What is noir?
That depends. To me, noir is the world-hardened detective who falls in love with the bad girls, who toes the line between the legal and the illegal. He’s the guy who knows what he’s doing is wrong and yet does it anyway. The world of noir is black and white, good and evil, dirty and gritty.
But where did this dark, sensual, morally compromised world come from? Noir elements can be traced back to post World War II when German Fritz Lang emigrated to the United States, bringing with him the experimental sensibility of German Expressionist, which itself was a reaction to the horrors of World War I. It dealt with themes of madness, betrayal, insanity–in other words, a lot of the same themes that developed into film noir and its sister-in-pages, noir fiction.
Reaction to a Fractured Time
If you look at post-war America, you can see why noir became so popular. World War II ended with the hugely powerful and hugely scary atomic bomb. These gritty, unrelenting stories evolved from that, as well as the horror of the concentration camps, the clash of communism and democracy, and the paranoia associated with the Cold War. In addition, Americans had to come to terms with a dichotomous new world taking shape around them. The euphoria of having won the war was offset by the realization of the Nazi’s crimes; the excitement of reuniting with fathers and sons was juxtaposed against loss; women who were asked to work were now told to go home.
Lives Gone Astray
The shadows of war came home to the streets of America, and from these shadows came “downbeat stories of murder and passion, of ordinary lives gone hopelessly astray, of evil women casting their net and fatally contaminating the American male…money and love, as well as individual enterprise, led not to fulfillment and the happy ending, but to crime and death–to defeats of nightmarish proportions” (Greencine).
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