When we talk film noir, we’re talking about a very specific place at a very specific time: The United States in the 1940s.
At this time in America, anxiety was rising, and Hollywood caught and expressed it, primarily through a series of crime thrillers that were later named ‘noir’.
Most critics agree that the first film noir is The Maltese Falcon (1941) from the novel by Dashiell Hammett and featuring a favourite star of the film noir, Humphrey Bogart. It looked like a promising start, and still there followed three years of nothing on the film noir side. Why?
The entry of the US into WWII set in motion an intense process of cultural mobilisation. Official propaganda agencies (like the Office of War Information) required that all cultural discourses converged on a message of unity, purpose and struggle that would displace any division caused by class, race or sexual inequality.Hollywood response was a series of films where the male hero is part of a team (often a war squad) which function as a microcosm of American society. Only by being united and working together, the team may achieve the ultimate goal.
But while this was happening on the screen, massive changes were underway in real society. The mass drafting of men into the armed forces left many jobs vacant. As part of their ‘patriotic duty’, women were strongly encouraged to take up those jobs, which they did in large numbers. This cause a massive, rapid redefinition of their social role: not just wives and mothers anymore, they took up and successfully covered positions previously only covered by men.
When soldiers came back from the war, they found that America had dramatically changed during their absence, and they found it hard to be integrated into it. Women shifting position, in particular, caused a temporary confusion about traditional sexual roles and sexual identity for both men and women.
As a cultural institution, Hollywood sought to address these changes but was hindered by the wartime cultural mobilisation and its logic of unity. This was in stark contrast with the new reality of women who sought economic and social advancement, thus upturning traditional sexual roles. So, during the war year this change, that was actually happening, remained under the radar of entertainment cinema.
But in 1944 the climate changed drastically. With victory in sight, ‘wartime’ issues started to give way to ‘postwar’ issues, and the ‘problem’ of working women and the social insecurity they cause came to the fore. Themes that had been glossed over during the war in the name of a necessary unity exploded on the screen.
Film noir picked up those anxieties, uncertainties and fears. With its damage male hero and its dangerous and ambitious femme fatale, it became one of the most popular forms of entertainments of the 1940s.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston
Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets more than he bargained for when he takes a case brought to him by a beautiful but secretive woman (Mary Astor). As soon as Miss Wonderly shows up, trouble follows as Sam’s partner is murdered and Sam is accosted by a man (Peter Lorre) demanding he locate a valuable statuette. Sam, entangled in a dangerous web of crime and intrigue, soon realizes he must find the one thing they all seem to want: the bejeweled Maltese falcon. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
The Maltese Falcon was a great film, which also starred Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The statue itself is a perfect example of a McGuffin, an object that’s central to the plot but meaningless to it. Great start to this year’s challenge!
Fantastic visuals too. I had to resist posting clips I like, for fear to spoil the plot. But there will be a few coiming up 😉
I saw The Maltese Falcon for the first time last February, as part of its 75th anniversary tour. I saw it again this past summer, as one of the 35-cent matinées at the local indie theatre. It’s definitely the kind of film which requires more than one viewing to fully understand what all is going on!
I can’t remember whether I’ve watched it. The time I used to watch film noirs is in my childhood, with my granny, who was a big fan. But doing writing this challenge put the wish in me to rewatch so many of these. The Maltese Falcon is top of the list.
Strong start to the challenge – looking forward to where this is going and expanding my knowledge of noir.
A Back of the Envelope Calculation
Happy you found it interesting enough. And thanks so much for dropping by 🙂
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
Great post, Sarah. Now to go watch The Maltese Falcon and a few others…
LOL! That’s exactly the reaction I was hoping for 😉
You are off to a great start with the challenge. Fantastic movie, and I say that as one who does not often watch older films. This one is a must see for everyone.
I have a really soft spot for black&white movies, especially thrillers and gangsters. I suppose that’s why I ended up writing dieselpunk 😉
Thanks so much for stopping by.
I had no idea there was such a gap from the first film noir movie to the rest. Mr Bogart is indeed a legend. Thanks for a great post to start the AtoZ 🙂
Tasha’s Thinkings – Shapeshifters and Werewolves
I used to think that film noir used a French terminology because it came from the 1970s French Film Noir. I was of course wrong.
This is such a fascinating form of film, though, whatever time it comes from.
Terrific post – film noir is one of the USA’s great gifts to the world and The Maltese Falcon was a fantastic start.
It is a wonderful form or film. And considering its commercial origin, it’s really fascinanting how much culture and social history it ended up carrying on.
The war certainly had a big cultural impact for women and the push to try and get them back in the kitchen afterwards was, thankfully, in the long term unsuccessful, although, there are clearly still some who feel that way even today.
Interesting there was a jump of years before the genre really got going.
Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles – Dragon Diaries
I find it fascinating that film noir carries so much history and culture with it. I had never realised that before researching for this challenge. I just liked it as a viewer 😉
Can’t really remember when I watched The Maltese Falcon…Humphrey Bogart seriously yummy, fandom across two generations – both my mum and me love him. War always affects the non-combatants as deeply as the soldiers.
Great start to your A-Z!
Theme : Arabiana
That’s true, eh? We often don’t realise that war isn’t only fought on the battlefileds.
Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Facinating first post, good job!
I know less than nothing about film noir, so this will be a very interesting journey for me!
I’ll have to make sure I track down ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and have a watch. Maybe while I’m writing some more of my own A-Z posts later tonight?
Believe In Fairy Stories
That sounds like a good plam, Jodie 🙂
Thanks for stoppin by.
Interesting subject and the role that film has always played in our culture, especially during transitional times. Kind of makes you wonder how film will define the world’s current culture. Pretty screwed up world right now!
“Female Scientists Before Our Time”
You know, that’s exactly what I was pondering while writing this series. How will future people judge us, what they’ll infer about us from the films we are producing now?
I’d like a time machine 😉
I enjoy film noir. Recently here in Australia the Melbourne Theatre Company turned the film Double Indemnity into a stage play which was fun. Look forward to reading more of your A to Z. Thanks for dropping by. Regards Anne
Hey, that would be fun to watch.
I read the book years ago. Didn’t really get into it, but the film (though I’ve never watch the entirety of it) looks more intersting.
I have to confess, my knowledge of Film Noir is not diverse. I have seen very few, to really comment about it. This is a series I will follow, looking forward to expanding my knowledge.
PS: I love Maltese Falcon, one of the few Film Noir movies I have watched.
I’ve always enjoyed film noir, the feel and the visuals of it. But it’s only when I started researching for this series that I’ve fully understood why it’s such a seminal form of art.
Big fan of Film writing in general and Noir films as well, so looking forward to your month of blogging on this. Great start. Hope you have time to check out my effort too. Regards, Iain
Hi Iain and thanks for stopping by. I hope my entries will be interesting enough, even for an expert.
Really enjoyed your entry. Loking forward to reading more 🙂
Noir film is fascinating, I wrote a blurb using Star trek the big Goodbye as a means trying to illustrating codes, customs and etiquettes between the 1940’s and the 24th century – the jury still out on it sniff. http://startrekspace.blogspot.com/2007/04/cyrus-redblock.html
Well it was written 10 years ago, lol.
Hey thanks for the link. I’ll check it out 😉
Just saw Casablanca recently, again!
Love that period and the oldies, still!
There’s something fascinating about black and white films, don’t you think so? I’ve always loved the chiaroscuro tecnique even before I knwe what it was. So moody and involving.
Interesting. I’m somewhat familiar with film noir tropes, but I had no idea about the cultural context that helped them evolve the way they did.
Me neither. I didn’t know any of this until I started researching for the challenge. and I’m very happy I did. I find this stuff so fascinating.
Gosh I didn’t know that some of the anxieties of the post war world were because women had started working and men felt insecure about it. Fascinating.
I big earlier revolution was when women started to make themselves up in the 1920s. History is incredible 😉
Film Noir films of the 40’s have greatly influence my writing. I especially like their dialogue and sense the world is more complex and bleak than we believe … yet there are moments of grace possible.
Noir dialogue is really awesome. It’s witty and sensual and factual all at the same time. I love it too.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
A very interesting introduction to the era! I guess I never thought about film noir much in its historical context, but it makes sense…
It is even more intersting if you think these films weren’t created as a conscious commentary to society. They were just commercial products meant to entertain. It’s awesome how much of the historical context siped into them.
This is fascinating. Never having lived through a major war in the US, I can’t imagine what it was like to have such a thing color most aspects of one’s everyday life, even entertainment!
Arts, and this often includes entertainment, are favourite places where the ghosts of times express themselves. I think when a feeling arising spontaniously from a form of entertainment, it tells so much more about the people expressing it then even more awere forms of art may do.
I have to confess I haven’t watched The Maltese Falcon, but I’m sure it’s been recommended to me before as well.
I loved your inputs on history and postwar shift in traditional gender roles. Great stuff!
Film noir expression of that shifting and the way it expressed it (the mask film noir used) is the most intersting part of this kind of films. There is so much more in them than simple detective stories.
Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Sara C. Snider
Love this, I feel like I’m taking a course on film noir. It’s great! Looking forward to following this series. 🙂
LOL! Thanks, Sara, but I’m just a green enthusiast 🙂
Love the start to your series – and looking forward to the rest of your posts. And I’ll definitely be putting The Maltese Falcon on my list to watch again – it’s such a great one. I suspect I’ll have to keep a list open for the other gems you’ll be mentioning and I’ll want to be seeing. Happy A-to-Z-ing!
I’ll do my best to touch on as many films as possible. Classic film noir expressed so many great stories.
Film noir is actually such a fascinating genre… we hardly see any these days. A part of it has to do with the era as you mentioned but I always imagine in my head, film noir being set in black and white with insightful voiceovers, betrayals and dark alleys 😀
That kind of noir has a particular charme, don’t you think?
I won’t actually touch on that (not in details) but noir has had many incarnations over the decades. It’s a form of telling that still has a lot to offer.
Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
I think we always tend to associate film noir with the forties, but there were some great ones that came later as well. Also, there was some pretty inventive film making groundwork laid prior to the forties that might fit into the style. But the aftermath of WWII was a huge contributing factor to the way audiences viewed films.
I’ll touch on that later in the challenge, Arlee 😉
Although there isn’t much agreement about so many aspects of film noir, most critics agree that film noir is the host of movie filmed in the 1940s. They prefer to call what came after neo-noir for a reason that I’ll axplain and that acutally make sense.
Reading this has made me want to re-watch some classic film noir. Am going to enjoy populating a re-watching list from your blog (and the suggestions made in the comments!)
Bunny and the Bloke
Well, Debs, I’ll tell you the truth, this challenge is making me want to watch/rewatch a lot of films too 😉
The backstory was fascinating. I’ve always liked Maltese Falcon, but I think I now understand why. Great start to A to Z!
Film noir doesn’t need explanations to be enjoyed, but knowing a few things make us appreciate it even more, don’t you think? 😉
It’s on my list to watch. I’ve enjoyed what noir I have seen, but I didn’t realize the history behind the art form.
Thanks for sharing!
Me too. It was a true discovery 🙂
Now I understand how noir came into being. Thanks, Jazz. 🙂
Happy you found it useful 🙂
I remember watching the Maltese Falcon as a kid and being totally hooked on it. Thank you for explaining more about the Film Noir genre.
@Raesquiggles – Abbeys – a long history
Thanks for stopping by. And hope you’ll like the rest of the challenge too 🙂
Ugh, I still haven’t watched The Maltese Falcon! Ok, adding it to my list. 🙂
Great article, Sarah!
Thanks Tiyana 🙂
Researching this topinc, I’ve discovered so many film that I want to watch.
One of my husband’s favorite movies is The Maltese Falcon.
While I don’t share his adoration for the film, I do look forward to learning more about this genre throughout the month!
Journaling: A list of supplies
It is a fascinating subject. I’ve always liked film noir, because I like most of what comes from the diesel era, but researching a deeper level has revealed to me lots of things I had never imagined.
Gail M Baugniet
Glad you included mention of The Maltese Falcon in your discussion. Mystery novel Noir is familiar territory for me.
How could I ever talk about film noir without mentioning The Maltese Falcon? 😉
I’m blogging about thebabyboom years and Baby boomers.
Thanks for stopping by. I really liked your post 🙂
I think the three year lag makes sense. After a new genre hits the scene, it takes time for other filmmakers to catch on and make their own films from screenwriting and producing/filming to distributing.
Your analysis of the social impact of returning men displacing working women helps to explain the very clearly defined gender roles of the 1950s. Gotta get those women back in their place!
I’m not familiar with American 1950s social history, but I suppose you’re right 😉
I’m so glad I found you on Litsy. I teach middle school social studies. We’re about to begin WWII in a couple of weeks. While my political knowledge is sound, my cultural knowledge varies. I’ve never looked at how WWII affected Hollywood, so this post is fascinating. Can’t wait to see what other historical gems I learn from you and can pass on to the kiddos. Thanks!
Thanks so much for stopping by, Irene… and gosh, now I feel the pressure 😉
I love social history. I normally blog about the 1920s, but I’ve really enjoyed this excurtion into the 1940s. Besides, there are many similarities in the way sociaty was changing.
I really hop eI’ll make this interstign for you… and for your kiddos 😉
Very interesting. And makes sense.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Kristn. I hop eit’ll continue to make sense 😉
Great first post and I’ve learnt so much – I’ve always wondered what was the inspiration for film noir and now I know. Looking forward to the rest of the month.
Days of Fun
It’s an awesome story, don’t you think? Beside history is always awesome.
This is very interesting.. to think that a complete revolution can be seen in the evolution of cinema of this time is fascinating! i will definitely be looking out for your posts and reflecting on my film viewing to notice such things too. Good Luck with your AtoZ 🙂
Entertainment always reveal something of the culture it expresses. Trying to read under into the text is a true expereince.
Found your blog and I’m a lover of film. You write beautifully about film and I do love film noir. I have to watch The Maltese Falcon again since I haven’t seen it for a long time. I love all the character actors who often Would work in other films together. Mary Astor was great as the Femme Fatale
Thanks for stopping by, Birgit.
I watched The Maltese Falcon last night. Fantastic film!
Barbara In Caneyhead
Excellent job of conveying what was behind the move to noir films.
Glad you liked it, Barbara 🙂