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Noir was nothing if not a reaction, a reflection of a nation reeling from despicable evil overseas and revolutionary upheaval on the domestic front. The men—including the screenwriters—had gone off to fight, and as the women stepped up, into the public sector and newfound independence, studio chiefs turned to the fast-and-cheap pulp mysteries of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. International directors like Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, and Robert Siodmak, who’d honed the dramatic visuals of German Expressionism, fled their war-torn homes for the plentiful opportunities in Tinseltown. Some define noir as or by a tone, and it’s very much a mood, a sensibility. For the purposes of this introduction, let’s call it a response. We think of noirs as urban stories, but that’s not always the case—for every L. Though its blueprints were everywhere, noir forged its own language, its own playbook, its own universe.
As Angel’s investigation takes him south from New York City to the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers—a change of scenery suggested to Parker by the story’s author, novelist William Hjortsberg—the color-drained, highly stylized production reflects his descent into hell.(Had Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and their censoring kind not been around, noir would’ve been an even more nihilistic realm.) In any case, the M. was linear: Talk it out, trace the clues, tell us about it with a voiceover. Like the ink on those yellow hard-boiled pages, film noir was a smeared affair from the start—hard to define and harder to reconcile.Its characters were dirty, displaced, disillusioned, distrustful, just plain dumb. We think of a never-ending, rain-soaked night—sunlight replaced with neon and nocturnal reflections, the optical trickery of mirrors and shadows—but in contrast, the days of noir scorched its characters.Enter the private detective and his antihero ilk—a scarred, brooding fella who for his considerable flaws was sympathetic.