From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity and sexual motivation. Hollywood's classic film noir period is generally regarded as stretching 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, while 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 Depression.
The term film noir (French for "black film"), first applied to Hollywood movies by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, was unknown to most American film industry professionals of the era. Cinema historians and critics defined the canon of film noir in retrospect; many of those involved in the making of the classic noirs later professed to be unaware of having created a distinctive type of film.
Approaches to defining noir
The history of film noir criticism has seen fundamental questions become matters of controversy unusually intense for such a field. Where aesthetic debates tend to concentrate on the quality and meaning of specific artworks and the intentions and influences of their creators, in film noir, the debates are regularly much broader. Four large questions may be identified, two of them addressed at the beginning of this article:
- What defines film noir?
- What sort of category is it?
A third question applies at a more specific level, but is sweeping:
- Which movies qualify as film noirs?
This article refers to movies from the classic period as "film noir" if there is a critical consensus supporting that designation. That consensus is almost never complete and is in many cases provisional: The Lost Weekend and The Night of the Hunter, for instance, are now routinely referred to as film noirs, but they were seldom considered as such a quarter-century ago. The process is ongoing: today, a growing number of critics refer to Suspicion (1941), directed by Hitchcock, and Casablanca (1942), directed by Curtiz, as film noirs. Outside of the classic period, consensus is much rarer—movies are considered as noir herein if a substantial number of critics have discussed them as such. In order to decide which films are noir (and which are not), many critics refer to a set of elements they see as marking examples of the mode. This leads to a fourth major point of controversy in the field, one that overlaps with all those noted above:
- What are the identifying characteristics of film noirs?
For instance, some critics insist that a film noir, to be authentic, must have a bleak conclusion (e.g., Criss Cross or D.O.A.), 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, in a variety of ways. The ambition of this section, then, can be no more than modest: it is an attempt to survey those characteristics most often cited by critics as representative of classic film noirs. As diverse as that set of movies is, the diversity of films from outside the classic period that have been discussed as noir is so great that any similar survey would be impractical; however, those classic noir identifying marks often referenced in neo-noirs—however frequently or seldom they actually appeared in the original films—are noted as are certain signal trends of the latter-day mode.Template:Fn
Film noirs tended to use low-key lighting schemes producing stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning. The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in film 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 moviemaking. While black-and-white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir, color films such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Niagara (1953), Slightly Scarlet, and Vertigo (1958) are regarded as noir by varying numbers of critics.
Film noir is also known for its use of Dutch angles, low-angle shots, and wide-angle lenses. 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. Beginning in the late 1940s, location shooting—often involving night-for-night sequences—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 "[s]ide 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
Film noirs tend to have unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks, flashforwards, and other techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. Voiceover narration—most characteristically by the protagonist, less frequently by a secondary character or by an unseen, omniscient narrator—is sometimes used as a structuring device. Both flashbacks and voiceover narration are today often used in movies looking to quickly establish their neo-noir bona fides. Bold experiments in cinematic storytelling were sometimes attempted in noir: 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 and Memento.
Plots, characters, and settings
Crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all film noirs; 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. Amnesia is far more common in film noir than in real life, and cigarette smoking can seem virtually mandatory.
Film noirs 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 heroes 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 film noirs—hardboiled detectives, femmes fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, intrepid claims adjusters, and down-and-out writers. As can be observed in many movies of an overtly neo-noir nature, the private eye and the femme fatale are the character types with which film noir has come to be most identified, but only a minority of movies now regarded as classic noir feature either. For example, of the nineteen 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 two others readily qualify as detective stories: Laura 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 film noirs take place in visually complex, often industrial settings, such as refineries, factories, trainyards, power plants—most famously the explosive conclusion of White Heat. 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 caustic 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., better 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); and Red Rock West, and TV's Miami Vice, which premiered in 1984 and turned increasingly mordant over its five-year run.
Worldview, morality, and tone
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 movies 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. Nicholas Christopher's opinion is representative: "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.
The prehistory of noir
Film noir has sources not only in cinema but other artistic media as well. The low-key lighting schemes commonly linked with the classic mode are in the tradition of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, techniques using high contrasts of light and dark developed by 15th- and 16th-century painters associated with Mannerism and the Baroque. Film noir's aesthetics are deeply influenced by German Expressionism, a cinematic movement of the 1910s and 1920s closely related to contemporaneous developments in theater, photography, painting, sculpture, and architecture. The opportunities offered by the booming Hollywood film industry and, later, the threat of growing Nazi power led to the emigration of many important film artists working in Germany who had either been directly involved in the Expressionist movement or studied with its practitioners. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Michael Curtiz brought dramatic lighting techniques and a psychologically expressive approach to mise-en-scène with them to Hollywood, where they would make some of the most famous of classic noirs. Lang's 1931 masterwork, the German M, is among the first major crime films of the sound era to join a characteristically noirish visual style with a noir-type plot, one in which the protagonist is a criminal (as are his most successful pursuers). M was also the occasion for the first star performance by Peter Lorre, who would go on to act in several formative American noirs of the classic era.
By 1931, Curtiz had already been in Hollywood for half a decade, making as many as six films a year. Movies of his such as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) and Private Detective 62 (1933) are among the early Hollywood sound films arguably classifiable as noir. Giving Expressionist-affiliated moviemakers particularly free stylistic rein were Universal horror pictures such as Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932)—the former photographed and the latter directed by the Berlin-trained Karl Freund—and The Black Cat (1934), directed by Austrian émigré Edgar G. Ulmer. The Universal horror that comes closest to noir, both in story and sensibility, however, is The Invisible Man (1933), directed by Englishman James Whale and photographed by American Arthur Edeson.
The Vienna-born but largely American-raised Josef von Sternberg was directing in Hollywood at the same time. Films of his such as Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), with their hothouse eroticism and baroque visual style, specifically anticipate central elements of classic noir. The commercial and critical success of Sternberg's silent Underworld in 1927 was largely responsible for spurring a trend of Hollywood gangster films. Popular movies in the genre such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) demonstrated that there was an audience for crime dramas with morally reprehensible protagonists.
An important, and possibly influential, cinematic antecedent to classic noir was 1930s French poetic realism, with its romantic, fatalistic attitude and celebration of doomed heroes; an acknowledged influence on certain trends in noir was 1940s Italian neorealism, with its emphasis on quasi-documentary authenticity. (The Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang  presciently combines these sensibilities.) Director Jules Dassin of The Naked City (1948) pointed to the neorealists as inspiring his use of on-location photography with nonprofessional extras; three years earlier, The House on 92nd Street, directed by Henry Hathaway, demonstrated the parallel influence of the cinematic newsreel. A few movies now considered noir strove to depict comparatively ordinary protagonists with unspectacular lives in a manner occasionally evocative of neorealism—the most famous example is The Lost Weekend (1945), directed by Billy Wilder, yet another Vienna-born, Berlin-trained American auteur. (In turn, one of the primary influences on neorealism was the 1930 German film Menschen am Sonntag ("Humans on Sunday"), codirected and cowritten by Siodmak, cowritten by Wilder, and codirected and produced by Ulmer.) Among those movies not themselves considered film noirs, perhaps none had a greater effect on the development of the genre than America's own Citizen Kane (1941), the landmark motion picture directed by Orson Welles. Its Sternbergian visual intricacy and complex, voiceover-driven narrative structure are echoed in dozens of classic film noirs.
The primary literary influence on film noir was the hardboiled school of American detective and crime fiction, led in its early years by such writers as Dashiell Hammett (whose first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929) and James M. Cain (whose The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared five years later), and popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. The classic film noirs The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Glass Key (1942) were based on novels by Hammett; Cain's novels provided the basis for Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Slightly Scarlet (1956; adapted from Love's Lovely Counterfeit). A decade before the classic era, a story of Hammett's was the source for the gangster melodrama City Streets (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian and photographed by Lee Garmes, who worked regularly with Sternberg. Wedding a style and story both with many noir characteristics, released the month before Lang's M, City Streets has a claim to being the first major film noir.
Raymond Chandler, who debuted as a novelist with The Big Sleep in 1939, soon became the most famous author of the hardboiled school. Not only were Chandler's novels turned into major noirs—Murder, My Sweet (1944; adapted from Farewell, My Lovely), The Big Sleep (1946), and Lady in the Lake (1947)—he was an important screenwriter in the genre as well, producing the scripts for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951). Where Chandler, like Hammett, centered most of his novels and stories on the character of the private eye, Cain featured less heroic protagonists and focused more on psychological exposition than on crime solving; the Cain approach has come to be identified with a subset of the hardboiled genre dubbed "noir fiction." For much of the 1940s, one of the most prolific and successful authors of this often downbeat brand of suspense tale was Cornell Woolrich (sometimes using the pseudonyms George Hopley or William Irish). No writer's published work provided the basis for more film noirs of the classic period than Woolrich's: thirteen in all, including Black Angel (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), and Fear in the Night (1947).
A crucial literary source for film noir, now often overlooked, was W. R. Burnett, whose first novel to be published was Little Caesar, in 1929. It would be turned into the hit for Warner Bros. in 1931; the following year, Burnett was hired to write dialogue for Scarface, while Beast of the City was adapted from one of his stories. Some critics regard these latter two movies as film noirs, despite their early date. Burnett's characteristic narrative approach fell somewhere between that of the quintessential hardboiled writers and their noir fiction compatriots—his protagonists were often heroic in their way, a way just happening to be that of the gangster. During the classic era, his work, either as author or screenwriter, was the basis for seven movies now widely regarded as film noirs, including three of the most famous: High Sierra (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
French film noir
Well-known French films often classified as noir include Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Le Salaire de la peur (released in English-speaking countries as The Wages of Fear) (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), all directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.