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What Is Film Noir?

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
  • Shadows
  • Films done in black and white
  • Narration, especially flash-back narration
  • Criminal underworld
  • Hopelessness
  • Corruption
  • 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

Double Indemnity


 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 Noir by 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 Noir by 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 Noir by 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.

Web Sites

Best Film Noir Titles
A list of the 50 most popular film noir titles as chosen by members of the Internet Movie Database.

Film Noir—Films
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
Blade Runner
Double Indemnity
The Grifters
Gun Crazy
Kiss Me Deadly
The Lady from Shanghai
L.A. Confidential 
The Maltese Falcon
Mildred Pierce
Murder, My Sweet
Out of the Past
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Sunset Boulevard
Touch of Evil


Photo Credits:
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