45 6.2.1. Film Noir

Film noir (/fɪlm nwɑːr/; French pronunciation: ​[film nwaʁ]) is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood’s classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

The term film noir, French for “black film” (literal) or “dark film” (closer meaning), first applied to Hollywood films by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, was unrecognized by most American film industry professionals of that era. Cinema historians and critics defined the category retrospectively. Before the notion was widely adopted in the 1970s, many of the classic films noirs were referred to as melodramas. Whether film noir qualifies as a distinct genre is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars.

Film noir encompasses a range of plots: the central figure may be a private eye (The Big Sleep), a plainclothes policeman (The Big Heat), an aging boxer (The Set-Up), a hapless grifter (Night and the City), a law-abiding citizen lured into a life of crime (Gun Crazy), or simply a victim of circumstance (D.O.A.). Although film noir was originally associated with American productions, films now so described have been made around the world. Many pictures released from the 1960s onward share attributes with film noir of the classical period, and often treat its conventions self-referentially. Some refer to such latter-day works as neo-noir. The clichés of film noir have inspired parody since the mid-1940s.

Identifying characteristics

In their original 1955 canon of film noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified twenty-two Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1952 as core examples; they listed another fifty-nine American films from the period as significantly related to the field of noir. A half-century later, film historians and critics had come to agree on a canon of approximately three hundred films from 1940–58. There remain, however, many differences of opinion over whether other films of the era, among them a number of well-known ones, qualify as film noirs or not. For instance, The Night of the Hunter (1955), starring Robert Mitchum in an acclaimed performance, is treated as a film noir by some critics, but not by others. Some critics include Suspicion (1941), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in their catalogues of noir; others ignore it. Concerning films made either before or after the classic period, or outside of the United States at any time, consensus is even rarer.

To support their categorization of certain films as noirs and their rejection of others, many critics refer to a set of elements they see as marking examples of the mode. The question of what constitutes the set of noir’s identifying characteristics is a fundamental source of controversy. For instance, critics tend to define the model film noir as having a tragic or bleak conclusion, but many acknowledged classics of the genre have clearly happy endings (e.g., Stranger on the Third Floor, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and The Dark Corner), while the tone of many other noir denouements is ambivalent. Some critics perceive classic noir’s hallmark as a distinctive visual style. Others, observing that there is actually considerable stylistic variety among noirs, instead emphasize plot and character type. Still others focus on mood and attitude. No survey of classic noir’s identifying characteristics can therefore be considered definitive. In the 1990s and 2000s, critics have increasingly turned their attention to that diverse field of films called neo-noir; once again, there is even less consensus about the defining attributes of such films made outside the classic period.

Visual style

Black-and-white image of a man with a heavily bandaged nose sitting and talking on the phone. He wears a cream-colored suit and vest and boldly patterned tie; the collar of a white shirt is visible. Behind of him is a bookcase; in front of him, the edge of desk. A series of diagonal shadows descending from upper left falls over most of the image.

Shadows of window blinds fall upon private eye Jake Gittes, performed by Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown (1974).

The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting). The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters’ faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness—a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood filmmaking. While black-and-white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir, the color films Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Niagara (1953) are routinely included in noir filmographies, whileSlightly Scarlet (1956), Party Girl (1958), and Vertigo (1958) are classified as noir by varying numbers of critics.

Film noir is also known for its use of low-angle, wide-angle, and skewed, or Dutch angle shots. Other devices of disorientation relatively common in film noir include shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and special effects sequences of a sometimes bizarre nature. Night-for-night shooting, as opposed to the Hollywood norm of day-for-night, was often employed. From the mid-1940s forward, location shooting became increasingly frequent in noir.

In an analysis of the visual approach of Kiss Me Deadly, a late and self-consciously stylized example of classic noir, critic Alain Silver describes how cinematographic choices emphasize the story’s themes and mood. In one scene, the characters, seen through a “confusion of angular shapes”, thus appear “caught in a tangible vortex or enclosed in a trap.” Silver makes a case for how “side light is used … to reflect character ambivalence”, while shots of characters in which they are lit from below “conform to a convention of visual expression which associates shadows cast upward of the face with the unnatural and ominous”.

Structure and narrational devices

A man and a woman, seen in profile, starring intensely at each other. The man, on the left, is considerably taller. He wears a brown pin-striped suit, holds a key in one hand and grips the woman's arm with the other. She is wearing a pale green top. Lit from below and to the side, they cast bold, angled shadows on the wall behind them.

Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster were two of the most prolific stars of classic noir. The complex structure of Sorry, Wrong Number(1948) involves a real-time framing story, multiple narrators, and flashbacks within flashbacks.

Film noirs tend to have unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks and other editing techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. Framing the entire primary narrative as a flashback is also a standard device. Voiceover narration, sometimes used as a structuring device, came to be seen as a noir hallmark; while classic noir is generally associated with first-person narration (i.e., by the protagonist), Stephen Neale notes that third-person narration is common among noirs of the semidocumentary style. Neo-noirs as varied as The Element of Crime (surrealist), After Dark, My Sweet (retro), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (meta) have employed the flashback/voiceover combination.

Bold experiments in cinematic storytelling were sometimes attempted during the classic era: Lady in the Lake, for example, is shot entirely from the point of view of protagonist Philip Marlowe; the face of star (and director) Robert Montgomery is seen only in mirrors. The Chase (1946) takes oneirism and fatalism as the basis for its fantastical narrative system, redolent of certain horror stories, but with little precedent in the context of a putatively realistic genre. In their different ways, both Sunset Boulevard and D.O.A. are tales told by dead men. Latter-day noir has been in the forefront of structural experimentation in popular cinema, as exemplified by such films as Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, and Memento.

Plots, characters, and settings

Crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all films noir; in addition to standard-issue greed, jealousy is frequently the criminal motivation. A crime investigation—by a private eye, a police detective (sometimes acting alone), or a concerned amateur—is the most prevalent, but far from dominant, basic plot. In other common plots the protagonists are implicated in heists or con games, or in murderous conspiracies often involving adulterous affairs. False suspicions and accusations of crime are frequent plot elements, as are betrayals and double-crosses. According to J. David Slocum, “protagonists assume the literal identities of dead men in nearly fifteen percent of all noir.” Amnesia is fairly epidemic—”noir’s version of the common cold”, in the words of film historian Lee Server.

Black-and-white film poster with an image of a young man and woman holding each other. They are surrounded by an abstract, whirlpool-like image; the central arc of the thick black line that define it encircles their head. Both are wearing white shirts and look forward with tense expressions; his right arm cradles her back, and in his hand he holds a revolver. The stars' names—Teresa Wright and Robert Mitchum—feature at the top of the whirlpool; the title and remainder of the credits are below.

By the late 1940s, the noir trend was leaving its mark on other genres. A prime example is the Western Pursued(1947), filled with psychosexual tensions and behavioral explanations derived from Freudian theory.

Films noir tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic protagonists of noir are described by many critics as “alienated“; in the words of Silver and Ward, “filled with existential bitterness”. Certain archetypal characters appear in many films noir—hardboiled detectives, femme fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, intrepid claims adjusters, and down-and-out writers. Among characters of every stripe, cigarette smoking is rampant. From historical commentators to neo-noir pictures to pop culture ephemera, the private eye and the femme fatale have been adopted as the quintessential film noir figures, though they do not appear in most films now regarded as classic noir. Of the twenty-five National Film Registry noirs, in only four does the star play a private eye: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly. Just four others readily qualify as detective stories: Laura, The Killers, The Naked City, and Touch of Evil.

Film noir is often associated with an urban setting, and a few cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, in particular—are the location of many of the classic films. In the eyes of many critics, the city is presented in noir as a “labyrinth” or “maze”. Bars, lounges, nightclubs, and gambling dens are frequently the scene of action. The climaxes of a substantial number of films noir take place in visually complex, often industrial settings, such as refineries, factories, trainyards, power plants—most famously the explosive conclusion of White Heat, set at a chemical plant. In the popular (and, frequently enough, critical) imagination, in noir it is always night and it always rains.

A substantial trend within latter-day noir—dubbed “film soleil” by critic D. K. Holm—heads in precisely the opposite direction, with tales of deception, seduction, and corruption exploiting bright, sun-baked settings, stereotypically the desert or open water, to searing effect. Significant predecessors from the classic and early post-classic eras include The Lady from Shanghai; the Robert Ryan vehicle Inferno (1953); the French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith‘s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plein soleil (Purple Noon in the U.S., more accurately rendered elsewhere as Blazing Sun or Full Sun; 1960); and director Don Siegel’s version of The Killers (1964). The tendency was at its peak during the late 1980s and 1990s, with films such as Dead Calm(1989), After Dark, My Sweet, The Hot Spot, Delusion (1991), Red Rock West and the television series Miami Vice.

Worldview, morality, and tone

Black-and-white image of a man and a woman, seen from mid-chest up, their faces in profile, gazing into each other's eyes. He embraces her in a dip with his right arm and holds her right hand to his chest with his left hand. He wears a pin-striped suit and a dark tie. She wears a white top. On the left, the background is black; on the right, it is lighter, with a series of diagonal shadows descending from the upper corner.

“You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”
“A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep.

Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The films are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. Classic film noir has been associated by many critics with the American social landscape of the era—in particular, with a sense of heightened anxiety and alienation that is said to have followed World War II. In author Nicholas Christopher‘s opinion, “it is as if the war, and the social eruptions in its aftermath, unleashed demons that had been bottled up in the national psyche.” Film noirs, especially those of the 1950s and the height of the Red Scare, are often said to reflect cultural paranoia; Kiss Me Deadly is the noir most frequently marshaled as evidence for this claim.

Film noir is often said to be defined by “moral ambiguity”, yet the Production Code obliged almost all classic noirs to see that steadfast virtue was ultimately rewarded and vice, in the absence of shame and redemption, severely punished (however dramatically incredible the final rendering of mandatory justice might be). A substantial number of latter-day noirs flout such conventions: vice emerges triumphant in films as varied as the grim Chinatown and the ribald Hot Spot.

The tone of film noir is generally regarded as downbeat; some critics experience it as darker still—”overwhelmingly black”, according to Robert Ottoson. Influential critic (and filmmaker) Paul Schrader wrote in a seminal 1972 essay that “film noir is defined by tone”, a tone he seems to perceive as “hopeless”. In describing the adaptation of Double Indemnity, noir analyst Foster Hirsch describes the “requisite hopeless tone” achieved by the filmmakers, which appears to characterize his view of noir as a whole. On the other hand, definitive film noirs such as The Big Sleep, The Lady from Shanghai, Scarlet Street and Double Indemnity itself are famed for their hardboiled repartee, often imbued with sexual innuendo and self-reflexive humor.

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