The cinema of the disenchanted
Early examples of the noir style include dark, stylized detective films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Banned in occupied countries during the war, these films became available throughout Europe beginning in 1946. French cineastes admired them for their cold, cynical characters and dark, brooding style, and they afforded the films effusive praise in French journals such as Cahiers du cinéma. French critics coined the term film noir in reference to the low-keyed lighting used to enhance these dramas stylistically—although the term would not become commonplace in international critical circles until the publication of the book Panorama du film noir americain (1955) by Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton.
The darkness of these films reflected the disenchantment of the times. Pessimism and disillusionment became increasingly present in the American psyche during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the world war that followed. After the war, factors such as an unstable peacetime economy, McCarthyism, and the looming threat of atomic warfare manifested themselves in a collective sense of uncertainty. The corrupt and claustrophobic world of film noir embodied these fears. Several examples of film noir, such as Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse (1947), and John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), share the common story line of a war veteran who returns home to find that the way of life for which he has been fighting no longer exists. In its place is the America of film noir: modernized, heartless, coldly efficient, and blasé about matters such as political corruption and organized crime.
Many of the major directors of film noir—such as Huston, Dmytryk, Cromwell, Orson Welles, and others—were American. However, other Hollywood directors renowned for a film noir style hailed from Europe, including Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. It is said that the themes of noir attracted European directors, who often felt like outsiders within the Hollywood studio system. Such directors had been trained to emphasize cinematic style as much as acting and narrative in order to convey thought and emotion.
Defining the genre
Controversy exists as to whether film noir can be classified as a genre or subgenre, or if the term merely refers to stylistic elements common to various genres. Film noir does not have a thematic coherence: the term is most often applied to crime dramas, but certain westerns and comedies have been cited as examples of film noir by some critics. Even such sentimental comedy-dramas as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) have been cited as “noir-ish” by critics who find in its suicidal hero and bleak depiction of small-town life a tone suitably dismal for film noir. Such films are also sometimes designated as “semi-noir,” or film gris (“gray film”), to indicate their hybrid status.
Other critics argue that film noir is but an arbitrary designation for a multitude of dissimilar black-and-white dramas of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Film scholar Chris Fujiwara contends that the makers of such films “didn’t think of them as ‘films noir’; they thought they were making crime films, thrillers, mysteries, and romantic melodramas. The nonexistence of ‘noir’ as a production category during the supposed heyday of noir obviously problematizes the history of the genre.” Yet it cannot be questioned that film noir connotes specific visual images and an aura of postwar cynicism in the minds of most film buffs. Indeed, several common characteristics connect most films defined as “noir.”
The isolation from society of the typical noir hero was underscored by the use of stark high-contrast lighting—the most notable visual feature of film noir. The shadowy noir style can be traced to the German Expressionist cinema of the silent era. Robert Wiene’s Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1920; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) contains one of the best early examples of the lighting techniques used to inspire the genre. Wiene used visual elements to help define the title character’s madness, including tilted cameras to present skewed images and a dark atmosphere in which only the faces of the actors were visible. This Expressionistic style was later used by German directors such as Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1927; M, 1931) and F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, 1922; Sunrise, 1927).
These lighting effects were used in Hollywood by cinematographers such as Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, 1941), John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity, 1944), Karl Freund (Key Largo, 1948), and Sid Hickox (The Big Sleep, 1948) to heighten the sombre tone of films in the genre. Classic images of noir included rain-soaked streets in the early morning hours; street lamps with shimmering halos; flashing neon signs on seedy taverns, diners, and apartment buildings; and endless streams of cigarette smoke wafting in and out of shadows. Such images would lose their indelibility with realistic lighting or colour cinematography.
The omniscient narrator and the flashback
The inherent subjectivity of Expressionism is also evident in film noir’s use of narration and flashback. An omniscient, metaphor-spouting narrator (often the central character, a world-weary private eye) frequently clarifies a characteristically labyrinthine noir plot or offers a subjective, jaded point of view. In other films—such as Welles’s Citizen Kane and Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard (1950)—the denouement (often the death or downfall of the central character) is revealed in the opening scenes; flashbacks then tell of the circumstances that led to the tragic conclusion. Tension and suspense are increased by the use of all-knowing narrators and flashbacks, in that the audience is always cognizant of impending doom.
The noir hero
The heroes of noir generally share certain qualities, such as moralambiguity, a fatalistic outlook, and alienation from society. They also exhibit an existential acceptance of random, arbitrary occurrences as being the determining factors in life. Although the “hard-boiled detective” is the stereotypical noir hero, the central male characters in film noir range from drifters (John Garfield in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946) to college professors (Edward G. Robinson in Lang’s The Woman in the Window, 1944). The ethics that these characters espouse are often borne more of personal code than true concern for their fellow man. For example, Humphrey Bogart (the actor perhaps most associated with the genre) as private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is emotionally indifferent to the murder of his partner and avenges his death primarily because “when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.” Such compassionless pragmatism is found in the most noble, as well as the most tarnished, of noir heroes. The weakest of such characters exhibit an abundance of tragic flaws, often including an uncontrollable lust for duplicitous women.
Noir women are often characterized as femme fatales or “spider women”; in the words of one critic, they are “comfortable in the world of cheap dives, shadowy doorways, and mysterious settings.” Well aware of their sexual attractiveness, they cunningly and ruthlessly manipulate their male counterparts to gain power or wealth; for example, by conspiring to murder an aged, wheelchair-bound (i.e., impotent) spouse. A quintessential example of the noir temptress is Kathie Moffat, as portrayed by Jane Greer in Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). While flirting with Robert Mitchum’s character in a Mexican café, she describes a local night spot that she thinks would be to his liking. As she leaves the café, she turns to Mitchum and coyly says “I sometimes go there”—at which point, the viewer familiar with the noir genre knows that Mitchum is on a one-way path to destruction. Nevertheless, the women of film noir often evoke sympathy, as they are frequently victims of emotional or physical abuse, with such victimization providing impetus for their vengeance. They are trapped in passionless or violent marriages and resort to murder as a means of escape, usually destroying their conspiring paramours in the process.
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