Film Noir: Defining a Genre

Be honest, we all have our own guilty pleasures when it comes time for movie night. I’ll freely admit my love of B-level sci-fi action movies with their awesome images and terrible plots. The affection I have for these movies sprouts from my decreasing attention span and the ever improving abilities of cinematic special effects. Who cares if Paul Bettany’s dialogue in Priest (2011) was terrible when his fight scenes were so amazing. But these movies are a new attraction in my life. They may steal my heart for a moment or two but my first love, and longest sustained cinematic relationship, is with the smoke-filled frames of film noir. 
As we discussed in the first installment of Flashback/Backslide’s Film Noir Series, crafting a genre classification is a difficult, but enjoyable endeavor. In that edition we discussed noir’s roots, tracing its lineage through the pulp fiction of the 1950’s and the innovations of German Expressionism of the previous decades. These elements collided fortuitously to produce film noir as we know it today. But the elements that define the genre are fluid and as difficult to discern and quantify as the cryptic characters that fill out their shadowy landscape. In this second edition of the Film Noir Series, we’ll try to pry apart the Venetian blinds of the genre and take a better look at some its the more central tenets, all the while remembering that definitions blend and shift depending on what you read (and when, as these definitions change drastically with time and are retroactively constructed).

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

1. Plot: Obviously the breadth of plots explored in film noir is as broad as any other genre but the noirs tend to fall back on the classic detective-based mysteries prevalent in the pulp magazines of film noir’s Golden Age. Pessimistic and gloomy, the films typically unpack a mystery surrounding a murder, theft or other criminal pursuit. Fatalistic overtones surround the story as the main characters attempt to escape the enveloping story line but they find themselves caught up in the drama as it spirals out of their control. The noirs of the Golden Age contrasted with the more cheery and optimistic films running in the same theaters of the time (eg Singing in the Rain (1952)). Honestly, I find the parallel development of these diametrically opposed branches of film to be one of the more fascinating chapters in the real-life history of film.
 2. Characters: The classic noir revolves around a central tough guy, often a private eye or similar archetype playing the anti-hero. Morally ambiguous and secretive, he (sadly, it overwhelming is a “he”) plays multiple angles throughout the story and prefers to lurk in the background, gleaning facts in the shadows. They act out of self-interest first and hesitate to involve themselves in the affairs of others unless they have something to gain. Humphrey Bogart, widely regarded as one of the best actors of all time in any genre, embodied the role exceptionally well. The image of him in a fedora and overcoat, leaning against a door frame leading into a dark hallway is a common visual in his noirs.
The genre also brought us the femme fatale as we know her today. Usually the female lead, the femme fatale stands as a stark foil to the damsel-in-distress often thrown around on-screen elsewhere. Characterized by wit and independence, dressed in elegant dresses and fancy attire, she may be the only character one step ahead of the male protagonist, manipulating him to work in her best interests as he is helpless to resist her charm and mystique. Even as their relationship develops, neither one fully trusts the other and often they both know they are being played but also know that they stand to gain more working with rather than against each other. Supporting casts are littered with familiar characters; the bartender who would rather clean spilled beer than break up a fight, a police detective willing to look the other way for a small price, cab drivers driving drunks, addicts, gangsters, politicians and everything in between, and a mix of other stock characters bastardized to fit into the dark world crafted on-screen.

On the Waterfront (1955)

3. Style: Film noir translates from French as “black film” and the meaning applies to both the plot and the feel of the film. Light is budgeted like a precious commodity and the lead tends to spend most of his time in the shadows of a darkly lit room or nighttime alleyway. Venetian blinds cast faces in half-light and half-dark, suggesting ambiguity and adding to the sharp transitions from the limited light sources. Darkness adds to the overall feeling of disorientation and seediness of the film, often paired with exchanges outside of run-down bars and speakeasies as backroom deals are made between crooked cops and the P.I. or femme fatale. Low budgets factored partially into the decision for low lighting but the resulting artistic effect is in line with chiaroscuro, a technique in which lighting is used to develop strong contrasts between light and dark in a painting or film to draw the viewer’s eyes in premeditated directions. Shooting a film in black-and-white compounds the effect and intensifies the mood. As Chris from Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop explainschiaroscuro is an “incredibly effective lighting technique that can be used to convey a range of meanings from the inner turmoil of a character to a sense of foreboding and apprehension,” a range that perfectly matches the film noir tonally. (As an interesting side note, later entries into the film noir catalog are characterized by film soleil in which the dark and gloomy sets of film noir are swapped for overpoweringly bright and hot sets, like Chinatown‘s (1974) dried out river bed near Los Angeles. Heat and sunlight are used to add tension as the characters sweat through their fine suits).
The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

When you next settle in to watch a film noir (hopefully sooner than later), keep your eyes peeled for the following visual gimmicks, common in many noirs.
1. Smoking: Roger Ebert’s A Guide to Film Noir Genre  teaches us that “Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, ‘On top of everything else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today’.” Smoking isn’t added trivially. Instead it serves as a punctuation mark. Think of a classic noir exchange (which I’ve just made up) where Bogart delivers “the facts” to his client and takes a long draw from his cigarette, allowing her to process the information, then lets his deep exhale fill the room with shadows, accentuating the slats on the Venetian blind in the corner off-screen. The cigarette is just a cigarette but it allows the film to take a beat, adds to the chiaroscuro, steepens the mystery of the central character as he opts for a smoke instead of a fight, and allows the femme fatale to seductively ask him for a light.
2. Venetian Blinds: So prevalent are these slatted window dressings that it seems that these are the only justifiable or permissible window covers. On the Waterfront (1955, which is not universally accepted as a noir but nonetheless has many noir elements) even has Venetian blinds in the car in one of its more famous scenes.
3. Fancy Hats: Fedoras for the men and elaborate constructions for the women, often with lace or some sort of veil (obviously fashion is not my strong suit). This partly goes with the attire of the time these movies were made, but like the cigarettes, the hats let the actors take a beat. Before delivering bad news an actor might slowly remove his fedora and clutch it to his chest, or he may throw it to the ground after realizing he’s been outmaneuvered.
Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown (1974)

4. Fashion: It doesn’t stop with the hats. Look for thick overcoats, oft-used handkerchiefs, elaborate makeup, high heels, expensive dresses and an assortment of pocket watches, cigarette cases, metal lighters and the occasional hidden pistol.
5. Voice-overs: The protagonist often narrates his inner thoughts, suspicions or confusions adding to the brooding and skepticism of the character.
6. Mirrors and Reflections: All of the above add to the disorientation of the film. Mirrors and reflections achieve similar goals. Commonly a scene will start with a solitary, motionless character who suddenly shifts to reveal we were actually looking at her reflection. A fight may develop in the foreground only to quickly move off-screen, forcing us to watch the blows in a reflection offered by a mirror in the background while the camera remains motionless and uninterested in the ruckus. A notable mirror-less reflection is brought to us by Chinatown (1974), in which the reflection off Jack Nicholson’s camera grants us access to his point-of-view.
The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo (1955)

7. Dutch Angles: Showing the genre’s roots in German Expressionism, the dutch angles, like the reflections above, disorient the audience and add to the overall tension of a scene.
 8. Silhouettes: Again, lighting reports for duty. The strong side lighting of film noir provides larger-than-life silhouettes of its characters, usually in a big reveal or when someone is snooping around and sifting through drawers and cabinets. We can also expect to see silhouettes through frosted glass, maybe on a P.I.’s office door.
Certainly there are more common aspects we can investigate but these should keep you satisfied on your next movie night. I know many people would argue that such dissection and overwrought analysis of a film genre only succeeds in making the film experience stale and excessively academic. But I would say that investigating the overarching similarities and characteristics that define a genre allow us to better understand the films under its umbrella, appreciate the place a film takes in history and more fully appreciate the innovations each film introduces.
In our upcoming third and final introductory installment we will look at where film noir fits into the overall cinematic landscape, investigate its impact on newer films, and discuss its edgier son, the Neo-Noirs.
Thanks for reading!

5 thoughts on “Film Noir: Defining a Genre

  1. Ha! The “Easter Egg Hunt” section made me chuckle a few times, especially w/ regard to the venetian blinds. After reading this post, I can see how film noir has influenced films many decades later. I’m thinking specifically of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is filled with mirrors/windows/screens/reflections, dim lighting, and of course, Catwoman as the femme fatale.


    • I’m glad you liked it! And I agree completely about the Dark Knight Rises (I have a few notes ready for the next post about that movie and other newer films). I think I actually get more excited about new movies that borrow noir traits than even the original noirs themselves. It’s fun to see how new movies tweak old techniques (like Brick, which I absolutely love).


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