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Film noir


Film noir

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This still from The Big Combo (1955) demonstrates the visual style of film noir at its most extreme. John Alton, the film's cinematographer, created many of the iconic images of film noir. This still from The Big Combo (1955) demonstrates the visual style of film noir at its most extreme. John Alton, the film's cinematographer, created many of the iconic images of film noir.

Film noir is a film style and mood primarily associated with crime films, that portrays its principal characters in a cynical and unsympathetic world. Film noir is primarily derived from the hard-boiled crime fiction of the Depression era (many films noir were adapted from crime stories and novels of the period), and the moody visual style of 1930s horror films. Film noir is first clearly seen in films released in the early 1940s. "Noirs" were historically made in black and white, and had a dark, high-contrast style with roots in German Expressionist cinematography.

The term film noir (French for "black film"), coined by Frank Nino in 1946, was unknown to the filmmakers and actors while they were creating the classic films noir. Film noir was defined in retrospect by film historians and critics; many of the creators of film noir later professed to be unaware at the time of having created a distinctive type of film.



Film noir is a result of a combination of genres and styles, with origins in painting and literature, as well as film. According to James Monaco in American Film Now, Film noir is not a genre at all, it is a style.

The aesthetics of film noir are heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Under Nazism, many important film artists were forced to emigrate (including Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak). They took with them techniques they developed (most importantly the dramatic lighting and the subjective, psychological point of view) and made some of the most famous films noirs in the USA. Concurrent with the development of German Expressionism were expressionistic gangster films in America in the 1930s, such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).

Other important influences came from French poetic realism, with its themes of fatalism, injustice, and doomed heroes, and from Italian neorealism, with its emphasis on authenticity. Several later films noirs, such as Night and the City (1950) and Panic in the Streets (1950), adopted a neorealist approach of using on-location photography with non-professional extras. Additionally, some films noirs strove to depict comparatively ordinary or downtrodden people with unspectacular lives in a manner similar to neorealist films, such as The Lost Weekend and In a Lonely Place.

In the United States, a major literary influence on film noir came from the hard-boiled school of detective and crime fiction, featuring writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, and popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. Chandler's The Big Sleep and Murder My Sweet (based on Farewell, My Lovely) and Hammett's The Maltese Falcon are notable films noir. Although not itself considered a film noir, Orson Welles's landmark film Citizen Kane (1941) had a heavy influence on the development of the genre's style, particularly with its baroque visuals and complex narrative structure driven by voiceover narration

The classic period

One of the quintessential films noirs, Out of the Past features all of the noir hallmarks: A cynical private detective as the "hero", a sexy femme fatale, multiple flashbacks with voiceover narration, dramatic chiaroscuro black and white photography, and a pervasive fatalistic mood. The film stars Robert Mitchum, who, along with Humphrey Bogart, was the foremost male icon of film noir. One of the quintessential films noirs, Out of the Past features all of the noir hallmarks: A cynical private detective as the "hero", a sexy femme fatale, multiple flashbacks with voiceover narration, dramatic chiaroscuro black and white photography, and a pervasive fatalistic mood. The film stars Robert Mitchum, who, along with Humphrey Bogart, was the foremost male icon of film noir.

The 1940s and 1950s were the "classic period" of film noir. Some film historians regard Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) as the first "true" film noir. Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) is often cited as the last film in the classic period.

Some scholars believe film noir never really ended, but declined in popularity, only to be later revived in a slightly different form. Other critics -— probably a majority -— regard films made outside the classic period to be something other than genuine film noir. These critics regard true film noir as belonging to a cycle or period, and think that subsequent films that try to evoke the classic films are different because the creators are conscious of a noir "style" in a way that the original makers of film noir perhaps were not.

Many of the classic films noirs were low-budget supporting features without major stars, in which "moonlighting" writers, directors and technicians, some of them blacklisted, found themselves relatively free from the typical big-picture constraints. Many of the most popular examples of film noir center upon a woman of questionable virtue, and are also known as bad girl movies. Major studio feature films demanded a wholesome, positive message. Weak and morally ambiguous lead characters were ruled out by the "star system," and secondary characters were seldom allowed any depth or autonomy. In "A" films, flattering soft lighting, deluxe interiors, and elaborately built exterior sets were the rule. Film noir turned all this on its head, creating bleak, intelligent dramas tinged with nihilism, mistrust, paranoia, and cynicism, in real-life urban settings, and using unsettling techniques such as the confessional voiceover or hero's-eye-view camerawork. The noir style gradually re-influenced the mainstream--even beyond Hollywood.

Notable films noir of the classic period

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Laura (1944)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Detour (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Gilda (1946)
The Killers (1946)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Out of the Past (1947)
Force of Evil (1948)
Key Largo (1948)
Criss Cross (1949)
The Third Man (1949)
White Heat (1949)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Night and the City (1950)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Clash by Night (1952)
Pickup on South Street (1953)
The Big Heat (1953)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Killing (1956)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Touch of Evil (1958)

Directors associated with classic film noir include Jules Dassin, Edward Dmytryk, John Farrow, Samuel Fuller, Henry Hathaway, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Phil Karlson, Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis, Anthony Mann, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Robert Siodmak, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and Robert Wise.

Film noir outside the United States

There have been a number of films made outside the United States that can reasonably be called films noirs, for example, Pepé le Moko. Jules Dassin moved to France in the early 1950s as a result of the Hollywood blacklist, and made one of the most famous French films noir, Rififi (1955). Other well-known French films sometimes considered to be noir include Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Les Diaboliques (1955), and Quai des Orfèvres (1947). French director Jean-Pierre Melville is widely recognized for his tragic, minimalist films noirs, such as Le Samouraï or Le Cercle Rouge. Additionally, British director Carol Reed made The Third Man (1949), which is often considered film noir. Set in Vienna immediately after World War II, it starred Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, both prominent American film noir actors.

"Neo-noir" is a term often applied to films made after the classic period. Neo-noir films have been produced internationally in most countries with a prominent film industry. Examples include High and Low (Japan), La Haine (France), Insomnia (Norway), Alphaville (France), The American Friend (Germany), and Blind Shaft (China).

Neo-noir and the influence of film noir

In the 1960s, American filmmakers such as Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, and Robert Altman created films that drew from (and commented upon) the original films noirs. In The Long Goodbye, Altman's hard-boiled detective is presented as a hapless bungler who can't help but lose the moral battle. Perhaps the most successful neo-noir was Roman Polanski's 1974 film, Chinatown.

Film noir has been parodied many times, both broadly and affectionately. Bob Hope first parodied film noir in My Favorite Brunette (1947), playing a baby photographer who is mistaken for tough private detective. Other notable parodies include Carl Reiner's black and white "cut and paste" homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Film noir parodies have been extended to comic strips as well, with Sam Spayed from Garfield and Tracer Bullet from Calvin and Hobbes.

Many of Joel and Ethan Coen's films are examples of modern films influenced by noir, especially The Man Who Wasn't There and Blood Simple, the comedy The Big Lebowski (itself a tribute to author Raymond Chandler, whose crime novels inspired the genre and a direct homage to The Long Goodbye), and Miller's Crossing, loosely based on by Dashiell Hammett's novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest. The Man Who Wasn't There features a scene that appears to have been shot to mirror the very shot from Out of the Past shown above, with Scarlett Johansson playing the Virginia Huston role. The Coens also include prominent film noir elements in the filming and writing of their movie Fargo, and some critics consider it a modern classic in the genre. Curtis Hanson's widely praised L.A. Confidential (from the James Ellroy novel) may be the closest thing to a modern-day film noir, with its tale of corrupt cops and femme fatales seemingly lifted right from the 1950s.

The cynical, pessimistic worldview of films noirs strongly influenced the creators of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction in the early 1980s, Blade Runner being the best-known film of this genre. A hybrid between film noir and cyberpunk is also called Tech-noir. Characters in these films are often derived from 1930s gangster films and pulp magazines such as The Shadow, Dime Mystery Detective, and Black Mask. Other examples for "sci-fi noir" films are Gattaca, The Thirteenth Floor, Ghost in the Shell, Dark City and Minority Report.

Some consider the films of David Lynch to have a notable noir influence, particularly Blue Velvet and Lost Highway.

Recent works in a noir vein include the films Reservoir Dogs (1992), Fargo (1996), Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005), and A Simple Plan (1998), the video game series Max Payne, and Christopher Nolan's remake of Insomnia. Nolan's Memento is also arguably an example of neo-noir, as is Tzameti and the film Sin City, shot in black and white with the odd bits of colour. The comic books from which the film are based are heavily influenced by the works of Mickey Spillane and others. The TV show Veronica Mars and 2005 film Brick can be described as "kid noir", a subgenre featuring teens or pre-adolescents who are forced to take on adult roles when their friends or young loves face peril, as parents look on. [1]


Visual style

Films noirs tended to use dramatic shadows, stark contrast, low-key lighting, and black-and-white film, typically resulting in a 10:1 ratio of dark to light, rather than the more typical 3:1 ratio. A number of films noirs were shot on location in cities, and night-for-night shooting was common. Shadows of Venetian blinds, dramatically cast upon an actor's face as he or she looks out a window, are an iconic visual in film noir, and have now become a cliché.

Film noir is also known for its use of Dutch angles, low angle shots, and wide angle lenses. Other devices of disorientation common in film noir include shots of people in mirrors or multiple mirrors, shots through a glass (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and multiple exposures.


Film noir tends to revolve around flawed and desperate characters in an unforgiving world. Crime, usually murder, is an element of most films noirs, often sparked by jealousy, corruption, or greed, deriving from moral weakness. Most films noirs contain certain archetypal characters (such as hard-boiled detectives, femmes fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, insurance agents, or down-and-out writers), familiar locations (downtown Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco), and archetypal storylines (heist films, detective stories, gangster movies and court films).


The morals of film noir tend to be ambiguous and relative, rather than simple "black and white" decisions. Characters may adhere to an absolute moral goal, but are more than willing to let the "ends justify the means." For example, in The Stranger, the investigator is so obsessed with tracking down a Nazi war criminal that he places other people in mortal danger to accomplish his goal.


Film noir is, at its core, romantic. The stories it tells are of people trapped in situations they do not want (and which are generally not of their own making), striving against random uncaring fate, and usually doomed. Many film noir plots feature a hard-boiled, disillusioned male protagonist; some--though many fewer than is generally supposed--feature a dangerous femme fatale. Film noir has been associated by some critics with the political landscape of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s--in particular, with a sense of social anxiety and alienation that is said to have followed World War II and later with the Red Scare.

Elements of noir

Film noir is harder to define specifically than "classic" genres like the Western or the Musical, mostly because the filmmakers most responsible for the genre's creation were unaware they were part of a stylistic trend. Some movies, therefore, are considered noir by some but not by others. For example, Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Niagara (1953), and Vertigo (1958) were shot in (desaturated) color but are sometimes considered noir. Films considered to be noir usually contain some, if not all, of the following:

Character elements
Femme fatale
Morally ambiguous protagonist(s)
Alienated protagonist(s)
Fall guy (male or female)
Violent and corrupt characters

Urban setting
Contemporary setting
Exotic, remote, and/or desolate location setting
Night club and/or gambling setting

Cinematic elements
Black and white, or desaturated color cinematography
Low angle shooting, Dutch angles, and expressionistic techniques
Unusual visual effects and sequences
Night settings and shadowy interiors
Use of cinematic composition to suggest alienation
Use of voice-over

Thematic elements
Sense of fatalism
Sexual/romantic obsession
Inherent corruption of society or humanity

Plot/screenwriting elements
Convoluted story line
Use of flashbacks
Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee
Spoken narratives (voice-over)
Protagonist's presence in virtually every scene
Story told from criminal's perspective
Murder or heist at the center of the story
False accusation (or fear of same)
Betrayal or double-cross
Inevitability of protagonist's doom
Bleak ending — While some critics insist that for a noir to be truly authentic it must have a bleak ending (e.g., Scarlet Street), many acknowledged classics of the genre have definitely happy endings, such as the seminal Stranger on the Third Floor, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and The Dark Corner. The tone of many noir endings is ambivalent, e.g., Pitfall, in which the protagonist survives but his marriage is badly damaged.

Further reading

  • Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953, Trans. Paul Hammond, City Lights Books, 2002.
  • Christopher, Nicholas, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, Free Press, 1997
  • Copjec, Joan, ed., Shades of Noir, Verso, 1993
  • Hannsberry, Karen Burroughs, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film, McFarland, 1998
  • Hannsberry, Karen Burroughs, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003
  • Hirsch, Foster, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Da Capo Press, 1981
  • Kaplan, E. Ann, ed., Women in Film Noir, New ed., British Film Institute, 1998
  • Muller, Eddie, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir
  • Keaney, Michael F., Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959, McFarland, 2003
  • Lyons, Arthur, Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, Da Capo Press, 2000
  • Naremore, James, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, University of California Press, 1998
  • Neale, Steve, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, 2000
  • Rabinowitz, Paula, Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism, Columbia University Press, 2002
  • Schrader, Paul, "Notes on Film Noir," Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1972
  • Selby, Spencer, Dark City: The Film Noir, McFarland, 1984
  • Silver, Alain, et al., eds., The Film Noir Reader, Vol. 1-4, Limelight Editions
  • Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth M. Ward, eds., Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd ed., Overlook Press, 1992, ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  • Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, The Noir Style, Overlook Press, 1999
  • Spicer, Andrew, Film Noir, Pearson Education, 2002
  • Telotte, J. P., Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir, University of Illinois Press, 1989

See also

External links


  1. ^ Silver and Ward, 415-417

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