The good bad guys

FRENCH FILM NOIR by Robin Buss, Marion Boyars £19.95
THOSE who create a genre are sometimes the last to know it. In the 1920s and '30s Hollywood invented a unique kind of thriller, based on the novels of James M Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in which the attraction of suspense was st ronger than the conventions of morality. The heroes were justified sinners and corrupt detectives, passionate criminals and reluctant policemen, and made the audience shift uncomfortably between sympathy and reproval. The French adored the new style whic h theychristened film noir - a colour already given to a popular series of translated detective novels - and a genre was born.

In 1940, when the German Occup-ation prohibited the import of American films, the French began to imitate the genre. For a while, the scene of the crime shifted from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to Paris and Marseilles. The first French authors of romans noirs had written, under American-sounding names, pastiches of James Hadley Chase. Now others, such as Georges Simenon, gave the French film-makers an embarassment of crimes passionels and intrigues psychologiques in which Gallic flair was not onlyconvenient but necessary.

By the Fifties, local colour was no longer required. It was then that Clouzot produced what has been called the greatest film noir of all time, Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear). Robin Buss's history-cum-guide to the genre begins with Clouzot's tour de force, quoting copiously from contemporary reviews, and it is instructive to note the moral outrage that Clouzot's film produced in the Anglo-Saxon world. The Daily Mirror warned that "Children must not see this"; in the US, the Villag e Voice called it "openly racist" because of its patronising portrayal of an imaginary Latin-American country. In Latin America, however, no one appeared to be offended.

French Film Noir includes a choice list of Buss's 100 favourites, with plot summaries and filmography. Buss chronicles the genre's evolution in France from Clouzot to Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire (1990) as an exercise in morality, a study of "the grandeur and energy of evil'', which calls for a fluid ethical code on the part of the audience. Through the detailed inspection of certain films - Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi, Godard's A bout de souffle, Chabrol's Le Boucher, Costa-G a vras' Z, and several more - Buss discusses the characters in which film noir excels: "good (crooks), bad (police), evil (informers) with a kind of `honest' complicity between soldiers on each side (crooks and police), and a `dishonest' complicity between the police and their narks''. No doubt, it is this very ambiguity that made the film noir the French film par excellence. In France - and, we could add, in Italy and Latin America too - such ambiguity is self- evident, since law-enforcement has seldom been recognised by the French as a noble profession.

Buss ends on a desolate note regarding the French film noir in our time. Films such as Subway and Nikita, competent adventure yarns, seem ultimately unsatisfying: although "the individual elements of the genre appear to be present, assembled with considerable skill, the purpose has vanished''. For Buss, the film noir developed a recognisable and unique style whose purpose "was not primarily aesthetic; it grew out of a desire to tell stories that addressed questions which were ultimately philosophical ormoral, to do with the nature of crime, personality, social relations or the workings of fate. This purpose is lost in films that merely reproduce the aesthetic, and the loss is crucial.'' A few nights ago, I watched once again Clouzot's Les Diaboliques and nostalgically agreed.