Saturday, 27 September 2014

Just What Exactly is Film Noir?

Film noir is a subject I hear so many people talk about, but I sometimes fail to fully comprehend. I have in the past made attempts to study this elusive area of film, but usually in vain. It is a tricky thing to study largely because no one source seems to fully agree on just what exactly defines it. There are patterns among film noir, but hardly ones as obvious as those of westerns or musicals. Depending on who you talk to, film noir may be labelled as either a genre, a trend, a style, or a method of filming. It may also encompass films within a specific period of time or movies made even today. In this article, I hope to use a mix of my understandings, my classes, and my own observations in an effort to provide a clear and concise definition of just what precisely makes a "film noir".

The concept of "film noir" is typically associated with Hollywood films from the early 1940's into the late 1950's. There are plenty of films that are considered "noir" and others that are less consistently labelled, and there is a good reason why. You see, at the time, Hollywood filmmakers saw themselves as making crime pictures or thrillers. It wasn't until the 1960's that French critics began studying these old movies and spotted patterns between them, hence the reason why this phenomenon is given a French name (which translates roughly as "Black Film" or "Dark Film").

The phenomenon that would become "film noir" was initially born as a result of America's entry into World War II. Part of it had to do with filmmakers taking advantage of studio regulations being relaxed (to allow more "realistic" depictions of the war), but it was mainly done out of necessity. The American war effort needed all the resources it could get, and so production companies had to conserve materials. This meant lower budgets, and working in smaller sets built specifically for the movie. Location shooting could only be done at night.

Typical film noirs of this period in history were very dark in tone. They generally used an urban environment and featured a very bleak atmosphere. Story conventions varied widely, and contrary to popular belief there did not always have to be a mystery. However, themes of crime, punishment, and redemption are abundant in most films of this sort. The central characters are anti-heroes, usually men though exceptions exist, who in over their head in some sort of criminal activity.

When I say "dark" I mean it both literally and figuratively. Film noirs are dark in tone, but often employ minimalist lighting as well. "Noir" translates directly as "black", and indeed there is a lot of that to be found. Movies of this sort are often shot in black and white, relying on sharp contrasts between light and shadow. The darkness is emphasized by the fact that a lot of film noirs were shot at night (due to studio restrictions at the time) and in claustrophobic spaces such as alleys.

There are examples of iconography that seem to be consistent within film noir. The aforementioned alleyways are one, along with dark and empty streets. This phenomenon might be the second-most common thing fedoras are associated with (after Indiana Jones), as they are commonly worn by the men along with suits under trenchcoats, while the women wore fancy dresses. The common weapon of choice was usually the revolver, and both men and women will usually smoke at least a thousand cigarettes over the course of the film with some emphasis on the resulting trails of smoke.

The first, and arguably most famous noir archetype is the private detective. It is hard to say with complete certainty how often they actually appeared in noir films, but they make up several of the best known. Typically, this detective is a loner; bitter and cynical. He (it is usually a man) usually begins taking on a seemingly simple case that quickly spirals out of control. Before long he gets mixed up in criminal activity, probably including a murder or two, and can only get out by getting to the bottom of everything and playing the crooks involved. This one goes as far back as one of the earliest film noirs, with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

The second major archetype is a character known as the "femme fatale". The way this character can be used also varies widely. Sometimes they are more sympathetic, sometimes they are outright evil, and sometimes they constantly veer the line between both extremes. In any case, she (it is usually a woman) is a tough character who knows what she wants and will go to any means necessary to get it. Usually she is extremely beautiful, and likes to take advantage of her male-dominated society by appealing to the sexuality of the men as a way of manipulating them to her own ends. Some femme fatales will even resort to murder if it gets them their way.

A lesser-known but still fairly common protagonist in noir films is the man trying to escape his past. Act of Violence and Out of the Past both involve a protagonist trying to live an ordinary life in order to redeem themselves of a prior misdeed, only to get into trouble when someone involved with that past manages to find them. Generally there is less of a mystery here, and the goal is instead a quest for true redemption and escape, resulting in their unfortunate demise.

Sometimes the main characters can even be police officers just doing typical police work. For instance, have you ever wondered what Bones might look like it was made in the studio era and didn't have as many strong female leads? No. Well, too bad, because that's basically what you get with the 1950 film noir Mystery Street, more or less a police procedural about cops and forensics experts trying to solve a woman's murder after finding her body.

Then of course there are the darkest anti-heroes of film noir. These are people who despite being ostensibly the hero, are just as bad as the villains, if not worse. One of the best examples I could offer, and interestingly a rare female protagonist, is Margot Shelby of the 1946 film Decoy. This character is crooked in every sense of the word, constantly double-crossing everyone she meets including people she has known for years. Among other things she goes out of her way to revive an old friend executed by gas chamber just so she can kill him once he tells her what she wants to know, and deliberately runs over an accomplice just so she won't have to share the money she is after.

Speaking of money, that is another theme to these film noirs. Often the murders committed turn out to be all about something that seems petty, and in the end, it turns out not to be worth it. In The Maltese Falcon, people double cross and kill each other over the titular artifact but when it finally appears it turns out to be fake. After all the trouble that Margot goes through in Decoy, she dies of a gunshot wound in front of a bunch of policemen and the box she thought had the money turns out to have a note essentially saying "Yeah, I saw your betrayal coming. I'm not giving you my cash!"

Finally, the concept of "film noir" is typically associated with a specific point in history, but precisely what movies qualify as "film noir" is a more complicated manner. Casablanca is one that is sometimes labelled as a film noir, but others instead argue that it is more of a "proto-noir", or rather a film that helped to develop the conventions of what would later become film noir. The Maltese Falcon is often considered one of the earliest film noirs, but it was also made before the strict rules of material conservation would allow the phenomenon to develop.

Matters are complicated more when one looks at the issue of timing. The phenomenon we now know as film noir is often associated with the 40's and 50's, but is it confined to that point in history? There are plenty of later films such as Chinatown, Blade Runner, Angel Heart, Mulholland Drive, and Sin City that all incorporate elements of film noir. There are some who would in fact argue that true "film noir" only includes films of this particular point in time and that anything later is "neo-noir" that merely pays homage to or draws from classical film noir.

I would disagree with this notion. The term "film noir" refers to a specific tone of storytelling, and in that sense could be considered a style rather than a full genre. Even classical film noirs encompass a wide variety of genres including the detective story (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep), the crime thriller (Out of the PastAct of Violence), the gangster film (Decoy), and the police procedural (Mystery Street, The Big Combo). It's not really a genre in itself so much as a means of approaching a genre, often but not always crime-related.

Taking that rationale into account, the concept of "film noir" can be applied to any genre as long as it has at least some of the right attributes. In the 1940's it was typically done with crime pictures because that was what was popular back then, but there is no reason it could not fit with other genres. Blade Runner has a noir-ish atmosphere applied to a science fiction setting. Angel Heart is a horror film that is structured in the form of a classical detective story. Mulholland Drive uses the structure of a noir-ish mystery to create a surreal and subjective experience.

So in the end, what really is film noir? Well, based on my experiences with it so far, I would argue that it is an approach to storytelling that can be combined with many different genres in an effort to create a very specific feeling in the viewer. While it was most popular in Hollywood during the 40's and 50's, it is still used in more modern works to create a pessimistic vision of the world, and changes in studio regulations since that time have allowed filmmakers to experiment and find new ways to utilize it.

The key requirement is for the film to be very dark both literally and figuratively, typically using minimal lighting during the darker scenes. While it does not need to center around crime, it should involve a bleak vision of the world, one where both the heroes and villains are morally questionable and it becomes hard to tell right from wrong. A claustrophobic and choking urban environment also helps, as does a compelling anti-hero and a narrative that can invoke feelings of suspense in the viewer. I think this is about as clear a definition of film noir as I can get.


  1. Great post. I've thought about this in the past, it is kind of hard to specifically define noir. I realized this when Brick came out and people called it "modern day noir." Sometimes I'm still not 100% what I could classify it as.

    1. Believe me, I've spent years trying to make sense of the idea of 'film noir". What I recently found in one of my classes and incorporated here is probably the closest I've come to an actual definition so far.

  2. Actually I think you describe the Film Noir style quite well and you touch on a number of components. If the colour was bright, people were smiling and dancing and most were happy...that would be the antithesis of Film Noir. One has to be cynical and hard edged with a soft spot way, way down that only a devious woman can find

    1. Precisely. For a while that was the one thing that seemed to be consistent about film noir, but on the other hand I suppose there is a limit on how bleak you want to get. I mean, film noir usually has a pessimistic view of society but you don't exactly see very many bring out Lovecraftian themes of mankind's place in the cosmos.

  3. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I would add one other common feature. Often, the main character(s) also serves as the narrator. For the precise reasons you've given about what the term film noir means, I'd say more modern films such as Body Heat, Brick, and Sin City do qualify as such. For whatever it's worth, Double Indemnity is my favorite of all noirs. Excellent post.

    1. Well, that was the intention, so it's good to know I succeeded. I wouldn't have considered it a convention (although it's possible that I just haven't watched enough film noir to notice it), but it did get used to interesting effect in a few. Out of the Past made good use of the narration during a flashback.

      Unfortunately, the only modern film noirs I'm qualified to discuss are the ones I've actually seen. Since I haven't seen Sin City, Brick, or Body Heat I can't really say if I agree with you one way or the other. From what little I have seen I can see how Sin City might be considered film noir (it's even shot largely in black and white), if a very stylized interpretation of it.

  4. Really great exploration of this concept. It is really a hard one to nail down, especially since it seems so versatile. You did a great job with it. Noire style is one of my favorites and it is neat to see how films attempt to adapt the concept to genres where we don't really see it.