In 1998 Ed Gorman, Lee Server and Martin Greenberg produced an excellent book titled "The Big Book of Noir."
It comes closest, in my opinion, to accurately capturing and defining the scope and rise of noir as a worldview, particularly in film and literature. There are, of course, earlier examples, Roman Noir being one. It is possible to trace the definitions of noir as originally coined and used by French critics in the late nineteen-thirties and early forties, but such tracing requires more careful handling than is the case in much discussion of noir that happens today. A recent Newsweek article is a good example of that carelessness.
The 1946 dense and penetrating study of the German film, “From Caligari to Hitler,” by Sigfried Kracauer, does not use the term, nor can I find it in Agee’s writings. A brief discussion I had with motion picture critic Pauline Kael, at a film festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan touched on the label, but she seemed unwilling to give the term widespread use. That does not mean the films and literature that might be called noirish are not included in the consideration of a worldview that is about as dark as this segment of literature and film ever gets.
Noir began life in our modern era as a way to describe or identify the kind of American film which was popular in the nineteen-thirties and forties. These films are a cynical, suspicious assumption that things will generally turn out badly, and that most of the individuals in power had or have their own personal interests at heart, and care little for anyone else. In this regard, context is important. French film critics were writing during a time when most of Europe was a war zone or occupied by the Nazi. And most European citizens in particular, could still recall a previous world war meant, it was said, to end all wars.
One of Kael’s strengths in her essays was her insistence that films be judged in the social and political context in which they are born and presented. The same should be true for the novels of Megan Abbot and James M. Cain.
In the Western Hemisphere, during this time of the great depression and then global war, government and certain industries, especially the American film industry was called on to make movies with uplifting or at least upbeat messages, to bolster the war effort and rally the home front. All very well, but many artists, depressed, watching loved ones wrestle with loss of friends and relatives, found more telling expression and satisfaction in the strong imagery of those black and white films, often referred to as “B” films.
It took very little time before critics began to make the connection backward to literature of the nineteen thirties written by the likes of Cain, Hammett and Chandler, to name three. But I believe it is incorrect to label all three writers as noir writers. Yes, there are elements of the grim present, corrupt establishment, and a possibly dark future in much of this literature but, there is almost always a sense of possibility, a feeling that one will persevere and things will get better, if not in the confines of the existing novel or film, then later, after the final fadeout.
The Continental Op and Marlowe would go on to champion other poor souls, to right egregious wrongs. But for Frank Chambers, there was no tomorrow. The recent corruption of noir, if that’s not too strong a term, can be seen in three works. The book, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and then the two subsequent films, one released in 1946 with John Garfield and then the 1981 version with Jack Nicholson.
True noir, using a more accurate and narrow definition as was originally envisioned, involves the gradual degradation and dissolution of all meaning and rationality in the life of the sympathetic protagonist or main character. It cannot be that the protagonist simply got in the way of big government or big business. The process must be initiated and fostered through the actions and attitudes of the protagonist. It cannot be ineptitude, it cannot be simply lack of resources, and it cannot be seen as inevitable until the end is reached.
There are many novels of crime fiction mis-labeled as noir fiction primarily because the principal character never reaches the level of sympathy from reader or viewer which is required for the label. It’s a difficult thing to achieve. This pervasive destruction of a once-normal life, of an existence that may be very similar to that of the reader or viewer, may leave one in tears, and it is not likely to be the kind of film or novel that will attract enormous crowds of fans.