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Roots of Noir

"The term itself is vague. For German Expressionism was less a unified style than an attitude, a state of mind."
-Horst Uhr, introduction, "Masterpieces of German Expressionism", 1982

"Film noir is not a genre. It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film 'noir', as opposed to the possible variants of film gray or film off-white."
-Paul Schrader, 'Notes on Film Noir', 1972

Before the advent of film as a means of creative expression, as a commercial commodity, there were movements in the art world that, despite the aesthetic breakthroughs contained therein, were being actualized by low-tech components. Which is to say that paintings were still being painted, drawings still being drawn, and prints still being printed in pretty much the same manner as always. The German Expressionist movement flowered around the same time as the birth of film and filmmaking, so it was perhaps inevitable that in Germany the worlds of fine art and filmmaking would intersect. And filmmaking by its very nature was a more technologically complex mode of expression. While most people acquainted with film noir are familiar with its ties to German Expressionism, less is known about the Strassenfilm, or 'Street Film', and its influence on noir. These films possessed most of the visual and thematic components found in the Classic American period, dark, shadowy city streets, criminals on the fringe of urban society, and femme fatales.

In the early 1930s much of the best talent to be found in the German film industry left their native country to escape the Nazis, emigrating to America to continue their vocations as filmmakers, most notably directors Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak. A number of classic American noirs were directed by these men.

In France in the Thirties another film movement also developed, a period which came to be known as French Poetic Realism. This movement contains parallels to the American noirs, sharing the sentiment and milieu of their later American counterparts. The pessimism and despair of the urban lower classes is expressed with romance and melancholy. Jean Gabin, remembered by many as the French Bogart, was the foremost presence seen in these films, and directors Marcel Carne, Julien Duvivier and Jean Renoir were among those primarily involved in creating these works.

In America during the Thirties two products of pop culture were available to the buying public, the gangster film and the crime pulp. While the former featured the romanticized exploits of men looked upon by many as folk heroes, the latter was a platform for stories involving the detective, either self-employed or working for an agency. These stories provided much in the way of source material for the screenplays utilized in the films noirs that were soon to follow. Four writers whose names are most commonly associated with American noir are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich. All began their careers contributing to "Black Mask", a crime pulp magazine that specialized in a "hard-boiled" style of urban crime fiction. Perhaps the darkest, most "noir" of these writers was Woolrich, ironic since to the general public his name is the least well-known.

My woodcuts reach back to the very earliest origins of film noir, insofar as it was the woodcut that most accurately conveyed the German Expressionist sensibility. My reason for beginning this essay with quotes from Uhr and Schrader have to do with the fact that in both instances they express the difficulty in defining the two periods, the vagueness of German Expressionism, "less a unified style than an attitude", and Film Noir, "not a genre", but something more nebulous, harder to pin down, and though Schrader doesn't state as much, others have also applied the word "style" as opposed to genre when discussing film noir.