Canada and the United States

Sheri Chenin Biesen wades into the murky, controversial world of film noir with a thoughtful monograph on the development of Hollywood’s film noir in the 1940s. A film noir aficionado, Biesen provides the most detailed and thoroughly researched interpretation of this era’s American film noir. The heart of her study is intensive analysis of the production histories of several key noir pictures.

She highlights the pivotal role of Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder for Paramount in 1943–1944, after being held on ice for nearly a decade by censorship concerns and studio timidity. Double Indemnity nicely illustrates Biesen’s thesis that World War II, rather than retarding the development of American noir, was integral to it. As she writes: “The chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy visual design that today is considered so characteristic of film noir style was in large measure a savvy aesthetic response to the [Production] Code and the war” (p. 107). Biesen emphasizes that the motion picture industry’s production code, though claiming to represent timeless aesthetic and moral criteria, was enforced more liberally in the 1940s and later. She also stresses the importance of the constraints the studios faced during World War II, when blackouts, shortages of material, and limited numbers of leading men demanded innovative responses.

There followed a series of noir classics, which the 1940s press termed “hard boiled” or “red meat.” They included Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on Raymond Chandler’s cult classic; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), based like Double Indemnity on a James Cain story that was anathema to Hollywood in the 1930s; and The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), two of Fritz Lang’s best 1940s pictures. One standout was Gilda (1946), which was notable for being produced by Virginia Van Upp during the brief window that the war opened for female production executives.

One of Biesen’s strengths is her awareness of the overall context of film production. While not neglecting aesthetic considerations or the unique contributions of talented figures like Wilder, she astutely considers the multifaceted dimensions of movie production. She establishes the changing cultural context occasioned by the war and analyzes bureaucratic decision making in the studios without losing sight of the creative spark that individual directors and performers brought to productions. Her use of Production Code Administration files underscores that, without recourse to such records, Hollywood history from 1930 to 1968 will always be incomplete. She shrewdly addresses the Office of War Information’s intervention in wartime movie making, which, paradoxically, partially subverted the Production Code Administration’s traditional boundary setting.

At times, however, the archives overwhelm broader cultural phenomena, which, if more elusive, may be equally critical. Biesen might explore more fully the growing horror that years of total war imposed on the creative psyche. Émigré directors such as Wilder and Lang were among noir‘s chief exponents. Mounting anxiety about the fate of Jews settled over Hollywood during the war, only to reach awful confirmation after VE Day; surely the psychological impact of this catastrophe contributed to the noir sensibility. The movie colony was also a hotbed of psychoanalysis, and it is not far fetched to think that noir’s darker psychological framework owed something to the analyst’s couch.

By addressing the complex facets of Hollywood production, Biesen makes a clear case for her interpretation, in contrast to critics beguiled by the auteur tradition or similar exclusive foci on aesthetic inspiration. But the boundaries and origins of noir have remained contested. Director Paul Schrader has argued, for instance, that “were it not for the war, film noir would have been at full steam by the early forties” (p. 3). Instead Biesen shows noir in full flower by 1944, gaining traction precisely because of the war. Her film noir is also a largely American product, in contrast to those who seek foreign inspiration for this genre.

The controversy that Biesen addresses derives, in part, from noir’s mutable boundaries. Although the term noir originated with French critics in the late 1940s, who were tantalized by the dark turn American films took during the war, the term noir has enjoyed a protean existence. To some noir is as old as D. W. Griffith and as young as Quentin Tarantino, and noir techniques are scattered throughout prewar Hollywood films, especially those of 1940–1941. Wisely Biesen keeps a tighter rein on the definition of noir. And yet she suggests, as some other writers have, that noir continued to live during the Cold War. She makes the provocative assertion that Cold War noir “took on a new tone—ultimately a different, grayer film gris aesthetic” (p. 210) as it reflected such mid-century anxieties as the atomic bomb, communist subversion, organized crime, and xenophobia. The subtle fade from film noir to film gris remains to be written, employing, as does Biesen, the complex interplay of forces that determined Hollywood’s productions.


BY: Clayton Koppes