Realistic Horror: Film Noir and the 1940s Horror Cycle

Mark Jancovich

Mark Jancovich

As I have argued elsewhere, it is not simply that the films currently identified as film noir were not categorised as such at the time of their original release, but most of the early noir classics, including Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’, were originally identified as horror films.

Furthermore, while the thriller and the horror film are commonly seen as quite separate categories today, they were virtually indistinguishable terms in the 1940s. In other words, films were described as thrillers on the grounds that they provided “thrills and chills,” and hence the term “thriller” was often indistinguishable from that of the “chiller,” and was used for films that were supposed to appeal to the “thrill seeker,” films that were “terrifying,” “hair-raising,” “spine-tingling” and shocking”; that would make one’s “flesh creep,” one’s “blood curdle” or give one “goosebumps”.

Another sign of the relationship between the thriller and the horror film was the association with German directors such as Wilder.

In 1944-1945, four films were released that have come to represent the consolidation of film noir proper. Not only were all four films directed by German émigré directors — ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944, dir. Billy Wilder), ‘Laura’ (1944, dir. Otto Preminger), ‘Phantom Lady’ (1944, dir. Robert Siodmak) and ‘Woman in the Window’ (1945, dir. Fritz Lang) — but they were also associated with horror on their original release in the United States. For example, in its review of ‘Phantom Lady’, the New York Times saw the film as one that was clearly tailored to its director, Robert Siodmak, “a former director of German horror films”.

This association between German directors and horror may explain why German directors such as Wilder, Lang and Siodmak were quickly put to work on horror productions as the 1940s horror cycle began to pick up momentum after the success of ‘Cat People’ (1942), even though many of the German directors who became associated with film noir had little or no association with expressionism prior to their arrival in America.

As Koepnick points out, “when considering the ways in which exiled film workers may have imported Weimar sensibilities to Hollywood, acts of performative repetition and unforeseen redress clearly outnumbered instances of direct transfer”. For example, despite the perception that Siodmak was a “former director of German horror films”, Koepnick claims that “his directorship prior to Hollywood had showed no expressionist predilections whatsoever.”

Indeed, as Greco points out, in Europe he had been “on his way to becoming a successor to René Clair until the Nazi’s came and [he] was forced to flee.” The expressionist qualities of many of these German directors’ Hollywood productions were not necessarily due to their preoccupations prior to their arrival in America, but rather due to the ways in which they were required to fulfil the industry’s perceptions of them as Germans.

Even many non-German Europeans were associated with horror, so that figures such as René Clair found themselves involved in films such as ‘And Then There Were None’ (1945), an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery, which was clearly identified as a horror film by its studio, exhibitors and critics.

In other words, there was a sense of confusion between expressionism and German cinema, on the one hand, and between German and European cinema on the other. Germany had been one of the most commercially and critically successful of European cinemas, and it shaped much of Hollywood’s understanding of Europe.

Furthermore, expressionism was a clearly identifiable style to which other European cinemas sometimes alluded in bids for commercial or critical success.

The association between the thriller and the horror film was also marked in the gendered address of many films. If many of the films defined as film noir today were often identified as horror in the period, they were not seen as a self-contained group of films, but as part of a larger production trend that included those films that are known today as examples of the Gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film.

As a result, while critics currently tend to present film noir as a masculine genre, particularly through an association with the figure of the hardboiled detective, many of the films commonly cited as early examples of film noir were actually woman’s films. For example, ‘Phantom Lady’, like many other thrillers of the period, features a central female character that takes on the role of lead investigator, and is menaced by a psychologically disturbed male killer. Like many women in the so-called Gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film of the period, she is therefore required to investigate the mystery of male psychology in order to survive.

If the female investigator has often been ignored as a figure, critics of the 1940s were acutely aware of her presence, certainly when compared to the so-called “femme fatale”, a figure of rather dubious significance in the 1940s. Not only is the femme fatale far less common than is usually implied, but the term conflates quite different figures of femininity under a very questionable commonality.

In addition, while a cycle of “female monster” pictures did emerge in the early 1940s, these were usually identified as horror films, and when, in the mid to late 1940s, these female monsters began to acquire a less fantastic shape, the figures that emerged were discussed in terms that have little relation to the figure of the femme fatale as she is understood today.

Most significantly, these female monsters were not part of an attempt to demonise the independent woman of the war years, but were associated with the wartime push for women to take on roles outside the home. Consequently, the women often identified today with the femme fatale were associated with wartime condemnations of the “slacker,” a figure whose association with the domestic was presented as greedy, lazy and selfish.

The emergence of these figures takes place alongside an even more fundamental transition. In the mid-1940s, there was a shift in critical tastes that is often associated with the release of Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945) but that can actually be detected earlier in the critical reception of Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945). Reviews of The Lost Weekend identified it not only as a horror film but as a brave and “realistic” film that was willing to handle the difficult and controversial subject of alcoholism.

The topic of alcoholism was also related to a shift in the critical evaluation of psychological materials. While the “psychological” was largely associated with horror and fantasy in the early 1940s, so that the New York Times could talk of “German horror films” and “German psychologicals” as though these were interchangeable terms, by the mid-1940s, psychological materials became associated with realism through an association between the psychological film and the social problem film.

As a result, there was a shift in critical tastes from Gothic fantasy to social realism, from historical to contemporary subjects, and an overt preference for “social commentary” rather than “escapism.”

This shift also resulted in a concern with film censorship, in which censorship was accused of preventing films from handling serious, adult subject matter, and a simultaneous celebration of the unvarnished and unglamorous as a sign of significance.

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