Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir

Sheri Chinen Biesen,
Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir.
Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 8018 82218 4
US$20 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by John Hopkins University Press)

The literature on film noir has grown positively voluminous over the past twenty years. Alain Silver, whose Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (1979) has become a standard reference work, has published no less than four different anthologies with various other co-editors under the Film Noir Reader banner, while E. Ann Kaplan’s seminal Women in Film Noir (1978) was revised in 1999 and remains in print to this day. Further contributing to the flood of film noir publications have been books and anthologies by Ian Cameron (1993), Nicholas Christopher (1997), Joan Copjac (1993), Ed Gorman (1998), Foster Hirsch (1981), Frank Krutnik (1991), Arthur Lyons (2000), James Maxfield (1996), James Naremore (1998), Kelly Oliver (2203), Edward O’Neil (1998), Robert Ottoson (1981), R. Barton Palmer (1996), Spencer Selby (1984), J.P. Telotte (1989), John Tuska (1984), and Jens B. Wager (1999). Film noir has been subjected to feminist, auteurist, psychoanalytic, sociological, structuralist, post-structuralist, and queer criticism, but what is film noir?

What almost all of these authors agree on is that the term film noir was coined by French film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier in the Summer of 1946 when the first crop of American crime films hit Parisian screens after the liberation of France, including The Maltese Falcon (US 1941), Laura (US 1944), Murder, My Sweet (US 1944), Double Indemnity (US 1944), and Woman in the Window (US 1945). Having been denied American films during the German occupation in World War II, French critics were struck by a new visual style, a dark, brooding atmosphere, many more scenes of overt violence, and a steamy sexuality, so different from the optimistic, evenly lighted films of the pre-War American cinema. The genre received its first academic study in 1955 when Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton published their Panorama du film noir américain, 1941-1953, noting that the hallmark of film noir was its ambiguity: morally ambiguous heroes and heroines, an ambiguous, murky plot, and the total lack of differentiation between good and evil, contrasted to the rigid moral values of pre-1940 films. Ironically, the term film noir did not gain currency in Anglo-American criticism until the 1970s, most notably in an issue of Film Comment (Spring 1972), so that one can say that film noir, unlike more traditional genres, like the western, gangster film or musical, is a product of academic film studies and film historical analysis, rather than industry discourses.

While there is general agreement about the genesis of the term, there is virtually no agreement about what it means. Is film noir a genre, a visual style, an attitude, or as Borde and Chaumeton theorized, a “series”? While some critics, including David Bordwell and Marc Vernet have argued that noir is nothing more than an artificial construct, created by academic film historians, Alain Silver and others have countered that all periodizations and genre definitions are always ultimately the work of critics and historians. There have also been disagreements about the temporal parameters of the “genre,” although most tend to define the classic film noir period as 1941 – 1958, beginning with The Maltese Falcon and ending with Touch of Evil.

Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir argues in her introduction, on the other hand, that while most writers define film noir as a post World War II phenomenon, she firmly places its origins in World War II Hollywood. Her thesis is based on a confluence of factors, including wartime rationing affecting studio film production, war-related audience acceptance of violence as a fact of life, more liberal policies of the Motion Picture Production Code Office, and the commercial and critical success of Double Indemnity. While I would quibble with Biesen’s statement that most critics have dismissed or ignored the assertion that “noir was a wartime phenomenon” (8) – virtually every writer listed above date film noir‘s beginning in 1940 or 1941 – Biesen’s original contribution to the field is the specific connection she makes between Hollywood film production during the war and the development of film noir.

After briefly discussing the standard precursors to film noir, German expressionist films, the Hollywood gangster and horror film cycles of the early 1930s, and American pulp fiction by Hammett, Chandler, Burnett, et al, Biesen’s second chapter highlights Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (US 1940), as the first realnoir, followed by other pre-War films: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (US 1941), John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, and Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (US 1942). While Biesen is not the first to mention Ingster’s little known film – Paul Kerr discussed the film in a 1979 essay, “Out of What Past? Notes on the B film noir” – she is the first to note that this film, like the others discussed in this chapter, were heavily influenced by War-related cost-cutting in the studios. The rationing of raw materials forced producers to disguise previously used or minimally constructed sets through high key, chiaroscuro lighting, thus contributing to one of the hallmarks of the noir style. She also notes that the temporary absence of Production Code Administration head, Joseph Breen, who briefly moved to a production job at RKO, lead to a more liberal policy at PCA, specifically in terms of the levels of violence tolerated and the amount of sex allowed.

Her next chapter follows Hollywood in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, pointing out that Los Angeles literally became “a dark city,” due to mandated blackouts fueled by fears of Japanese invasion, and the rationing of all goods, including electricity. As Robert Mitchum later noted, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days… Cary Grant and all the big stars got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.” (71) Indeed, the blackouts forced filmmakers to cover backlot sets, when filming at night and keep light to a minimum. An acute shortage of male talent also soon became apparent and some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and behind the camera talent volunteered for active combat duty, leading the studios to mine pulp fiction for new authors and give employment opportunities to recently arrived German émigrés, such as Robert Siodmak, Anatole Litvak, and Paul Henried. Meanwhile, older actors, like Edward G. Robinson, or youngsters, like Robert Mitchum, (re)vitalized their careers. At the same time, government agencies, such as the Office of War Information condoned new levels in the depiction violence, in keeping with allied propaganda and newsreels about the war effort. All these factors resulted in proto-typical noir films, like Street of Chance (US 1942), based on Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Curtain, in which second-stringer Burgess Meredith stars an amnesiac trying to clear his name of murder.

However, Hollywood’s “red meat crime cycle” – the industry’s contemporary term for film noir – officially began with Double Indemnity. As Biesen succinctly demonstrates, the adaptation of the James M. Cain novel could not have occurred in other circumstances or before the war, given the politics of the Production Code. When MGM optioned the story in 1935, Joseph Breen took the unusual step of sending a letter to Paramount, MGM, Warners, and Columbia, flatly stating that Double Indemnity was banned for all time from reaching the screen. It would not be until mid 1943 that Breen in principle approved an adaptation, but it would take twenty-three more letters between PCA and Paramount for the script to be approved. Just why Breen had a change of heart is unclear. Maybe his experience at RKO softened him up, or maybe he just realized the times had changed. Finally, Biesen hypothesizes that Breen was just fooled by Wilder and Chandler’s “use of innuendo and verbal wit.” (104) It also helped that PAC’s power lay in pre-censorship of scripts, rather than in censoring material on screen. When the film was released in August 1944, it became a huge financial and critical hit, making Breen and the PCA powerless in the face of Double Indemnity‘s box office prowess. Soon every other studio jumped on the bandwagon, according to Biesen: “Successfully maneuvering around the Production Code to produce a visually and thematically bleaker wartime-postwar American cinema, filmmakers launched a series of film noir productions intended to simulate the unique style of Double Indemnity and replicate its box office returns.” (111) The film boosted not only Cain’s Hollywood stock, leading to the adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice (another previously banned property), but also scriptwriter Raymond Chandler’s, whose novels, Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep became bankable projects and classic noirs.

Biesen’s fifth chapter turns, then, to another war-related phenomenon, namely the overturning of gender roles, due to women entering the American workforce by the millions, while simultaneously the female gothic melodrama was transformed into the female centered noir. As examples, she discusses Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (US 1944), produced by Joan Harrison, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945), starring Joan Crawford, and Charles Vidor’s Gilda (US 1946), produced by Virginia Van Upp. While these films, as well as Otto Preminger’s Laura (US 1944) are related by the author to war conditions, Biesen is less convincing in trying to make a connection between the new freedom of their female producers and the film’s proto-feminist narratives. Indeed, both Harrison and Van Upp had relatively short careers at the top of the Hollywood food chain, possibly because sexism and the return of males from the war front forced them out. And while Biesen presents the production and the critical reception histories of these films, she has very little to say about how actual women reacted to them.

In her final chapters, Biesen discusses such films as Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (US 1945), Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (US 1945) and Scarlet Street (US 1945), Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (US 1946), Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia (US 1946), and Orson Welles’ The Stranger (US 1946), thus blurring the lines between the war and post-war period, since at least the last-named film did not go into production until after the conflict had ended. In these chapters Biesen reiterates the same themes she had addressed earlier, including changes in pre-censorship at the Hays Office, utilizing a visual style in keeping with wartime rationing and previously untapped studio personnel, and the desire of movie audiences for more realistic portrayals of sex and violence. Indeed, while Biesen uncovers much new anecdotal information in her research in primary studio and PCA sources, she repeats her theses a bit too often, so that the text necessarily becomes repetitive. Nevertheless, Blackout is an important contribution to the history of film noir, especially its genesis in an American society buffeted by war.

Jan-Christopher Horak
Los Angeles, USA.

Created on: Friday, 10 November 2006

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →