Film Noir is almost certainly one of the United States greatest gifts to popular culture; jaded, ambiguous, trench coat wearing protagonists stalk the grimy urban landscape acting out pulp fiction detective novels. It’s the genre that made Humphrey Bogart and took the femme fatale for itself. But the task set for Different Shades of Euro Noir, a course by Carmen Herrero, for the Spanish, and Isabelle Vanderschelden, for the French, was to demonstrate the European contribution to one of cinema’s greatest genres.
Despite (or more likely because) of their darker sides these quintessentially American cultural icons fired up the imaginations of post-war Europeans so that by the 1950s directors like Jean-Pierre Melville (who had taken his name from the great American novelist) was filming Paris’s seedier side for now classics, like Bob le flambeur and Le Doulos, complete with trilbies and big American cars.
But French cinema has never been about mimicking Hollywood and the Franco twist on the genre was to evolve it into the Nouvelle Vague, with its existential themes and stylistic ticks – long tracking shots, jump cuts – that would in turn be reabsorbed by the seminal American directors of the 1970s; Altman, Coppola, Scorsese.
Meanwhile in Spain the development of film, like much else, was retarded as the country suffered under Franco’s fascist dictatorship. The regime did not officially recognise the existence of crime, making its portrayal problematic; the techniques of the criminal could never be shown; revenge could never be justified; the authorities were never corrupt and were to always be shown the greatest respect. Spaniards simply weren’t exposed to the corrupting influence of American culture.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the case for a Spanish Film Noir is unconvincing. Spain was struggling with industrialisation and the regime opposed the peasants’ immigration into cities. This allowed films by fascist filmmakers to portray a degree of moral corruption as a message to the peasants; but many of the films have a comic quality with simpleton families struggling with livestock on public transport.
While Almodovar and others have proven that today’s Spain has a distinctive voice and modern classics like La Mala educación clearly borrow heavily from Film Noir’s traditions, Spain’s contribution to the rest of the world is, as yet, harder to spot.