“Film Noir” – What Is It?


The Origin of the Term “Film Noir”

In 1946, as France slowly returned to normal after WWII, five American films that shared a dark, hard-edged look, and a strong feeling of alienation, were shown for the first time in Parisian theaters. Although each film (“The Maltese Falcon”, “Laura”, “Murder, My Sweet”, “Double Indemnity”, and “The Woman in the Window”) had a number of traits in common (style, atmosphere, and general subject matter), they didn’t seem to fit into any specific film genre. Along with other American films that quickly followed, they seemed to be part of a unique new series marked by cynicism, violence, crime and/or death, unclear motives, and morally ambivalent characters. 

The French critics began categorizing these haunting new American films as Film Noir (literally, “Black Film” or “Dark Film”).

When Were the Classic Noir Films Made?

It is generally agreed that the “classic period” of Film Noir began with “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941, and ended with Orson Welles’ film “Touch of Evil” in 1958.  

However, there is little agreement on anything else to do with this ‘series/movement/genre’.

What Makes a Movie a “Film Noir”?

Fallen Angel 1945

Most films classified as Film Noir share a visual motif that uses strong directional lighting and deep shadows.  This was derived from the German expressionist films, although “Citizen Kane” is often cited as the prototype.

There are notable exceptions such as Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951).  This was classified as a noir film largely due to the behaviors of the characters and the movie’s dialogue as opposed to the visual effects.

Other Common Elements

  • Black and white film
  • Contemporary urban settings
  • Night scenes
  • Water (rain and/or wet streets)
  • Romantic narration
  • Stories developed in a complex chronological

Once again there are notable exceptions. 

For instance, although the science fiction movie “Blade Runner” (1982) was set in the future and filmed in color, it encompassed all of the classic elements of Film Noir in both plot and visual style. (The director, Ridley Scott, felt that the style of “Citizen Kane” most closely approached the look he wanted.)

What Links All These Films Together?

The key elements that link all Films Noir together seem to be:

  • The moral ambiguity of the plot and the characters and
  • An underlying sense of pessimism, fatality and alienation

Can You Describe an Example?

One of the best descriptions of a generic Film Noir scene was given by Joel Greenberg and Charles Higham in their book “Hollywood in the Forties”:

A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour. Lamps form haloes in the murk. In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man is waiting to murder or be murdered . . . shadow upon shadow upon shadow . . . every shot in glistening low-key, so that rain always glittered across windows or windscreens like quicksilver, furs shone with a faint halo, faces were barred deeply with those shadows that usually symbolized some imprisonment of body or soul.

Are There Any Modern Examples?

A number of excellent neo- Films Noir have been made since the “classic period” ended. 

“Body Heat” (1981), starring Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, is an excellent example.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) is another fine example. The Coen Brothers shot their film in black and white, set the story in 1949, and used modern techniques to recreate the style and tone of the traditional Film Noir. Roger Deakins, the Director of Photography for their movie, admitted that, “In everything you do, you’re influenced by the past.”

The “classic period” of Film Noir was an extremely important one in American film history, and these popular films continue to be shown regularly.

“What’s past is prologue.” Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, II, i, 261


The following products will help you explore this subject further:

BOOKS:

  • Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, (3rd edition, 1993) by Alain Silver
  • Dark City, (1998) by Eddie Muller
  • Film Noir Reader, (1996) edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini
  • Film Noir Reader 2, (1999) edited by Alain Silver, et al
  • The Noir Style, (1999) by Alain Silver & James Ursini
  • Film Noir Reader 3, (2002) edited by Alain Silver, et al
  • Film Noir Reader 4, (2004) edited by Alain Silver, et al
  • Death on the Cheap, (2000) by Arthur Lyons
  • The Dark side of the Screen, (2001) by Foster Hirsch
  • Film Noir, (2002) by Andrew Spicer
  • A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953), (2002) by Raymond Borde, et al
  • Street With No Name, (2002) by Andrew Dickos
  • Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style, (2003) by William Hare
  • Film Noir Guide, (2003) by Michael Keaney
  • L.A. Noir: Nine Dark Visions of the City of Angels, (2004) by William Hare
  • San Francisco Noir, (2005) by Nathaniel Rich
  • Encyclopedia of Film Noir, (2007) by Geoff Mayer & Brian McDonnell

RECOMMENDED DVDs:

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941), (3–disc Special Edition) – starring Humphrey Bogart
    & Mary Astor
  • Double Indemnity (1944), (Special Edition) – starring Fred MacMurray & Barbara
    Stanwyck
  • Laura (1944) – starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, & Clifton Webb
  • Murder, My Sweet (aka: Farewell My Lovely ) (1944) – starring Dick Powell
  • The Woman in the Window (1944), starring Edward G. Robinson & Joan Bennett
  • To Have and Have Not (1945) – starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall
  • Mildred Pierce (1945) – starring Joan Crawford & Jack Carson
  • Scarlet Street, (1945) – starring Edward G. Robinson & Joan Bennett
  • The Big Sleep (1946) – starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall
  • Gilda (1946) – starring Rita Hayworth & Glenn Ford
  • The Killers (1946 & 1964 versions) – starring Burt Lancaster / John Cassavertes
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – starring Lana Turner & John Garfield
  • Born To Kill, (1947) – starring Lawrence Tierney & Claire Trevor
  • Nightmare Alley, (1947) – starring Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell
  • Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) – starring Barbara Stanwyck & Burt Lancaster
  • The Third Man (1949) – starring Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, & Orson Welles
  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – starring Sterling Hayden & Sam Jaffe
  • D.O.A. (1950) – starring Edmond O’Brien & Pamela Britton
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – (Centennial Ed.) starring William Holden & Gloria
        Swanson
  • Ace in the Hole (1951) – starring Kirk Douglas & Jan Sterling
  • The Narrow Margin, (1952) – starring Charles McGraw & Marie Windsor
  • The Big Heat (1953) – starring Glenn Ford & Gloria Grahame
  • Pickup on South Street (1953) – starring Richard Widmark & Jean Peters
  • Touch of Evil, (1958) – (2–disc 50th Anniversary Edition) starring Orson Welles and
          Charlton Heston

    DVD Box Sets:
  • Film Noir Classic Collection (The Asphalt Jungle / Gun Crazy / Murder My Sweet / Out of the Past / The Set-Up)
  • Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2 (Born to Kill / Clash by Night / Crossfire / Dillinger (1945) / The Narrow Margin (1952))
  • Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 (The Sniper / The Big Heat / 5 Against
    the House / The Lineup / Murder by Contract)

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