Film Noir

views updated May 29 2018

Film Noir


In 1946, French film critics coined the term film noir, meaning black or dark film, to describe a newly emergent quality in wartime Hollywood films. At that time, the term signified an unexpected strain of maturity in contemporary American film, marking the end of a creatively ossified era and the beginning of a bold new one. By the time the term achieved wide English language usage in the 1960s, however, it had come to mean dark Hollywood films of the past—films whose era and style were no longer current. Despite such a slippage in definition, film noir remains arguably the most protean and influential of American film forms. It has demonstrated a limitless capacity for reinvention, has undergone major cycles of redefinition, and has analogues not only in other national cinemas but also in radio, television, theater, fiction, graphic novels, comic books, advertising, and graphic design. The term has moved beyond the domain of film discourse and has been used to describe narratives in other media and genres. There is even a "Film Noir" lipstick.


Film noir indicates a darker perspective upon life than was standard in classical Hollywood films and concentrates upon human depravity, failure, and despair. The term also implies a cinematic style: a way of lighting, of positioning and moving the camera, of using retrospective voice-over narration. Its narrative often relies heavily on flashbacks and choice of setting—usually a seedy, urban landscape, a world gone wrong. Film noir has stylistic and thematic antecedents in American hardboiled fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, German expressionist films of the 1920s, American horror films and radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s, and French cinema of the 1930s. Its first cycle ran from the 1940s to the late 1950s. After 1960, neo-noir films have included a component antithetical to the earlier films: a conflicted nostalgia for the post–World War II era evoked in references to the period's sociocultural atmosphere as well as to its filmmaking practices.

Film noir emerged during World War II with films like Double Indemnity (1944); Laura (1944); Murder, My Sweet (1944); Phantom Lady (1944); Mildred Pierce (1945); Scarlet Street (1945); and The Woman in the Window (1945). Its foundations had been laid in the early 1940s, in films such as Stranger on the Third Floor, with its sinister look, nightmare sequence, and atmosphere of perverse and unstable masculinity, The Maltese Falcon, with its themes of widespread evil and deviant as well as manipulative sexuality, and Citizen Kane (1941), with its dark, expressionist look and fragmented narration.

Although reviews at the time commented on the depravity, sexual degradation, and violence in many of these films, they linked them only insofar as they manifested a gritty "realism." Other common elements among many of the films are retrospectively apparent, such as the large number of Germanic émigré directors, including Fritz Lang (1890–1976), Otto Preminger (1906–1986), Robert Siodmak (1900–1973), and Billy Wilder (1906–2002); their dark "studio" look, often employing expressionistic "mystery" lighting; their use of retrospective, voice-over narration; their engagement with potentially censorable material; their themes of unstable identity, often involving amnesia or identity alteration, and of gender instability, concentrating in particular upon femmes fatales and weak men; their deterministic view of human behavior; their narratives of failed enterprises; the influence of psychoanalytic concepts (such as fetishism, masochism, repression, and various compulsions) upon their characters' construction; and their atmosphere of disorientation and anxiety.

Not surprisingly, neo-noir films display a self-consciousness alien to earlier ones. Many creative participants in the earlier films were not being disingenuous when they claimed that they never knew they were making films noirs when they were making films noirs. The films initially appeared under many guises, only to be categorized as film noir at a great distance, first by the French in 1946 and then by English-speaking critics after 1960. But lack of intentionality does not mean that the filmmakers did not draw on a common sensibility and gravitate toward similar filmmaking practices. Over time, those commonalities have conferred a powerful generic status on the films that is much stronger than earlier, more diverse perceptions of them.

The first films noirs were made as detective films, mysteries, melodramas, social problem films, crime films, and thrillers. They were produced as A films by major studios, as products of B-movie divisions of major and minor studios, and as low-budget, independent films. Some studios, like RKO, developed divisions for the production of inexpensive genre films, many of which have subsequently been called films noirs. While these films were products of Hollywood's "Golden Age," they collectively deviate from popular notions of Hollywood entertainment.


Hard-boiled popular fiction gave film noir its narrative models, major themes, and verbal style. The genre is commonly associated with the detective fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), which first appeared in the 1920s and provided an alternative to the then-dominant British detective fiction of writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie. The British model presumes a benign society into which crime erupts as an aberration: once a detective has solved the crime, society returns to tranquility. Hard-boiled fiction, to the contrary, presumes a corrupt world in which crime is an everyday occurrence. Its characters are often driven by destructive urges that they can neither understand nor control. Although a detective may solve the story's motivating crime, he entertains no illusions that this small victory makes the world a better place. One narrative model that film noir draws from such fiction implicates the detective when the crime he attempts to solve unexpectedly draws him into its consequences. He often becomes ensnared by a femme fatale or gets set up as the "fall guy" for a larger crime. Nearly everyone with whom he deals is duplicitous. Hard-boiled fiction was not limited to detective fiction; Cornell Woolrich's (1903–1968) Phantom Lady and James M. Cain's (1892–1977) Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice share this perspective on life and provided sources for important films noirs.

Hard-boiled fiction—particularly the first-person narration of Chandler's novels—introduced a cynical, doomed, and grimly poetic tone. Its verbal style is apparent in both the wisecracks of the detective and in the moody, voice-over narration dominating many of the films.

German expressionist cinema gave film noir a mood, a visual style, and some themes. A cinema obsessed with madness, loneliness, and the perils of a barely coherent world, it emerged after Germany's devastating defeat in World War I and reflected the despair of the times. Its first major film was Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920). Nearly everything in it is highly stylized, particularly the set design, which appears to be part of a demented dream, not unlike the despairing mood of many noirs.

By the mid-1920s, expressionism had become a widely respected style, imitated by Hollywood directors like John Ford (1894–1973), and by the 1930s, many expressionist directors and technicians had emigrated to Hollywood, influencing its emergent horror genre directly. A decade later, film noir applied these same tropes of madness, despair, and disorientation to the world of "normal," middle-class experience.

A sophisticated use of the sound track was a defining innovation of film noir, drawing upon techniques developed in American network radio. Network radio and sound film both began in the late 1920s, and by the 1940s, they enjoyed great success. It was not until then that Hollywood learned to use soundtracks in genuinely complex ways, rather than simply as adjuncts to image tracks. By then, network radio had developed writers, technicians, and actors skilled at presenting stories using sound alone; its popularity had accustomed listening audiences to understand complex layerings of sound. Radio narration went beyond linear, retrospective storytelling and employed dynamic interactions between narrating voices ("It all began last Tuesday when …") and dramatic ones ("Who's there?"). Sometimes the same voice narrated and participated in the dramatic action—a common trope in films noirs, which used sound to present two versions of a single character simultaneously. The narrator's voice-over in Double Indemnity, for example, appears throughout the film, telling us his story at a time when he already knows he is doomed; he also speaks throughout the flashback scenes. We hear both his depressed narrating voice and his optimistic younger self, which has not yet learned what both narrator and viewer already know—that his scheme will fail. The aural and visual contrast between his optimistic self and the somber, despairing tone of his narrating self create complex layers of character.

Postwar disillusionment gave film noir a mood and a social context. Victory in World War II did not bring the peacetime happiness that many had anticipated. Films like The Blue Dahlia (1946) show wartime veterans feeling isolated after they return. This disillusionment is also evident in non-noir films of the era, such as that Christmas perennial, It's a Wonderful Life (1947), in which the ugly side of small town America drives a decent businessman to near-suicide. Its miraculously happy ending does not entirely erase the sinister darkness that its portrait of small town life creates.

Disillusionment came from many directions. Women, who had been encouraged to join the work force during the war, now felt pressured to leave it to make room for returning veterans. Labor unions, many of which had been forbidden to strike during the war, now demanded long-awaited benefits. The defeat of the Axis powers did not bring about international security, because the Cold War emerged, generating anxiety about Communist infiltration.

Technological advances made during the war allowed postwar filmmakers greater freedom from the confines of studios. Film stocks were improved, enabling cinematographers to capture a wider range of light than previously possible and, at the same time, to need less in the way of bulky lights; sound recording equipment, particularly improvements in the wire recorder, became more portable; lighter cameras with better lenses became available. Although traditionally composed films had always used location shooting, it had been cumbersome and expensive. Now these technological developments dovetailed with a public taste for "realism" in films and with critical respect for Italian neorealism, a new style from Italy that explored the unvarnished realities of contemporary life. In the United States, Louis de Rochemont (1899–1978), who had produced the March of Time newsreels, produced films such as The House on 92nd Street (1945), Boomerang (1947), and Walk East on Beacon (1952), which used a newsreel aesthetic. These films, and others like them, deal with a world of crime and betrayal, subversion, and people on the edge. Many have been called films noirs, but they look and feel differently from films noirs like Double Indemnity or Scarlet Street. They have a strong narrating presence, but instead of the tormented voice-overs of films like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past (1947), they often employ an authoritative "Voice of God" narrator associated with a governmental institution, such as the FBI or the Treasury Department. They have a very different look from the expressionistic films mentioned earlier, although some of their scenes do have a dark look. They often advertised themselves as "real" or "true," or "pulled from the headlines." The House on 92nd Street prides itself on including "actual FBI" surveillance footage. These films mark the first major reinvention of film noir.

Clearly, the term film noir casts a wide net and has meant different things at different times. Certain images, narrative structures, character types, and themes are widely perceived as typifying it, however. Standard perceptions of film noir include atmospheric black-and-white films from the 1940s and 1950s with specific character types, such as a hard-boiled detective, a femme fatale, a middle-class man in a doomed affair, a rootless drifter, a slick underworld night-club owner; narrative patterns, such as an adulterous couple whose murderous plot leads to their doom, a prosperous, middle-class life unraveling into death or madness, a detective investigating a mystery that turns on him, a drifter or criminal seeking a quick score and then drawn into murder and catastrophe, a couple on the run; iconic images and settings (desolate, nocturnal, urban streets; brightly lit, art-deco nightclubs; mysterious, darkened rooms lit through Venetian blinds); shadowy shots of someone watching from a hidden place; iconic performers (wisecracking, trench-coated Humphrey Bogart; desperate, embittered Dick Powell; terrified, or arrogant, Barbara Stanwyck; sultry Lauren Bacall; Veronica Lake peering through her eye-shrouding hair; arrogant, smug Clifton Webb or George Macready; Robert Mitchum looking grimly resigned or dreamily indifferent; Dana Andrews methodically puzzling out a mystery). The overall atmosphere is one in which something—everything—has gone terribly wrong, a world heavy with doom, paranoia justified and closing in.


Given its doom-laden world, film noir offers the voyeuristic pleasure of watching transgression play itself out. Audiences saw morally compromised people doing immoral things; stories involved the forbidden, the sinful. The films pushed the boundaries of contemporary censorship: their ads promised the titillations of easy women, violent men, and doomed enterprises—cheap thrills with dire consequences. In soliciting viewers' identification with doomed people, the films court masochistic pleasure.

A cliché about classical Hollywood films is that they required happy endings. Film noir challenges this generalization. Many films noirs develop virtually no expectation of happy endings; to the contrary, they quickly establish a foreboding of disaster. Characters in many films describe themselves as walking dead men. Part of the appeal of film noir lies in the expectation that things will turn out very badly.

Often, the retrospective, voice-over narrative structure of many such films removes the traditional pleasure—found particularly in mysteries—of wondering how the plot will turn out. The narrator often reveals the outcome at the beginning. The narrator of Double Indemnity, for example, confesses as the film begins that he committed murder for money and a woman and then tells us that he didn't get the money and he didn't get the woman. For the rest of the film, then, the audience knows that his plans will fail. The central character in D.O.A. (1950) announces at the beginning of the film that he has been murdered by poison and has only hours to live. The audience does not have to wonder what will happen to him; they already know. What, then, is the appeal?

Much of noir's appeal is voyeuristic—the pleasure of watching the specifics of how it all came to this. Tabloid journalism provides a useful narrative analogue. A headline may announce "Man murders lover and her husband for insurance money: Gets nothing." The reader knows the outcome from the beginning but reads on to savor the crime's gory details. Virtually all films noirs from the 1940s and 1950s were set in the present. Characters looked and generally behaved like people that audience members might see when they left the theater. Noirs dealt with the kinds of tragedies, scandals, and duplicities that bordered on their audience's everyday experiences and that appeared regularly in tabloids.


A rough overview of film noir begins in the early 1940s with films like The Maltese Falcon, which presented a new, darker perspective on the characters and themes of hard-boiled fiction. Two earlier films, the 1931 The Maltese Falcon and the 1936 Satan Met a Lady, had been based upon Hammett's novel of the same name. Both handled crime in the lighthearted manner typifying detective films in the 1930s. John Huston's (1906–1987) 1941 film brought a new, grim tone to the material. RKO used Chandler's novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), as the source for The Falcon Takes Over, a 1942 film in the earlier detective mode. Only two years later, the same studio used Farewell, My Lovely as the source for Murder, My Sweet but that film's noir style gave it an entirely different atmosphere. The flowering of film noir came with mid-1940s films like Double Indemnity, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, The Blue Dahlia, The Killers (1946), Out of the Past, Detour, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and The Big Sleep (1946). At times, as in The Stranger (1946) and Crossfire (1947), films noirs moved beyond tormented, interpersonal issues and explicitly engaged contemporary social problems, such as fugitive Nazis and anti-Semitism. In the late

b. Bridgeport, Connecticut, 6 August 1917, d. 1 July 1997

Robert Mitchum's extraordinarily long and fertile Hollywood career developed chiefly around his association with film noir. As an actor, the tension between his half-asleep, dreamily indifferent expression and a powerful, broad-shouldered physical presence enabled him to dominate scenes while also seeming abstracted from them. He appeared to confront either success or doom as if he didn't really care, which made him ideal for film noir.

After his Academy Award® nomination for portraying the heroic, doomed lieutenant in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), he was signed by RKO Studios, where he starred in important films noirs such as Out of the Past and Crossfire (both 1947). Even the westerns he made at this time, such as Pursued (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948), were noted for their noir-ish tone.

Out of the Past is possibly the most iconic film noir, with its voice-over narration, atmosphere of doom, chiaroscuro lighting, emasculated men and femme fatale, and strong influence of Freudian concepts upon character construction and narrative organization. Mitchum plays a man whose hidden past catches up with him. A former private detective hired to find a femme fatale, Mitchum's character falls for her, an act that sends his life spiraling into murder, betrayal, and death. Having failed in his attempt to build a new life, he orchestrates his own death. Mitchum's haunting portrayal of a man losing everything important to him is one of his most eloquent.

Mitchum's rebellious off-screen reputation, culminating in his arrest for possession of marijuana in 1948, seemed to blend with his darker roles. This image was enhanced by his skill at playing unregenerate, psychotic villains in films like Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1962), and in the television series A Killer in the Family (1983). A less-discussed counterpoint to this aspect of his image was his career-long effectiveness at playing socially responsible authority figures in films like Crossfire, The Enemy Below (1957), The Longest Day (1962), and in the popular television miniseries The Winds of War (1983).

Long after the era of film noir ended, he contributed to the neo-noir revival of the 1970s, starring as Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). These films were remakes of classical films noirs (Murder, My Sweet [1944] and The Big Sleep, 1946), films in which Mitchum could have credibly starred thirty years earlier. By the 1970s, his very presence in a film carried with it evocations of film noir. While hosting a 1987 Saturday Night Live show, he even parodied his film noir image. Although he was at times mocked for sleepwalking through roles, he developed a singularly diverse and often nuanced repertory of performances.


The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Pursued (1947), Out of the Past (1947), Crossfire (1947), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Thunder Road (1958), Home From the Hill (1960), Cape Fear (1962), El Dorado (1966), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), A Killer in the Family (TV series, 1983)


Belton, John. Robert Mitchum. New York: Pyramid, 1976.

Eells, George. Robert Mitchum: A Biography. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.

Mitchum, Robert. Mitchum: In His Own Words, edited by Jerry Roberts. New York: Limelight, 2000.

Roberts, J. W. Robert Mitchum: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

Server, Lee. Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care." New York: St. Martin's, 2001.

William Luhr

1940s, documentary style entered film noir with films like T-Men (1947) and Naked City (1948). In the 1950s, film noir incorporated anti-communist (Pickup on South Street, 1953), anti-nuclear (Kiss Me, Deadly, 1955), and socio-medical (Panic in the Streets, 1950) concerns.

By the early 1960s, with the decline of black-and-white cinematography and the collapse of the studio system, film noir was dying out. Various films have been cited as marking its last gasp, including Orson Welles's (1915–1985) Touch of Evil (1958), Alfred Hitchcock's (1899–1980) The Wrong Man (1956), Samuel Fuller's (1912–1997) Underworld U.S.A. (1961), and Blake Edwards's (b. 1922) Experiment in Terror (1962). Although the commercial viability of film noir was declining in Hollywood, its international influence was growing. This is particularly evident in films of the French Nouvelle Vague, such as À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Alphaville (1965), Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), and La mariéeétait en noir (The Bride Wore Black, 1968). That influence later appeared in the New German Cinema, the Hong Kong Cinema, and various Latin American cinemas, among others.

By the 1970s, neo-noir films acknowledged film noir as a past form, either by setting themselves during the 1930s–1950s era or, for those set in the present, making clear references to earlier films, as for example, Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1984), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Mulholland Falls (1996). Neo-noir also includes remakes of earlier films noirs, like Farewell, My Lovely (1975), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), D.O.A. (1988), and Kiss of Death (1995). Just as film noir was parodied during its canonical era in films like My Favorite Brunette (1947), so it was later parodied during the neo-noir era in films like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).

Beginning in the 1980s, neo-noir began linking noir with dystopian science fiction in films like Blade Runner (1982), Radioactive Dreams (1985), the Terminator series of films, and Minority Report (2002). Film noir presents a world gone sour and presumes the failure of utopian Modernism; similarly, an enduring strain of science fiction evident since George Orwell's 1948 novel, 1984, has depicted the future as a failed past. The central character of the futuristic Blade Runner speaks with a world-weary cynicism that evokes that of 1940s hard-boiled detectives.

Extensive crossover influences have appeared in other media. While film noir was thriving, numerous radio series drew upon its noir conventions, including the Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective series. Television series, from Peter Gunn to Dark Angel, have done the same thing. Novels, such as those by James Ellroy (b. 1948) (The Black Dahlia, 1987), have been called film noir fiction, and graphic novels by writers like Frank Miller (b. 1957) (Sin City) also draw extensively upon noir stylistics. Similar patterns exist in other media.


The critical and theoretical commentary upon film noir has been extensive. The history of film noir begins with international criticism—essays written in postwar France assessing new developments in American film. The context and historical moment is important. New Hollywood films had not been available in France since the time of the German occupation in 1940. When those films at last appeared in postwar Paris, critics like Nino Frank saw evidence of a new sensibility in them, which he termed film noir. Frank contrasted this sensibility with the work of Hollywood's older generation—directors like John Ford. Frank's use of the term film noir carried with it associations of "black" French films of the 1930s, such as Marcel Carne's (1909–1996) Hotel du Nord (1938) and Le Jour se Leve (1939), as well as with Marcel Duhamel's Serie Noire books. The first book-length study of film noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton'sPanorama du Film Noir Americain, appeared in 1955. By the time the term caught on in English more than a decade later, film noir had come to mean a historically superseded film movement. These three critical perspectives—that of the mid-1940s, describing a vibrant, emerging sensibility; that of the 1950s, categorizing an established cycle; and that of the 1960s, describing a historical, archival category—should not be conflated. They come with different vantage points and different assumptions. They often presume a different body of films (with the post-1960s perspective expanding the canon exponentially). The first two draw upon primarily Modernist presumptions; the last often includes a post-modern sensibility.

The expansion and academicization of film discourse in the 1960s gave film noir its first widespread attention in English. Important articles by Raymond Durgnat in 1970, Paul Schrader in 1972, and Janey Place and Lowell Peterson in 1974 laid groundwork for exploring film noir, posing major questions such as whether it is a genre or a visual style to the growing academic and journalistic film culture in Europe and the United States.

In 1981, Foster Hirsch's The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir detailed historical contexts and proposed major tropes of the form. Three years later, Spencer Selby took a virtually opposite approach in Dark City: The Film Noir. Lamenting what he considered to be the contemporary tendency to fit the films into grand categories, Selby provided detailed (primarily narrative) analyses of twenty-five individual films, along with appendices of historical and bibliographical data, to illustrate his premise that the films must be evaluated individually.

Since the late 1970s, psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis, has become the lingua franca of much discourse on film noir; it inflects many approaches. One such approach, as evidenced in collections of essays by E. Ann Kaplan and Joan Copjec, draws

b. San Diego, California, 30 June 1906, d. 29 April 1967

Although Anthony Mann's reputation as a director rests primarily upon his turbulent, complex 1950s westerns starring James Stewart, his style coalesced in the 1940s with a series of important films noirs. These films, with their disorienting, often baroque cinematography, malevolent environment, and violent, tortured characters, presage his later work. His Technicolor westerns of the 1950s and historical epics of the 1960s were shot with a broader palate and a resonant sense of landscape, and retreated farther into history, but they share with the noirs an entrapping environment populated by embattled, anguished men.

Mann began his directorial career in the 1940s making B films whose minimal budgets allowed him considerable creative freedom. Particularly in his 1940s work with cinematographer John Alton, Mann developed a distinctive visual style that made extensive use of oppressive darkness, intermittent light, and off-center, disorienting camera angles in complexly textured images. Such images are often as potent a component of the films as their characters and stories. Mann's films often erupt with shots of excruciating agony that make viewers gasp. An abrupt, low-angle shot in Winchester 73 (1950), for example, shows Stewart brutally clawing a villain's face. The murderous savagery evident in Stewart's contorted face indicates that little difference exists between this "hero" and the villain.

T-Men (1947), perhaps the most distinctive of Mann's films noirs, deals with undercover US Treasury agents investigating a counterfeiting syndicate. Two scenes reveal much about Mann's compressed techniques. In one, a gangster locks an informer in a steam room to roast him to death. In a single shot, we see the trapped, terrified victim clawing at the room's window while his sadistic killer quietly watches from the other side of the window, only inches away. In the second scene, one treasury agent watches in impotent agony while another undercover agent, a close friend, is murdered. Both scenes painfully foreground the physical proximity, repressed terror, impotent psychic agony, and sadism pervading Mann's enclosed, masculine world of embittered rivalries.

T-Men is framed as a documentary-style film about an actual Treasury Department case. Its unseen narrator, unlike the tormented narrators of many films noirs, speaks in a declamatory, newsreel-type tone, touting the glories of the Treasury Department. Shots of the department seem to belong in a different film—brightly lit, frontal, with monumental exteriors of its Washington, D.C., headquarters. These differ radically from shots of the criminal world—the nightmare-like, dark, cramped, sweaty images classically associated with film noir. These two styles provide contrast within the film and also presage the open landscapes of the westerns and epics to come. Although the palate of later films is broader, their oppressive universe breeding endless, useless masculine conflict and torment remains similar to that of Mann's films noirs.


Desperate (1947), Railroaded (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (uncredited, 1948), Border Incident (1949), Winchester 73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953), Man of the West (1958), El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)


Basinger, Jeanine. Anthony Mann. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

Smith, Robert. "Mann in the Dark." The Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, 167–173. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

White, Susan. "t(he)-men's room." Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture, edited by Peter Lehman, 95–114. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

Wood, Robin. "Man(n) of the West(ern)." CineAction, no. 46 (June 1998): 26–33.

William Luhr

upon post-structuralist, feminist film discourse to examine gender constructions within the films. Another psychoanalytically inflected approach is Frank Krutnik's In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991), which relies on some of the tools of Structuralist genre study to focus upon issues of masculinity. Another approach is offered by Tony Williams (1988), who applies Gaylyn Studlar's work on masochism to films related to Woolrich's fiction and attempts to shift discussion of film noir from tropes of content to tropes of affect. This approach is also evident in recent work on trauma and anxiety done by E. Ann Kaplan and others.

In addition to gender-based approaches, recent articles dealing with racial representation in film noir have opened up an important new area of exploration, examining, for example, the erasure of peoples of color in many films noirs and the use in those films of highly coded racial imagery. As with so many other topics, this functions differently in films made during the classical noir period from the way it functions during the neo-noir era. Films made during the classical era are Anglo-centric and seldom directly engage issues of race. However, significant patterns exist in ways in which many of those films not only erase or marginalize peoples of color but also symbolically associate them with the exotic and the dangerous. Neo-noir films, to the contrary, often explicitly address issues of race, commonly from a perspective sympathetic (while patronizing at times) to peoples of color. A number of such films have been based upon fiction by African American authors such as Walter Mosley (b. 1952), Chester Himes (1909–1984), and Donald Goines (1937–1974).

SEE ALSO Crime Films;Expressionism;Genre


Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. Panorama du film noir americain, 1941–1953. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1955. Published in English as Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002.

Copjec, Joan, ed. Shades of Noir: A Reader. New York and London: Verso, 1993.

Gorman, Ed, Lee Server, and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. The Big Book of Noir. New York: Carroll and Graff, 1998.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. San Diego: Barnes, and London: Tantivy Press, 1981.

——. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir. New York: Limelight, 1999.

Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Women in Film Noir, 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film, 2nd ed. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1991.

——, ed. The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, Director. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. Farmington Hills, MI: Twayne, 1994.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.

Spencer, Selby. Dark City: The Film Noir. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984.

Telotte, J. P. Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

William Luhr

Film Noir

views updated May 14 2018

Film Noir

The genre known as film noir emerged from economic, political, and moral crises in European and American cultures in the years leading up to World War II. Its American origins are in the "toughguy" and "hard-boiled" novels that became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and which, as Hollywood became more liberal in the 1940s and 1950s, could more easily be adapted for the movies than before. Such novels were also popular in Europe, particularly in France, where they were known as "romans noirs," and were published under imprints with titles such as "La Série Noire." When the embargo on American films that existed in France under German occupation was lifted in 1944, many of the films that first arrived were based on hard-boiled novels, and it seems natural for French critics to have begun categorizing these films as "film noir." The European influence on film noir is not restricted to its name, however. Many of the cinematic techniques, and the overall pessimistic outlook of these movies, can be found in French "poetic realist" films made in the 1930s, and more especially, the work of German Expressionist film makers, many of whom emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis and went on to work in Hollywood.

German directors such as Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak, and cinematographers, such as Hungarian-born John Alton, used contrasting light and shade, odd camera angles, and scenes dominated by shadow, to reproduce on screen the bleak vision of hard-boiled writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and others. Movies in the film noir style can be recognized by their visual dependence on the effect of chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and shade. Characters and objects in film noir are often backlit, so that they cast long shadows and their features are obscured, or else the principals are brightly lit from the front so that the background is dark. Faces are pictured half-obscured by darkness, or crosshatched by the shadows of prison bars, window frames, or banister rods; the corners of rooms are dark and the interiors of cars provide a gloomy, claustrophobic setting.

Although many of its visual codes are familiar, the overall concept of film noir is notoriously difficult to pin down; although their plots usually center on crime, films included in the corpus cannot easily be identified as belonging to one particular genre. For example, Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name, is a detective thriller, while Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955) concerns an excon's search for the proceeds of a robbery committed by his former cellmate. Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) depicts a vain and ageing star of silent movies obsessed with loyalty, her lost beauty and star status; it ends with her murder of the young man who rejects her and is narrated, famously, by the victim, face down in the swimming pool. What these films do have in common, however, is a fascination with psychological instability, sexual obsession, and alienation. Unlike the "Hollywood Gothic" of films such as Dracula (1931) or The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), what appears as monstrous in film noir derives not from the half-human horrors of the vampire or Frankenstein's monster, but from the all too human characteristics of jealousy, greed, lust, and ruthless self-interest.

Such themes are by no means exclusive to film noir, of course, and film categories must be defined as much by their technical and visual features as by thematic and formal tendencies. If film noir is difficult to define in terms of the plots of the films it includes, the problem is hardly eased by critics' reliance on terms such as "style," "mood," and "sensibility" when discussing films of "noir" pedigree. Rather than seeing film noir as a genre, many critics instead view it as a movement, a set of films and filmmakers expressing a common approach to life using similar literary sources, narrative structures, and visual codes.

The difficulties of describing film noir as a genre combine the problem of the sheer variety of different types of stories such films encompass, and the question of what it is exactly that distinguishes them from other films. Many films, for example, use chiaroscuro but can be described only as noir -ish, while others, such as Gilda (1946) are accepted as film noir, but betray their otherwise pessimistic tone with a happy ending of sorts. A further complication is that while genres seem not to be trapped in a particular time or place, film noir is very closely linked with the Hollywood of the 1940s. A significant proportion of films in the film noir mode that have been made since then refer back, in some way, to the immediate post-war period, and many of the reasons for film noir's appearance at that time and place have to do with the particular culture of Hollywood. Financial restrictions on filmmakers during the war have already been mentioned, but other factors, such as the perception of German Expressionist style as "quality," and the need among the smaller studios for new and distinctive film products, are also important. The opportunities film noir gave for directors and cinematographers to "show off" their talents, combined with the gradual relaxation of the Hays Code, which controlled the "moral content" of movies, made Hollywood cinema receptive to the content, mood, and style of film noir in the 1940s.

Because most noir films were "B" movies, or at least made much of their money in the so-called "grind houses"—small theatres playing a rolling program and catering for people on the move from one town to another—budgets for sets, costume, and film stock were limited. This was particularly the case with films made during and just after the war, when money for new sets was restricted to $5000 per film. The shadowy look of what has become known as film noir could be used to conceal props and sets lacking in detail, or perhaps missing altogether. While much of this could be achieved by lighting effects alone, cinematographers such as John Alton, or Gregg Toland, who worked on Orson Welles's famous early noir film, Citizen Kane (1940), enhanced and spread out the darkness in their pictures by underexposing slow film. Faster film stock, which had only recently become available, was, in any case, much more expensive.

Besides economic considerations, the visual style of film noir owes much to the ideas and techniques of émigré directors such as Lang, Siodmak, and Wilder. Lang's German film, M (1931), for example, uses shadowy streets, empty, darkened office buildings, and unlit attics to depict the inner turmoil of the child murderer, played by Peter Lorre. If the chaos of the murderer's mind is represented by the cluttered attics in which he hides, so the dank, half-lit cellar in which he is lynched by a mob of "decent" people suggests that humanity at large is troubled by a dark inner life. This view of the human psyche as dark and troubled, brought by directors such as Lang and Siodmak from Nazi Germany, appears too in the "tough" stories written in America during the 1920s and 1930s. Combining such a view of humanity with the American themes of urban alienation, organized crime, and fear of failure, such stories became ideal vehicles for the émigrés and their followers, and it is from this combination that the mood and sensibility of film noir developed.

Robert Siodmak's 1946 film of Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" (1927) is a good example of the interplay between the look of film noir and its exploration of the ambiguities of the human psyche. The Killers concerns a man known as "The Swede" (Burt Lancaster) who waits in his small, dark room for his killers to arrive, accepting his fate because "I did something wrong. Once." Hemingway's story takes us only to the moments before the killers arrive, while the film uncovers what it was he did wrong through a narrative constructed mainly from flashbacks. The images of The Swede's last moments include shots of him, in a darkened room, lying half-dressed on the bed, deep in thought. The impenetrable shadows around him suggest the impenetrability of his thoughts. His enigmatic and ambiguous answer to the man who warns him of his approaching death suggests the possibility of regret for a criminal past, but turns out to refer to his obsession with a woman. Through flashbacks, and the insurance investigator's haphazard reconstruction of events, it emerges that what The Swede has "done wrong" has nothing to do with the fact of his criminal past but with the psychological reasons for it.

This emphasis on The Swede's psychological state is representative of film noir's fascination with psychoanalysis. Frank Krutnik suggests in In a Lonely Street (1991) that Freudian psychoanalysis became popular in America during the late 1930s and 1940s and coincided with the adaptation of hard-boiled crime stories such as "The Killers" by Hollywood. Krutnik argues that the shift in crime thrillers towards highlighting the psychological reasons for and consequences of crime can be attributed to this popularization of psychoanalysis. This is evident, he thinks, in the complex narrative structures of many films noirs, including The Killers. In these films, "the process of storytelling becomes submerged"; it becomes unclear who is telling the story, whose version is true, and what their motives are for telling it in a particular way. Citizen Kane, for example, addresses directly the process of telling and retelling stories, being the story of the rise and fall of a newspaper magnate. In Citizen Kane, as in film noir in general, the margins between fantasy, psychosis, and reality become blurred; the film emerges as the story of Kane's psychological flaws, centering on an incident from his childhood. All of these signs of unstable psychological states are enhanced by film noir's adoption of techniques from Expressionist cinema; exaggerated darkness and light/shade contrast, strange camera angles, and plain, unrealistic sets.

While the political conditions of Europe in the 1930s affected the American film industry through the arrival of talented filmmakers, film noir is also a product of the political instability of the period during and after World War II. Critics point to a crisis in American national identity, the problems of war veterans readjusting to civilian life, and the new threats of the atom bomb and the Cold War, as possible cultural reasons for the flourishing of film noir in the period 1941 to 1958. Certainly the aftermath of war meant that large numbers of young men, to some extent institutionalized by life in the forces, and often physically or psychologically damaged, now had to look after themselves and find work in a competitive labor market that included many more women than before. They returned from war anxious that their contribution be acknowledged, yet questioning what they had fought for, given the new threat that was emerging in Eastern Europe and the Far East. On a more personal level, many returned to wives and families who were no longer dependent on them for financial or emotional support, whose lives had continued without them for several years, and who were unable to understand the ordeal they had suffered. All of this contributed to a sense of instability and hostility in the culture at large that is a central feature of film noir.

Like many films of the time, The Blue Dahlia (1946) makes direct reference to the concerns and problems associated with returning war veterans. The story revolves around the return of Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) from service in the Navy and his discovery of his wife's infidelity. Helen Morrison (Doris Dowling) represents the new moral possibilities for women in the years following the war, abandoning the traditional roles of wife and mother and declaring her freedom to go where and do what she wants. She goads Johnny into using violence against her, and so unwittingly makes him a suspect for her murder. The exchanges between her and Johnny represent a challenge to old-fashioned versions of masculinity, based on physical strength and power over women and the family. While Johnny's violence is presented in the film as unacceptable and excessive, the idea that he is in some way struggling to come to terms with a changed world presents itself as a way of understanding his actions. The male characters in this film, like The Swede in The Killers, and men in film noir in general, command our sympathy because they have all in some way been deprived of their defining masculine roles by forces beyond their control. As is also common in film noir, Johnny finds emotional support in his relationships with other men. Frank Krutnik suggests that the problems Johnny experiences in his conventional family are offset by the stability of the "all-male Navy family" that consists of his friends George and Buzz.

Women in film noir tend to fall into two main categories: those who support the hero as good, wives, or pliant molls, and those who use their sexuality in an explicit way to manipulate men and get what they want. Women in this second group, a key feature of film noir, are known as "femmes fatales," dangerous women who encourage the hero's obsessive sexual interest to the point where he will risk his job, his freedom, or even his life for her. The insecurity of the hero's identity, outlined above in the case of The Swede in The Killers, leads him to "over-invest" in a version of her sexuality which he himself has invented; the femme fatale is awarded power over the hero by the (weakened) hero himself. Her inevitable death can be seen as punishment for her "unfair" exploitation of her advantage.

The many examples of cheating wives like Helen Morrison, and more obvious femmes fatales whose overt sexuality plays a part in the hero's misery, is often given as evidence of film noir's inherent misogyny, of a conservative core in what otherwise appears to be a subversive alternative to classical Hollywood cinema. But the femme fatale is usually drawn in at least as much psychological detail as her male counterpart, and the emergence of that unexpected complexity often takes the place of the quest or mystery plot at the center of the hero's attentions. She rejects classical Hollywood cinema's version of passive womanhood and, by whatever means she has at her disposal, actively seeks independence and freedom from men. She is remembered by audiences not for her death, but for her strength in life, her sexual power, and the deadly challenge she represents to the male's attempt to solve the mystery or reach the end of his quest. If film noir is concerned with exploring ambiguities of perspective (through voice-overs and flashbacks), the limits of subjective vision (through the use of shadow, and unnatural camera angles), and the instability of the human psyche, then the femme fatale represents a further interference with clarity of vision. Like the heroes of film noir, the femme fatale is an ambiguous figure, at once the victim of society's restrictions and the defiant answer to them. Her strength, sexual independence, and freedom pose a direct challenge to the masculine gaze of the hero and the male majority of film noir's original audience.

The origins of film noir in the political turmoil of pre-war Europe, and post-war America and Hollywood would seem to limit its scope to the historical period from which it springs. Although film noir was at its most popular during the late 1940s and 1950s, "noir" and "neo-noir" films have appeared right up to the 1990s. Some of these, like Farewell, My Lovely (1975), have been remakes of films made in the 1940s; others, such as Chinatown (1974), recreate the look of 1930s Los Angeles. Taxi Driver (1976) and Seven (1995) bring "noir" sensibilities to their contemporary settings, while Blade Runner (1982) adds a futuristic, science-fiction setting that compounds the ambiguities, instabilities, and uncertainties of more conventional film noir. If film noir viewed 1940s America through the bleak sentiments of pre-war Europe, it remains a "dark mirror" in which we look to find out who we are, and what we might become.

—Chris Routledge

Further Reading:

Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City. New York, Free Press, 1997.

Copjec, Joan, editor. Shades of Noir: A Reader. London and New York, Verso, 1993.

Crowther, Bruce. Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror. London, Columbus Books, 1988.

Hannsberry, Karen Burroughs. Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1998.

Kaplan, E.A., editor. Women in Film Noir. London, British Film Institute, 1980.

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. London and New York, Routledge, 1991.

Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.

Stephens, Michael L. Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms, and Persons. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1995.

Tuska, Jon. Dark Cinema. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1984.

Film Noir

views updated Jun 08 2018

Film Noir

The term film noir, meaning "dark cinema," was coined by French film critics to describe the American films that arrived in Europe in the years after World War II (1939–45). Emerging in the 1940s as an alternative to "classical" Hollywood cinema, film noir is a curious blend of violent crime, national identity crisis, and budget moviemaking. It takes a bleak view of human nature and American life. Its shadowy photography and troubled characters perfectly capture the turmoil of the postwar years.

Filmed on cheap black-and-white film stock, most film-noir movies were low-budget affairs. Their style owes much to the European filmmakers who arrived in Hollywood in the years leading up to the war. German directors such as Fritz Lang (1890–1976) and Robert Siodmak (1900-1973) found expression for their cynical outlook in adapting American "hardboiled" crime novels onto film. The look of film noir also came down to cost. Dark, shadowy images were used to cover up for missing sets, so a doorway framed in light might be just that, a doorway with no walls surrounding it. Classic films in the film noir genre (category) include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Killers (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Film noir is more than just a look. It concentrates on the psychology of crime and criminals. The films focus on the clash between morality and desire and deal with the lowest of human instincts. The heroes of film noir are weak, troubled men, and the women are dangerous and threatening. At a time when women were not expected to be independent and self-sufficient, the "femme fatale," as she became known as, proved very shocking.

Over the years, film noir has been spoofed, revamped, and updated. A comedy by Steve Martin (1945–), Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), satirizes the style. Blade Runner (1982)— described as "future noir"-revamps the style. Thrillers like TaxiDriver (1976) and Seven (1995) update the film noir tradition for contemporary audiences. Film noir was created in the 1940s to challenge the morality and values of Hollywood's mainstream. By the twenty-first century, the style's dark images, dangerous characters, and brusque dialogue have come to define that era of America's history and create new images of modern times.

—Chris Routledge

For More Information

Crowther, Bruce. Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror. London: Columbus Books, 1988.

Hannsberry, Karen Burroughs. Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.

Stephens, Michael L. Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995.

film noir

views updated May 17 2018

film noir Genre of cynical, bleak films, originating in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s. Often bathed in gloomy shadows, the ominous mood of the films mirrored the corruption and paralysis of the underworld characters they presented. Influenced by the effects of World War II, it depicted an uneasy world, lacking ideals or moral absolutes. John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the blueprint for other genre classics, such as The Big Sleep (1946) and Touch of Evil (1858).

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