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Where Did Noir Come From?

Scene from Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955)

Over the last couple of years, I have watched dozens of film noir productions. The genre predominated in the 1940s and 1950s, but never really went away. Why was it such a big thing? Following is one interesting answer from Ryan Reft writing for LA television station KCET’s website:

Yet to live in the 1940s, to watch Europe fall to fascism, realize the depth and horror of the Holocaust, witness the birth of the atomic age, and fear the outbreak of nuclear war and global destruction invoked no small amount of anxiety. Domestically, rapid urbanization, social dislocation, protests for civil rights by African Americans and others that challenged the status quo, and changing gender roles, added, perhaps even superseded, worries about the international situation.

Perhaps the sense of dissociation created by the Depression, World War Two, and the uneasiness of the Atomic Age was the beginning of the major divisions that haunt the United States in the 21st Century.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950)

Noir signaled numerous changes in American society. Reft continues:

Unsurprisingly, popular culture reflected these anxieties. Beginning arguably with the “Maltese Falcon” in 1941 and extending into the late 1950s, film noir depicted a nation in which the American dream was treated as a “bitter irony”, marriage as “absolutely horrific”, the police and politicians were “bleak, amoral and ugly”, and morality little more than situational; “anyone in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything” ….

I know I am deeply affected by the edginess of these films, and I feel they explain in some large sense how we got where we are today, which is a darker, more urban world bereft of the old rural sunshine. Compare the Will Rogers films from the 1930s with the noir films of ten years later. It seems as if the fabric of society has been torn.

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