Film noir is a genre of film based in
large part on the hard-boiled detective novels that grew out of naturalism, a
movement in literature based on realism. Film noir is French for "black film",
and is pronounced accordingly ("film nwahr"): the plural is films noirs.
Film noir tends to feature characters trapped in situations (often not of
their own making) and making choices out of desperation. Frequent themes are
murder/crime, infidelity, jealousy, corruption, betrayal, and hopeless
Film noir is at its core pessimistic. The stories it tells are of people
trapped in a situation they did not want, often a situation they did not
create, striving against random uncaring fate, and usually doomed. Almost all
film noir plots involve the hard-boiled, disillusioned male (often a private
eye) and the dangerous femme fatale. Usually because of sexual attraction or
greed, the male commits vicious acts, and in the end both he and the femme
fatale are punished or even killed for their actions.
The term film noir was coined by the French film critic Nino Frank, and is
derived from a series of hard-boiled fiction books entitled SÚrie Noire. Films
noirs were mainly shot in black-and-white in the United States between the
early 1940s and the late 1950s. Many were low-budget supporting features
without major stars, in which 'moonlighting' writers, directors and
technicians, some of them blacklisted, found themselves relatively free from
big-picture restraints. Major studio feature films demanded a wholesome,
positive message. Weak and morally ambiguous lead-characters were ruled out by
the star-system, and secondary characters were seldom allowed any depth or
autonomy. Flattering soft lighting, deluxe interiors and elaborately-built
exterior sets were the rule. Noir turned all this on its head, creating bleak
but intelligent dramas tinged with nihilism and cynicism, in real-life urban
settings, and using unsettling techniques such as the confessional voice-over
or hero's-eye-view camerawork. Gradually the noir style re-influenced the
mainstream it had subverted. Orson Welles' Touch of Evil is often referred to
as the last "classical" film noir.
In the 1960s American filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Robert
Altman created genre films that broke the strict format of the genre's rule to
convey social and political messages. In The Long Goodbye Altman's hard-boiled
detective is presented as a hapless bungler who can't help but lose the "moral
battle". While not a direct influence, the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Italian
director Sergio Leone incorporated the moral ambiguity and gritty
characterizations of film noir, reviving the moribund genre of the American
The genre has been parodied (both ruthlessly and affectionately) on many
occasions, the most notable examples being Steve Martin's black and white "cut
and paste" homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and Woody Allen's Play It Again,
Sam. Many of Joel and Ethan Coen's films are excellent examples of modern
films influenced by the film noir genre - especially The Man Who Wasn't There,
the comedy The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple, the title of which was lifted
from the Dashiell Hammett story Red Harvest .
The cynical, pessimistic worldview of noirs strongly influenced the creators
of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction in the early 1980s. Blade Runner is
among the most popular films coming from this era. Characters in these films
are derived from 1930s gangster films and, more importantly, from pulp fiction
magazines such as The Shadow, Dime Mystery Detective and The Black Mask.
Influences on films noirs
The aesthetics of film noir are heavily influenced by German Expressionism.
When Adolf Hitler took over Germany, many important film artists were forced
to emigrate (among them were Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak).
They took with them techniques they developed (most importantly the dramatic
lighting and the subjective, psychological point of view) and made some of the
most famous films noirs. Another important influence came from Italian
neorealism. After 1945, film noir adopted the neorealist look, and scenes were
shot in real city locations (not in the studio); a perfect example of this
being the film which is often referred to as the archetypal film noir, Double
Indemnity. Books by the Black Mask writers Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese
Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (Murder My Sweet, based on Chandler's Farewell,
My Lovely; The Big Sleep) became among the most famous films noirs.
Films noirs tend to include dramatic shadows and stark contrast (a technique
called low-key lighting). Technically speaking, film noir specifies a movie
made using monochrome, high contrast images, typically a 10:1 ratio of light
to dark, rather than the more typical 3:1 ratio. Film noir in this sense makes
use of deep shadows and carefully directed lighting. Since films using this
technique usually fit the genre described above, the term lost its technical
meaning and became the name of the genre itself.