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"), was first applied to Hollywood movies by French critic Nino Frank in 1946. Many of those involved in the making of the classic noirs later professed to be unaware of having created a distinctive type of film.
Though film noirs were not known to be especially uplifting or spiritually redeeming, they did serve a moral purpose in that they brought to light the ambiguity of good and evil as well as how the underlying presence of temptation can disturb one's fair intentions, even those related to the pursuit of justice.
Film noir embraced a variety of genres, from the gangster film to the police procedural to the so-called "social problem picture," and evidence of a variety of visual approaches, from Hollywood mainstream to outré (outside). While many critics refer to film noir as a genre in itself, others argue that it is more of a stylistic approach that can be applied to any genre.
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.
Outside of the classic period, it becomes harder to classify movies as noir. 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. For instance, some critics insist that a true film noir must have a bleak conclusion, though many acknowledged classics of the genre have clearly happy endings. Other common elements of the tradition have a female representing the femme fatale character, snappy dialog, an urban setting, low-lighting, crime, and characters holding a pessimistic worldview.
The prehistory of noir
Film noir draws from sources not only in cinema but from other artistic forms as well. The low-key lighting schemes commonly linked with film noir is in the tradition of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, techniques using high contrasts of light and dark developed by fifteenth and sixteenth century painters associated with Mannerism and the Baroque.
Another important cinematic antecedent to classic noir was 1930s French poetic realism, with its romantic, fatalistic attitude and celebration of doomed heroes. Italian neorealism is yet another acknowledged influence on certain trends in noir, with its emphasis on quasi-documentary authenticity. However, aesthetics of Film noir was most deeply influenced by German Expressionism, a cinematic movement of the 1910s and 1920s, closely related to contemporary 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 been directly involved in the Expressionist movement. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Michael Curtiz brought dramatic lighting techniques and a psychologically expressive approach with them to Hollywood, where they would make some of the most famous of classic noir films. Lang's 1931 masterwork, the German film, 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 noir films of the classic era.
By 1931, director Michael 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 movie-makers particularly free stylistic rein were Universal horror pictures such as Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Black Cat (1934). The Universal horror film that comes closest to noir, both in story and sensibility, however, is The Invisible Man (1933), directed by Englishman James Whale and shot by American Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Regarding movies not themselves considered film noir, 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 have been echoed in dozens of classic film noirs.
Early literary influences
The primary literary movement to have influenced 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 noir films, 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). 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 noir films—Murder, My Sweet (1944; adapted from Farewell, My Lovely), The Big Sleep (1946), and Lady in the Lake (1947)—but 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. For much of the 1940s, one of the most prolific and successful authors of this often downbeat brand of suspense tale was Cornell Woolrich. 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 published was Little Caesar, in 1929. It would be adapted into the hit for Warner Bros. in 1931; the following year, Burnett was hired to write dialog for Scarface while Beast of the City was adapted from one of his stories. Some critics regard these latter two movies as film noir 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 noir, including three of the most famous: High Sierra (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
The classic period
The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the "classic period" of American film noir. The movie most commonly cited as the first "true" film noir is Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). While City Streets and other pre-WWII crime melodramas such as Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), both directed by Fritz Lang, are considered full-fledged noir by some critics, most categorize them as "proto-noir" or in similar terms.
Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) is frequently cited as the last noir of the classic period. Some scholars believe film noir never really ended, but has continued to transform even as the characteristic noir visual style began to seem dated and changing production conditions led Hollywood in different directions. In this view, post-1950s films made in the noir tradition are seen as part of a continuity of classic noir. A majority of critics, however, regard comparable movies made outside the classic era to be something other than genuine film noir. They regard true film noir as belonging to a temporally and geographically limited cycle or period, treating subsequent films that evoke the classics as fundamentally different due to general shifts in movie-making style and latter-day awareness of noir as a historical source for allusion.
Most of the film noir of the classic period were modestly budgeted features without major stars, also known as B-movies (either literally or in spirit), in which writers, directors, cinematographers, and other craftsmen were relatively free from the typical big-picture constraints. While enforcement of the Production Code ensured that no movie character could literally get away with murder, at the B level of noir one could come awful close. Thematically, noir films as a group were most exceptional for the relative frequency with which they centered on women of questionable virtue—a focus very rare in Hollywood films after the mid-1930s and the end of the pre-Code era. The signal movie in this vein was Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Barbara Stanwyck as the unforgettable femme fatale. An A-level feature in all ways, the movie's commercial success and seven Oscar nominations made it probably the most influential of the early noir films.
Conventional "A" films, however emotionally tortuous, were ultimately expected to convey positive, reassuring messages. And in terms of style, invisible camerawork and editing techniques, flattering soft lighting schemes, and deluxely trimmed sets were the standard for these features. The makers of film noir turned all this on its head, creating sophisticated, sometimes bleak dramas tinged with mistrust, cynicism, and a sense of the absurd, in settings that were frequently either real-life urban or budget-saving minimalist, with often strikingly expressionist lighting and unsettling techniques such as wildly skewed camera angles and convoluted flashbacks. The noir style gradually influenced the mainstream, even beyond Hollywood.
Thirty-five notable American films in the noir classic period
(with directors and significant noir performers—supporting players in italics)
- Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) d. Boris Ingster, with Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr.
- High Sierra (1941) d. Raoul Walsh, with Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Arthur Kennedy
- The Maltese Falcon (1941) d. John Huston, with Bogart, Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Cook
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943) d. Alfred Hitchcock, with Joseph Cotten
- Laura (1944) d. Otto Preminger, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb
- Double Indemnity (1944) d. Billy Wilder, with Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
- The Lost Weekend (1945) d. Wilder, with Ray Milland
- Mildred Pierce (1945) d. Michael Curtiz, with Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett
- Detour (1945) d. Edgar G. Ulmer, with Tim Ryan, Esther Howard, Don Brodie (starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage)
- The Big Sleep (1946) d. Howard Hawks, with Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone
- Gilda (1946) d. Charles Vidor, with Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia
- The Killers (1946) d. Robert Siodmak, with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Charles McGraw, William Conrad, Jeff Corey
- Notorious (1946) d. Hitchcock, with Claude Rains (starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman)
- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) d. Tay Garnett, with Lana Turner, John Garfield, Audrey Totter
- The Stranger (1946) d. Orson Welles, with Robinson, Loretta Young, Erskine Sanford
- Dark Passage (1947) d. Delmer Daves, with Bogart, Bacall, Bennett
- The Lady from Shanghai (1947) d. Welles, with Hayworth, Welles, Everett Sloane, Ted de Corsia, Sanford
- Out of the Past (1947) d. Jacques Tourneur, with Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie
- Key Largo (1948) d. Huston, with Bogart, Robinson, Bacall, Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez
- White Heat (1949) d. Walsh, with James Cagney, O'Brien, Steve Cochran, Fred Clark (costarring Virginia Mayo)
- The Asphalt Jungle (1950) d. Huston, with Sterling Hayden, Barry Kelley, Ray Teal
- D.O.A. (1950) d. Rudolph Maté, with O'Brien, Luther Adler
- In a Lonely Place (1950) d. Nicholas Ray, with Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell
- Night and the City (1950) d. Jules Dassin, with Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Mike Mazurki
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) d. Wilder, with William Holden, Clark, Jack Webb (costarring Gloria Swanson)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) d. Wilder, with Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict, Teal, Lewis Martin, Timothy Carey
- Strangers on a Train (1951) d. Hitchcock, with Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Kasey Rogers, John Doucette (costarring Robert Walker)
- Pickup on South Street (1953) d. Samuel Fuller, with Widmark, Richard Kiley, Milburn Stone
- The Big Heat (1953) d. Fritz Lang, with Ford, Grahame, Lee Marvin, Carolyn Jones, Doucette
- Kiss Me Deadly (1955) d. Robert Aldrich, with Dekker, Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, Jack Elam, Helton (starring Ralph Meeker)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955) d. Charles Laughton, with Mitchum, Shelley Winters (costarring Lillian Gish)
- The Killing (1956) d. Stanley Kubrick, with Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Cook, Marie Windsor, de Corsia, Carey, Joe Turkel, Jay Adler
- The Wrong Man (1956) d. Hitchcock, with Henry Fonda, Harold J. Stone (costarring Vera Miles)
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957) d. Alexander Mackendrick, with Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Levene, Donnell, Jay Adler
- Touch of Evil (1958) d. Welles, with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Welles, Calleia, Ray Collins
Neo-noir and echoes of the classic mode
The 1960s and 1970s
New trends emerged in the post-classic era. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer, Shock Corridor (1962), directed by Samuel Fuller, and Brainstorm (1965), directed by experienced noir character actor William Conrad, all treat the theme of mental dispossession within stylistic and tonal frameworks derived from classic film noir.
In a different vein, filmmakers such as Arthur Penn, John Boorman, and Alan J. Pakula directed movies that knowingly related themselves to the original film noir, inviting audiences in on the game. Conscious acknowledgment of the classic era's conventions, as historical archetypes to be revived, rejected, or re-imagined, is what puts the "neo" in neo-noir, according to many critics. The first broadly popular crime drama of an unmistakable neo-noir nature was not a movie, but the TV series Peter Gunn (1958–61), created by Blake Edwards.
A manifest affiliation with noir traditions can also provide the basis for explicit critiques of those traditions. The first major film of this type was French director Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), which pays its literal respects to Bogart and his crime films while brandishing a bold new style for a new day. In 1973, director Robert Altman, who had worked on Peter Gunn, showed his disrespect for noir piety with The Long Goodbye.
The most acclaimed of the neo-noirs of the era was director Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown. Written by Robert Towne, it is set in 1930s Los Angeles, an accustomed noir locale nudged back some few years in a way that makes the pivotal loss of innocence in the story even crueler. Where Polanski and Towne raised noir to a black apogee by turning rearward, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader brought the noir attitude crashing into the present day with Taxi Driver (1976), a cackling, bloody-minded gloss on bicentennial America.
Some of the strongest 1970s noirs were remakes of the classics, thus "neo" mostly by default. Altman's heartbreaking Thieves Like Us (1973) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975), are notable examples. Detective series, prevalent on American television during the period, updated the hardboiled tradition in different ways, but the show conjuring the most noir tone was the horror crossover, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–75), featuring a Chicago newspaper reporter investigating strange, usually supernatural occurrences.
The 1980s through the present
The turn of the decade brought Scorsese's black-and-white Raging Bull (co-written by Schrader) was an acknowledged masterpiece that is often voted as the greatest film of the 1980s in critics' polls. The film tells the story of a boxer's moral self-destruction that recalls in both theme and visual ambiance noir dramas such as Body and Soul (1947) and Champion (1949). From 1981, the popular Body Heat, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, invokes a different set of classic noir elements, this time in a humid, erotically charged Florida setting. Its success confirmed the commercial viability of neo-noir, at a time when the major Hollywood studios were becoming increasingly risk averse. Such mainstreaming of neo-noir is evident in films such as Black Widow (1987), Shattered (1991), and Final Analysis (1992). Few neo-noir films have made more money or more wittily updated the tradition of the noir double-entendre than Basic Instinct (1992), directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas.
Over the past 25 years, the big-budget auteur to work most frequently in a neo-noir mode has been Michael Mann, with the films Thief (1981), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004), as well as the 1980s TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story. Mann's output exemplifies a primary strain of neo-noir, in which classic themes and tropes are revisited in a contemporary setting with an up-to-date visual style and rock or hip hop–based musical soundtrack.
Working generally with much smaller budgets, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have created one of the most substantial film oeuvres influenced by classic noir, with movies such as Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996), considered by some a supreme work in the neo-noir mode.
Perhaps no contemporary films better reflect the classic noir than those of director-writer Quentin Tarantino; neo-noirs of his such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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All links retrieved April 10, 2017.
- All-Time 100 Movies TIME magazine's noir-heavy list includes a single TV production, The Singing Detective, among its 100 picks. www.time.com
- Classic Noir Online comprehensive survey of over 700 noir titles, with links to actors and directors. www.classicnoir.com
- Film Noir leading individual fansite; part of Tim Dirks's Filmsite.org
- Film Noir: A Bibliography of Materials holdings of the UC Berkeley Library. www.lib.berkeley.edu
- Film Noir: An Introduction essay with links to discussions of ten important noirs; part of Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture. www.imagesjournal.com
- Film Noir Foundation educational resource addressing the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir. www.noircity.com
- A Guide to Film Noir Genre ten deadeye bullet points from Roger Ebert. rogerebert.suntimes.com
- An Introduction to Neo-Noir essay by Lee Horsley. www.crimeculture.com
- The Noir Thriller: Introduction excerpt from 2001 book by Lee Horsley. www.crimeculture.com
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