© 2009 William Ahearn

The myth has always been that French critics in 1946 coined the term “film noir” to describe what the critics noted as changes in Hollywood crime films when they finally saw the films that weren’t available during the Nazi occupation. This story clearly isn’t true and Charles O’Brien who researched the use of “film noir” before the war in Film Noir In France: Before The Liberation documents how that term was used in the newspapers and magazines of Paris during the 1930s.

O’Brien makes the case that discussion of the film noirs of pre-war France were dismissed in the postwar film noir studies due to the writings of Raymond Borde and Etiene Chaumeton in A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953. “According to Borde and Chaumeton,” O’Brien writes, “certain prewar films directed by Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier and Jean Renoir are only superficially similar to American film noir because the French films are exclusively ‘realist.’ (...) For Borde and Chaumeton, the French films belonged to the past whereas the Hollywood films manifest a new, distinctively postwar sensibility.” (Deletion in original.)

“The single sentence in Panorama du film noir américain,” continues O’Brien, “that alludes to prior discussion in France of film noir implies that such discussion was inconsequential. Later studies of film noir accept this suggestion at face value and even go as far as to attribute origins of the term solely to the postwar writings of critics such as Nino Frank.”

Since we now know that Nino Frank and Jean Pierre Chartier (the other French critic) used “film noir” as a reference and not as a coinage, this essay – using the work of O’Brien, contemporary reviews, other writings, as well as the films cited – will try and show how that discussion played out. I have no intention of defining “film noir” or even suggesting that such a translation from 1930s France to present-day wherever is even possible. Having spent a good deal of time watching the French and American films and reading incoherent and inaccurate academic flapdoodle, I think it’s time someone took the razor and hacked off the nonsense and wild suppositions to see what lies beneath.

O’Brien points out that the term “film noir” seems to have been coined by the political rightwing and that may be because many – but not all – of the film noirs were from the poetic realist movement that was closely associated with the leftist Popular Front. While that may indeed be the case, I don’t think those political motivations are as important as the particulars cited as to why these films were noir. The term “film noir” also crossed political lines as its usage became more common and the reaction to these films are so extreme that politics can’t be seen as the only basis for the criticism.

“Far from a manifestation of critical detachment,” O’Brien writes, “references to film noir during the [pre-war years] often entailed denunciations of the moral condition of the cinema in France. Although critics during the late 1930s discussed film noir in terms of major developments in film history – tracing it to antecedents in German Expressionism and to French films such as ‘Sous les toits de Paris’ [Rene Clair’s ‘Under The Roofs of Paris’ 1930] – they typically attributed to film noir cultural connotations that were unambiguously negative.”

There are nine film noirs identified in O’Briens essay: Pierre Chenal’s “Crime and Punishment” (1935), Jean Renoir’s “The Lower Depths” (Les Bas-fonds) (1936), Julien Duvivier’s “Pépé le Moko” (1937), Jeff Musso’s “The Puritan” (1938), Marcel Carné’s “Port of Shadows” (Le Quai des brumes) (1938), Jean Renoir’s “La Bête Humaine” (1938), Marcel Carné’s “Hôtel du Nord” (1938), Marcel Carné’s “Le Jour se lève” (Daybreak) 1939, and Pierre Chenal’s “Le Dernier Tournant” (1939).

Five of the films are of the poetic realism movement (although as with anything else that could be debated): “The Lower Depths,” “Pépé le Moko,” Port of Shadows,” “La Bête Humaine” and “Le Jour se lève.” The other four films contain similar themes. In three of the films the protagonist commits suicide and suicide plays a role in two other films. In three of the films the protagonist is incarcerated or executed by the state. In one film the protagonist is killed senselessly. Three films have wives conspiring with lovers to kill husbands. In two films the protagonist survives with a lover although what follows that survival isn’t clear and in one film one lover is shot in a botched suicide pact. What also isn’t clear is whether there are more films called “noirs” that will show up with subsequent research and whether similar and earlier films made before the term “film noir” first hit ink are also film noirs.

The film noirs considered part of the poetic realism movement have a visual style that would influence the American crime film made both during and after the war with “Port of Shadows” being the most obvious example, the other films are made in different styles. The remaining films – “Hôtel du Nord” and “Le Dernier Tournant” – are filmed in a more conventional style although the content contains murder or suicide and the other social taboos that are a mainstay of the film noirs.

None of these films are about private detectives hard-boiled or otherwise and none of them are police procedurals or stories where the police – or any member of governmental society – are seen as heroic. The films are about the working class and those below the working class or, in a few films, what was once referred to as the Lumpenproletariat. In fact, there isn’t a single crime film – as that term is conventionally used – in the list. “Pépé Le Moko,” a film that centers on a fugitive criminal hiding in the Casbah of Algiers, is a film about memory and desire more than anything else and its suicide ending has to do with facing what the character believes he has lost and not the possibility of incarceration.

While I haven’t yet managed to find a copy of “Le Puritan,” IMBd.com contains this – in part – as a plot synopsis: “A religious fanatic finds his entire life and philosophy turned upside-down as he falls in love with a girl and kills her in a jealous rage. His search is for peace of mind and a desire to justify the murder of the girl to himself. His mind becomes distraught as he gropes trying to rationalize his deed and his world falls apart around him.”

Pauline Kael remarked in her review:

Jean-Louis Barrault was [. . .] perfect for Liam O'Flaherty's psychological study of the murderer Ferriter,” wrote Kael, “a righteous reformer and sexually obsessed religious fanatic. Barrault's acting was so unusually objective that one respected this poor devil even at his most hopelessly self-deceived. [“Le Puritan”], condemned by New York's State Board of Censors in toto as ‘indecent, immoral, sacrilegious, tending to incite to crime and corrupt morals,’ is in perfectly good taste, but the censors had a reason for their stand: Ferriter is not only conceived as a censor type, he's actually engaged in this work in the film.”

The New York State Board of Censors would feel right at home reading the film criticism in some of the Paris newspapers. Writing in Action française in January 1938, the critic Francois Vinneuil called “Le Puritan” “a classic subject: the film noir, plunging into debauchery and crime.”

O’Brien notes that “It is appropriate that Vinneuil should refer to Le Puritain as a film noir because the film’s protagonist, played with theatricality by Barrault, is a young editorialist for the daily L’Etoile du matin whose denunciations of ‘foreign filth and atheist propaganda’ are so excessive that the paper’s editor fires him. Among the most prominent film critics of the [pre-war era], Vinneuil employed the term film noir in reviews that contributed to an evolving debate on the issues of film realism.”

As noted above, state censors in the US and the Motion Picture Production Code – commonly known as the Hays Office – in Hollywood were banning or refusing to give a seal – the only way a film could be shown in the major theatre chains – to movies considered unfit for audiences. In these cases, morality played a major role in the decision to ban or not to ban. “Hence,” the Production Code reads, “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Although France had censors – Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de conduite” was banned in 1933 and Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” was banned in 1939 – none of the so-called “film noirs” were banned.

Another example that O’Brien cites of how “film noir” was used is when “Port of Shadows” won the Grand Prix National du Cinéma Français in 1939. An editorial in Petit-journal read, “It is distressing to see the most official of French film prizes, the Prix du Ministère, awarded to a film — full of artistic qualities, certainly — but of a very special type. A film noir, an immoral and demoralizing film, whose effect on the public could only be harmful.”

The French critics weren’t the only ones to notice. On October 30, 1939, Frank S Nugent wrote in his review in The New York Times:

“[Port of Shadows] is nothing more than a lament for the living expressed somberly by a camera greedy for shots of rain and fog, by a writer who has looked at life through gray-tinted glasses, seeing nothing but its drabness, its sordidness and the futility of those who expect anything more of it. Havre is its scene. Its central figure, the unsmiling embodiment of man's hopelessness, is a deserting French soldier who has come to the Port of Shadows out of the rain, dreaming miserably of finding sanctuary somewhere, possibly in Venezuela, where the liner warped to the quay is going.”

Nugent continues, that “There is a bitterness even in its humor—in the character of the tiny longshoreman whose ambition is some day to sleep between sheets in a clean bed, in that of the ship's doctor who once had wanted to be an artist, in that of the artist who could not paint a swimmer without seeing him drown and so drowned himself. No, it's a thorough-going study in blacks and grays, without a free laugh in it; but it is also a remarkably beautiful motion picture from the purely pictorial standpoint and a strangely haunting drama. As a steady diet, of course, it would give us the willies; for a change it's as tonic as a raw Winter's day.”

As the creator of three of the nine noirs mentioned, Carné came in for more heat from the critics than the others. Georges Sadoul, a leftist critic and a supporter of the realist school, “stated an ambivalence” toward Carné’s films writing, “We sincerely hope that Carné will soon abandon the philosophy of his circle. His talent, which is very great, will attain a new stage of its development when it truly apprehends the reality of society, and not just its margin, its foam.” Sadoul, who assessed the film in political terms, suggested – according to O’Brien – that the kind of milieu depicted in “Quai des brumes” was likely to “produce not progressive revolutionaries but the kind of thugs likely to join fascist [gangs].”

Jean Renoir also objected to “the crazy, immoral, dishonest individuals” who populated the world of Carné’s film. Even those who made films described as “noir” by one critic or another, had issues with the content of the “noirs” of other directors although the conversation never centered on what constitutes or defines a film noir. Renoir’s criticism of Carné is odd considering that Renoir’s films feature murders, suicides, alcoholics, and other “immoral and dishonest individuals.”

In an odd turn of events Marianne, the magazine that had serialized James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1936 was under new management in 1939 and renamed Marianne Magazine. It reviewed Pierre Chenal’s “Le Dernier Tournant” – the first film version of that Cain novel – and remarked:

“Here is another film noir, a film of this sinister series which begins with Les Bas-fonds and [Crime and Punishment], and continues with Pépé le Moko and Quai des Brumes, La Bête Humaine and Hôtel du Nord. [. . .] We begin to be weary of this special atmosphere, of these hopes doomed to failure; of these figures that implacable destiny drives towards decay and death. It is time that the French screen becomes clearer. […] It seems unfortunate that the French school of cinema should be represented by films that express only the inability of men to live a normal life, by films that are only long poems of discouragement. No pity humanizes Pierre Chenal’s film, which was drawn from a novel published in this newspaper.” (Second deletion in original.)

It is necessary to take a turn of our own here. One of several that will deal with James M Cain’s work. In 1934, Jean Renoir – one of the driving forces for realism in film in France at that time – directed a film titled “Toni” that was shot on location using untrained actors, two qualities that would later appear regularly in the neo-realists’ works. Although many people consider this film to be the first neo-realist film, Renoir denied it and cited previous inspirations. His assistant director on “Toni” was Luchino Visconti. Renoir’s nephew, Claude, was the cinematographer on “Le Dernier Tournant” and Jean Renoir sometime in the late 1930s gave his copy of the Cain novel to Visconti who would – some three years later – direct “Obsession,” arguably the best version of The Postman Always Rings Twice ever to hit a movie screen. The Visconti film would also inspire – among other precursors – the Italian neo-realist movement.

Whether or not Visconti knew that critics in Paris had written that “Le Dernier Tournant” was a “film noir” isn’t known. What also isn’t known is whether the term “film noir” ever traveled beyond Paris in 1939. What did travel was the idea of realism wrapped around dark stories and when it broke free in Italy after the war, the neo-realists – as they would be called – weren’t in the mood for poetics. Even so, the similarities of the two movements are contained in films with an unrelentingly view of “demoralization” and “decay and death” – as the French critics might write. In early works such as “Germany Year Zero,” “Bitter Rice,” “La terra trema,” and in the later period in films such as “Il Grido,” “La Strada,” and “Il Bedone,” the spirit of film noir is as clear as it is in Chenal, Duvivier, Renoir or Carné. During the 1930s, the Italians called some of the films made from 1938 to 1945 that featured a glamorous view of Italy under the fascists, “white telephone movies.” Whether there is a term such as film nera buried in the archives of the Italian newspapers remains to be seen.

The connotation of “film noir,” according to Film Noir In France: Before The Liberation is “unambiguously negative” and is described by the French and American critics in a litany that contains, “doomed to failure,” “long poems of discouragement,” “lament for the living,” “immoral and demoralizing film,” “indecent, immoral, sacrilegious,” full of “debauchery and crime” whose “effect on the public could only be harmful.”

There will always be films of “discouragement and failure” that are “indecent, immoral and sacrilegious.” Rarely do they appear in clusters as they did in pre-war France or post-war Italy. With a few rare exceptions, films with the sensibilities that the “film noirs” contained wouldn’t appear in the US until the late 1960s when the Production Code morphed into the Motion Picture Association of American and the rating system was introduced. There is a simple reason for this and that the “film noirs” of France were – in some cases – indictments of society and humanity and that riled political sensitivities on both sides of the spectrum. In the United States the Production Code was in place to see that it didn’t happen in Hollywood.

As O’Brien notes in Film Noir In France: Before The Liberation: “As Carné himself had observed, as early as September 1940, the same French films that had won major national and international awards in 1938 and 1939 seemed to have become indelibly tainted, forever indicative of a mentality now identified as the very cause of the national defeat.”

In 1946, two French critics revived the use of the term “film noir.” And that’s were the trouble really begins . . .


Next: Nino Frank





The Death of Film Noir: On The Streets of Paris