While French noir is “the most widely recognised film noir outside America,” it is in many ways undervalued, as many film historians leave out the importance and influence of French cinema on the film noir genre (Spicer 1). According to critics, “dynamism of violent death’, ‘the strange’ atmosphere and underlying eroticism of American film noir were apparently lacking in pre-war and war time cinema” (Spicer 21). Critics argue that poetic realism was too realist and than when French directors made films that better fit under the noir genre they were “dismissed as belated copies of American films” (Ibid). French noir, however, was not only influential to the noir genre as a whole but had a distinct and unique history of its own. The French crime genre, known as policier (the term can also describe crime literature) “designates a huge and extremely varied production” and contains many of the stylistic elements common in film noir (Ibid). This essay will trace the history and development of French noir, as well as analyze its typical conventions, specifically through Jean-Pierre Melvin’s Le Samouria (1967).
French film noir can trace its roots to the French cinema and crime fiction writing of the 1930’s. Popular new French writers, such as Pierre Very, Stanislas-Andre Steeman, and most importantly Georges Simenon transformed French crime fiction by introducing many of the elements typical of film noir. As Ginette Vincendeau argues, Simenon “played down action, suspense and violence and replaced them with powerful evocation of a visual, aural and thematic ‘atmosphere’- of dark, rain-soaked quotidian-ness, of routine lives shatter by crime or the ‘derailing’ of the central character” (Spicer 25). Many of Simenon’s novels would be adapted to the screen and represent the beginnings of French film noir. For example, in Julien Duvivier’s La Tete d’un home (A Man’s Neck), Inspector Maigret represents the law but “always refrains from moral judgment” (Ibid). The frequent mist is also representative of the moral ambiguity of the story. Though less important to the plot in comparison to American film noir, the female character Edna gains the attraction of the villain and echoes the role of the femme fatale as well as “the men’s anxiety failure” (Spicer 26).
These policiers of the 1930’s were often characterized by the dark style of the era, poetic realism. Poetic realism describes “dark urban dramas with pessimistic narratives infused with fatalism” and “elicit a sense of beauty and tragedy through visual style” (Ibid). This style was carried to American film noir through German émigrés such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Max Ophuls who worked in France before moving the United States. Film noir remakes of poetic realist films, such as Fritz Lang’s remake of Scarlet Street (1945) features less moral cynicism and greater punishment of characters. In this way, poetic –realist films were “more noir than film noir” (Spicer 26).
French noir’s next era was the annees noires (the German Occupation). One of the most typical aspects was that of “strong and frightening shadows” (Spicer 30). Henri Decoin’s adaptation of a Simenon novel into Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) has many of the most important conventions of film noir: “a relentlessly pessimistic narrative, a dubious morality, dramatically contrasted lighting and masculinity in crisis” (Spicer 31).
Social noir of the post-war era was anchored in oppressive sociological focus. Characters typically have no redeeming moral values and are obsessed with money and sexuality. Occurring at the same time as social noir was gangster films of the 1950’s. Detectives became violent and society was portrayed as obsessed with consumer goods such as cars, alcohol, cigarettes and consumer goods associated with American modernity. Jazz music also became a staple of gangster films and often included a hybrid of American and French Jazz styles.
Social noir and gangster films were heavily influenced by the German Occupation and often included illusions to the war. Films often revolved around “underground cities and torture,” characters just out of jail, and themes of loyalty and betrayal reminiscent of Germany during the war. These films also became increasing misogynistic by marginalizing female characters, eliminating the role of the femme fatale and becoming strictly focused on the male character.
French New Wave noir films paid tribute to American style by incorporating American noir into a French context, while simultaneously becoming more misogynistic to the point of eliminating women almost entirely from films. Although New Wave films sought to reflect popular, American style in a way that made it “intellectually respectable” (Spicer, 41). They often contain “a dystopian sensibility that is fundamentally existential, evoking a malign and contingent universe n which existence is often seen as meaningless or absurd” (Spicer 15).
Because French censorship was generally more concerned with attacks on state institutions, French noir consistently got away with more sexuality and “taboo-breaking representation” than did American films.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) is reflective of the French Noir conventions and particularly with social noir and new wave noir. In the film we see Jeff Costello, a hired assassin, living in a dark, individualized existence. The femme fatale is essentially eliminated, with the main two women in film serving merely as accessories to the plot, but who never have a significant affect on Costello.
Typical of noir, Melville plays with lighting and shadows for suspense and visual effect. This can be seen in the following image.
In the attempt to retain ‘intellectually respectable’ quality, the film follows an existentialistic structure. With the focus of the plot strictly on Costello, the individual in clearly portrayed true to existentialism. As the film ends and his world and captures are closing in around him, he walks, fully aware, to his death. This self awareness is seen in the following clip.
Costello unloads his gun and does not take his hat number, as he knows he will die anyway. He shows the bartender quite clearly his ‘plan’ to kill as he slowly puts on his white gloves and makes his way towards the pianist. In this way, he finds freedom through death and does so by his own intention, not that of the police, and therefore fully represents the existentialism of the film.
Because French censorship was generally more concerned with attacks on state institutions, French noir consistently got away with more sexuality and “taboo-breaking representation[s]” than did American films. As Spicer asserts, French noir films “anticipate the style, characterization and themes of American film noir, but their trajectory is often more pessimistic, indeed fatalistic than film noir, making these films darker that their American counterparts with a greater moral ambiguity” (Spicer 7). French film noir was thus very much important in influential to American noir and is clearly underrated by many critics.
by Alex Daley