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Film Noir

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 fatalism.

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 Western.

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.

Technical aspects

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.


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