Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953)

Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (1955). Translation by Paul Hammond (San Francisco: City Lights, 2002).

This book by two Frenchman was the first written on the genre known as film noir. Through the course of the short volume (160 pages) the authors display a surprising knowledge of American films, considering the pre-video times. Their discussion is divided up into films they consider of the main film noir series and films that are of related and influenced genres (criminal psychology, police procedural, documentary. The book begins with a discussion attempting to define film noir and list sources both in literature and film as well as historical, social origins (predominantly around WWII).

Their definition of film noir is inconclusive and abstract but revolves around five adjectives: oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, cruel and the emotional impact of the films which they describe as “the state of tension created in the spectators by the disappearance of their psychological bearings.” (13) Through the lens of these qualities, they discuss and categorize a number of films (all handily listed in a filmography at the back of the book). As they veer off from the “true” film noir I found myself less interested in their brief discussions. As one can imagine (and they admit) their selections are subjective. I find their extremely brief mention of Out of the Past (one of my favorites) disappointing.

Their discussions of the oneiric and erotic in the films are most interesting and worthy of further investigation. The veiled eroticism (necessitated by censorship and the Hays Code) is a powerful and defining feature of the films (a certain sado-masochism is often evident) still obvious today, though completely different from the overt sexuality of modern creations. The oneiricism is more subtle to the modern eye, I think, particularly in contrast to the special effects of today. The confusion of sequence, the dark landscapes, the disorienting plots, the chases are all dreamlike qualities of the films that create a mixture of the real and unreal (I can’t help thinking of a modern noir, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in this respect).

The authors make no attempts to hide the influence of Surrealism. In particular the use Breton’s concept of amour fou (mad love) as the defining theme of Gun Crazy (recently reissued on DVD) which they call the “L’Age d’Or of American film noir”.

An amusing book more for the avenues of thought it opens up (and films recommendations) than for where it goes, but that is the path early authors on subjects must plow.