About Film Noir


By the late 1940s, Hollywood  was producing more films reflecting a mood of cynicism and darker characters with a harsh uncompromising look at American life that it would not dare to do for twenty more years . This was in part a reaction to the depression and postwar disillusionment and a resurgence of postwar realism .  The famed lighting of film noir films and use of oblique angles, soft focus and unsettling effects was due in part to the influx of German and Eastern European filmmakers in the 1930s and 40s ( Such as John Alton, Fred Zinneman, Fritz Lang, Franz Waxman and others ) who were masters of expressionist lighting . Another influence was the popularity of  "hard-boiled" authors as Dashiel Hammett (The Maltese Falcon novel), Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep ) and pulp magazines such as Black Mask .


Film noir is a stylistic approach to genre films forged in depression era detective and gangster movies and hard-boiled detective stories which were a staple of pulp fiction. Based in large part on the that grew out of naturalism, a movement in literature based on realism. Film noir is French for "black film", and is pronounced accordingly ("film nwahr"): the transliterated plural is films noir.


Origins of Film Noir

Jump into the world of Film Noir and look at how the technology and economic factors gave birth to a genre that still deeply influences the way filmmakers work today. Take a look at 4 Film Noirs spanning the beginning and end of the classic film noir era: "The Stranger on the Third Floor", "Double Indemnity", "The Big Combo" and "Touch of Evil".

The term film noir is often attributed to French film critic Nino Frank. Prior use of the term has been cited to the French writing team Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau whose novels were adapted into films: "Vertigo" became the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name; "Celle Qui N'Etait Plus" became Diabolique. (see Stuart Kaminsky). Film Noir derived from a series of hard-boiled fiction books entitled Série Noire. They were mainly shot in black-and-white in the United States between the early 1940s and the late 1950s.


Rules of Film Noir

Many were low-budget supporting features without major stars, in which 'moonlighting' writers, directors and technicians, some of them blacklisted, found themselves relatively free from big-picture restraints. Major studio feature films demanded a wholesome, positive message. Weak and morally ambiguous lead-characters were ruled out by the star-system, and secondary characters were seldom allowed any depth or autonomy. Flattering soft lighting, deluxe interiors and elaborately-built exterior sets were the rule. Noir turned all this on its head, creating bleak but intelligent dramas tinged with nihilism and cynicism, in real-life urban settings, and using unsettling techniques such as the confessional voice-over or hero's-eye-view camerawork.

Gradually the noir style re-influenced the mainstream it had subverted. Orson Welles' Touch of Evil is often referred to as the last "classical" film noir. In the 1960s American filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Robert Altman created genre films that broke the strict format of the genre's rule to convey social and political messages. In The Long Goodbye Altman's hard-boiled detective is presented as a hapless bungler who can't help but lose the "moral battle". While not a direct influence, the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Italian director Sergio Leone incorporated the moral ambiguity and gritty characterizations of film noir, reviving the moribund genre of the American Western. The genre has been parodied (both ruthlessly and affectionately) on many occasions, the most notable examples being Steve Martin's black and white "cut and paste" homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Many of Joel and Ethan Coen's films are excellent examples of modern films influenced by the film noir genre - especially The Man Who Wasn't There, the comedy The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple, the title of which was lifted from the Dashiell Hammett story Red Harvest . The cynical, pessimistic worldview of noirs strongly influenced the creators of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction in the early 1980s. Blade Runner is among the most popular films coming from this era. Characters in these films are derived from 1930s gangster films and, more importantly, from pulp fiction magazines such as The Shadow, Dime Mystery Detective and The Black Mask.

Nosferatu 1922

The aesthetics of film noir are heavily influenced by German Expressionism. When Adolf Hitler took over Germany, many important film artists were forced to emigrate (among them were Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak). They took with them techniques they developed (most importantly the dramatic lighting and the subjective, psychological point of view) and made some of the most famous films noir. Another important influence came from Italian neorealism. After 1945, film noir adopted the neorealist look, and scenes were shot in real city locations (not in the studio); a perfect example of this being the film which is often referred to as the archetypal film noir, Double Indemnity. Books by the Black Mask writers Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (Murder My Sweet, based on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep) became among the most famous films noirs.


Top 10 Film Noirs


Noirs tend to include dramatic shadows and stark contrast (a technique called low-key lighting). Technically speaking, film noir specifies a movie made using monochrome, high contrast images, typically a 10:1 ratio of light to dark, rather than the more typical 3:1 ratio. Film noir in this sense makes use of deep shadows and carefully directed lighting. Since films using this technique usually fit the genre described above, the term lost its technical meaning and became the name of the genre itself. Film noir tends to feature characters existential situations and making choices out of desperation. Frequent themes are murder/crime, infidelity, jealousy, corruption, betrayal, and hopeless fatalism. Comedy, however, has been handled with the stylistic affectations of noir, for example the Thin Man movies, Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. Film noir is at its core pessimistic. The stories it tells are of people trapped in a situation they did not want, often a situation they did not create, striving against random uncaring fate, and usually doomed. Almost all film noir plots involve the hard-boiled, disillusioned male and the dangerous femme fatale. Usually because of sexual attraction or greed, the male commits vicious acts, and in the end both he and the femme fatale are punished or even killed for their actions.


Find Black Mask magazines


Film Noir Paul Duncan

Features private eyes, gangsters, psychopaths, and femme fatales, where deception, lust, and betrayal run rampant. Beginning with silent, German, and French films that were early influences on the genre, this book continues right up to the film "Drive".

The Film Noir Encyclopedia

 Everything you ever wanted to know about Film Noir, but didn't even know to ask, in one epic reference Enter the world of film noir, a world of darkness, ambiguity, and moral corruption.