[Originally published in Film Comment Vol. 10 No. 6, November-December 1974]
It’s a good idea to recall periodically no director at, say, RKO in the Forties ever passed a colleague on the lot and called, “Hey, baby, I hear they’re giving you a film noir to do next.” The term was a critical response, on the part of some French film freaks, to a body of American movies that had been piling up during the war years, a body that continued to grow in size as the postwar films themselves became increasingly darker and more intense in mood.
Film noir—the phrase—crossed the Channel and passed into English film criticism, where it began to suggest (as almost any colorful phrase has a way of suggesting in English film criticism) some kind of hothouse specimen. Characteristically, American francocinéphiles grafted it onto their own critical vocabulary in order to celebrate not the wondrously rich heritage of their homegrown cinema, but rather the grubbily exotic blooms of Godard (Breathless) and Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), themselves in large measure derived from the genuine, originally American article.
More than a decade has gone by and film noir has finally been discovered at home. Not every workaday reviewer employs the term, but many of them have a vague idea what it’s about, and whenever a new movie comes along in which the atmosphere is wishfully sinister and oddball characters proliferate to the confounding of any hope of lucid plot explication, they’ve learned to dive for prototypes in The Big Sleep the way a seal dives for a fish.