Ultimate Filmmakers Guide to Film Noir

Film Noir… black film. The genre conjures up images of private eyes and femme fatales – of obtuse shadows and smokey night clubs. The endless night. It’s a style and genre – but what is it? In this guide we hope to shed some light on what exactly does Film Noir refer to, how it has been used and how it’s being shaped even in contemporary films.

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What is Film Noir?

Film noir is a type of film that is, fatalistic, pessimistic, or cynical in mood and often dealing melodramatically with urban crime and corruption, generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.

OK, that’s the simple textbook definition, but the questions of what defines film noir and if it is a true genre continues to cause debate. There have been innumerable attempts at definition, yet in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir remains an “elusive phenomenon … always just out of reach”.

French critic Nino Frank is credited with coining the term film noir (French for “black film”), in 1946. Cinema historians and critics defined the noir canon in the 1970s long after the classic noir period of the 1940′s and 50′s. Before then film noirs were referred to as melodramas. Not every film noir embodies all noir attributes in equal measure and the question of whether film noir qualifies as a distinct genre is still debated.

While many critics refer to film noir as a genre itself, others argue that it can be no such thing. While noir is often associated with an urban setting, many classic noirs take place in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road; so setting cannot be its genre determinant, as with the Western. Similarly, while the private eye and the femme fatale are character types conventionally identified with noir, the majority of film noirs feature neither; so there is no character basis for genre designation as with the gangster film. Nor does film noir rely on anything as evident as the monstrous or supernatural elements of the horror film, the speculative leaps of the science fiction film, or the song-and-dance routines of the musical.

Due to the lack a solid genre definition film noir may be more accurately described as a visual style, that emphasizes low-key lighting, unbalanced compositions and other conventions.

History

Film noir’s visual aesthetics are deeply influenced by German Expressionism, an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s that involved theater, photography, painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as cinema. The opportunities offered by the fast growing Hollywood film industry and later by the threat of Nazi power led to the emigration of many important filmmakers working in Germany who had either been directly involved in the Expressionist movement.

German Expressionist Paintings

The Scream (Edvard Munch 1893)

The Scream
(Edvard Munch 1893)

The Prophet (Emil Nolde 1912)

The Prophet
(Emil Nolde 1912)

The Church of the Minorites (Lyonel Feininger 1926)

The Church of the Minorites
(Lyonel Feininger 1926)

German Expressionist Films

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(1920)

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu
(1922)

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis
(1927)

The primary literary influence on film noir was the hardboiled school of American detective and crime fiction popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask.

Crime Fiction

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

The Maltese Falcon (1930)

The Maltese Falcon
(1930)

The Asphalt Jungle (1949)

The Asphalt Jungle
(1949)

The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the “classic period” of film noir. Many of the film noirs of the classic period were low budgeted B-movies without major stars. Low budgets allowed writers and directors relative freedom from typical big-picture constraints. Narrative structures sometimes involved convoluted flashbacks uncommon in non-noir commercial productions. In terms of content, enforcement of the Production Code ensured that no movie character could literally get away with murder or be seen sharing a bed with anyone but a spouse; within those bounds, however, many films now identified as noir feature plot elements and dialogue that were very risqué for the time.

Classic Film Noir Period 1940s and 1950s

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor
(1940)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon
(1941)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt
(1943)

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Murder, My Sweet
(1944)

Laura (1944)

Laura
(1944)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep
(1946)

The Killers (1946)

The Killers
(1946)

Gilda (1946)

Gilda
(1946)

The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger
(1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Notorious
(1946)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past
(1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai
(1947)

White Heat (1949)

White Heat
(1949)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle
(1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place
(1950)

Gun Crazy (1950)

Gun Crazy
(1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard
(1950)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train
(1951)

The Big Carnival (1951)

The Big Carnival
(1951)

The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo
(1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly
(1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter
(1955)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil
(1958)

Neo-Noir

Some believe film noir never really ended, but continued to evolve and post-1950s films in the noir tradition are seen as part of a continuity with classic noir. A majority however, regard noir films made outside the classic era to not be genuine film noirs. They regard true film noir as belonging to a specific time and place and subsequent films that evoke noir elements are referred to as “neo-noir.”

1960′s and 1970′s

Shock Corridor (1962)

Shock Corridor
(1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate
(1962)

Cape Fear (1962)

Cape Fear
(1962)

The Getaway (1972)

The Getaway
(1972)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye
(1973)

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown
(1974)

The Drowning Pool (1975)

The Drowning Pool
(1975)

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Farewell, My Lovely
(1975)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver
(1976)

1980′s

Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull
(1980)

Body Heat (1981)

Body Heat
(1981)

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple
(1984)

1990′s

The Grifters (1990)

The Grifters
(1990)

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Miller's Crossing
(1990)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs
(1992)

Final Analysis (1992)

Final Analysis
(1992)

Red Rock West (1992)

Red Rock West
(1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct
(1992)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction
(1994)

Heat (1995)

Heat
(1995)

Se7en (1995)

Se7en
(1995)

Fargo (1996)

Fargo
(1996)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential
(1997)

Out of Sight (1998)

Out of Sight
(1998)

2000′s and 2010′s

Training Day (2001)

Training Day
(2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition
(2002)

Memento (2000)

Memento
(2000)

Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia
(2002)

Collateral (2004)

Collateral
(2004)

The Machinist (2004)

The Machinist
(2004)

A History of Violence (2005)

A History of Violence
(2005)

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

The Killer Inside Me
(2010)

Science Fiction Noir

Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green
(1973)

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner
(1982)

Alien 3 (1992)

Alien 3
(1992)

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Twelve Monkeys
(1995)

Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca
(1997)

Dark City (1998)

Dark City
(1998)

Comic Book and Graphic Novel Noir

Sin City (2005)

Sin City
(2005)

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight
(2008)

Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen
(2009)

General Noir Articles, Videos & Tutorials

Visual style

To support their categorization of certain films as noirs, many critics refer to a set of elements as noir’s identifying characteristics. These characteristics include low-key lighting, deep focus and unconventional camera angles. Night-for-night shooting, as opposed to the Hollywood norm of day-for-night, was also often employed.

Clip from the 1992 documentary “Visions of Light” by the American Film Institute

Low-Key Lighting

The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning, a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting).

In traditional lighting, three-point lighting uses a key light, a fill light, and a back light for even illumination. Low-key lighting requires only one key light, optionally controlled with a fill light or a simple reflector.

The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters’ faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness, a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood filmmaking.

Chiaroscuro Lighting in Renaissance Paintings

Sacred Love Versus Profane Love (Giovanni Baglione 1602)

Sacred Love Versus Profane Love (Giovanni Baglione 1602)

St. Peter in Prison (Rembrandt 1631)

St. Peter in Prison
(Rembrandt 1631)

The Matchmaker (Gerrit van Honthorst 1625)

The Matchmaker
(Gerrit van Honthorst 1625)

Low key light accentuates the contours of an object by throwing areas into shade while a fill light or reflector may illuminate the shadow areas to control contrast. The relative strength of key-to-fill, known as the lighting ratio, can be measured using a light meter. Low key lighting has a higher lighting ratio, e.g. 8:1, than high key lighting, which can approach 1:1.
The term “low key” is used in cinematography to refer to any scene with a high lighting ratio, especially if there is a predominance of shadowy areas. It tends to heighten the sense of alienation felt by the viewer, hence is commonly used in film noir and horror genres.

Low-Key Lighting (Interiors)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

The Killers (1946)

The Killers (1946)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Grifters (1990)

The Grifters (1990)

Dark City (1998)

Dark City (1998)

Se7en (1995)

Se7en (1995)

Night-for Night Low-Key Lighting (Exteriors)

The Big Combo

The Big Combo (1955)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple (1984)

The Killers (1946)

The Killers (1946)

Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996)

Deep Focus

Deep Focus is a style or technique of cinematography and staging with great depth of field, preferred by realists, that uses lighting, relatively wide angle lenses and small lens apertures to simultaneously render in sharp focus both close and distant planes (including the three levels of foreground, middle-ground, and extreme background objects) in the same shot; contrast to shallow focus (in which only one plane is in sharp focus).

Gregg Toland’s pioneering cinematography in many deep-focus images in Citizen Kane (1941) such as in this video of young Kane in the far distance and other foreground action – all in focus.

Like deep space, deep focus involves staging an event on film such that significant elements occupy widely separated planes in the image. Unlike deep space, deep focus requires that elements at very different depths of the image both be in focus.

Deep Focus

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate
(1962)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter
(1955)

The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo
(1955)

The Killers (1946)

The Killers
(1946)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

The Big Carnival (1951)

The Big Carnival
(1951)

Unconventional Camera Angles

Film noir is also known for its use of low-angle, wide-angle, and skewed, or Dutch angle shots. Other devices of disorientation relatively common in film noir include shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and special effects sequences of a sometimes bizarre nature.

Dutch Angles

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

Pickup On South Street (1953)

Pickup On South Street (1953)

Low Angles

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008)

High Angles

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard
(1950)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner
(1982)

Dark City (1998)

Dark City (1998)

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen (2009)

Visual Style: Articles, Videos & Tutorials

Camera Angles

Story

Film noirs tend to have unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks and other editing techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. Framing the entire primary narrative as a flashback is also a standard device. Voiceover narration, sometimes used as a structuring device, came to be seen as a noir hallmark.

Crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all film noirs; in addition to standard-issue greed, jealousy is frequently the criminal motivation. A crime investigation by a private eye, a police detective (sometimes acting alone), or a concerned amateur is the most prevalent, but far from dominant, basic plot. In other common plots the protagonists are implicated in heists or con games, or in murderous conspiracies often involving adulterous affairs. False suspicions and accusations of crime are frequent plot elements, as are betrayals and double-crosses.

Characters

Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic protagonists of noir are described by many critics as “alienated”. Certain archetypal characters appear in many film noirs—hardboiled detectives, femme fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, intrepid claims adjusters, and down-and-out writers. Among characters of every stripe, cigarette smoking is rampant. From historical commentators to neo-noir pictures to pop culture ephemera, the private eye and the femme fatale have been adopted as the quintessential film noir figures, though they do not appear in most movies now regarded as classic noir. Of the twenty-three National Film Registry noirs, in only four does the star play a private eye: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly. Just four others readily qualify as detective stories: Laura, The Killers, The Naked City, and Touch of Evil.

Femme Fatale

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

The Lady From Shanghai
(1948)

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Stranger on the Third Floor
(1940)

Gilda (1946)

Gilda
(1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

The Grifters (1990)

The Grifters (1990)

Smoking in Noir

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Gilda (1946)

Gilda (1946)

Mogambo (1953)

Mogambo (1953)

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction
(1994)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

The Killer Inside Me
(2010)

Setting

Film noir is often associated with an urban setting, and a few cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, in particular—are the location of many of the classic films. Bars, lounges, nightclubs, and gambling dens are frequently the scene of action. The climaxes of a substantial number of film noirs take place in visually complex, often industrial settings, such as refineries, factories, trainyards, power plants.

Noir settings

The Killers (1946)

The Killers (1946)

The Grifters (1990)

The Grifters (1990)

Crime Wave (1950)

Crime Wave (1950)

Fallen Angel (1945)

Fallen Angel (1945)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady (1944)

Tone

Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The movies are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt.

Dark Tone

Shock Corridor (1962)

Shock Corridor (1962)

White Heat (1949)

White Heat (1949)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996)

Noir Story Articles & Videos

Resources

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