deliberate intent, to Jean Gabin, the most famous hero of French 1930s noir films:

The miracle desired by the public is first longed for, subconsciously and without hope, by the romantic lead – and we forget that he is just a cop ["poulet"]. We even sympathise with him...he is almost as moving as the Gabin of Le Jour se lève.16 | orig

And most of all, thanks to a brilliant performance by Clifton Webb, solidarity was felt even with – especially with – the murderer:

Clifton Webb...has chiselled out his rôle with a skilful and audacious hand. It matters little to us whether he is guilty or not, or that he is hateful in his inhuman sophistication...Face to face with this presence, we live out his fate with him...We would all have been murderers.17 | orig

What the reviewers had recognised was a tragic rather than grotesque quality in the middle-aged murderer driven to kill his young protégée rather than see her in the arms of another man. The implicit conclusion was the same as that made explicitly by Nino Frank. Hollywood cinema had taken a step forward from the theatrical melodramas and crossword puzzle detective films of the past; henceforward it would be possible to expect more realistic acting and characterisation. A principle had been established too: it was not necessary to look at auteurial or artistic films for new and interesting developments – in Hollywood they could as readily be found in mass-market products.

Auriol entrusted Jean-Pierre Chartier (later to edit Télérama) with the task of reviewing two of Billy Wilder’s films, Double Indemnity and the Cannes Festival triumph, The Lost Weekend, along with Murder, My Sweet – all three of which tell their story through monologues by the main protagonist. The review described how the first-person narrative drew the spectator in to live the experience with the narrator – to imagine the fear, confusion and physical pain of the private eye in Murder, My Sweet, the hopeless despair of the alcoholic in The Lost Weekend, the lust and greed of the insurance salesman in Double Indemnity. Chartier was impressed by the technical virtuosity with which Murder, My Sweet conveyed the sensations of the battered detective falling into unconsciousness:

plays on swirling forms which recall the experiments of "pure cinema", and the reconstruction of a nightmare with confused, blurred images in the style of former avant-garde cinema.18 | orig

But he was most interested in the fact that it was the character of the narrator which was under the microscope, explained in detail in his commentary on Double Indemnity:

before our eyes the director dismantles the psychological mechanism which draws Walter Neff relentlessly into the cogs of the adventure. The triggers are not exterior to the action: the seduction of the young man by a calculating harlot, the temptation of the perfect crime, the subconscious challenge to the friend responsible for uncovering swindles, acquire such an air of reality that we ourselves feel entangled in this sombre story.19 | orig

Chartier was disturbed by the depravity and degradation of the characters in these films. His testimony is important (and much quoted) for its explicit illustration of what he understood by a ‘noir’ film, and for the direct link he made to French prewar films:

It is hard to imagine sinking further into pessimism and disgust with humanity...People have talked about a French school of noir films, but Le Quai des brumes or L'Hôtel du Nord at least had glimmers of revolt, love was like a mirage of a better world, an implicit social demand opened the door to hope.20 | orig

Thus for him, if the American films were taken to be serious works, there was a nastiness to them far beyond – indeed foreign to – the French films of the 1930s.

It is important to emphasise the centrality within this article of The Lost Weekend. This film was seen by several reviewers at Cannes in October 1946, and reached Paris early in 1947. At the time, it was placed squarely in the category of “films noirs américains”, with reviewers commenting on its believability, closeness to reality, and skill in communicating real-life problems. Chartier paid tribute to Wilder’s mastery in making the spectator share in the sense of a lost life:

The sense of folly and senseless void left by the spectacle of this young man, possessed by this single passion, makes The Lost Weekend one of the most distressing films I have ever seen.21 | orig

Georges Sadoul, after seeing the film in Cannes and then in Paris, praised the director’s skill in making the spectator identify with the alcoholic. He was also excited by the genuine New York street scenes, and the value of these settings in conveying the sense that the film dealt with real life:

Anguish and shame weigh on the spectator, led by Billy Wilder to identify himself with the culprit, as in Double Indemnity. And the great success of the film is also, for the first time in years, to make a real city, New York, rather than studio sets, a participant in the action.22 | orig

André Bazin went so far as to claim that in Wilder’s work cinema had found a subtlety of characterization capable of rivalling that of great literature:

dazzling proof that cinema's power of psychological analysis is not inferior to that of literature...Billy Wilder's marvellous, icy editing skill. Double Indemnity revealed the Racinian purity of this cinematographic language. In Lost Weekend the simplicity of style achieves the perfection of the invisible.23 | orig

Bazin was later mocked for ascribing such pretensions to Double Indemnity; but his judgment is important as evidence of the great hopes being placed in the developing Hollywood ‘school’ at the time.

The first group of films was joined by The Woman in the Window in early September, and the debate took a different, more genuinely sombre turn. Not only was the director, Fritz Lang, known for his German masterpieces and still steeped in a Germanic style and atmosphere to a greater degree than the other émigré directors, his film told a very different story: his protagonist was no criminal, but a professional man of impeccable character led by an unlikely chain of circumstances into killing a man in self-defence, and forced to conceal the body for the sake of a lady’s reputation. The story had inbuilt tragic possibilities to which the other films could not aspire.

Jean Vidal reviewed the film in L’Écran français, referring directly to the title of Frank’s article with his mention of 'l'aventure criminelle'. He made it clear not only that he embraced the idea of a new Hollywood ‘school’, but also that in his opinion the use of chiaroscuro was intrinsic to its style (the first significant mention of lighting in this connection):

The Woman in the Window is a criminal adventure, a "noir" film which develops in this atmosphere of chiaroscuro dear to the young Hollywood school.24 | orig

He recognised in Lang’s work a sinister play between realism and horror, and emphasised particularly that it was the believability of the way the situation developed which made it so frightening:

The sense of strangeness, of the fantastic, which we experience here owes nothing to the supernatural: on the contrary, it rests on the realism of the situations and of the characters' behaviour...Everything seems so probable that every spectator can think that in similar circumstances he would have acted like the involuntary murderer.25 | orig

At La Revue du Cinéma, Jacques Bourgeois argued from a philosophical standpoint: in his opinion, Lang’s film was a true tragedy in the line of the Ancient Greeks, in which man is subject to the caprices of Fate regardless of his behaviour:

Fritz Lang has only ever treated one subject, the fundamental tragic subject of man defeated by his fate...As in Greek tragedy before Socrates, the hero is neither good nor evil: morality is excluded from the matter; it features man, depersonalised, at grips with a specific adventure which Fate has prepared for him.26 | orig

In this respect it was a film “tragique”. Films “noirs” on the other hand – he went on to say – were derivatives of modern tragedies from Racine on, in which the psychological flaws within the characters bring about their downfall. The definition is of value, because it confirms the general rule of earlier French noir films and of most of the current American ones; in fact, the argument was an over-simplification, since neither the characters of Greek myth nor the protagonists of Lang’s films were guilt-free in their own eyes. When he turned to the plight of the hero, Bourgeois agreed with Vidal that the power and terror of the film lay in the fact that through the director’s skill the spectator, however respectable, also felt embroiled in the hero’s nightmare:

The tragic intensity strikes us the more because the events take place in our everyday world and Professor Wanley's adventure could happen to any of us...this is indeed a tragedy, where Fritz Lang makes us poke a finger into the works, then drags us in after it.27 | orig

This was the majority reading, among critics both in America and in France, who felt cheated by the 'happy' ending: it had all been a dream. In both countries, reviewers were so taken in by the ‘realism’ of the story – in America, as a convincing thriller, in France as anything from a horrifying event to a Greek tragedy – that they failed to notice the deliberate artificiality of the framing device, used at the beginning as well as the end of the film. In fact, the moral of the story is clear, whether or not the Professor’s guilty unacknowledged desires led him to conjure it up in a dream. But in 1944 America, where a thriller must function according to fixed rules, and in 1946 France, where living the narrative with the protagonist was too important to be compromised, the ending was ultimately unacceptable.

Early in 1947, This Gun for Hire (director Frank Tuttle, 1942) came and went, without causing a stir. The handsome new male lead, Alan Ladd, was greeted as a rising star, but the only nod to a connection with the ‘noir’ films came in Bazin’s comparison of directorial style and flair:

Billy Wilder, Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock have raised the genre to a high level of formal perfection...In This Gun for Hire we can again admire technical excellence, but it lacks a director's distinctive mark.28 | orig

The new technique was not uncommon, it seemed, among Hollywood directors; but technique alone could not convey the psychological depths of the human situations portrayed.

In the spring of 1947 two films by Robert Siodmak arrived, The Spiral Staircase of 1945 and The Killers of 1946, and an aspect of the new ‘noir’ films already noted in passing became starkly clear: the best were being made by directors of Germanic origin. Jean George Auriol, introducing an article on Siodmak, defined what he felt was really happening in postwar Hollywood:

the recent development of the influence of the old middle-European school in American cinema...while Fritz Lang exposes tragic aspects of American life to the hard, penetrating light he has brought from Berlin, a whole group of authors and directors of Germanic origin express the drama of their lives through the themes of despair in the noir literature of James Cain and company.29 | orig

Thus he considered that European émigré directors were using American crime fiction as a vehicle for the expression of their personal pessimism or despair.

René Barjavel, reviewing The Killers in L'Écran français, was transfixed by its powerful opening, but disappointed by the lack of exploration in the narrative of the victim’s character and motives, and by its reliance for the unfolding of the story on repetitive flashbacks reminiscent of Citizen Kane. This article signals the beginnings of disillusionment at a tendency for the new crime films to lose their psychological insight and slide back into formulaic detective or gangster films:

The opening of the film is stunning. You expect brutal plot development, on the level of psychology as well as action...but then it turns into an ordinary crime story...The flashbacks...are already becoming run-of-the-mill clichés here.30 | orig

And there, for the time being, the nine-day wonder of the ‘noir’ films came to an end, after the influx of the first six films including The Lost Weekend and The Woman in the Window, plus the two by Siodmak. None of the films which followed from Hollywood were hailed at the time as ‘noir’ (including Gilda and The Big Sleep, in the summer of 1947) and in the face of exciting new trends emerging in Europe, the story sank into oblivion. Auriol summed up the feelings of critics about the origins and essence of the films. In an essay in Intermède, he claimed the prewar realist mode for France as well as Germany, recognising squarely the debt of cinema to literature, but it was again Lang for whom he expressed the keenest admiration:

The noir films coming to us from America which prolong the old French and German realist style (from Zola to Wedekind)...You feel more fear following the thread of Ariadne which he has unwound relentlessly in The Woman in the Window than watching the scenes of brutality in Murder, My Sweet or The Maltese Falcon. But you don't breathe the same depressing air as in the films adapted or imitated from James Cain and others...human beings adrift in today's bleak world.31 | orig

So an important distinction was being proposed: some ‘noir’ films were of high quality, but almost all of these had been made by European émigrés, and the one which came closest to real tragedy was made by a director who was known for his glittering prewar European output, Fritz Lang. It had briefly looked as though a new understanding was being developed into the cinematic representation of human character in depth, but French critics quickly perceived a superficiality and slavishness to convention in most of the home-grown Hollywood films which followed. In addition, postwar France needed optimism or at least a belief that there was some meaning to life, and critics were in no mood for a view as consistently bleak as that portrayed by the American writers of ‘hard-boiled’ fiction. French critics formed in the prewar period had clung on, through the war years, to a certain romanticism. They believed that cinema could, and should, perform a rôle as a part of life, not as a frivolous escape from it. They were still looking for the ‘réel’, the ‘vécu’, the ‘vrai’, as outlined by Frank, and after the first exceptional examples they were convinced that the general run of postwar American crime films did not fulfil this hope. Only a few brilliant directors could mould the uncompromisingly brutal source narratives into worthwhile explorations of human frailty; and if behind the violence and brutality of the films there was no attempt to penetrate and comprehend the darkness of the human soul, they were simply conventional crime or gangster films, not genuinely ‘noir’.

It is clear that one of the key elements in the welcome given by the French critics to the American ‘films noirs’ was the feeling that serious European influence lay behind their modern American settings and panache. Later commentators have pointed to stylistic influences from prewar German films, but for the 1946 critics the primary consideration was not one of style. It was rather that they believed in cinema’s twofold function: as an absorbing entertainment and as a potential force for good, not through reinforcing conventional morality but through its ability to expose corruption and injustice. They had seen at first hand the prewar struggles of European filmmakers to speak out against evil in their films, and felt that the new American crime films could represent the opportunity for a surreptitious continuation of that work within unashamedly entertainment films.

Over the next few years, the term 'films noirs' continued to be associated by French critics with crime films produced by Hollywood, but they soon concluded that the later films were being churned out to a profitable formula and had lost the original vision.

Detour: Borde and Chaumeton

 In 1955, the younger writers Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton published what they saw as an historical account of the film noir: Panorama du film noir américain, 1941-1953. As far as they were concerned, this series of films had run its course, and by the time the book came out it aroused only mild interest among most French critics.

Its importance today lies in the fact that it was discovered during the 1960s by academic film commentators in the United States, where little interest had previously been shown in this French interpretation of 1940s American crime films. Few French film magazines of the late 1940s had crossed the Atlantic at the time, and had certainly not been translated. Thus the first definition of film noir to make a significant impact (at first mainly in American film schools, among those who could read French) was the one laid down by Borde and Chaumeton.

The problem for future understanding of the meaning of the term, as originally conceived, was that, after paying a brief tribute to the astuteness of Frank, who “a su diagnostiquer quelques-uns des traits fondamentaux de la série” [“diagnosed certain fundamental characteristics of the series”], they then made sweeping changes to his concept to suit their own worldview. They were fascinated by surrealism, especially in its more decadent aspects, and were particularly drawn to such elements in the films which had been labelled ‘noir’. In their analysis 1930s social connotations of the word ’noir’ became subordinated to an insistence on the unnatural or perverse in these films. A striking example of this is the difference between the social analyses of The Lost Weekend by critics in 1946-7 (see quotations 21-23) and the emphasis on drink-induced madness in their book in 1955:

Billy Wilder's Lost Weekend had been classified rather lightly in the noir genre, no doubt because of the hospital scenes and the description of delirium tremens. But abnormality and crime were missing.32 | orig

The authors belonged to a later generation than the critics debating the issue in the 1940s, and were not in Paris at the time, although in Toulouse they would have seen the films and read the articles. Their book was heavily influenced by a mixture of surrealist and sociological ideas which represented the personal outlook of Borde, in particular, and certain of his colleagues at the journal Positif. At the time, Positif stood in opposition to the other major cinema journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, where Eric Rohmer (later a Nouvelle Vague director) forcefully attacked this reading of the films, and the failure to separate the qualities of the films from those of their source-books:

the film noir is (happily) not a political pamphlet, even if it has denounced certain abuses – with a rare frankness. It rests on conventions without which it would not be what it is. Attempting to judge it according to a certain surrealist aesthetic or ethic, is: 1. to take us back thirty years; 2. to declare – inadmissibly – the servitude of cinema to literature, and of literature which is popular (but not therefore to be despised) to aesthetic paradoxes.33 | orig

After a period of unusually – for French cinema criticism – lethargic debate, in December 1956 the authors were asked to sum up in Positif how they now perceived film noir. It can be seen that, apart from their somewhat exaggerated emphasis on the bizarre, the “insolite” beloved of surrealists, their analysis was not in fact so far from that of Nino Frank: throughout the 1930s he had been criticising cinema for its oversimplified division of humanity into good and evil, and had been calling for films to expose the corruption of the social order. They declared:

In our opinion, the film noir brings an atmosphere of ambiguity and bizarreness, an exaggerated cruelty, a neurotic climate, which are completely new…Before the war, the rule was to make a clear break between the good and the bad characters…In a word, the crime film of 1935 was socially wholesome. But the true film noir is a barely-disguised transposition of the nightmare, and it carries the implication of a deeply corrupted social order.34 | orig

At this point in time they believed film noir to be a defunct genre. But within ten years it was seized on by American critics, and the aspect of their analysis which became prominent in the mainstream was the unnatural and the abnormal, with the social insight which was the original breakthrough pushed into a minor role.

Bridge to the future

The growth of Film Schools in America and Britain during the 1960s and a search for new directions by young filmmakers coincided with the French New Wave. The interest shown by the young French directors in 1940s Hollywood films, and in particular in the 'films noirs', led American cinephiles who admired French films loosely inspired by them, like Godard's Breathless and Truffaut's Shoot the Pianist, to re-examine and re-evaluate the earlier films. A copy of Borde and Chaumeton's Panorama du film noir américain was discovered, pored over in University departments by those who could read French, and re-interpreted for their colleagues. A fascination with the idea of film noir developed, which has continued unabated and has expanded worldwide.

Practical and stylistic lessons were taken from the films, but in addition they became the object of a variety of philosophical theories. The first academic explorations in America and England into the origins of film noir concentrated on earlier influences in cinema – German expressionism, French crime films from the early Fantômas series to the serious ‘noir’ films of the 1930s – and on the literature from which many of the films were derived. They also took into account wider political circumstances of the recent past like the Depression, the menace of Fascism and the flight of many European directors and cinematographers to America. Then, as interest in the subject of film noir broadened, and new exploration and interpretation became a respectable academic endeavour, writers took up the challenge of placing the noir development within the whole philosophical framework of its period: a period considered by this time to span the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The initial, and superficially plausible, hypothesis was that the production of certain films and the perception of them by critics as noir was part of the bleak existential mood of the postwar period: an idea first put forward by Robert Porfirio in his 1976 article ‘No Way Out: Existential motifs in the film noir’. He argued that all noir heroes were terrifyingly alone, isolated and alienated from the world, with nothing to depend on but themselves. The private eye figures could be seen as maintaining a kind of Sartrean ‘bonne foi’ [‘good faith’] in the face of constant temptations; while the increasing number of protagonists who appeared trapped by an inexorable fate were existing in a space akin to Sartre’s Huis clos [ No Exit].

Because this article was – and still is – very influential in film noir criticism, it justifies serious discussion. Porfirio went into considerable detail on the constructs underlying existentialism, drawing circumstantial parallels with film noir. However, he admitted that the French philosophy of existentialism, neither fully formulated nor accepted as a new doctrine until after the war, could not have been a direct influence. Rather, he suggested that “it is more likely that this existential bias was drawn from a source much nearer to hand – the hard-boiled school of fiction”, going on to point to a “unique and almost symbiotic relationship which they [the ‘hard-boiled’ writers] had with the French existential writers”. Even if we leave aside the claimed “symbiosis” with French writers, there is a problem over something called a “hard-boiled school of fiction”, which the author himself conceded had many strands, at different levels of literary merit. In addition, lack of attention to chronology led to works of the 1920s being considered as part of the same phenomenon as much later, even postwar, books.35

However, the central concern for this investigation is not whether certain film noir heroes could, with hindsight, appear to share qualities with existentialism. It is, rather, to scrutinise the standpoint of Nino Frank, who started the whole debate, and ask whether the word ‘noir’ in this context would carry any existentialist overtones for him. It seems unlikely that this was the case. He himself asserted in his Petit Cinéma sentimental – somewhat disingenuously – that he had no head for philosophical debate; but also, crucially, that in his dealings with Sartre (with whom he worked in 1943-44) what interested him was not the ideas of the writer, but the character and inner motivations of the person – precisely Frank’s interest in the films he called ‘noir’:

We never talked existentialism, and anyway it would have been pointless, since I have the least philosophical of minds. It was the man I found so interesting and not the thinker, the man and his internal debate.36 | orig

In fact, he wrote in these and later memoirs about all the cultural ideas and theories which interested him, and significantly he barely touched on the subject of existentialism. Clearly it was of topical interest for cinema in 1946, since Frank’s early mentor Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes – with whom he published the review BIFUR, and whose Dada-ist works he translated into Italian – wrote a tirade against the theory in L’Écran français in June of that year, entitled ‘Existentialisme et Cinéma’:

After 1918 we had dada, an explosion of inflammatory joy, then surrealism, the total expansion of the ancient store of dreams, to the point of submerging the whole of life in it. Today, we have what we deserve for having accepted catastrophe: we have existentialism.37 | orig

He argued that there had not yet been an existentialist film, mainly because the doctrine was too pessimistic. The magic of the cinema, on the other hand, lay in its secret collusion with the dreams and desires of the individual, even while paying lip-service to the conventional morality of society:

Even if the cinema does pay tribute to collective morality, at the same time, mysteriously, it remains a secret liberation of the individual.38 | orig

Again, the same message: for Ribemont-Dessaignes too, the interior life, the psychology of the individual, was fascinating to follow or watch. The choices proposed by existentialism appeared to him to lead to the restriction, not the liberation, of the human mind and soul.

The crucial difficulty with Porfirio’s theory is the chronology. Although Sartre was of the same generation as Frank and the other critics engaged in the 1946 debate (he was born in 1905), it was not his own generation which responded favourably to his theories, but the generation which began their adult lives as the war ended. Those who had lived through the between-wars period and the Occupation clung to the belief that the defeat of Nazism could lead, with goodwill and co-operation, to a different, better world. They were still committed to the principle of helping each other, working together for the common good. Even if existentialism’s precondition of ‘bonne foi’ laid obligations as well as privileges on the individual, it left him totally alone and appeared to suggest that there was no longer a place for social co-operation.

The films which Frank called ‘noir’ did not in fact deal with a lone hero, even if two of the source books (The Maltese Falcon and Farewell, My Lovely) could be interpreted that way. Their environments were varied but within recognisable social frameworks, although the plot lines – especially of the two private eye films – did develop rather fancifully. The distinction Frank made was between the robotic characters who peopled most thrillers – which often had a glamorous detective hero set apart from society – and the inhabitants of the new films, who were all faced with difficult moral choices in their social dealings. For him, the new narratives harked back – in aspiration, at least – to Zola or Maupassant (like 1930s French films), or further back into centuries of European tragic theatre.

The link between film noir and existentialism made by Porfirio has continued to be discussed and developed ever since, but if existentialism is to be invoked, there is a need to distinguish between the films seen in 1946 and those from the end of the decade and later, in which isolation and alienation of the main characters begins to be a central theme, and which could more convincingly be held to derive from increasing postwar disillusionment. It becomes clear, in any event, that the further down this route the concept of film noir is taken, the more the intrinsic characteristics of the films described in this way diverge from the original 1946 critical vision.

In the twenty years following Porfirio’s article, scholars in America, Britain, France and other European countries produced closely-researched and challenging works on the idea of film noir, arguing from a number of different angles and points of view. Over this period many works demonstrated confusion in dating quoted articles by French critics, or lack of understanding of the hiatus between the criticism of the 1940s and that of the new 1950s critics. When commenting on the original discussions in France, to a large extent later writers followed Borde and Chaumeton in quoting only one or two critics, notably Frank and Chartier; but most importantly, they summarised Frank’s article only incompletely and without reference to his other writings of the period, variously interpreting it as rooted in surrealism, campaigning for greater realism, or recommending a new narrative method and style. In the proliferation of theories, the term was in danger of losing its fundamental focus and seriousness. Then, during the 1990s, one critic – James Naremore – began to draw attention to the significance of Frank’s wider modernist credentials in the definition of film noir.

Modernism, Nino Frank and Pierre Mac Orlan

At the time of Porfirio’s article, the new climate of postmodernism was in a period of experimentation and definition. But by the early 1990s, it was so well established that the era it had superseded – that of modernism – was being viewed from a historical perspective. The writer who took on the challenge of moving the debate forward was James Naremore, Chancellor’s Professor of English, Film Studies, and Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Naremore had taken a literary degree in 1970 at Wisconsin–Madison (home of a thriving film society since the 1950s, and subsequently of the journal The Velvet Light Trap), moving on to spend most of his working life at Indiana–Bloomington. He wrote articles on film from the 1970s on, but was also centrally involved in the academic development of ‘cultural studies’ and co-edited the 1991 book Modernity and Mass Culture.39

Between 1995 and 1998 he put forward two ideas new to the debate at the time: that in fact film noir belonged squarely within the period and the life-view of the last years of modernism, drawing its inspiration from the earlier, central period of ‘high modernism’ (which he placed in the 1920s and 1930s); and that in America at least, a postmodern age trying to understand the past had seized upon the concept of film noir and re-interpreted it in its own image. In a Film Quarterly article in 1995 – ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’ – Naremore’s thinking started out from the suspicion that to a substantial extent the noir myth (as developed in America from the 1960s on) was a postmodern construct, but that this new edifice was being built on something valuable from the past:

A plausible case could indeed be made that, far from dying out with the old studio system, noir is almost entirely a creation of postmodern culture – a belated reading of classic Hollywood that was popularized by cinéastes of the French New Wave, appropriated by reviewers, academics, and film-makers, and then recycled on TV…I shall try to explain a paradox: film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past.40

The reference to the New Wave filmmakers was a reminder that Americans began to look at their own 1940s cinema through new eyes, as the result of encounters with Godard and Truffaut and their admiration for, and film homage to, certain Hollywood directors of the period.

In this article Naremore was still pursuing Porfirio’s ideas of an existentialist influence, while edging towards the central importance, in 1946 Paris, of modernism. This shift is seen in a paragraph towards the end, where he imagined himself back in time in the position of the 1946 critics and described film noir in terms of recognised characteristics of modernist art and literature.  In fact, in his argument he re-introduced Pierre Mac Orlan's concept of the "fantastique social", directly referencing Frank's 1946 article:

If we could ask the original French commentators what film noir represented, they might agree that, for all its romanticism, it was a challenge to Hollywood conventions: it used unorthodox narration; it resisted sentiment and censorship; it reveled in the “social fantastic”; it demonstrated the ambiguity of human motives; and it made commodity culture seem like a wasteland.41

In his 1998 book, More than Night: Film noir in its contexts, Naremore went further, tracing a direct connection in Paris between the 1946 film critics and the modernist writers, and specifically singling out Frank:

Sometimes the connection between the Parisian cinéphiles and the older generation of high modernists was quite specific. For example, Nino Frank, who is usually credited with the first application of the term film noir to American thrillers, was a close friend of James Joyce during the 1930s.42

He expanded on the argument from his earlier article that many characteristics of modernist literature and painting were carried over into film:

an assault on bourgeois Europe’s ideals of sexuality, family, and religion, and on provincial America’s fundamentalism and Babbittry… “deep” narrative techniques, involving stream of consciousness and nonlinear plot…were used to reveal savagery or death instinct – a killer inside us, living below the surface of rational life.43

Naremore’s wide knowledge of the literature of the modernist period, and his specialism in mass culture, enabled him to visualise the broader picture and to recognise the 1940s thrillers as the outpourings of a between-wars generation, rather than the reflection of new postwar ideas and directions. In noting the debt of the noir films to modernism, he also pointed out that literary figures employed as writers within commercial media organisations were bound to influence the output:

Like modernism, Hollywood thrillers of the 1940s are characterized by urban landscapes, subjective narration, nonlinear plots, hard-boiled poetry, and misogynistic eroticism...The affinity between noir and modernism is hardly surprising. In the decades between the two world wars, modernist art increasingly influenced melodramatic literature and movies, if only because most writers and artists with serious aspirations now worked for the culture industry.44

This hypothesis appears to fit well with what is known of the intellectual positions of the French critics engaged in the 1946 debate. Their cultural interests and the circles they moved in were in literature, art and music before they began to focus primarily on cinema. They knew the modernist writers and painters of the late nineteenth century as well as of the early twentieth century, and all had some knowledge of Freud and psychoanalysis, of Marx and Nietzsche. The cultural and political movements of the between-wars period were important to them; all were involved to some extent in dada and/or surrealism; many flirted with Communism or at least the French Popular Front. The search for truth of expression was a central pillar of the modernist project, and this thread runs throughout their discourse, right from their earliest writings.

Again, it is the connections of Nino Frank with modernism which are of particular interest. Naremore alluded to this aspect in drawing attention to his relationship with Joyce, but appeared to have only second-hand information taken from a biography of Joyce by Richard Ellmann. From his description it is evident that the information came originally from an article by Frank himself in the literary journal La Table ronde in November 1949, ‘Souvenirs sur James Joyce: L’ombre qui avait perdu son homme’ (reproduced in 1967 in Frank’s book of memoirs, Mémoire brisée), in which it is made clear that he spent a lot of time not only with Joyce, but through him with Samuel Beckett and with the American writers who also frequented the bookshops of Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, and the Sélect bar in Montparnasse.45

However, Frank’s modernist background originated not with James Joyce, but with his early contacts in Italy and France. At school in Italy, he was a great reader. By the age of 22, he had read (in French) all the major French writers of the period from 1850 to 1925, and written a book on them in Italian, Letteratura francese di ieri e oggi (published in 1929). He had also read major German, Russian and English classics, the last two languages almost certainly in translation. He had spent time in France with Max Jacob and through him had met Cocteau and Mac Orlan, gaining introductions to painters and musicians as well as to other writers. In Italy, as a close friend of the painter and writer Alberto Savinio, he was part of the group of writers and painters around Savinio’s brother Giorgio de Chirico and Massimo Bontempelli, and engaged in their discussions of Magic Realism and the Fourth Dimension. Back in Paris in 1926, as external cultural correspondent of the Corriere della Sera, he attended the ‘Ballets futuristes’, becoming friendly with the Italian Futurists and especially with the anti-Fascist among them, Luigi Russolo. He worked for a time as a freelance at Paris-Journal, where he met and collaborated with the surrealists Soupault and Desnos, and with René Clair who had just made the dada-ist film Entr’acte. When in 1929 Ribemont-Dessaignes asked him to help launch the literary magazine BIFUR, his task was to obtain contributions from an international array of distinguished writers and artists. As well as more established writers, he knew – and appreciated the work of – his contemporaries André Malraux, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marcel Aymé and Raymond Queneau, among others; and as the 1930s progressed, through his work on the film weekly Pour Vous he came to know all the French film directors and the German, American and British directors and stars who worked in or visited France. Thus it is indeed possible to place him squarely within the modernist project.

But the influence which was most in his mind in the summer of 1946 was that of Mac Orlan – certainly part of the modernist phenomenon, but in its very specific aspect of the influence of the modern city on its inhabitants, especially those forced to live in the slums. As a very young man Frank had translated into Italian, and arranged to have published, Mac Orlan’s successful early novels, La Maison du retour écœurant, Le Rire jaune and Le Chant de l’Equipage. Their friendship had lasted right through from 1924 and they had regularly discussed Mac Orlan’s theory of the ‘fantastique social’, a sense that the modern world of tightly packed streets and harsh electric lighting can develop at night an ambience as ‘fantastic’ in its own way as the Gothic imaginings of Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Shelley. A favourite story (and film) was of Jack the Ripper, which seemed to Mac Orlan to epitomise this ambience, and to illustrate the strange effects the night could have on human behaviour. In his own stories, he drew on what he knew of the slum dwellers of Montmartre from his years there as an unsuccessful painter (1899-1901), on a powerful imagination, and on an ever-present sense of the influence of Chance – or the workings of the subconscious mind – over human destiny. All these elements can be found, for instance, in his novel Le Quai des brumes, set in Montmartre at the Lapin Agile bar.

Frank saw the four American films in July 1946, before going to Mac Orlan’s village of Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin, to finish the book he was writing – Petit Cinéma sentimental – and to discuss with Mac Orlan plans for a series of radio programmes, to include adaptations of some of his works, and interviews about his work which Frank would script and conduct. Mac Orlan’s fascination with violent death, especially in the context of his trademark ‘fantastique social’ – which is a recurring theme in the subsequent radio interviews – must have been prominent in their discussions in August 1946.46

In late August Frank came into the offices of L’Écran français with the article which would start the whole debate on ‘films noirs’. Up until then, neither he nor the other reviewers had made a positive link between the four films, which all included murder, but otherwise differed widely in both content and style. He must have been mulling over other elements the films had in common – the tendency to use voiceover or a personal narrative, the fast pace and use of gestures and expressions in place of dialogue, the emphasis on the psychology of the characters, which would be important features of his article. But his first paragraphs, the specific mention of ‘fantastique social’ and ‘mort violente’, suggest strongly that the decisive trigger which made him feel he had a theme interesting enough to work up into an article was supplied by his discussions with Mac Orlan.

In 1955, Borde and Chaumeton would – almost certainly incorrectly – interpret these references as deriving from surrealism; and it is important to address this misunderstanding, since in 2002 a translation of their Panorama appeared, rendered in English as A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953. The fact that it was translated by Paul Hammond, also the editor of The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, a translation of important surrealist writings and was introduced by Naremore, gave their book the status of a key English-language reference work.  In his Introduction Naremore understandably (because he was essentially promoting Borde and Chaumeton’s ideas) but regrettably retreated from his theory of the central importance of modernism to the 1946 debates. As a corollary he unjustifiably relegated Frank to a minor rôle, influenced rather than influencing within the context of the time. This is a pity, as his text tends to over-emphasise the importance of surrealism in 1946: in fact, interest in it had waned by the end of the 1930s, and it was only towards the end of the 1940s that it gained a revived following among a new generation. The originality of Frank's term 'film noir' was also called into question, with Naremore's suggestion that Gallimard's ‘Série noire’ was a highly important phenomenon to cinema critics at the time:

The adjective “noir”…was best known in relation to the “Série noire”, a series of crime novels that Gallimard (from 1945 until now) issued in paperback editions…Several French critics were immediately attracted to The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, and Laura, and they knew what to name them.47

The idea of this derivation for the term 'film noir' had been put forward by Robert Porfirio in his 1976 article, and was accepted by critics during the following years without detailed checks on chronology. In reality, this lighthearted crime series dreamt up by Marcel Duhamel had barely got going in 1946, and its only publications by the time the crucial batch of films arrived in Paris were translations of two novels by Peter Cheyney and one by James Hadley Chase. The series moved forward very slowly until 1948, and it is much more likely that it benefited from the success of the films than vice versa. The literary origins of the 'noir' in the 'film noir' phrase went back much further, into the classic pantheon of serious French literature.

Naremore's Introduction also gives the impression that Borde and Chaumeton represented the mainstream opinion among critics:

It was written by a pair of intelligent, discerning viewers who were contemporary with the films under discussion…Borde and Chaumeton not only synthesized a decade of French commentary on American film noir, but also constructed a full-scale history of the form.48

whereas the emphasis of their book was not by any means universally accepted in the French cinema world of the time.

Finally, what Naremore with his knowledge of modernism could have emphasised was that film elements which, he said, André Breton and his friends claimed for surrealism, were actually elements revelled in by cinephiles generally, in the between-wars period:

Willfully disrupting narrative continuities, they savored the cinematic mise-en-scène, which functioned as a springboard for their poetic imagination…it could involuntarily throw off bizarre images, strange juxtapositions, and erotic plays of light and shadow on human bodies, thus providing an opportunity for the audience to break free of repressive plot conventions and indulge in private fantasies.49

Frank was never a surrealist, but he appreciated all these aspects. More importantly, he was fascinated by the desperate absurdity of dada, and the underlying morbidity of Mac Orlan and of Frank’s long-time friend Blaise Cendrars (whom he later described as the last modernist poet) – all accentuated by, if not entirely originating in, the experiences of the 1914-18 war.

Mac Orlan is rarely described as a modernist writer and continues to be omitted from the pantheon of major French writers of the early twentieth century, in spite of a tardy election to the Académie Goncourt and the recent efforts on his behalf by the Comité des Amis de Pierre Mac Orlan. Francis Lacassin, introducing the eighth volume of their Cahiers Pierre Mac Orlan, was in no doubt not only that he was a modernist, but that he was seen in this light by the young writers (including Frank) who knew him in the 1920s:

What is striking in Mac Orlan is a modernism recognised, from 1923, by the young men who frequented his salon in the Rue du Ranelagh: André Malraux, Pascal Pia, Nino Frank, Joseph Delteil...They admired his new approach to the novel, whose field and themes he had enlarged by introducing street-girls, soldiers, sailors, and other marginals of night-time life. No doubt they appreciated even more his faculty of sublimating, under the name of 'social fantastic', neglected aspects of the marvellous in the everyday.50 | orig

Perhaps the general critical neglect explains why his importance in the adoption of the term ‘films noirs’ has been not so much overlooked as rejected. But Frank was thinking consciously of the connection between Mac Orlan’s novel Le Quai des brumes, Carné’s film Quai des Brumes, and the frightening urban environments and agonising personal choices common to these works and the postwar American crime films. Later writers have also played down the connection because they could see little evidence of any stylistic influence of the French 1930s films on Hollywood. What Frank and his fellow critics saw, however, was not an influence, but a similarity of purpose: to present the characters of crime films – often based on actual crimes reported in the press – as real human beings and not part of a sterile puzzle. In this respect, again, they were following in the traditions of modernist literature, while also justifying the inclusion of cinema as a serious modern medium comparable with literature and the other arts.

Both Frank’s evocation as ‘films noirs’ of the American crime films seen in 1946, and the debate which ensued from his article, can thus be seen to have their roots in modernism, a widely-held philosophy at the time across literary and artistic circles in Paris. However, the direct influence on Frank in this context was not his relatively superficial or transitory relationships with important international figures (as has been suggested), but his longlasting closeness to the marginal and undervalued modernist, Mac Orlan. Too little attention has been paid in recent criticism (perhaps, even, ever since Borde and Chaumeton’s book) to the singular importance to the debate of Frank – without whose lateral thinking it might never have occurred to critics in France, any more than in England or America, to perceive ‘films noirs’ as a trend which justified serious and prolonged debate. But the essential ‘missing link’, which has remained largely unrecognised, was the bond between Frank and the poet of the modern city, Pierre Mac Orlan.

All translations from European texts are my own.

The Fascination of Noir


1Nino Frank, ‘Et la troisième dimension?’, L’Écran français, no.56, 24.7.46, p.3.

2 Nino Frank, 'Le Faucon maltais – une excitante...histoire à dormir debout', L'Écran français, no.58, 7.8.46, p.10.

3Jean-Pierre Barrot, ‘Une atmosphère, un personnage: une œuvre’, L’Écran français, no.59, 14.8.46, p.11.

4Georges Sadoul, ‘Grande Saison de noir’, Les Lettres françaises, no.121, 16.8.46, p.8.


6Pierre Mac Orlan, ‘Le domaine du fantastique’, L’Écran français, no. 21, 21.11.45, p.3.

7A number of their joint works survive in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris: several interviews and plays, and a book, Montmartre ou les Enfants de la folie (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1956).

8Nino Frank, ‘Un nouveau genre “policier”: L’aventure criminelle’, L’Écran français, no.61, 28.8.46, p.6

9ibid., p.14.



12André Malraux, La Condition humaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1946 edition), p.247; and Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1996 edition), p.60.

13From three articles which all came out on 7.9.44: in order of the above quotations, Archer Winsten, New York Post; Bosley Crowther, New York Times; Kate Cameron, New York Daily News. Collected in Motion Picture Critics’ Reviews, 1944, pp.253-254.

14After the critical success of this journal between 1928 and 1931, but its ultimate financial failure, Auriol had always wanted to revive it. Finally, in 1946, he obtained the backing of Gaston Gallimard.

15Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Amable Jameson (a favourite alias of Auriol), ‘Un réalisateur et ses personnages’, La Revue du Cinéma, no.2, 1.11.46, p.73.

16ibid., pp.73, 75.

17ibid., p.75.

18Jean-Pierre Chartier, ‘Les Américains aussi font des films “noirs” ’, La Revue du Cinéma, no.2, 1.11.46, pp.69-70. (This is the article which critics often group together with Nino Frank's article, as containing the earliest mentions of the American 'films noirs'.)

19ibid., p.70.

20ibid., pp.67, 70.

21ibid., p.70.

22Georges Sadoul, ‘Un homme et des bouteilles’, Les Lettres françaises, no.147, 14.2.47, p.8. Billy Wilder had insisted on going to New York for the exterior shots, and on filming Don Birnam (Ray Milland) walking the length of Third Avenue, trying to pawn his typewriter to get money for a drink. The cinematographer, John Seitz, took many of the shots with his camera concealed inside a truck, so that passers-by were unaware that they were being filmed.

23André Bazin, ‘The Lost Weekend [Le Poison], le drame de l’alcoöl’, L’Ecran français, no. 86, 18.2.47, pp.6,18.

24Jean Vidal, ‘L’aventure criminelle à sa plus haute tension’, L’Écran français, no.62. 4.9.46, p.6.


26Jacques Bourgeois, ‘La Tragédie policière’, La Revue du Cinéma, no. 2, 1.11.46, p.71.

27ibid., p.72.

28André Bazin, ‘Le Tueur à gages [This Gun for Hire]: Le tueur est trop sensible’, L’Écran français, no.82, 21.1.47, p.7.

29Amable Jameson (Jean George Auriol), ‘Le style germanique à Hollywood’, La Revue du Cinéma, no.6, Spring 1947, p.64.

30René Barjavel, ‘Les Tueurs: Les procédés de Citizen Kane dans un film de gangsters’, L’Écran français, no. 97, 6.5.47, p.7.

31Jean George Auriol, ‘Pauvre Cinéma, trop riche…’, Intermède 2 (Paris: Eds. Rombaldi, 1947), p.188.

32Raymond Borde et Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama du film noir américain, 1941-1953 (Paris: Flammarion, 1955), p.141.

33Eric Rohmer, ‘Livres de Cinéma’, Cahiers du Cinéma, vol.11, no.62, August-September 1956, p.57

34Raymond Borde et Etienne Chaumeton, ‘À propos du Film Noir Américain’, Positif, no.19, December 1956, p.53

35Robert G. Porfirio, 'No Way out: Existential motifs in the film noir', Sight and Sound, vol.45, no.4, Autumn 1976, p.214.

36Nino Frank, Petit Cinéma sentimental (Paris: La Nouvelle Edition, 1950), p.171.

37Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, ‘Existentialisme et Cinéma’, L’Écran français, no.52, 26.6.46, p.5.

38Ribemont-Dessaignes, ibid.

39James Naremore and Patrick Brantlinger, Modernity and Mass Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991)

40James Naremore, ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’, Film Quarterly, vol.49, no.2, Winter 1995-6, p.14.

41ibid., p.24. The comment on ‘commodity culture’, betrays Naremore’s own postmodern stance. It was not present in this context in the writings of the French 1946 critics.

42James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998), p.41.

43ibid., p.43.

44ibid., p.45.

45See Nino Frank, ‘Souvenirs sur James Joyce: L’ombre qui avait perdu son homme’, La Table ronde, November 1949, pp.1671-1694; and ‘L’ombre qui avait perdu son homme’, Mémoire brisée (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1967), pp.29-64.

46See Les Cahiers Pierre Mac Orlan. (Paris: Comité des Amis de Pierre Mac Orlan, Primea Linea, 1990-1996), especially no.2 , ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’, and no.5, ‘Les souvenirs de la nuit’.

47James Naremore, ‘A Season in Hell or the Snows of Yesteryear?’, Introduction to: Paul Hammond (ed.), A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002), pp.viii-ix.

48Naremore, ibid., p.vii, xii-xiii..

49Naremore, ibid., p.xi. (American spellings retained.)

50Francis Lacassin, Preface to Pierre Mac Orlan, ‘Vive la publicité’, texts from 1930 to 1959, Cahiers Pierre Mac Orlan, no.8 (April 1995), p,7.

 Additional bibliography

For further information on the 1940s journals L'Écran français and La Revue du Cinéma, see:

Barrot, Olivier, L'Écran français, 1943-1953: Histoire d'un journal et d'une époque (Paris: Les Editeurs français réunis, 1979)

Doniol-Valcroze, Jacques, 'Un riche voyage entre passé et avenir', Preface to Facsimile reprint of La Revue du Cinéma (Second series) (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1979), pp. LXXXI-LXXXVI,

and for the covers and lists of contents of the whole series of the journals: [Ecran français] [La Revue du Cinéma, 1946-1949]

Original quotations from which translations taken

(numbers match relevant endnotes)

1une troisième dimension: un peu de substance, un peu d’épaisseur, la logique de la vérité, définitivement substituée à la logique du cinéma.

3un sourire qui n’est jamais tendre, une sensualité qui ne s’abandonne pas lui composent une personnalité perverse à souhait.

4La noire Assurance sur la mort [Double Indemnity] est un bon film. Mais le rose Introuvable [The Thin Man] en était un meilleur encore.

5Il y a dix ans il était sucre d’orge, faveurs roses, bergerie. Mais il a maintenant compris les nouvelles nécessités de son commerce. Il mélange le fiel, l’absinthe, le sang, la boue. La Fille du Diable, film noir, est le comble de conformisme.

6La rue, qui est toujours riche en apparences troubles dès que le sommeil habite les maisons qui la bordent…les signes de la mort mêlés aux brumes savantes et aux fantômes de bruit qui la précèdent. Le noir et le blanc animés sont d’excellents créateurs d’angoisse.

9Ainsi ces films “noirs” n’ont-ils plus rien de commun avec les bandes policières du type habituel. Récits nettement psychologiques, l’action, violente ou mouvementée, y importe moins que les visages, les comportements, les paroles – donc la vérité des personnages, cette “troisième dimension” dont il m’est arrivé de parler ici même.

10Il n’est rien à quoi le spectateur d’aujourd’hui soit plus sensible qu’à l’empreinte de la vie, du “vécu”, et, pourquoi pas, à certaines atrocités, qui existent effectivement et qu’il n’a jamais servi à rien d’occulter; la lutte pour la vie n’est pas une invention actuelle.

11On fait intervenir un narrateur ou un commentateur, ce qui permet de fragmenter le récit, de glisser rapidement sur les parties de transition, et d’accentuer le côté “vécu”. Il est évident que ce procédé facilite le démarrage de l’histoire, et qu’il permet par ailleurs de mettre du dynamisme dans une peinture psychologique un peu mobile.

12Ce qui ne varie pas, c’est la nécessité pour lui d’être dans le monde, d’y être au travail, d’y être au milieu d’autres et d’y être mortel…[Ces limites] sont vécues et ne sont rien si l’homme ne les vit, c’est-à-dire ne se détermine librement dans son existence par rapport à elles.

15Les personnages de Laura – le cas est rare – ont une existence réelle…Que l’intrigue soit policière importe peu en définitive. Laura eût aussi bien pu être entraînée dans un drame de famille ou d’amour…Le prodige est de lui avoir donné la vie.

16Le miracle désiré par le public est d’abord souhaité, inconsciemment et sans espoir, par le jeune premier – dont on arrive à oublier qu’il n’est qu’un “poulet”. On sympathise même avec lui…presque aussi émouvant que le Gabin du Jour se lève.

17Clifton Webb…a buriné son rôle d’une main aussi experte qu’audacieuse. Peu nous importe qu’il soit coupable ou non, haïssable dans son inhumaine sophistication...En face de cette présence, nous vivons son destin personnel…Nous aurions tous été meurtriers.

18des jeux de formes tourbillonnantes qui font penser aux recherches du “cinéma pur” et la reconstitution d’un cauchemar et de troubles visuels dans le style de l’ancien cinéma d’avant-garde.

19on démonte sous nos yeux le mécanisme psychologique par lequel Walter Neff se laisse entraîner dans l’engrenage rigoureux de l’aventure. Les ressorts de l’action ne sont pas extérieurs: la séduction du bon jeune homme par une garce calculatrice, la tentation du crime parfait, le défi inconscient jeté à l’ami chargé de déceler les escroqueries prennent une vraisemblance telle qu’on se sent engagé personnellement dans cette sombre histoire.

20on imagine mal qu’on puisse aller plus loin dans le pessimisme et le dégoût de l’humanité…On a parlé d’une école française des films noirs, mais Le Quai des brumes ou L’Hôtel du Nord avaient au moins des accents de révolte, l’amour y passait comme le mirage d’un monde meilleur, une revendication sociale implicite ouvrait la porte à l’espoir.

21L’impression de folie et de vide stupide que laisse le spectacle de cet homme jeune, possédé par cette unique passion, fait de The Lost Weekend un des films les plus désolants que j’ai vu.

22L’angoisse et la honte pèsent sur le spectateur que Billy Wilder a réussi – comme dans L’Assurance sur la mort – à identifier au coupable. Et la grande réussite du film est aussi d’avoir, pour la première fois depuis longtemps, fait participer une ville réelle, New York, et non les constructions de studio à l’action dramatique.

23la preuve éclatante que la puissance d’analyse psychologique du cinéma n’est pas inférieure à celle de la littérature…cette prestigieuse et glaciale habileté du découpage de Billy Wilder. Assurance sur la Mort révélait déjà la pureté racinienne de cette langue cinématographique. Dans Lost Weekend la simplicité du style atteint à la perfection de l’invisible.

24La Femme au portrait[The Woman in the Window] est une aventure criminelle, un film “noir” qui se déroule dans cette atmosphère de clair-obscur chère à la jeune école hollywoodienne.

25Le sentiment d’étrangeté, de fantastique que nous éprouvons ici ne doit rien au surnaturel: il repose au contraire dans le réalisme des situations et du comportement des personnages…Tout est si vraisemblable que chaque spectateur peut penser qu’il eût agi, en de telles circonstances, comme le meurtrier involontaire.

26Fritz Lang n’a jamais traité qu’un seul sujet, le sujet tragique fondamental: l’homme vaincu par son destin…Comme dans la tragédie grecque d’avant Socrate, le héros n’est ni bon ni mauvais: toute morale est exclue de l’affaire; il figure l’homme désindividualisé aux prises avec une aventure particulière que lui a préparé le Destin.

27L’intensité tragique nous frappe d’autant plus que les événements sont situés dans notre monde de tous les jours et que l’aventure du professeur Wanley peut arriver à chacun de nous…il s’agit bien d’une tragédie où Fritz Lang nous entraîne tout entier, après nous avoir fait mettre le doigt dans l’engrenage.

28Billy Wilder, Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock ont porté le genre à un haut niveau de perfection formelle…On peut, une fois de plus, admirer dans Le Tueur à gages[This Gun for Hire] l’excellence d’une technique, à laquelle manque pourtant la marque distinctive d’un metteur en scène.

29le récent développement de l’influence de la vieille “école” mittel-européenne dans le cinéma américain…tandis que Fritz Lang montre les aspects tragiques de la vie américaine dans cette lumière dure et tranchante qu’il a apportée de Berlin, tout un groupe d’auteurs et réalisateurs d’origine germanique expriment leur propre drame à travers les thèmes de désespoir proposés par la littérature noire de James Cain et compagnie.

30Le début du film est saisissant. On s’attend à un déroulement brutal, aussi bien sur le plan psychologique que sur celui de l’action…le reste n’est plus qu’un roman policier...Les retours en arrière…font ici déjà figure de procédé, de poncif.

31Les films noirs qui nous viennent d’Amérique et qui prolongent la vieille mode réaliste française et germanique (de Zola à Wedekind)...On ressent même une peur plus forte à suivre le fil d’Ariane qu’il a implacablement déroulé dans sa Femme au portrait qu’à assister aux scènes de brutalité de Murder, My Sweet ou du Faucon maltais. Mais on n’y respire pas le meme air déprimant que dans les films adaptés ou imités de James Cain et autres…des humains à la dérive dans la morne vie d’aujourd’hui.

32Le Poison[Lost Weekend] de Billy Wilder avait été classé un peu à la légère dans le genre noir, sans doute à cause des scènes d’hôpital et de la description d’un delirium tremens. Mais il y manquait l’insolite et le crime.

33le film noir n’est pas (heureusement) un pamphlet politique, même s’il lui est arrivé de dénoncer, et avec une rare franchise, certains abus. Il repose sur des conventions sans lesquelles il ne serait pas ce qu’il est. Prétendre le juger selon une certaine esthétique ou éthique surréaliste, c’est: 1. nous ramener trente ans en arrière; 2. proclamer une servitude, inadmissible, du cinéma à l’égard de la littérature, et de la littérature populaire (mais non pour autant méprisable) à l’égard de paradoxes esthétiques.

34Le film noir apporte, à notre avis, une atmosphère d’ambiguïté et de bizarrerie, une cruauté exacerbée, un climat névrotique qui sont totalement nouveaux…La règle, avant la guerre, était de trancher nettement entre les bons et les méchants…En un mot le cinéma policier de 1935 était socialement sain. Or le vrai film noir est une transposition à peine déguisée du cauchemar, et il met en cause un ordre social fortement corrompu.

36Nous n’avons jamais parlé existentialisme, et d’ailleurs c’eût été vain, car je n’ai pas la cervelle le moins du monde philosophique. C’était l’homme qui si intéressait et non le penseur, l’homme et son débat intérieur.

37Après 1918 nous avons eu dada, explosion de joie incendiaire, puis le surréalisme, expansion totale du vieux fonds des rêves jusqu’à en submerger la vie. Aujourd’hui, nous avons ce que nous méritons pour avoir accepté la catastrophe: nous avons l’existentialisme.

38Mais, si le cinéma est tributaire des morales collectives, il demeure en même temps, et mystérieusement, une libération secrète de l’individu.

50Ce qui frappe chez Mac Orlan, c’est un modernisme reconnu, dès 1923, par les jeunes gens qui fréquentaient son salon de la rue du Ranelagh: André Malraux, Pascal Pia, Nino Frank, Joseph Delteil…Ils admiraient en lui son approche nouvelle du roman dont il avait élargi le champ et les thèmes en faisant appel aux filles, aux soldats, aux matelots, aux marginaux de la vie nocturne. Sans doute étaient-ils encore plus sensibles à sa faculté de sublimer, sous le nom de fantastique social, les aspects négligés du merveilleux quotidien.

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