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rights by African Americans and others that challenged the status quo, and changing gender roles, added, perhaps even superseded, worries about the international situation.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.

Favorite Films: Some Came Running

Opening Scene from Some Came Running

We are so conditioned to thinking of the years after the Second World War as some kind of golden age that it is refreshing to see how American films dealt with the era. Some prominent examples include William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation of James Jones’s Some Came Running (1958). In both pictures, the GIs come home to find that the guys with flat feet who stayed behind had all the jobs, money, and women.

From the opening credit sequence with its urban jazz music track as we see Frank Sinatra asleep on a Greyhound bus as the Indiana landscape rolls past, we feel we are in for something different. On the same bus is Shirley MacLaine as a good-time girl Frank had met in Chicago. Both had been drunk and were put on the bus by friends who specified Parkman, Indiana as the destination.

We see Frank at the beginning in his army uniform, though he has also written two books and spent time on a tramp steamer and as an oil rig worker. In Parkman, he is pursued by Shirley while he falls in love with Martha Hyer, a college writing instructor who is impressed with his writing ability but appalled by his lifestyle. Every time he is repulsed by Martha, Frank draws closer to Shirley MacLaine with her ridiculous doggie purse and showy bad-taste clothing, with an intellect to match.

Frank at Smitty’s Bar with Dean Martin

After his first encounter with Martha Hyer, Sinatra runs into Dean Martin as a southern gambler who uses Parkman as a base as he travels around playing poker in the surrounding Indiana cities. The initial scene at Smitty’s with its loud jazz track is my favorite in the film: It shows the bar with its lowlifes right in the middle of the ultra-respectable small town. It even appears that the bar is next door to Sinatra’s brother’s jewelry shop. (The role of the brother, played by Arthur Kennedy, is his smarmiest and most hypocritical role in a long career of playing villains.)

There are a number of significant divergences between the James Jones novel and the Minnelli film. As I have not yet read James Jones, I cannot say which I prefer. But one thing I can say is that Minnelli’s film is even better than The Best Years of Our Lives at portraying the sick soul of America coterminous with its postwar glory, even though the two films are more than ten years apart.