What is Film Noir?

Film noir translates to “dark film.”

French critics came up with the term film noir to refer to a series of dark American crime dramas and westerns that became popular across Europe in the 1940s.

The term first popped up in the journal Cahiers du cinema ­ (cinema notebooks). French critics raved about dark American movies, and how relatable they were in an imperfect world. In America, though, film noir generally fell under the melodrama category.

It was not until 15 years later that the term film noir would catch on, after the book Panorama du film noir americain (Panorama of American film noir) made it popular in 1955.

The darkness was two-fold, one being a direct reference to the lighting of the films, and the other referring to the cold tones.

Known in some circles as the cinema of the disenchanted, noir films stemmed out of the post-war depression in America. The Great depression had kicked in as the two world wars took their toll. A once flourishing economy was in the gutters, and the prevailing mood was not all too pleasant.

That was worsened by the looming threats of atomic warfare, which created a pessimistic community unsure about the future. Tensions resulting from McCarthyism, a campaign fueling accusations of treason and communism, also furthered dug up the negativity. All these feelings, among other factors, sipped into cinema to kickstart the noir era. 

Noir films went against the grain of contemporary cinema, replacing the noble protagonist with a cynical lead or antihero. You also had a femme fatale, a woman who deceives men into deadly traps with her charm and beauty, as the point of oppositional focus.

Some people think noir to be a genre, but another divide considers it more of a style of filmmaking. The jury is still out on that one, but certain elements became commonplace with these types of movies. That leads us to the next point of interest today. 

Elements of Film Noir Cinema 

Low-key lighting and unconventional cinematography 

Noir films were famous for their stark contrast of lightings and deep silhouettes that painted an eerie world. The overwhelming contrasts, due to an absence of fill lights, were a reflection of the depressing world these characters had to endure. Societies were devoid of hope and color, and an atmosphere of doom and gloom was a prevailing theme.

A famous scene from Casablanca:

American film noir and its deep shadow lighting was inspired by the German expressionist era. In particular, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the most highly acclaimed films of German expressionism, provided a cinematic template for noir filmmakers. The movie uses compelling contrasts and low-key lights to get into the headspace of a mad man. Actors were completely engulfed in darkness, with only their faces visible. Entire scenes would rely on a small light source such as the flame of a candle or spotlight.

This style of lighting appealed to noir cinematographers to set the mood for their various films. Lighting became a tool to express their unique approach to filmmaking.

Some iconic Hollywood DoPs to have been influenced by it include Citizen Kane’s innovative cinematographer Gregg Toland.

Other names to have been strongly inspired by the lighting effects from Germany include Sid Hickox, Karl Freund, and John F. Seitz. These were cinematographers for the noir films The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and Double Indemnity respectively.

Noir movies became characterized by faulty neon signs atop sketchy buildings. Flickering halo street lamps barely lighting up alleyways were also commonplace.

Early morning drizzles and late-night downpours famously added sad dampness to further compound the starved lighting.

Beyond lighting and contrast, the cinematography in noir films went against certain Hollywood ideals. Techniques like the deep focus gave more attention to the background than cinema was accustomed to. Noir films also favored asymmetrical framing, uncomfortable close-ups, Dutch tilts, and high/low camera angles. 

The omniscient narrator and the femme fatale 

If you watched a noir film, you knew right off the bat you were not getting a happy ending. Gloomy lighting aside, these movies featured a flawed protagonist, wallowing in self-pity, and overly cautious of the surrounding world. His perceptions of society were skewed and he wasn’t your typical movie lead.

The protagonist was not good or bad, neither black nor white, rather a combination of either when the situation suited it.

He was often a hardboiled detective, consumed by trauma, living as a shell of his former self. The burden of the past was always hanging over his shoulder.

Other popular career choices for the lead in noir movies also included war veterans.

In many film noir films, the protagonist was an omniscient narrator. He knew everything that was happening everywhere in his world, telling his stories and connecting the dots for audiences in the way of flashbacks. The movies often started with a pre-scene then flashbacked through the plot.

The pre-scene was typically a tragic conclusion such as the death of a character or the lead himself as he explains his story during his final moments. Other times the denouement was a huge fall from grace.

Hence, from the get-go, and more often than not, viewers watched with an awareness of the inevitable doom.

Conversely, frequent choices for the antagonist included femme fatales, during a time when society heavily objectified women. Always gorgeous and often a blonde with long flowing hair, the fatale was responsible for the hero’s ultimate predicament.

She pushed the protagonist to explore his dark side, fueling greed, corruption, murder, among other vices that would later bring down the hero. The femme fatale was often taken for granted by a wealthier, usually older, man with a lot more influence than the narrator.

To counter the femme fatale, film noir often cast a second female character with opposite traits. She served as the mold for the ‘ideal woman,’ often a noble, domestic wife. 

Everyone was smoking, or drinking

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry in noir films seems to have a pack of cigarettes somewhere on them. Conversations were simply not complete without people lighting up.

Two strangers would spark a discussion by borrowing a lighter or a cigarette, and it quickly became an etiquette of noir socialization.  

The habit was a reflection of the alarming rate of smoking in the US at the time. It was made popular and cool by the world wars, where commanders would signal a break with the phrase “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”

Smoking was a popular means of stress relief during the wars. It made it into noir films to reflect the American culture of the day.

The same goes for alcohol which almost always makes an appearance in noir films.

Cigarette smoking was a lot more meaningful than meets the eye. The swirling trails looked beautiful in the monochromatic tones, adding an intentional visual accent to the movies.

Additionally, it was an indication that a character was stressing out over something, compounding a deep-in-thought moment.

Smoking also added activity to stale scenes, giving actors something to do, while also creating suspense and building sexual tension. In other instances, it served to make threats more chilling and a shady character appear more devious. 

Quickfire dialogue and complex, urban plots 

The dialogue in noir films was often concise, fast-paced, and poetic or witty. Characters often disguised their thoughts and words with metaphors and subtext. They didn’t flat out say what they were thinking, feeling, or going to do. As a result, the conversations were by no means natural, which was the intention of noir scripts. What’s more, a penchant for close-ups made tight conversations more intimate.

These films came off the back of the injection of sound into movies a few years earlier. Immediately before that, silent films were the currency of cinema.

The concept of conversation in movies was a fairly new one by the time the noir wave was gaining traction. Hence the styles of dialogue were mostly simplistic and poetic, kind of like stage plays. However, as filmmakers began to experiment more, the nature of dialogue in these movies continually changed.

Plots, meanwhile, were complex as inspired by German expressionism. The storylines had more twists and turns than a rollercoaster. So much so that plots could be complex to the point of brain fog. The convoluted flashbacks didn’t help matters either, often putting more questions in places we would expect answers. In a sense, viewers often felt like they were the detectives, trying to crack a plot twist like a delicate game of chess.

Scripts were also inspired by pulp fiction of the previous century and dished out a bleak view of humanity. Themes of crime, murder, and betrayal drove the plot, in line with the gloomy, visual undertones.

Additionally, the story more often than not had something to do with stolen money, drugs, or valuables. A big city, often Los Angeles, and its mean streets created the serious backdrops in a dog-eat-dog world where no one was safe. 

Notable Film Noir Movies before 1980 

Double Indemnity (1944) 

Turning 77 this year, Double Indemnity is one of those classics that never gets old. It is film noir in every way possible. It ticks all the right boxes, according to a best-noir compilation conducted by No Film School.

From deep shadows threatening to sneak through the screen to fedora-wearing men strutting cold streets, all the little noir details check out. Characters ripple through cigarette packs as if on a deadline to beat a minimum quota, while the downpours help the twists and turns sink in even further.

Double Indemnity features a tragic tale about an insurance salesman, Walter Neff, who conspires with a devious woman, Phyllis, to fake an accidental death. Phyllis is married to the wealthy Mr. Dietrichson. She aims to free herself from the union and cash in on the double indemnity insurance clause.

The plot is trademark film noir. A young seductress tricks the film’s lead, controlling him like a puppet with the façade of love. The protagonist is no saint either, he is the anti-hero. While conflicted with fleeting moments of nobility, he commits villainous acts. The height of those is murdering Mr. Dietrichson. Eventually, he realizes his wrongdoings and rights his evils.

Walter saves Dietrichson’s daughter Lola after her stepmother hatches another plan to kill her and hog the inheritance. He intervenes and even stops and kills the femme fatale antagonist to resolve the major plot conflict.

Like Walter confesses at the beginning of the film, he kills a man and doesn’t get the money or the girl. A bleak pre-scene and conclusion with traditional noir melancholy.  

The Big Sleep (1946)

As far as complex storylines go, they don’t get any twister than The Big Sleep.

Film school students have written dissertations on this one, taking months of toiling research work to make sense of every little detail.

Even Raymond Chandler, the author of the book that inspired the movie, confessed to not knowing who murdered Owen Taylor (A chauffer whose body is discovered as the second victim). An example of how the dense narrative can be hard to unpack.

Yet, it works in the only way that true noir can. Its intricate plot embodies the spirit of the old noir movies, where the emphasis moves away from traditionally linear scripts. The darkness spreads beyond the flickering silhouettes and secretive shadows, clouding a brain-racking plot in countless mysteries.

Detective Philip Marlowe, your typical case-hardened protagonist, accepts a job from the powerful and wealthy General Sternwood. Arthur Geiger has obtained damning pictures of Sternwood’s younger daughter Carmen, and he is using the pictures as leverage for blackmail.

As Marlowe tries to get to the bottom of the matter, he uncovers that he signed up for more than he had bargained.

Murder lurks at every corner, as the detective chases down elusive leads and brushes shoulders with the underworld. Deception greases the plot along as elements of betrayal and blackmail frequently crash the party.

All the morbid ingredients come right off the noir cookbook. 

Touch of Evil (1958) 

Many considered Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil to be the last out of the noir conveyor belt, as color films started taking over. However, there would be a renaissance a few years later in the way of neo-noir. But more on that shortly.

Touch of Evil is a loose adaptation of the novel Badge of Evil, released two years prior. The opening sequence is classic noir cinematography. We get a view of a timer bomb and a man in a brimmed hat as he races to a car to plant the device. In between, we see him running through his huge shadow on a wall.

The darkness of the night sky is pitch-black and terrifying as well in noir-esque fashion. Even the glow of streetlights is inconsequential to the overwhelming blanket of night that makes characters, and key scenes, barely visible. Their fedoras further add to the obscurity of their faces in many instances.

Vargas and Quinlan are the film’s protagonist and antagonist respectively in a plot about murder. But Quinlan adds a new layer to the noir villain, namely the anti-villain. He seeks to bring criminals to justice but often becomes both judge and executioner.

Backdrops stand out glaringly in scenes. The cinematographer shuns the ideals of Hollywood, where it was polite at the time to focus on the foreground, and consequently, the character in the frame.

Deep focus techniques make the world more immersive, and there’s so much for viewers to observe and appreciate. Unconventional camera angles add to scenery depth, with low-angles serving to also make Quinlan more imposing..

Notable Film Noir Movies After 1980 

Blood Simple (1984) 

With color technology making its way into cinema in the 50s, the black-and-white noir era came to an end. Many thought it to be gone, never to be seen again. However, the 80s brought back the genre in the way of neo-noir. The word is a play on a Greek phrase to mean new (neo) film noir.

One of those to usher noir back to the big screen was Blood Simple. While it embraced the colorful visuals of the new age, Blood Simple still feels nostalgic noir with its high contrasts. Barry Sonnenfeld pulls out of his cinematography hat of tricks many innovative elements. He manipulates the light to create saturated blacks. The result is bold shadows with a menacing psychological effect.

While we don’t have the femme fatale taking lead, the plot still considerably sticks within the confines of crime noir.

Abby is an unhappy woman in a bad marriage. She finds comfort in the film’s protagonist Ray, who is a bartender at Abby’s husband’s bar. Marty is suspicious of his spouse and has her followed by private detective Loren Visser.

He confirms Marty’s fears that Aby is cheating on him. Visser takes advantage of the situation to kill Marty, steal his money, and frame Aby for the crime. The plan fails, and Visser ends up on the wrong end of the barrel.

However, there’s no happy ending for Abby and Ray, as the latter is fatally shot by Visser before he confronts Abby.

Seven (1995) 

Almost 40 years on from the first noir film, Seven strives to keep the fire burning with a classic crime thriller, destined for doom and tragedy.

William Somerset has seen his fair share of difficult years in the force and is about to call it a day. Before his retirement though, he partners with a young detective David Mills for one final mission. Mills and his partner take up the hunt for a serial killer who frames his murders around the seven deadly films.

In noir fashion, the film features hardcore violence in a world that, despite all its vivid colors, is as twisted and dark as the genre gets. Somerset is the typical world-weary detective with a cynical perception of the society he finds himself in. His personal life is cold and empty, with his job taking front and center at the expense of love, family, and friends.

Obsidian suits, flowing trench coats, and detectives defined by their fedoras set the old-fashioned mood from the early movies.

Contrasting shadows, silhouettes, and chiaroscuro lighting depict the grotesque life in a nameless city, riddled with crime, garbage, and moral decay. Low-key lighting is a prevalent aspect in scenes, especially when the detectives are combing through suspicious locations.

David Fincher incorporates many aspects of film noir, rain, distorted figures and all, to create the masterpiece that is Seven.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Blue Velvet alters the exhausted noir detective narrative a little bit for something new and exciting.

While pessimistic investigators do feature, they are restricted to the periphery as a college freshman takes lead. Jeffrey Beaumont is back in town after his father falls ill. He finds a severed ear on a lawn one day after a hospital visit, and it soon leads him to a conspiracy and trouble with a powerful crime boss.

When it seemed like neo-noir had forgotten about the femme fatale, Blue Velvet brings her back in the most compelling and enchanting fashion. But before it could see the life of day, the mystery thriller faced one rejection after the other.

Big Hollywood studios in the 70s and 80s were apprehensive about its strong violence and sexual depictions. However, an independent, Italian-owned studio took the chance to enable the film’s release in 1986.

Dorothy Vallens, at first glance, appears to be the damsel-in-distress. However, she is self-destructive and manipulative, using her beauty and charm to get what she wants out of Jeffrey. While the film’s primary antagonist is a criminal drug load, Jeffrey’s biggest conflict revolves around Dorothy. She has sucked him into a life in the underworld, holding him at arm’s length to fulfill her own needs.

Brighter colors usher us into the movie, but these continually become less frequent as the story gets darker and more depressing.

The lighting work is also characteristic noir. In one scene, Jeffrey is completely shrouded in darkness when he leaves Dorothy’s apartment after a depressing and bizarre first encounter. His upper body is barely the only thing visible as he steps under an overhead lamp. We can’t see anything else around him because of the darkness.

Overall Blue Velvet feels dreamlike and rather nightmarish. It thrives as noir because of its overbearing themes of moral decadence, crime, and betrayal, and its cinematography as well.

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