Film Noir:  Background and Notes

Film Noir.  French for ‘black film,’ the term refers to a genre or style of film depicting a dark, corrupt and violent world characterized by an expressionistic mood and mise en scène.  Named after the roman noir or série noire, a series of pulp novels published in France dealing with crime and the underworld, French critics in the 1940s used the phrase to refer to a new wave of cynical and stylized American movies that appeared across several genres, including caper films, detective films, gangster films and thrillers.  The question of whether noir itself is actually a genre, or a style, period or movement, has been subject of ongoing debate among critics.  Naremore (1998) argues that the term in fact is a cultural attitude that transcends cinema. 

Schrader (1972 in Grant, 1995) and others have enumerated well the narrative and visual conventions of noir, which were drawn from several influences: the influx to Hollywood of many directors, actors, and cinematographers fleeing Nazi Germany who had been involved in the German Expressionist movement; Italian Neo-Realism; the American, ‘hard-boiled’ fiction of such 1930s writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain; and post-war disillusionment, a delayed reaction to the ideological optimism of popular culture during the Depression and the war years.  Noir narratives are about crime, corruption and passion, both their allures and dangers.  Characters in film noir are often motivated by greed, lust and selfishness, or else they serve the innocent dupes of others who are.  The noir world is an irredeemably fallen one, with characters caught in a web of circumstances beyond their control, as exemplified by the protagonist of Detour (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945), an unfortunate drifter who inadvertently commits murder.

The films are frequently set in impersonal urban spaces that reflect the alienation and decadence of the characters, as suggested by the titles of such noirs as The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1949), and While the City Sleeps (dir. Fritz Lang, 1956).  In some noirs, such as The Naked City (dir. Jules Dassin, 1948), the city is a palpable presence, taking on a menacing quality that threatens to overwhelm the characters trapped within it.  Plot construction is film noir is often complex, featuring numerous flashbacks, as in The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks, 1946), which features over a half-dozen intricately plotted murders.  The flashbacks, which emphasize that the action has already been determined, further underscore the genre’s sense of fatalism and doom.  In D.O.A. (dir. Rudolph Mate, 1950), the main character searches for the man who has already murdered him with a lethal dose of poison.  Noir protagonists are almost exclusively male, and many critics have suggested that the genre reflects the disturbances to traditional notions of gender and sexual politics caused by the war.  Anxiety over the new-found independence of women in the work force found its expression in the backlash stereotype of the femme fatale.  Krutnik (1991), for example, argues that film noir expresses a crisis in masculinity that reveals male anxiety about loss of power in a changing society.

Scenes often take place at night or are darkly lit, employing chiaroscuro and low-key lighting.  The mise-en-scene is expressionistic, with canted or Dutch angles, stark contrasts of dark and light in the images, imbalanced compositions that suggest powerlessness and geometric compositions that imply entrapment and fate.  Many film noirs were B movies, which ironically added to, rather than detracted from, their expressiveness, and their frequent lack of high production values tended to amplify the seamy nature of their fictional world.  Bordwell argues that film noir, despite its stylistic distinctiveness, does not in fact seriously challenge the structural rules of classic Hollywood cinema (Bordwell, Staiger  & Thompson 1985).  Yet these films to stand apart from Hollywood family fare and escapist fantasy because of the cynical and seamy view of American life they emphasize.

Initially film noir was said to have had a specific time span, conventionally bounded by The Maltese Falcon (dir. John Houston) in 1941 and Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles) in 1958.  However, in 1974 the commercial and critical success of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown brought about a renewed interest in noir that has continued unabated, in such neo-noirs as Blood Simple (dir. Joel Coen, 1984) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994). 

(Steve Blandford, Barry Keith Grant, and Jim Hiller, The Film Studies Dictionary. London: Arnold, 2001. 97-98)


The Characteristics of Film Noir.  The label ‘film noir’ designates a cycle of films that share a similar iconography, visual style, narrative strategy, subject matter and characterization.  Their iconography (repeated visual patterning) consists of images of the dark, night-time city, its streets damp with rain which reflects the flashing neon signs.  Its sleazy milieu of claustrophobic alleyways and deserted docklands alternates with gaudy nightclubs and swank apartments.  The visual style habitually employs high contrast (chiaroscuro) lighting, where deep, enveloping shadows are fractured by shafts of light from a single source, and dark, claustrophobic interiors have shadowy shapes on the walls.  The dencentred, unstable compositions are further distorted by the use of odd angles and wide-angle lenses; fog or mist obscures the action and characters’ faces are often lit with strange highlights or partially shadowed to create hidden and threatening spaces.  Noir’s highly complex narrative patterning is created by the use of first-person voice-overs, multiple narrators, flashbacks and ellipses which often create ambiguous and inconclusive endings.  Noir narratives are frequently oneiric (dream-like), where every object and encounter seems unnaturally charged. 

Thematically, film noir is dominated by a mixture of existential and Freudian motifs (…) The noir universe is dark, malign and unstable where individuals are trapped through fear and paranoia or overwhelmed by the power of sexual desire.  Noir’s principal protagonists consist of the alienated, often psychologically disturbed, male anti-hero and the hard, deceitful femme fatale he encounters.  But the range of noir characters is more complex than is usually thought. 

(Andrew Spicer, Film Noir. Harlow, England: Pearson Publishing, 2002. 4-5)

Film Noir Genre. The gangster film began turning very dark, concentrating on the inevitability of crime in urban America, on criminals who are not simply selfish and tough (like Little Caesar) but crazy (like the giggling maniac played by Richard Widmark in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, 1947), on policemen who are as diseased as the men they track down, on lovers and partners who betray each other, and on visual images that are consistently shadowy, dark, and dim.  French critics coined the name for this genre—the film noir—a term derived from the black covers of crime novels in the French Série Noire, many of which were translations of American novels by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson.  But for all they owe to American crime fiction, both the style and the spirit of these fimls noirs were unmistakably German, from their fatalism to their claustrophobic décor and looming shadows.  Some were even directed by Germans (Wilder, Preminger, Ulmer, and Siodmak among them).

Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) is a dark mixture of murder, anti-Semitism, and homosexuality; almost everyone who worked in this film was targeted by the HUAC.  Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948) both use John Garfield as a child of the slums facing the decision between an unprofitable honesty and lucrative crookedness.  Garfield, who would be hounded literally to death by right-wing suspicion, was the prototypical film noir hero and the “bad girl”—Gloria Grahame, Jean Hagen, Shelley Winters, the early Marilyn Monroe—its prototypically used and abused woman.  Another prototypical noir figure is the femme fatale: the seductive woman who deadly treacherous (for example, the women played by Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wider’s Double Indemnity, 1944, and Jane Greer in Jacques Tourneur’s Our of the Past, 1947).  The titles of Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), Joe Lewis’ s Gun Crazy, and Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle themselves evoke the noir world.  Though anticipated by films ranging from The Blue Angel to The Maltese Falcon, the first true noir appears to have been Frank Tuttle’s The Gun For Hire (1942), with the form fully defined by the time—and the example—of Double Indemnity.  The last—the film that marked the end of the noir cycle—was Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).  (Attempts to revive noir as a genre include Chinatown, 1974; Body Heat, 1981; Blood Simple, 1983; and Reservoir Dogs, 1991.)

The noir world was a dark place, psychologically and morally as well as cinematographically.  In Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948), the cop becomes possessed with the task of tracking down the criminal, who happens to be his boyhood pal as well as a man that the cop secretly envies.  James Cagney stars in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), in which the old-style breezy Cagney gangster has become psychotic.  Jules Dassin depicts the brutality of prison life (Brute Force, 1947), or urban life (The Naked City, 1948), and of the San Francisco vegetable market (Thieves’ Highway, 1949).  In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), women become pawns (and the victims of gruesome crimes) in the war between cops and criminals.  The only noir made by a woman was The Hitch-Hiker (1953); its director and co-writer, the established actress Ida Lupino, was virtually the only female director working in Hollywood in the late 1940s and 1950s.  She also directed Not Wanted (1949) and The Bigamist (1953). 

(Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin, A Short History of the Movies, 8th ed. New York: Longman, 2003. 304-306).


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