Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (2005) Sheri Chinen Biesen
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Paperback, 243 pages
Photos, notes, index
I’ve only read a few books on film noir and most of those have been overviews, giving readers information on several of the most prominent characteristics, themes, directors, styles of cinematography, budgets and more. While all those books have proved helpful in understanding this group of films I love so much, none of them have really explained the hows and whys of film noir. Most of them claim that film noir grew out of post-WWII America, but Sheri Chinen Biesen proves otherwise.
Noir as a style actually developed before America entered WWII. In fact, Biesen goes back many years before the war to cite several films that would help influence the “look” of noir, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1923) and M (1931), just to name a few. All of these films – directed by German filmmakers after WWI – reflected a definite expressionist style, containing shades of darkness and foreboding. Although he was Latvian-born and worked in Russia, Boris Ingster’s American film Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, RKO) contains many similar elements, particularly in several dream sequences.
As many European directors fled to America, they brought their distinctive styles with them. Add to that the fact that America’s entry into WWII brought with it shortages of men and resources. It also brought about a change in America’s culture, transforming our consciousness to face the horrors, darkness, and violence of war, all of which was reflected in Hollywood films. Biesen explores how such changes influenced American films, examining (among others) noir titles such as Phantom Lady, The Maltese Falcon, This Gun for Hire, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Scarlet Street and more.
Anyone wanting to go deeper into an examination of film noir should read this book. Although considered an “academic” work, Blackout is a highly readable, engaging work. I hope you’ll seek it out.
Biesen is associate professor of radio, television, and film studies at Rowan University and has also authored Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films. Find out more at sherichinenbiesen.blogspot.com.