American film noir

Charles Scruggs

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Film noir - that dark, shadowy, grim, mysterious, and largely city-based form of filmmaking - attained worldwide prominence with the 1941 film of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). Most critics argue that this kind of film adapted features of what had established itself as the "urban gothic" in literature by the 1930s and would fully blossom as film noir with the coming of World War II. Actually, though, the mainly American inspiration at the root of film noir stems from World War I, the Great War (1914-1918), a war which the historian George Kennan has called "the seminal catastrophe of the Twentieth Century." It is the fact and aftermath of this war, I want to argue here, that brought about the revision and deepening of the urban gothic that we see in film noir in its most classic forms in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and indeed in extensions of it to this day. For instance, is not the title of the recent zombie film World War Z (2013) a reference to World War I, as though "A" leads naturally to "Z"? Both wars - one fictional, the other real - underscore a gothic theme of human beings turning into grotesques, ghouls, or monsters. Hence George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is both a zombie movie and a dark take on American life as the living dead look for their victims in the suburbs. The reality of World War I could be just as bizarre. Photographs of surreal, gas-masked soldiers emerging from the poisoned fog of the trenches in World War I became dramatized in film noir as sinister figures walking down black, wet streets, through labyrinthian alleys and the ubiquitous fog. The literary and cinematic perception of what that war meant led to the gothic interplay of dim light and ominous shadows that the French critic Nico Frank was the first to name "film noir" in 1946.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Modern gothic
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781139151757
ISBN (Print)9781107023567
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


Dive into the research topics of 'American film noir'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this