Hibbs writes: “In its assumption that a double” — that is a “dark self” — “lurks just beneath the surface of the most ordinary individuals, noir punctures naive, conventional assumptions about human behavior.” This I think is exactly right, and I can’t understand your position that the emergence of a film tradition with this underlying theme precisely in the wake of the global catastrophe of WWII and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation had nothing to do with those phenomena. To me, the connection is self-evident, and if it’s a cliche, it’s a cliche because it’s true.
While I believe the origins of film noir lie elsewhere, this is not to say that the experience of WWII did not influence or inform the themes and development of the noir cycle in the post-war period. But the shadow of nuclear annihilation was cast only by the US until the classic noir cycle was already mature, so I don’t see this as particularly relevant.
The origins of film noir and why it flowered where and when it did are complex, and we can’t be definitive, but it is fairly evident that noir emerged before the US entered the War, and had it’s origins principally in the new wave of emigre European directors and cinematographers, who fashioned a new kind of cinema from the gangster flick of the 30′s and the pre-War hard-boiled novels of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Woolrich. We can also clearly see the influence of German expressionism, the burgeoning knowledge of psychology and its motifs, and precursors in the French poetic realist films of the 30′s.
Noir was not only about the other, the “dark self”, but the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression. Cornell Woolrich, for example, was a lonely and repressed individual, who spent his life in hotel rooms, and Edwards Hopper’s study of the long lonely night in Nighthawks was painted in 1942.
Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WWII.
Philip Slater prefaced his study of American culture, The Pursuit of Loneliness (1970), with these words from Paul Simon:
‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
‘I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.’
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike.
They’ve all come
To look for America.