Film Noir(literally 'black film or cinema') was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of how 'dark', downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theatres following the war, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Laura (1944). A wide range of films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period, and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood's musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are readily evident in noir, reflecting the 'chilly' Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. The criminal, violent, misogynistic, hard-boiled, or greedy perspectives of anti-heroes in film noir were a metaphoric symptom of society's evils, with a strong undercurrent of moral conflict, purposelessness and sense of injustice. There were rarely happy or optimistic endings in noirs.
Classic film noir developed during and after World War II, taking advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion. It was a style of black and white American films that first evolved in the 1940s, became prominent in the post-war era, and lasted in a classic "Golden Age" period until about 1960 (marked by the 'last' film of the classic film noir era, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958)).
Important Note: Strictly speaking, film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. It is also helpful to realize that 'film noir' usually refers to a distinct historical period of film history - the decade of film-making after World War II, similar to the German Expressionism or the French New Wave periods. However, it was labeled as such only after the classic period - early noir film-makers didn't even use the film designation (as they would the labels "western" or "musical"), and were not conscious that their films would be labeled noirs.
Very often, a film noir story was developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [e.g., Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray, or Humphrey Bogart] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [e.g., Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, or Lana Turner]. She would use her feminine wiles and come-hither sexuality to manipulate him into becoming the fall guy - often following a murder. After a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero's life. As women during the war period were given new-found independence and better job-earning power in the homeland during the war, they would suffer -- on the screen -- in these films of the 40s.
See this site's special tribute to
Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
Titles of many film noirs often reflected the nature or tone of the style and content itself: Dark Passage (1947), The Naked City (1948), Fear in the Night (1947), Out of the Past (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), etc.
Primary Characteristics and Conventions of Film Noir:Themes and Styles
The primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia.
Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, socio-paths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals, murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally-ambiguous low-lifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual or otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive - and in the end, ultimately losing.
Storylines were often elliptical, non-linear and twisting. Narratives were frequently complex, maze-like and convoluted, and typically told with foreboding background music, flashbacks (or a series of flashbacks), witty, razor-sharp and acerbic dialogue, and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed. Revelations regarding the hero were made to explain/justify the hero's own cynical perspective on life.
Film noir films (mostly shot in gloomy grays, blacks and whites) thematically showed the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism and doomed love, and they emphasized the brutal, unhealthy, seamy, shadowy, dark and sadistic sides of the human experience. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment were stylized characteristics of film noir. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Film noir films were marked visually by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus or depth of field camera work, disorienting visual schemes, jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, ominous shadows, skewed camera angles (usually vertical or diagonal rather than horizontal), circling cigarette smoke, existential sensibilities, and unbalanced or moody compositions. Settings were often interiors with low-key (or single-source) lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights, and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low-rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses. [Often-times, war-time scarcities were the reason for the reduced budgets and shadowy, stark sets of B-pictures and film noirs.]
Some of the most prominent directors of film noir included Orson Welles, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Henry Hathaway and Howard Hawks.
Femmes Fatales in Film Noir:
The females in film noir were either of two types (or archetypes) - dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women; or femmes fatales - mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take (or have the fateful choice made for him).
Invariably, the choice would be an overly ambitious one, to follow the dangerous but desirable wishes of these dames. It would be to pursue the goadings of a traitorous, self-destructive femme fatale who would lead the struggling, disillusioned, and doomed hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion coupled with twisted love. When the major character was a detective or private eye, he would become embroiled and trapped in an increasingly-complex, convoluted case that would lead to fatalistic, suffocating evidences of corruption, irresistible love and death. The femme fatale, who had also transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would bring both of them to a downfall.
Cinematic Origins and Roots of Classic Film Noir:
The themes of noir, derived from sources in Europe, were imported to Hollywood by emigre film-makers. Noirs were rooted in German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, such as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Germ.) or Fritz Lang's M (1931, Germ.), Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). Films from German directors, such as F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene, were noted for their stark camera angles and movements, chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy, high-contrast images - all elements of later film noir. In addition, the French sound films of the 30s, such as director Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko (1937), contributed to noir's development.
Another cinematic origin of film noir was from the plots and themes often taken from adaptations of American literary works - usually from best-selling, hard-boiled, pulp novels and crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, or Cornell Woolrich. As a result, the earliest film noirs were detective thrillers. Film noir was also derived from the crime/gangster and detective/mystery sagas from the 1930s (i.e., Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932)), but very different in tone and characterization. Notable film noir gangster films, such as They Drive By Night (1940), Key Largo (1948) and White Heat (1949) each featured noir elements within the traditional gangster framework.
The Earliest Film Noirs:In the 1940s
Many sources have claimed that director Boris Ingster's and RKO's Stranger on the Third Floor(1940) was the first full-featured film noir. The expressionistic film starred Peter Lorre as the sinister 'stranger' (cast due to his creepy performance in M (1931)), in a story about the nightmarish after-effects of circumstantial testimony during a murder trial. Others claim Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) was also an early and influential pre-film noir.
The first detective film to use the shadowy, nihilistic noir style in a definitive way was the privotal work of novice director John Huston in the mystery classic The Maltese Falcon (1941), from a 1929 book by Dashiell Hammett. [Actually, Huston's film was not the first version - it had been directed earlier by Roy Del Ruth in 1931, starring Ricardo Cortez in the lead role.] It was famous for Humphrey Bogart's cool, laconic private eye hero Sam Spade in pursuit of crooks greedy for a jewel-encrusted statue, and Bogart's foil - Mary Astor as the deceptive femme fatale.
Noir Duo: Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
The acting duo of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake was first teamed in the superb early noir thriller This Gun For Hire (1942) (with the tagline: "He's dynamite with a gun or a girl"). From the novel A Gun For Sale by renowned British novelist Graham Greene, the moody noir featured Ladd in a star-making role (his first lead role) as a ruthless, cat-loving, vengeful, unsmiling San Francisco professional hit-man named Raven working for a peppermint-candy loving fat man Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) and his wheelchair-bound Nitro Chemicals executive Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall) - both double-crossers who were selling secrets to foreign agents (the Japanese). Ladd was paired with popular wartime pinup star Lake as nightclub showgirl singer Ellen Graham, his hostage (and unbeknownst to him working as a federal agent).
Another Dashiell Hammett book of political corruption and murder was adapted for Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key (1942) for Paramount Studios - again with the duo of Ladd and Lake, and noted as one of the best Hammett adaptations. Ladd starred as Ed Beaumont, a right-hand man and political aide attempting to save his employer (Brian Donlevy) from a murder frame-up, while Lake played the seductive fiancee of the boss. The film was noted for the vicious beating given to Ladd by a crime lord thug (William Bendix).
The popular noir couple were brought together again in George Marshall's post-war crime thriller The Blue Dahlia (1946), with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Raymond Chandler (the only work he ever wrote directly for the screen). Alan Ladd portrayed returning war veteran Johnny Morrison who discovered that his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) was unfaithful during his absence. When she turned up dead and he became the prime suspect, he was aided in the case by the mysterious Joyce Harwood (Lake) - the seductive ex-wife of his wife's former lover.
Orson Welles and Film Noir:
Orson Welles' films have significant noir features, such as in his expressionistically-filmed Citizen Kane (1941), with subjective camera angles, dark shadowing and deep focus, and low-angled shots from talented cinematographer Gregg Toland. Welles' third film for RKO, the war-time mystery Journey Into Fear (1943), was one in which he acted and co-directed (uncredited) - it was set in the exotic locale of Istanbul. The film's story was inspired by Eric Ambler's spy thriller about the flight of an American arms engineer (Joseph Cotten) on a Black Sea tramp steamer where he was threatened by Nazi agents intent on killing him.
The complex The Lady from Shanghai (1948) - with its plot (from Sherwood King's novel If I Should Die Before I Wake), told about a destructive love triangle between Irish seaman Michael O'Hara (Welles himself), a manipulative Rita Hayworth as the platinum blonde-haired femme fatale Elsa (or Rosalie), and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Its final sequence in a San Francisco "hall of mirrors" fun-house was symbolic and reflective of the shattered relationships between the characters, exemplified by a wounded O'Hara's last words: "Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying."
Welles' Mexican border-town B-movie classic Touch of Evil (1958) is generally considered the last film in the classic cycle of film noirs. It starred Charlton Heston as Vargas - a naive Mexican-American narcotics cop, Janet Leigh as his imperiled, honeymooning wife Susan, and Welles' own corrupt and corpulent local cop Hank Quinlan. The film also featured a comeback appearance by cigar-smoking bordello madam Marlene Dietrich, and a breathtaking opening credits sequence filmed in a single-take. Later, Welles' expressionistic noir and psychological drama The Trial (1962) was an adaptation of Franz Kafka's classic novel, with Anthony Perkins as Joseph K - a man condemned for an unnamed crime in an unknown country.
More Definitive 40s Noirs:
Early classic non-detective film noirs included Fritz Lang's steamy and fatalistic Scarlet Street (1945) - one of the moodiest, blackest thrillers ever made, about a mild-mannered painter's (Edward G. Robinson) unpunished and unsuspected murder of an amoral femme fatale (Joan Bennett) after she had led him to commit embezzlement, impersonated him in order to sell his paintings, and had been deceitful and cruel to him - causing him in a fit of anger to murder her with an ice-pick. Director Abraham Polonsky's expressionistic, politically-subversive Force of Evil (1948) starred John Garfield as a corrupt mob attorney.
British director Carol Reed's tense tale of treachery set in post-war Vienna,The Third Man (1949), with the memorable character of black market racketeer Harry Lime (Orson Welles), ended with a climactic shootout in the city's noirish underground sewer. And the nightmarishly-dark, rapid-paced and definitive D.O.A. (1949) from cinematographer-director Rudolph Mate - told the flashback story of lethally-poisoned and doomed protagonist Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), a victim of circumstance who announced in the opening: "I want to report a murder - mine." [It was remade as D.O.A. (1988) with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.]
Film noir is not easily defined. The actual words come from French and mean "black cinema." It was in France during the post-war years that the term was used to describe a certain set of Hollywood films that were saturated with a darkness and cynicism that was not seen before. These movies included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), and Murder, My Sweet (1944).
In the literature about film noir, you will have as many descriptions about the topic as there are critics and film historians writing about it. Some argue that it is a genre, while others contend that film noir is more of a tone or mood in the film, and some contend that film noir is more of a visual style. In addition, film noir can not be defined only by characteristics in the film, because while there are certain traits that are present in many films, they are not necessarily in all.i As Paul Schrader points out in his essay "Notes on Film Noir," "[a] film of urban nightlife is not necessarily a film noir, and a film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption." So then how can someone identify a film noir? Schrader contends that there were four elements present in Hollywood in the 1940s that resulted in film noir and that those four elements can also describe or define the topic.
According to Schrader, the first element was World War II and post-war disillusionment. Many of the films during the 1930s and early 1940s were propaganda-type films that were designed to cheer people's bleak outlook during the hard times of the Depression and World War II. It was beginning in the early 1940s, that film noir, such as The Maltese Falcon and Laura, began to appear. The films of the 1940s reflected the disillusionment felt in the country, especially with the soldiers returning home and women losing their jobs at the end of the war. These films, such as The Blue Dahlia, where a sailor comes home to find his wife kissing another man and their son dead due to her drunkenness, showed the cynicism felt by some Americans.
The second element was post-war realism. According to Schrader, post-war Americans wanted an authenticity that was lacking in earlier high-class melodramas. Americans wanted a harsh view of society from the perspective of everyday people on the streets. In addition, ordinary Americans were not as interested in seeing the studio built streets they had been watching since the 1930s. They wanted to be watching actors in actual locations, such as Norma Desmond's mansion (which unfortunately was demolished in 1957 for the headquarters of the Getty Foundation) and Joe Gillis' apartment in Sunset Boulevard.
The third element was the German influence. During the 1930s, especially after the rise of Nazism, many German and Eastern Europeans immigrated to the United States and helped influence the American film industry. Their main influence in film noir is with aesthetics. They brought along expressionist lighting, which used artificial studio lighting to create shadows, oblique and vertical lines, and irregular light patterns.ii
Finally, Schrader says that the fourth element was the hard-boiled tradition. Writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain wrote many books that were eventually turned into film noir. What these authors and films have in common is a cynical and bleak outlook with a tough main character. One of the best examples of a noir film coming from the hard-boiled tradition is Double Indemnity, the script was written by Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain's book of the same name.
Film Noir Characteristics
While those four items should provide an overview of what constitutes film noir, it is a little difficult to judge whether a film belongs to the category of film noir based solely on those categories. So here are some characteristics that may help in identifying a noir (do remember though that it is not necessary for a film to have all of the characteristics to be considered film noir).
- Urban environment
- Rain-soaked streets
- Seedy taverns, diners, and run-down buildings
- Claustrophobic interiors
- Flickering street lamps
- Neon signs
- Scenes appear dark, as if lit for night, with many dark shadows
- Oblique and vertical lines, especially in regards to lighting
- Films done in black and white
- Narration, especially flash-back narration
- Criminal underworld
- The "heroes" tend to be morally ambiguous, alienated from society, and
- have a fatalistic outlook.
- Characters torn by psychological conflict
- The femme fatale
Film Noir and the Hard-Boiled Fiction Tradition
Some of the great classics of film noir were adapted from 1930s hard-boiled fiction.iii Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, is credited with having invented the genre with the appearance of "Fly Paper" in Black Mask magazine.iv The new breed of detective appearing in hard-boiled fiction differed greatly from many of the earlier and even contemporary detective fiction. Earlier detective novels, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, featured upper-class Europeans as the detectives and are set among manor houses and English country villages. In contrast, hard-boiled fiction tends to have a tough, cynical detective (in many stories, the detective is actually a private investigator), who lives in a dirty city. Other features of hard-boiled fiction are that they are told mainly in narrative form, use slang, contain violence (murder, corruption), and have sexual undertones.
The most prominent film noir drawn from hard-boiled fiction are:
The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
The Postman Always Rings Twice
iFor a good overview of arguments concerning the definition of film noir, see "Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir" in The Philosophy of Film Noir by Mark T. Conrad.
iiFor an interesting counter argument, see "Down These Seen Streets a Man Must Go: Siegfried Kracauer, 'Hollywood's Terror Films,' and the Spatiality of Film Noir" by Edward Dimendberg.
iiiFor more information on hard-boiled fiction, see "hard-boiled fiction." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.
ivSee Hammett's Crime Stories and Other Writings for the full-text of "Fly Paper"
Film Noir Reading List
"Notes on Film Noir" by Paul Schrader found in American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now edited by Phillip Lopate
Schrader's important essay looks at film noir as a style within a historical moment rather than a genre. He does a great job in describing the elements of film noir in order to make identifying such movies easier.
The Philosophy of Film Noirby Robert Porfirio (eBook)
Rather than focusing on the visual elements of film noir like many critics and historians, Porfirio and the many contributors look at the philosophy behind the films. They focus on disenchantment, morality, existentialism, and nihilism. It's a rather heavy read, but it is also very informative.
The Rough Guide to Film Noir by Alexander Ballinger
The Rough Guide to Film Noir illuminates every corner of cinema's darkest and most compelling genre. From early masterpieces like Double Indemnity and Kiss Me Deadly through to neo-noir classics such as Chinatown and LA Confidential, this book highlights all the groundbreaking noir movies.
Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City by Nicholas Christopher
Christopher's survey of film noir focuses on the American city as the central motif. The book examines film noir's locations, character types, and visual style within the context of the American city to give an overall picture of what constitutes film noir and why it has become popular again.
Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noirby Andrew Dickos
Dickos study of film noir places the films within their historical context looking at important directors and their contributions to film noir and also their influence on postwar French films. In addition, he looks at various social, political, and cultural aspects presented in the films and how they helped define the overall mood of the films. An eBook.
Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noirby John T. Irwin
Irwin provides a good study on the hard-boiled fiction tradition in film noir. It includes chapters on some of the major book and film adaptations, including Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Cain's Double Indemnity, and Chandler's The Big Sleep.
Articles Available through CRRL Library Databases
Hillis, Ken. "Film Noir and the American Dream: The Dark Side of Enlightenment." Velvet Light Trap, Vol. 55 (Spring 2005), 3-18. Expanded Academic ASAP. Central Rappahannock Regional Library. 14 Mar. 2008.
Hillis examines how the light in film noir is not only a visual aspect of the films, but is also used as a thematic aspect to portray the post-war despair in the United States.
Naremore, James. "American Film Noir: The History of an Idea." Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2. (Winter 1995-1996), 12-28. JSTOR. Central Rappahannock Regional Library. 14 March 2008.
Naremore's article provides an overview of how the films defined as film noir came to be defined as such and how the term came to be. This database is available in-house.
Wager, Jans B. "Jazz and Cocktails: Reassessing the White and Black Mix in Film Noir." Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol.35 No.3 (July 2007): 222-228. Expanded Academic ASAP. Central Rappahannock Regional Library. 14 Mar. 2008.
Wager's study focuses on the inclusion (or lack thereof) of African-Americans within film noir and the history of film noir. Classic film noir such as Kiss Me Deadly and Out of the Past are the focus of Wager's research.
Best Film Noir Titles
A list of the 50 most popular film noir titles as chosen by members of the Internet Movie Database.
Provides a great overview of film noir including descriptions of sub-categories, classic and new, with a list of movies. Sub-categories include: prison noirs, romance film noirs with great femme fatales, Hitchcock's menaced women, and neo-noirs.
Full-Text Articles and Essays on Film Noir
A listing of eight full-text articles about film noir provided by the library of the University of California, Berkeley.
Film Noir Movies from the Central Rappahannock Regional Library's Collection
The Big Sleep
Kiss Me Deadly
The Lady from Shanghai
The Maltese Falcon
Murder, My Sweet
Out of the Past
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Touch of Evil
Out of the Past Micthum Greer by RKO Radio Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
GutmanCairoMaltFalc1941Trailer by The Maltese Falcon DVD, 1941 public domain trailer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sunset Boulevard I'm Ready for My Close Up by Paramount Studios [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Double-Indemnity-LIFE-1944 by Time Inc.; photograph by Paramount Pictures (no photographer credited) (Life magazine, Volume 17, Number 2 (page 57)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nina Foch in Johnny O'Clock by By Christie (eBay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Postman Always Rings Twice by Chris Drumm [CC by 2.0], via Flickr
Noir by nrg_crisis [CC by 2.0], via Flickr
RAFFERTY'S-FILM-NOIR-ALLEY by Sam Leighton [CC by 2.0], via Flickr