But I do think that she’s right to call attention to the historical specificities on which the genre (if, indeed, it’s a genre) thrived.
Many of the crime dramas of the nineteen-thirties had much to do with the Depression; those of wartime reflected the war (though it’s a critical temptation to read the war into any film contemporaneous with it), and those that came after the war—well, by definition, they reflect postwar life.
Holmes traces the fascination with these Hollywood crime dramas of the forties through the work of other French critics of the postwar years: It is clear that one of the key elements in the welcome given by the French critics to the American “films noirs” was the feeling that serious European influence lay behind their modern American settings and panache.
Later commentators have pointed to stylistic influences from prewar German films, but for the 1946 critics the primary consideration was not one of style.
When François Truffaut discussed his film “Shoot the Piano Player” soon after its release, he spoke of it in terms of “B movies” and “gangster films”; when Jean-Luc Godard talked about “Breathless,” he said that he wanted to make a “gangster film” and also referred to “films policiers.”The documentation on the subject is ample and fascinating, as provided in a richly detailed historical post by M. Holmes at a Web site devoted to the French critic Nino Frank, who coined the term in 1946.
Holmes’s meticulous discussion of the use and rise of the term cites Frank’s work liberally, and highlights what he found so remarkable in the films in question: Thus these “noir” films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel.
But the essay also responds to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas about the significance of the musical ‘refrain’ as a kind of affective shelter under which the shaping of identity takes place while remaining open to alteration and transformation.
In effect, ‘the refrain’ constitutes an affecto-rhythmic tendency in all living things that enables us to negotiate the myriad environments, interactions, and becomings of our lived experience.
And then there’s the war, with its terrors and disruptions.
The four movies that Nino Frank cites in his primordial 1946 essay are “The Maltese Falcon,” “Laura,” “Murder, My Sweet,” and “Double Indemnity.” All of them were made during the Second World War (though “The Maltese Falcon” was made in 1941, before the United States was involved in combat).