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Noir History: When Storytellers Started Telling the Truth

Noir History

Noir history is an interesting subject for a number of reasons. As a form of storytelling, noir is an effective way to present a broken society. And while many would say the times we live in are ripe for the usage of noir as a style of storytelling, we don’t see the same reflected in the type of content we watch.

The answer to this lies in the history of noir. Those who think noir refers to old movies are only partially wrong. Most noir films came out in the 40s and 50s just after the end of WWII. For the current generation, noir indeed is a historic matter.

The story of noir began when the French writer and critic Nino Frank coined the term noir. Frank used the term to refer to American films which explored dark themes. Noir is a French word that literally translates to ‘black film’. With his use of the word, Frank ushered noir into the mainstream and went down into noir history.

This, however, is not the sum total of noir history. To understand the history of noir, we have to go back in history.

War and Its Consequences on Cinema – Before 1945

During the World War II years when every month seemed like a year, the public mood was naturally gloomy. There was general tension amongst the people of both Allied and Axis powers.

In such a time, the task of lifting the public mood usually fell on filmmakers. People like Goebbels in Nazi Germany were used to spreading propaganda and keeping the people of Germany in a delusionary state. However, the need to keep public mood positive was felt in American cinema as well.

During the period the United States was involved in the war effort, filmmakers in Hollywood tried making films which lifted the public morale. The same trend is seen in almost any country at war. It is a time for the people of a nation to come together and fight a common enemy.

Even in America, the land of the free and home of the brave, the government disseminated propaganda to lift the public mood.  Films like Since You Went Away showed Americans what they knew and felt about the war effort. Others like the Beast of Berlin showed Hitler and the Nazis as stone-cold murderers and ruthless dictators.  

The End of the War and the Rise of Noir

If filmmakers were told to lighten the mood and lift the spirits during the war, they did the exact opposite once the war ended.

This vital chapter of noir history is important as this marks the beginning of noir as a style of writing. Once the war ended, filmmakers were no longer under any obligation to help the government keep public mood up. Free from control, filmmakers did what they always wanted to – tell the truth.

In films after 1945, a darker and grittier tone became more common. Writers looked at the world and the misery numbed them. The war had taken its toll on the victors as well. Europe was rebuilding, the United States saw soldiers returning from battlefields, there memories scarred forever.

Filmmakers didn’t celebrate this. They showed the dark side of human nature. Films like Sunset Boulevard, The Third Man, and The Maltese Falcon juxtapose cynicism with remarkable levels of delusion, again showing the chaotic nature of the time.

The success of these films also tells us something interesting. The filmmakers were not wrong about their surroundings. They correctly identified the problems of their times.

When we look back at World War II, we naturally assume things went back to normal when Hitler died in Berlin. In fact, it took the countries involved in the war many years to fully recover from the shock of such a long war. Average incomes were low, taxes were high, people found it hard to survive and get access to essential services. Crime rates were also high.

All these factors together led to noir films gaining top dog status during the years after the war. The history of noir movies suggests the same. Writing noir was natural for the time, just as ‘coming of age’ stories are popular now.

Noir Starts Becoming History

What happened to noir then? Well, for one, the world got better.

The world staggered back to its feet and went back to work. There was great technological progress in Western countries which led boisterous economic growth. There was still darkness in the world, but the dark years after the war were fading. Young baby boomers were optimistic about life and ready to take on the world.

Filmmakers responded in kind. Noirs went away and westerns became more common. People wanted to see a better world where justice and peace were possible. Westerns gave audiences both these things by the time they ended. Unlike noir films which told the unadulterated truth, Westerns were ready to give the audience the satisfaction of a happy ending.

Since then, we have not seen a concrete phase of noir films. Noir history begins and ends in the 40s and 50s. There have been occasional noir films since then. Examples like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and LA Confidential are great movies, but rare occurrences of neo-noir films.  The last well-known neo-noir film is The Dark Knight.

Is noir then just a response to the end of the World War? This is an interesting theory and it explains why we don’t see any noir films these days. After being forced into making feel-good films during the war, filmmakers at the time did the exact opposite once the war ended. Since this kind of situation hasn’t besieged filmmakers since then, there is no burning desire to make more noir films.

Noir History – Final Words

Noir history is brief but very relevant to the world of cinema and storytelling. It began as a reaction to wartime propaganda and later became an attractive style of storytelling. Even though we don’t see Hindi noir films very often these days, there are still enough people who find refuge in the dark city streets and the stilted camera angles.

Who knows, we might see a second wave someday! All we can do is hope, or else, write noir stories and bring the second wave ourselves.

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
Also read: Indian Fantasy Novels: The Best Fantasy Fiction From India

Featured Image Credit – The Big Combo (Wikipedia)

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