Journal of American Studies

Research Article

“Emergent Noir”: Film Noir and the Great Depression in High Sierra (1941) and This Gun for Hire (1942)



This article theorizes a new periodization for film noir through a prewar category of “emergent noir”: seven films released between 1940 and 1942 – including The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane – that defined the genre's thematics, aesthetics, visual style, and moral ambiguity. Using archival research and trauma theory, the article analyzes High Sierra and This Gun for Hire as case studies of “failure narratives”: each film resonated with American audiences by validating the recent suffering of the Great Depression, allowing for a vicarious sense of revenge, and creating new ideals of individuality and masculinity. Both films were surprise box-office hits and created new film icons for the 1940s: Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, and Veronica Lake. All three were embodiments of “cool,” a concept herein theorized as a public mask of stoicism.

Tulane University. E-mail: For their readings, suggested revisions, and invaluable advice with regard to this article, my thanks to Andy Erish and, especially, the anonymous referee for JAS.