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
Essays on Film Noir
Film Noir Studios features some great reading by essayist John Blaser. This site offers numerous, insightful pieces and is a great resource for noir students and fans alike.
Berkeley’s Noir Essays are a great collection of noir articles. This site features in-depth articles on women in film noir as well an excellent piece on the film noir scores of Miklos Rozsa.
Ten Shades of Noir features a look at the underbelly of 10 classic noir films. This site also features Alain Silver’s superb essay on the ending of Kiss Me Deadly.
Dark City: Film Noir and Fiction offers dozens of straight-shooting film noir reviews. This site also includes tons of links for noir directors and writers.
High Heels on Wet Pavement Film noir and the femme fatale as illustrated in the films “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Scarlet Street”, “Detour”, “Out of the Past” and “The Killers.”
Ten Shades of Noir The essentials of film noir from the classic era. Includes ten films spanning from 1943’s “Shadow of a Doubt” to 1957’s “The Sweet Smell of Success.”
Blacklist: A Different Look at the 1947 HUAC Hearings Film noir notables and their involvement in the HUAC hearings. Includes specific references to noir greats Abraham Polonsky and Edward Dmytryk.
Two from Siodmak A review of two quintessential film noirs from director Robert Siodmak: 1949’s “Criss Cross” and Burt Lancaster’s noir debut – “The Killers.”
Humphrey Bogart: The Peak Years An overview of Bogies most important work including noir films like “The Big Sleep”, “The Maltese Falcon”, and “The Harder They Fall.”
Barbara Stanwyck and Double Indemnity Noir critic Micahel Mills decosntructs the finer points of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Includes an interesting perspective on the career of leading lady Barbara Stanwyck.
Narrative Innovations in Film Noir A look at the language of film noir through the films “Double Indemnity”, “Scarlet Street”, “Detour” and others.
Out of the Past A review of Jacques Tourneur’s downbeat noir “Out of the Past”. A critical explanation of why this film is a key work of film noir.
Detour The Bright Light’s Film Journal reviews Edgar Ulmer’s film that surpassed it’s categorization as a b-movie: “Detour.”
Ann Savage: A conversation with Roy Frumkes A conversation with Noir diva, Ann Savage. Discusses her role in “Detour” and working with legendary director, Edgar Ulmer.
Percolating Paranoia: The Big Heat Jans Wager reviews the Fritz Lang film noir that brings the terrors of noir into the bright kitchens of America.
The German-Hollywood Connection An essay detailing film noir and the influence of German expressionism. Describes the influences of German expressionism on directors such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer and more.
Film Noir and Contemporary America An academic essay illustrating how film noir shows a transitional stage in American ideology, when the American identity changes from being pre-industrial to a mass consumer society.
The Origins of Film Noir A look at the genesis of film noir and how they were inspired both by literature and previous film history.
Does Film Noir mirror the culture of contemporary America? A series of 8 individual essays that cover topics such as film noir’s origins, women in film noir, film censorship and other topics.
The Shadows of Film Noir Brian Fairbank’s feature detailing the primary elements of film noir in the classic period.
Night of the Soul: American Film Noir A seminal work from “Studies in Popular Culture” that defines film noir and its foundation in the reknowned Borde-Chaumeton article.
Henry Hathaway: The Toughest Director Living A look at the career of noir director Henry Hathaway whose noir films include “Call Northside 777”, “Kiss of Death” and the WWII thriller “House on 92nd Street.”
Michael Curtiz: Noble Cynic Though best known as the man behind the camera for “Casablanca”, Micahel Curtiz directed noir classics like “Mildred Pierce” amd “The Breaking Point”.
Bogart Remembered An excerpt of a fine article from the magazine “Films of the Golden Age” on the life of noir hero, Humphrey Bogart.
Mary Astor – The Cameo Girl A look at the life and career of the femme fatale from “The Maltese Falcon” – Mary Astor.
Dan Duryea – Charming Villain “Classic Images Magazine” reviews the life of noir’s charming villian Dan Duryea.
Audrey Totter Versatile Queen of Noir The star of many film noirs is showcased in an interesting feature by “Classic Images Magazine.”