Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Nihilism and Willeford

From: Patrick King (
Date: 16 Sep 2009

  • Next message: Allan Guthrie: "Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Nihilism and Willeford"

    It took a lot of word, Jim, but you finally got through to me. As pigeons live in a highway abutment, therefore a highway abutment must be a pigeon hole. In your painstakingly researched definition of noir, what differentiates the type of work that Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Cornell Woolrich write from Hammett, Chandler and Spillane for example? According to you they're all noir. But each of the two sets of writers develop plots similar to each other but distinctly different from the other set. I guess, if you're right, we need sub-sets of noir. I would say that Thompson, Willeford, & Woolrich are noir, Hammett Chandler & Spillane hard boiled. But you, apparently, believe they're all the same. They all write crime fiction as does Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Patricia Cornwall. But I don't see them all as being "noir" writers. Do you? And if not, where do you draw the distiction? If you draw no distinction between the styles any of these
     writers, perhaps the conversation is pointless.

    Patrick King

    --- On Wed, 9/16/09, JIM DOHERTY <> wrote:

    From: JIM DOHERTY <> Subject: RARA-AVIS: Re: Nihilism and Willeford To: Date: Wednesday, September 16, 2009, 12:17 PM



    Re your comments below:

    "Actually it was French film analysts who coined the term in the mid 1940s, referring to specific type of American 'B' movie that followed the exploits of an anti-hero, instead of a hero, through his demise. These films were heavily influenced by the German film maker, Fritz Lang, especially his film M starring Peter Lorre."

    Marcel Duhamel started putting the plans for Gallimard's new mystery line featuring primarily translations of American crime novels, SERIE NOIRE, in motion as early as 1944. The first book published under the SERIE NOIRE banner came out in, IIRC, September of 1945.

    The two French critics generally credited with coining the term "film noir" were Jean-Pierre Chartier and Nino Frank. Chartier's article "Les Americains aussi font des films noirs" (roughly "Americans Also Make Film Noirs") was first published in the November 1945 issue of REVUE DU CINEMA, two months after the first novel in Gallimard's line was published. Frank's article "Un nouveau genre 'policier:' L'aventure criminelle" (roughly "A New Kind of Mystery Film - The Criminal Adventure") was first published in the August 1946 issue of L'ECRIN FRANCAIS, nearly a year after the first novel in Gallimard's line was published.

    As for the kind of film they meant the term to describe (and, curiously, in the Frank article, at least in the translation I read, the term "film noir" does not appear at all; this may have been due to the translator substituting some other phrase, but I've never read the piece in the original French), Chartier gives only two examples, MURDER MY SWEET and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Frank cites both of those films as well as LAURA and THE MALTESE FALCON.

    First of all, none of these films were "B" movies. They were all high-budget, prestige productions, all listed at the top of the double bill (in other words the "A" picture position), all seriously considered for Oscars by the film community (FALCON and INDEMNITY were both Best Picture nominees and also nominated in several other categories including one Chandler and Wilder for the INDEMNITY script; LAURA won an Oscar for Best B&W Photography and was nominated in four other categories; MURDER MY SWEET didn't get any Oscar recognition, but it was the first film to win an Edgar, and three years later, CROSSFIRE, a film from the same director/writer team, Edward Dmytrick and John Paxton, was a Best Picture nominee). These were NOT "B" pictures, and neither Frank nor Chartier wrote about them as if they were.

    Further, while I'll grant that neither article makes a specific reference to Gallimard's SERIE NOIRE line, both make fairly extensive references to the books from which the films derive. All of the source novels except Vara Caspary's LAURA were early SERIE NOIRE publications, so the connection between SERIE NOIRE and film noir is, it seems to me, implicit.

    Finally, leaving SERIE NOIRE out completely, the four films mentioned by the two critics covere a fairly wide range. Two hard-boiled private eye films (arguably the two greatest private eye films ever made) and one romantic suspense/whodunit chick flick, featuring a tough cop in the hero's role. Of the four, only DOUBLE INDEMNITY comes close to fitting the definition that you insist is the one adopted by popular consensus.

    "In 1934, James M. Cain published THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and pretty much started the branch of literature which has been tagged, after the movies that were often based on it, noir. The literary term noir is of much more modern usage than 'film noir' which has been around since about 1945."

    So, as I've already shown, has the literary term noir. And, in fact, predates Chartier's use of the term by a couple of months. And moreover, both Chartier's and Frank's article make explicit reference to the literary noir sources of the film and implicit reference to the already famous mystery line that Marcel Duhamel founded.

    Finally, James M. Cain is neither the founding father, nor the sole exemplar of what constitutes literary noir. He is predated by Hammett, Burnett, Chandler, Woolrich, and even by comparative hacks like James Hadley Chase and Peter Cheyney, all of whom were published by the mystery line that first coined the term for literary noir.

    "And, yes, modern critics mostly, themselves, under 45, who bandy about the term 'noir' as though all films in black & white and any mystery story are, a priori, noir, are using the term incorrectly. The term is quickly coming to have NO meaning, and consequently the art form it represents is becoming confused in the mainstream."

    Assuming that they are using the term incorrectly, they seem for the most part, to be using it in the same sense that Chartier and Frank did, so if they're using it incorrectly, then so were Chartier and Frank, which means that the two people you credit with coining the term were, in the very act of coining it, using it incorrectly, which striked me as ludicrous on its face.

    In any case, even if they are using the term incorrectly, you were the one who said, "Noir, as the term is POPULARLY [emphasis mine] used, relates to a novel in which the protagonist learns the secrets of his personality too late." So apparently, that vast majority of "under 45 modern critics" who use the term to mean something far more general are fighting the tide of popular consensus, which means that not only the correct meaning of "noir," but the correct meaning of "popular" is something very different from what I had, to this point, supposed.








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