A History of Detective Stories: Film Noir

One of the sub-genres that defined classic American crime and detective movies was film noir, a style that was pervasive in detective films of the 1940s and 1950s. Film noir arose during the post-World War II period in the United States as a generation that fought in one of the most brutal conflicts the world had ever seen returned home to a changed America where jobs were scarce and the national mood seemed darker and more cynical than during the war itself. 

Hollywood responded by changing its output from upbeat, patriotic war films to detective films and crime dramas defined by tough gangsters, dangerous dames, and extensive use of shadows and darkness in cinematography. These decades were the golden age of film noir, which turned out to be one of the most influential styles of filmmaking and the cinematic vision of many classic detective films.
 
Origins and Authors
 
 
The first edition of The Postman Always Rings Twice
Like many movements in cinema in the first half of the 20th century, film noir was inspired by trends in literature; in this case, the hard-hitting, overtly sexual, and tightly paced pulp detective stories of the 1930s. One of the first popular novels in this genre was 1934’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, written by James M. Cain. The novel tells the story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful but dangerous woman (in other words, a femme fatale) who convinces him to murder her husband. Following the murder, the couple frantically works to conceal evidence and invent alibis as a detective attempts to prove their guilt. The book was adapted into the 1946 film The Postman Always Twice, which starred John Garfield and Lana Turner in the lead roles. The film was striking in both its overt sexuality, which was as blatant as any film was allowed to be under the Hays Code (although not to the extent of the novel), and its preservation of the novel’s dark twist ending. The film contains what most believe to be Lana Turner’s greatest performance, and its critical and audience success opened the door for more film noir adaptations. 
 
Two other authors who were major influences on the material produced during the film noir period were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It was Hammett who originated the concept of swift-moving, hardboiled prose that focused on minimalist sentences in novels such as The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931). Chandler was heavily influenced by this writing style and created one of the most popular detective characters of the hardboiled genre, Philip Marlowe. Chandler made Marlowe the protagonist of many of his successful crime novels such as The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940). Both Chandler and Hammett also had success as screenwriters in edition to novelists. Chandler co-wrote the screenplays of the films Double Indemnity (1944) and Strangers on a Train (1951), and Hammett wrote the stories to most of the films in the Thin Man series, which were based on his novel.
 
Stylistic Influences and Popular Actors
 
Theatrical poster for The Public Enemy
 
Film noir was greatly inspired by two pre-World War II movements in film. The first was the tradition of German Expressionist horror in the silent films of the 1920s; these films used shadowy settings and a feeling of surreal danger to heighten tension and visually entrance the audience. The movement only began to influence Hollywood films when Universal Studios started its series of famous horror films, which included Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein--many of which were intentionally shot in a style very similar to the earlier silent horror films. In terms of setting and dialogue, film noir was heavily influenced by Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s such as Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). These established many of the characteristics that defined noir: urban settings, punchy dialogue, a high level of violence, and morally reprehensible characters. Warner Bros. gangster films were tremendously successful during the Great Depression, in part because of the unpopularity of Prohibition and in part because of a general distrust in government due to the stock market crash. It was during this period that Hollywood--much to the chagrin of the Hays Office--realized that audiences found material deemed controversial to be compelling.
 
 
Of the actors who starred in film noir, perhaps the one most identified with the genre is Humphrey Bogart. Despite starring roles in film genres as diverse as romance (Casablanca), war (Sahara), and sports (The Harder They Fall), Bogart is remembered more as a noir/crime drama actor than for his work in other genres. He played Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946)and Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) in performances that are considered the definitive onscreen portrayals of these characters to this day. He also appeared in the classic gangster films The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Key Largo (1948). What made Bogart so effective as an actor in film noir was his brilliant ability to realize complex, morally ambiguous characters and engage in verbal sparring with his fellow actors using the rapid, staccato dialogue style so typical of film noir. Bogart made the works of Hammett and Chandler come alive for audiences like no other actor.
 
Theatrical poster for 1941's The Maltese FalconAnother influential actor in the film noir genre was James Cagney. Although Cagney, like Bogart, starred in many films of many different genres, he is best remembered today for his portrayals of gangsters in the numerous proto-noir crime dramas Warner Bros. released in the 1930s. The mannerisms and acting style he utilized in films such as The Public Enemy (1931), Lady Killer (1933), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and White Heat (1951) influenced many other actors’ portrayals of gangsters and inspired impressionists to this day. Cagney became so linked with these types of roles in the public imagination that he entered a period where he tried to avoid gangster parts whenever possible, even intentionally playing against type as a heroic government agent out to stop criminals in G’ Men. Nevertheless Cagney remained identified with gangster roles all his life and was just as influential in the rise of the film noir genre as Bogart.
 
The 2000s and Beyond
 
Film noir’s stylistic influence was so pervasive that it continues to influence films in the detective and crime genres today. Some later films that utilized noir’s techniques and settings include L.A. Confidential (1997), Memento (2000) and The Departed (2007). Noir’s stylistic influence and techniques have inspired films in other genres as well, such as science fiction (Minority Report), action (The Dark Knight), and animation (Who Framed Roger Rabbit).   One could argue that the film noir cycle never truly ended and continues to this day. With over a dozen film noir classics placed in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, these films and their modern relations will continue to inspire writers and filmmakers in the detective and crime genres for decades to come.