The film noir genre defined

In a nutshell

  • Film noir, popular in the 1940s and 1950s, is known for its dark themes, visual contrasts and morally complex characters.
  • Key elements of film noir include low-key lighting, night-for-night shooting, flashbacks and voice-overs to enhance its moody and suspenseful atmosphere.
  • Film noir has significantly influenced genres like neo-noir and tech-noir and movements like the French New Wave, ensuring its legacy endures in modern cinema.

Defined by its dark themes and sharp visual contrast, film noir rose to popularity in the 1940s and is often considered the classic era of cinema. If unfamiliar with the genre, film noir films often would start with a scene like this:

“The night was as black as coal when I heard the knock on the door. I was just sleeping off the effects of a six-day bender after getting dumped by this vision of a woman. My bad luck with women is legendary. As I shook off the effects of my imbibing, I went to the door of my office and opened it … it was 2 a.m. There stood a tall, blonde beauty. You know, the kind you see with the other guy and know you can never get. I knew from the start she was dangerous, and boy, was I right.”

This kind of opening, one staring a hardened detective and a femme fatale, is a classic setup for a film noir movie. But there’s more to the genre than meets the eye.

What is film noir?

Film noir is both a cinematic style and a story-telling mechanism. Some of its key characteristics include dark and smokey scenes and shadowy characters all wrapped up in a black and white production. Film noir came to be in the 1940s and 1950s and often includes a down-on-his-luck cop or private investigator who is really having a bad day. This genre also includes a femme fatale that’s seeking help from our downtrodden P.I. She is always beautiful, seductive and secretive, which adds even more suspense to these films.

A case can be made that the private investigator meets blonde bombshell in trouble trope is overused. However, this writer disagrees. First off, everyone loves a good murder mystery story, and the film noir genre is ripe with opportunities on this front. Secondly, people in general seem to have a great deal of empathy for folks who are down on their luck. This fact alone creates a feeling of ownership in the viewer as it draws them deeper into the plot. Lastly, we all want to see the underdog win and film noir stories are a great vehicle to make that happen.

“Sunset Boulevard” (1950). Image courtes: Paramount Pictures

What is the common visual style of film noir?

Low-key lighting is a must for every film noir piece. Unlike the high-key lighting used in most videos and films, these movies rely on heavy contrast between light and dark to create a sinister mood. These filmmaker tools are meant to make you feel uneasy and give you a sense of danger, foreboding and suspense. It’s the kind of danger that lurks around every corner, waiting to strike.

Another cinematic tool employed in film noir movies was night-for-night shooting. This means exactly what it sounds like: Night scenes were actually shot at night, not during the day like the well-known day-for-night technique. Often, night scenes back then were shot during the day and turned into night scenes in post-production or by using dark filters on the camera. But film noir directors wanted darker looks, so they shot at night when the lighting was naturally dark. This technique gave these films a deep, dark look that wasn’t commonly used by filmmakers before.

What are some of its narrational devices?

Film noir almost always uses flashbacks as a powerful storytelling device. Flashbacks show where these complex and disturbed characters come from and how they became the way they are.

Obscure narratives often drive these movies. Obscure references work well with flashbacks since a character might discuss something that seems insignificant at the moment but becomes crucial later on. This approach engages viewers more actively in the story, as they must remember key events from the past. These flashbacks also develop a character’s backstory, allowing us to empathize with them and their struggles.

Voice-overs, like the one in the opening paragraph of this article, are staples of film noir. These voice-overs are almost always delivered by our trench-coated, fedora-wearing main character and add context and background to the story as it progresses. Important internal thoughts and plot twists are often revealed during these narrations.

Run through noir’s history in cinema

The 1940s and 1950s are without a doubt the classic period of film noir in Hollywood. No discussion of this genre would be complete without mentioning the movie that started it all, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). This classic featured Humphrey Bogart as the cynical P.I. Sam Spade alongside Mary Astor and Peter Lorre. It’s hard to tell who lied or cheated more in this piece just to get their hands on that little bird statue. The film’s dark and foreboding look and feel set the standard for the rest of the film noir genre and stands today as a classic.

“The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Image courtesy: Warner Bros.

Another classic of this era is director Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944). This film stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman ready to go crooked for a dame. But this isn’t your “My Three Sons” Fred MacMurray; his character is ready to kill when he falls hard for platinum-blonde Barbara Stanwyck. Round out the cast with the incomparable Edward G. Robinson, and you’ve got an instant film noir classic.

In 1949, “The Third Man,” starring Orson Welles, was released. Although Welles is best known for his directing chops, this stint as an actor is classic and cements him as a master in both disciplines. The film noir atmosphere in this thriller is thick and takes the genre to a whole new level. Welles would go on to make more noir classics, but as a first swing, this one is a must-see home run.

Film noir’s influence

French New Wave

Film noir significantly influenced the late 1950s and 1960s French New Wave. During this movement, directors like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabro rejected traditional filmmaking conventions and emphasized personal expression. Specifically, the movement borrowed noir’s themes of moral ambiguity, complex characters and dark, atmospheric visuals. Elements like low-key lighting, voice-over narration and non-linear storytelling were also used.

“Vivre sa vie” (1962). Image courtesy: Panthéon Distribution

Neo-noir

Neo-noir is also inspired by the film noir genre. Emerging in the late 20th century and continuing into the 21st, neo-noir shares many similarities to the film noir genre. It retains the core elements of traditional noir, such as moral ambiguity, and employs dark, moody atmospheres. However, it pairs them with more contemporary themes and settings, as well as cinematic techniques. Still, it incorporates film noir’s classic shadowy lighting, voice-over narration and suspenseful plots.

"Nightcrawler"
“Nightcrawler” (2014). Image courtesy: Open Road Films 

Tech noir

Tech noir takes film noir’s shadowy, moody vibe and rockets it into a high-tech future. This subgenre of science fiction, which emerged in the late 20th century, dives into dystopian landscapes, advanced technology, and cybernetic elements while keeping that gritty, atmospheric style noir. The influence of classic film noir is clear in tech noir. It borrows the same elements: morally ambiguous characters and a constant sense of unease.

“Minority Report” (2002). Image courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Film noir’s legacy continues

Film noir became a defining genre in the 1940s and 1950s. However, its influence has endured. Having inspired numerous genres, such as neo-noir and tech noir, and influencing the French New Wave, the film noir genre is still alive in today’s cinema climate. Over time, the film noir genre itself has evolved as well. Modern film noir movies, such as “Sin City” (2005), “Drive” (2011) and “The Dark Knight” (2008) all fit within the genre, while also pushing it forward. Ultimately, film noir has influenced the movie industry towards dark, suspenseful storytelling and will continue to do so.

John Cassinari
John Cassinari
John Cassinari is the executive producer of Imagination Unlimited, a video production and marketing communications firm headquartered in Orlando, Florida.

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