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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

When noir was noir

[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, July 21, 1999; written in anticipation of a noir package on Turner Classic Movies]

The great French director Jean Renoir, obliged to become a great American director by the German occupation of his country, records in his memoirs a moment around the end of World War II when his two nationalities drolly intersected. It seems that a film festival was showcasing The Southerner, his pantheistic 1945 movie about a Texas sharecropper, when a French correspondent phoned in the news to his paper. But hélas, between the reporter’s pronunciation and, perhaps, the susceptibilities of the guy on the copy desk, “The Southerner, un film de Jean Renoir” became “Le Souteneur [The Pimp], un film de genre noir.” Something was definitely lost in translation.

Still, the confusion tells us a lot about that moment in film history and about how pervasive had become the phenomenon everybody and his brother now glibly calls film noir—”black film,” “dark film,” but by any name, fragrantly exotic film about an irredeemably fallen world. Back then, no one this side of the Atlantic used, or knew, the term—not the Hollywoodians who were making film noir nor the reviewers, who with few exceptions scorned the movies in question as cheap, vulgar, unpleasant, and otherwise regrettable. The films couldn’t even claim to belong to a proper genre: Some were private-eye pictures (The Big Sleep), some were period romances (Gaslight, So Evil My Love), some semidocumentary crime-fighting movies (T-Men, Street with No Name), some mysteries (Laura), some “women’s pictures” (Mildred Pierce). But the French could see, as six years’ worth of embargoed American cinema washed across their screens following the liberation, that the mood and politics and look and tone of Hollywood’s output had changed radically: it was darkened, bleaker, and yet more dynamic. As Paul Schrader would exult a quarter-century later, “American movies [were] in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk.”

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