There are two terrific film-noir series taking place in New York right now, one at Film Forum, “Femmes Noir,” the other, at the Museum of Modern Art, “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932-1957.” But only the Film Forum series uses the word “noir,” and MOMA’s avoidance of the term makes perfect sense.
Film noir is a peculiar genre. A Western is identifiable by people on horseback in the West; a musical involves singing and dancing; a war movie shows war. Even the so-called women’s picture was a movie that featured women prominently. But the directors who worked in film noir didn’t use that term to describe their work. One searches in vain for the term in the interviews with some of the genre’s crucial creators—Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Fritz Lang, Robert Aldrich, and Edgar G. Ulmer—by Peter Bogdanovich in his great collection “Who the Devil Made It.” The first appearance of the term “film noir” in this magazine is from 1971; the first in the New York Times is from 1973.
For that matter, the term wasn’t even endemic in French cinephilic circles. When François Truffaut discussed his film “Shoot the Piano Player” soon after its release, he spoke of it in terms of “B movies” and “gangster films”; when Jean-Luc Godard talked about “Breathless,” he said that he wanted to make a “gangster film” and also referred to “films policiers.”
The documentation on the subject is ample and fascinating, as provided in a richly detailed historical post by M. E. Holmes at a Web site devoted to the French critic Nino Frank, who coined the term in 1946. Holmes’s meticulous discussion of the use and rise of the term cites Frank’s work liberally, and highlights what he found so remarkable in the films in question.