I’m a bit of a nerd. I like digging around in Hollywood studio archives investigating classic cinema like you see on Turner Classic Movies with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I specialize in film noir, a series of 1940s–1950s American crime pictures noted for their moody, shadowy visual style of black-and-white photography and hard-hitting themes. Literally “black film” or “dark cinema,” the term film noir was coined by French critics in 1946 to describe brooding, cynical crime films produced in Hollywood during World War II when filmmakers adapted hardboiled fiction that had been censored for nearly a decade. I’m also fascinated by how film noir influences other genres, such as a dark strain of noir musical films noted for their shadowy jazz nightclubs.
As an archival film historian, I examine original studio records to explore how classic films were made. In my research, I look at actual documents from filmmakers when they were shooting the film—scripts, memos, letters from writers, directors, stars, producers, cinematographers, designers, censors and publicity—to piece together the history behind the making of classic films such as Double Indemnity, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Gilda, and The Big Sleep.
I got interested in film noir and noir musicals studying cinema at the University of Southern California. Noir cinematography was considered a lost art form, as Hollywood maestros were dying off. No one knew how to shoot or light black-and-white film anymore. Since then, noir style has become influential on all kinds of contemporary media, and “neo-noir” films pay homage to classic film noir.
I became a film historian and noir scholar after working as a technical writer in computer graphics. My colleagues encouraged me to teach future generations about film noir. When I was a film student, my lights blew out one night while I was shooting a movie, and my film suddenly became a film noir. When I tried to research another project, the archive was closed, so I had to find a different topic. I chose film noir, and accidentally stumbled upon filmmaking memos about the blackouts in Hollywood during World War II. This research became my first book, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. I continued my noir research and discovered a remarkable array of noir musical films, including Blues in the Night, Gilda, A Star is Born, The Red Shoes, and Round Midnight, which became the basis for my next book, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films.
I’m passionate about film noir, classic cinema, noir musicals, and restoring classic films, as well as preserving and teaching future generations about our vibrant cinematic heritage.
Sheri Chinen Biesen is the author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir and Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She is an is associate professor of radio, television, and film studies at Rowan University.