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.
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
German Expressionist Films
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
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
2000′s and 2010′s
Science Fiction Noir
Comic Book and Graphic Novel Noir
General Noir Articles, Videos & Tutorials
- Film Noir – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- List of Film Noir Movies
- Film Noir Filmmaking How To : Indy Mogul
- Watch and Download Public Domain Noir Films for Free
- A Guide to Film Noir Genre by Roger Ebert
- The Internet Movie Database – Top-Rated Film Noir Titles
- Film Noir They Shot Dark Pictures, Didn’t They?
- Film Noir: An Introduction
- Film Noir Q&A
- Dark City: Film Noir and Fiction
- Rain, Guns & Cigarettes: Noir’s Past And Present
- Film Noir – Explained (video)
- An Introduction to Neo-Noir
- Bright Lights Film Journal – Film Noir and Neo-Noir
- The endurance of film noir
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
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
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)
Night-for Night Low-Key Lighting (Exteriors)
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.
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.
Visual Style: Articles, Videos & Tutorials
- Low-key lighting – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Lighting – Low key Lighting Setups | DIYPhotography.net
- Low-key lighting: Definition from Answers.com
- Creating Low Key Lighting | B&H Photo Online Videos | Podcasts
- HIGH KEY, LOW KEY, LIGHTING, CONTRAST – Free Cinematography Tutorial
- Portrait Lighting For Beginners: Low Key Lighting | Sublime Light
- Low Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial
- Lighting – High Key and Low Key | DIYPhotography.net
- The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Low Key
- The Difference Between High and Low Key Lighting
- What Is Key Lighting?
- The Key to Low Key Lighting
- Photography tips-Lighting techniques.
- High Key & Low Key Lighting for fashion
- How to Make a Low-key Image During the Day
- Photography tips-Lighting techniques.
- Video Copilot Day to Night Conversion
- Casablanca (1942)-Analysis of Lighting pt. 1 pt.2
- Vanity Fair Film Noir Photo Shoot: Killers Kill, Dead Men Die
- Deepfocus – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Citizen Kane: Deep Focus (video)
- Deep Focus: Freedom of (eye-)movement in eight of the greatest long takes ever
- How is deep focus achieved?
- Filming DeepFocus CML-Cinematography Mailing List
- DeepFocus and Frame Composition
- FAQ: ANAMORPHIC LENSES – Cinematography.com
- Dutch angle – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Dutch angle (video)
- The Death of the Dutch Angle
- How to do a simple dutch angle camera trick with a tripod
- Dutch Tilt | Composition Lesson 11 | Photography School
- Filmmaking Techniques: Camera Shots & Angles
- 17 Camera Angles and Shots
- Camera Angles and Techniques
- Uses of Low Angle Shots
- Uses of High Angle View Shots
- Uses of Tilt Shots
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.
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.
Smoking in Noir
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.
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.
Noir Story Articles & Videos
- A Look Back: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity
- Film Noir’s Progressive Portrayal of Women
- Film Noir and the Hard-Boiled Detective Hero
- The Outer Limits of Film Noir
- No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir
- Twists, Slug and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
- Notes on Film Noir By Paul Schrader
- 36 Awesome Film Noir Movie Posters
- Does Film Noir mirror the culture of contemporary America?
- Narrative Innovations in Film Noir
- High Heels on Wet Pavement: Film Noir and the Femme Fatale
- Screenwriter John August on film noir
- Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord on film noir
- Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri on film noir
- Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Meyer on film noir
- Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank on film noir
- Screenwriter Dick Clement on film noir
- Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan on film noir