Created | Updated Jul 11, 2011
Film Noir is a French term, literally translating as 'black film'. It is used as a description of a genre of film, loosely linked by style and content, that prospered in Hollywood in the decade or so after the Second World War.
History of Noir
Few artistic movements have ever resulted so directly from the politics of a time and place as film noir. The Fascists and Communists in the 1930s decreed Social realism to represent the common man as a hero, while the Islamic adopted calligraphy and abstract patterns following the outlawing of images of humans and animals as idolatry in the early 8th Century. But in the post-WWII years, the budgets available to film-makers were severely restricted. At the same time, many displaced European directors had made their way to America, bringing with them their own distinct style. This lead to a situation where a quality script that could deliver an engrossing plot, preferably while using standard sets and props, became valued over effects-heavy epics. The studio system1 meant that A-list stars could be used in a film without pushing the budget through the roof. Some of the more gifted directors - especially those Europeans used to sub-Hollywood finances - began finding ways around their low budgets - such as shooting in very low lighting to hide defects in the set quality - which coincidentally added a stylish and atmospheric touch. Although often exploited by studios at the time as a way of making cheap thrillers, and consequently often relegated to B-movie status alongside westerns and horror flicks, many of these films have since been recognised as genuine 'classics'.
Noir films tend to reflect certain themes. Unlike most other genres, there is some argument about what constitutes film noir. Films are often described in terms of how noir they are. Indeed, being 'noir' does not necessarily rule out being a member of another genre also - most film noir movies are thrillers, for example. Few if any contain all of the points below, yet these are all trademarks of the film noir style:
The Look - Black and white, often high contrast. Much given to close-ups. People, especially femmes fatales, tend to face the camera while talking to people behind them. This allows the camera to dwell stylishly on their reactions and their cigarette smoke.
The Women - A femme fatale (literally 'killer woman') is the beautiful yet manipulative love interest, who often turns out to be the villain of the piece. This ambiguity is often central to the plot. Invariably chain-smokers. There may also be a saccharine 'good' woman. She will be recognisable as she will not smoke.
The Men - Often Private Investigators (PIs). Usually get hit lots, may have a way with women. Always carry guns. Usually heavy drinkers, invariably chain-smokers. If they have a foreign accent, they will be villains. Alternately, they may be the wealthy-but-dull (and thus doomed) husbands married to the femmes fatales.
The Plots - Often complex. The usually innocent hero is caught up in a web of intrigue he doesn't fully understand, possibly woven by the femme fatale. Books by writers like Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler (both smokers) were favourites.
The Cars - Huge American things with more solid steel than a Sherman tank. They look like 'The Mini That Ate New York'. They never smoke, even when shot or run off the road.
The Philosophy - In a word, bleak. Life is cheap and money is hard to come by except by crime, which definitely does pay. This owes a great debt to the influence of the European directors who had recently arrived from war-torn Europe, with a much more cynical world-view than most of their American colleagues.
Expressionism - Always big in Europe, this style now invaded the Hollywood mainstream. It involved using visual means to express characters' feelings - the emotionally distant might be physically separated, for example, or powerful characters might loom over the camera or be physically higher than weaker characters. This was also used to imply a sexual relationship, particularly a homosexual one, thus circumventing the strict morality of the Production Code guidelines of the time.
The Service Station - There are only two places in noir America; the crime-ridden city or the small-town garage/motel/restaurant. Whether it's a valuable piece of real-estate or a simple refuge for someone hiding from his past life, drifters always seem to end up working there.
Obviously, a complete listing is not possible here, if at all. Here are plot synopses of a few of the acknowledged masterpieces:
The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Perhaps more of a thriller than a true noir, this film still has many of the noir elements, notably the gritty PI and a proto-femme fatale. Remade several times and under several different titles, the 1941 version, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, has become the standard. Based on a book by Dashiel Hammet, the plot tells of double-dealing seeking for the incredibly valuable eponymous statue.
Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by Hungarian/Polish immigrant Billy Wilder, this is, arguably, where noir began on the cinema screens. Told in flashback, with voice-over narration and a downbeat ending, insurance investigator Walter Neff is lured into using his insider knowledge to murder the husband of beautiful Phyllis Deitrichson for the life insurance. Though it suffers now from later films re-using almost all its themes, it remains a classic. The 'stunning' femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck, is not totally believable as an irresistible siren though.
The Big Sleep (1946) - Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star in one of the most complex plots ever filmed. Legend has it that director Howard Hawks phoned writer Raymond Chandler to ask who committed one of the murders - and Chandler didn't know! Nevertheless, the script sizzles with wit as private eye Phillip Marlowe searches for a millionaire's daughter.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) - A femme fatale (Lana Turner), a murder and a huge pile of cash, based on James M Cain's novel. Plot is an archetypal lovers-murder-woman's-husband, the twist being that their first attempt fails but makes the police suspicious, so the couple then have to hope the husband (who owns a successful service station) lives. Their second attempt leads to their trial and conviction, at which point we learn that the film is being narrated as a confession.
The Killers (1946) - Based on a story by Ernest Hemmingway. Two hard-men track their quarry, 'The Swede' down to a small-town service station, and he does not resist when they shoot him dead. A cop has to investigate, and uncovers a tale of payroll robberies, double-dealing and a femme fatale.
Out of the Past (1947) - The film that made Robert Mitchum a star. Also starring Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. A PI is hired to trace a gangster's girlfriend who has stolen $40,000 and fled to Mexico. He finds her, but they fall in love and become embroiled in murder as they try to keep their affair secret (which involves him getting a job in a service station). Doubts begin to arise over her honesty. James M Cain wrote part of the script, uncredited.
Force of Evil (1948) - Gangster-lawyer's one redeeming feature, his compassion for his small-time bookie brother, leads to downfall of all concerned. Underlying anti-capitalist sentiment got its director, Abraham Polonsky, blacklisted for decades by McCarthyists. A comparatively little-known expressionist masterpiece.
The Third Man (1949) - Directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotton, but Orson Welles steals the show in this cold-war underworld intrigue. Zither soundtrack adds a comic element to a plot that drips with human suffering. Nice plot twist mid-way and classic scenes on fairground wheel and in the sewers. See the separate Entry on this film, often cited as one of the best ever made – so influential that Third Man tours were run of the Viennese sewers where the film's climax is set!
Though the 'golden era' of film noir has passed, it remains an essential part of the vocabulary of modern directors. Films as diverse as Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982), Seven (1995), LA Confidential (1997) and The Big Lebowski (1998) all owe a huge debt to the style.
As post-war austerity lifted, Hollywood began to invest once again in the epics that it has always loved. The ephemeral 'script quality' was overwhelmed by the easily quantifiable values of budget and advertising, and the noir film slowly died out. Over 50 years since the movement produced its first great films, it remains arguably the greatest artistic contribution that Hollywood has made to the film world.