Introduction to Film Noir

Film Noir, it’s a term coined by French Film Critic Nino Frank in 1946 which literally translates into “Black Film.” But defining what makes a film FILM NOIR isn’t so easy.

The stereotypical film noir features a fedora sporting gumshoe and a femme fatale being chased in urban landscape. But there are many noirs that don’t have private eyes or killer dammes and take place in the suburbs. Unlike gangster films, there are no character requirement for noir. Nor is there location requirement as in a Western. No far fetched Science Fiction, No song and dance as in musicals, and certainly no super heroes with magic powers.

So without a rigid definition – noir may be best to described as a feeling through visual styling of low key lighting and story conventions.

Film Noir in the Context of History and Technology

Since there is so little to define noir, understanding it requires us to look at noir in the context of history and technology.

We’ll pick up the story in the 1930s – the Great Depression Era in American history. Building on advancements in filmmaking in the 20s that added sound, better black and white photography, and smaller and more controllable lighting the Big 5 Hollywood Studios (MGM, Paramount, Fox, RKO, and Warner Bros.) were honing their production and distribution methods. It was boom times for film – Going to the movies was a way for an economically devastated country to escape their troubles and by 1939 there were 15,000 movie theaters in the United States, more than the number of banks.

The 30s was also the beginning of Technicolor in motion pictures – bringing beautiful color to the blockbuster films like Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. But the technology of color was still relatively young and the three strip color process required massive amounts of lighting – these epics were expensive and took a long time to make.

Rather than sink all their eggs into the financial success of these blockbuster spectacles, the studios used “Block Booking” a system which was perfected by Adoph Zukor and Paramount during the silent era.

In order for independent theater operators to get the rights to showing the big A-list films, they would have to buy blocks of films from the studio which included the A-list films as well as a mix of less desirable B-list films often shown at the bottom a double feature. At the height studio era, these blocks could include up to a hundred films – an year’s worth – purchased blindly by the theaters before they even went into production.

By leveraging their power over the A-list movies, the studio was able to guarantee a profit on the B movies because they were being charged at a flat rate.. The more B films they made, regardless of quality, the more money they could make so long as they kept the cost down.

They needed a lot of stories to tell, Gangster films, westerns, sci-fi, horror, and of course, pulp fiction crime stories- which would serve the basis for many film noir.

Even though quality wasn’t the top priority for the executives, no filmmaker sets out to make a bad film. And because their financial success was relatively insured, a certain level of experimentation was allowed. Through this low budget studio filmmaking the film noir style emerged especially for the crime genre, based greatly on German expressionism brought over by artists escaping the Nazi threat in Europe and pursuing a career in Hollywood.

That Nazi threat would materialize into the Second World War. The carnage had left many feeling disillusioned and numb – a common theme in film noir. The war also advanced filmmaking technique as many of the cinematographers returning to Hollywood had served in the military as documentary filmmakers. The war brought better technology, they had faster more light sensitive film, better and more compact lighting instruments and weren’t afraid of shooting on real locations – all of which contributing to the look and feel of film noir.

These filmmakers were dealing with serious issues of murder, sex, and crime but they were bound by the Motion Picture Production Code commonly called the Hays code which censored taboo subjects. This forced the filmmakers to be more suggestive rather than explicit in their filmmaking – hiding the ugly business in the shadows of the scene.

These forces culminated into the classic era of film noir – studios padding their blocks with low budget b-fims, low key lighting greatly influenced by German Expressionism, characters with a sense of nihilism caused by the lead up to and aftermath world war two, and a restrictive production code.

The End of the Classic Era of Film Noir

In 1948, the Supreme Court of the United States put an end to Block Booking in the court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc. et al using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Studios immediately cut back on the number of B-movies produced as their distribution method had to change- how B-movies were made and their audiences would change along with it. Many filmmakers were laid off, but they found work in a new medium – Television.

Television kept audiences at home and away from the movie theaters and established a new style. I Love Lucy which used a lighting setup devised by Karl Fruend of Metropolis fame, eliminated shadows on set so that footage from a live multi-camera production could be cut seemlessly. This flat even lighting look created for technical purposes ironically by one of the great cinematographers from the German expressionist era was a stark contrast to the moodiness of noir lighting and it became a stylistic norm, copied by television shows even to this day.

Film continued to battle television for audiences introducing widescreen aspect ratios, higher budgets, and more risque material which ultimately led to the abandonment of the Hays Code by the late 60s.

In terms of technology, color film continued to advance so by the end of the 50s, color film was becoming much more practical. The techniques of using harsh backlighting in film noir to create separation in black and white film wasn’t as necessary as differences in color could easily provide that same sense of distance with color productions.

Four Essential Film Noirs

There’s no better way to get a sense of film noir than to look at a few defining films of the classic era. Let’s start with what many consider is the first true “noir” film: Stranger on the Third Floor from 1940

Directed by Boris Ingster, written by Frank Partos and Nathaniel West and lensed by Nicolas Musuraca, Stranger on the Third floor tells a story of a newspaper reporter whose court testimony was used to convict a murder suspect. But he’s having doubts about the conviction especially after he finds his neighbor dead under similar circumstances. Masuraca’s visual style in this B-film would define the look of film noir- especially notable is a brilliant German Expressionist inspired dream sequence as the reporter imagines his own false conviction.

Another essential noir: Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder in 1944

Photographed by John F. Seitz and written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity tells the story of an insurance salesman involved in a murder plot on his lover’s husband. Though certainly not a B-movie in production and cost- both Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were A-list celebrities, you can see a lot of the elements of film noir coming into play, as Billy Wilder brought his German Expressionism influences to Seitz’s cinematography.

Moving in the 50s is Joseph Lewis’s The Big Combo released in 1955

Written by Philip Yordan and Photographed by John Alton, the Big Combo was a low budget B-picture that defied many of the taboos of the time including violence, sex, and homosexual characters. It tells the story of police lieutenant Diamond’s unwavering pursuit of a sadistic crime boss Mr. Brown. Extremely Controversial at the time was this suggestive scene where Mr. Brown demonstrates his mastery over his girlfriend Susan.

Coming in at the tail end of the classic Film Noir period is Orson Welle’s 1958 film Touch of Evil

Cinematography by Russell Metty and written by Orson Welles, A Touch of Evil takes place in a small border town where a car bomb has killed a prominent building contractor. Mexican Narcotics Officer Mike Vargas played by Charlton Heston, visiting on his honeymoon, gets entangled with an investigation led by a crooked cop Captain Hank Quinlan played by Orson Welles.

Even though the forces that created the elements of film noir may have changed, like a certain style of music, film noir will never completely go away. After the classic era, noir elements would find their way into all genres and budgets – an endless well that filmmakers continue to draw from.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of everything that is film noir – it’s a massive and important style made possible by compact lighting technology, faster film, German Expressionism, a studio system’s appetite for low budget films, and the part in each of us that loves a dark story. It’s all connected, every bit of it contributing to the well of our shared past and understanding – so use it, let it inform your filmmaking and go make something great.


The Origins of Film Noir Quiz