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Film Noir - literally “BLACK FILM” – is a French phrase, but it refers to an American
cinematic phenomenon made in Hollywood. These films are considered “downbeat”; they
focused on the dark sides of life. They violated the traditional narrative and stylistic practices
of classical Hollywood cinema that oriented and stabilized audiences. Noir films created an
uncomfortable and disturbing malaise or anxiety in their viewers and are sometimes referred
to as “feel bad movies.” The time period typically associated with NOIR films is the early
1940’s – the late 1950’s. FILM NOIR was categorized retrospectively. Noir did not have this
title while directors were creating them during this time period. Noir directors of the time
were not necessarily intentionally trying to create films that fit into a specific category.
Instead, they were simply creating films that reflected much of the sentiment of the time.
FILM NOIR &
The source material for the bulk
of NOIR narratives came from the
underworld of American pulp
fiction. For example, nearly 20%
of FILM NOIRS between 1941
and 1948 were adaptations of
hard-boiled detective novels.
FILM NOIR deals with a uniquely
American experience of wartime
and post-war despair and
alienation as a disoriented
America readjusts to a new social
and political reality. These issues
were highlighted in the pulp fiction
of the time.
In film theory, FILM GENRES are forms or identifiable types,
categories, classifications, or groups of films that are recurring and
have similar, familiar or instantly-recognizable patterns, syntax, filmic
techniques or conventions – that include one or more of the following:
settings, content and subject matter, themes, mood, period, plot, central
narrative events, motifs, styles, structures, situations, recurring icons,
stock characters and archetypes, and stars. Many films are considered
hybrids – they straddle several film genres.
NOIR as GENRE
Though most critics and historians regard NOIR as a MODE of
film practice whose identity resides chiefly in its ability to make
audiences uneasy, there is considerable disagreement over
what exactly FILM NOIR is. A number of recent scholars treat
NOIR as a GENRE, discussing it in terms of its iconography
(dark city streets glistening at night with fresh rain, for example),
fixed character types (tough guy, anti-heroes ensnared by
treacherous femme fatales), and predictable narrative patterns
(murder plots and criminal investigations in which the hero’s
moral fallibility leads to his victimization and/or defeat at the
hands of his enemies, and often results in his death or in an
otherwise unhappy ending). For those who view it as a genre,
FILM NOIR relies on a well-defined system of conventions and
Viewing specific films as part of a particular AESTHETIC MOVEMENT requires
individuals to analyze the STYLISTIC ELEMENTS of the film – what the film looks
In the case of FILM NOIR, this AESTHETIC or STYLE was characterized by low-key
lighting; deep-focus cinematography; distorting, wide-angle lenses; sequence shots;
disorienting mise-en-scene; tension-inducing, oblique, and vertical compositional
lines; jarring juxtapositions between shots involving extreme changes in camera
angle or screen size; and claustrophobic framing. The cinematography reinforces the
darkness in the plot and theme. Long, sharp shadows are used in FILM NOIR, as well
as inky blackness. Tilted camera angles suggest a sense of claustrophobia, and
emphasize a nocturnal world. Sets have a gloomy feel. NOIR films often take place
indoors - in spaces with low-key lighting. Blinds often obscure windows. Exterior
scenes include streets and alleys, dark and wet. Flashing neon signs were popular to
use in FILM NOIR. These types of sets were partially due to war-time scarcity. The
characters will often be seen in murky streets, cheap city apartments or hotel rooms,
or abandoned warehouses. These movies are often based on situations based in
reality – usually crime and espionage. They are set in urban areas and deliberately
have a realistic feel. They are produced in a semi-documentary style to suggest the
darkness of reality.
Discussing films as being representative of specific
MODEs is focusing on the specific emotional reactions
produced by certain films in an audience. Some films can
be categorized as affective phenomena that produce
certain emotional responses in people. MODES are the
way stories are told in order to elicit certain reactions.
MODES transcend time; there are no limiting temporal
properties in that they are not bound to one time period.
FILM NOIR AS A MODE
The emotional reaction audiences experience when viewing
NOIR films is uneasiness and anxiety. We feel displacement.
We feel temporally uncertain.
Those who view NOIR not as a genre, but rather as a MODE
believe that films do not need to be NOIR from start to finish.
Instead, the characterization requires only a single character,
situation, or scene that is NOIR to produce the disturbance
or disorientation that is necessary to give the audience the
unsettling twist or distressing jolt. NOIR thus emerges as an
adjectivial attribute or characteristic, functioning in the same
way “tragic” or “comic” might. NOIR becomes a description of
tone, attitude, or mood.
CHARACTERISTICS OF FILM
Fatalism is the acceptance of all
things and events as inevitable;
submission to fate. In NOIR films, a
character will often feel like his/her
life is pre-ordained and that free will
is an illusion. This film noir
characteristic was influenced by the
international conflicts of the time and
powerlessness to avoid them that
many Americans felt
CHARACTERISTICS OF FILM
This FATALISM is often
expressed by one transgression
that spirals out of control. The
average citizen character makes
a mistake that snowballs into
much greater problems. Every
attempt at correction just makes
everything worse. This is often
called a SPIDER WEB OF
DECEIT in FILM NOIR. It can
suggest hysteria and panic. Also,
FATALISM is expressed in the
NOIR characters who are
innocent victims of circumstance.
CHARACTERISTICS OF FILM
EXISTENTIALISM is a philosophy
that is often considered a product of
post-WWII Europe. This philosophy
states that there is no defined
purpose in life, there is no defined
morality, there is no defined meaning.
People must create their own
meaning through exercising their free
will, making choices, and committing
to and accepting the consequences of
those choices. In this way, people
create their essence. For
existentialists, existence precedes
essence. A man’s essence is how he
defines himself and the meaning he
ascribes to his life. Existentialists
often felt alone in a hostile world.
They felt anxious and isolated; they
believed that there was a futility to life
because there was no external
AMERICAN EXISTENTIALSIM in
FILM NOIR is evident in the films
through themes of isolation, anxiety,
futility, and death in the thrilling
context of the urban crime thriller.
NOIR films present a world of doom.
Characters grapple with the futility of
individual action; the alienation,
loneliness, and isolation of the
individual in an industrialized mass
society; the problematic choice
between being and nothingness; the
absurdity, meaninglessness, and
purposelessness of life; the
arbitrariness of social justice, which
results in individual despair leading to
chaos, violence, and paranoia.
Noir settings are dark and reflect a lack of defined morality. Many noir
films are set in an urban area that is full of crime and immorality. In
these films, the city serves as a character itself, one which the
protagonist needs to fight against. Consider Gotham City or the urban
settings in the neo-noir film Sin City.
THE NOIR HERO
The male protagonists/heroes of film noir are often cynical, brooding,
and obsessive. They lead a seamy existence as private detectives,
gangsters, or government agents, among others. In a world without
morality, the protagonists often must make a choice that goes against
their values. They believe that any choice – exercising free will – is
better than remaining passive – even if that choice is defiant. This
choice could be criminal or motivated by lust or even one that results in
another’s death. In film noir, the struggle these characters undergo
often ends in failure. The noir hero feels isolated. He suffers from social
The HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE is
the most iconic noir hero. Because
noir films presented a very different
view of the world, directors and
writers needed to create a
completely different hero to exist in
that world. These heroes are often
as amoral, ruthless, and greedy as
the criminals they worked to defeat.
These heroes often show a lack of
compassion and even a cruelty.
Their heroism does not lie in any
innate goodness or concern for
justice, but in their personal code of
loyalty, professional responsibility,
The noir detective does not rely on the powers of
deductive reasoning , acute observation, or scientific
method to solve their cases, but rather on dogged
perseverance, animal cunning, physical stamina, and
brute force. Noir heroes are often considered to have
weak intellect. This detective is often a brawny proletariat
(working class or low class). They often try to make up for
their lack of intellect with their control of language and use
of VERBAL WIT. This wit enabled them to enjoy an edge
over their opponents. Their world was a no-nonsense
world. They had directness, they relied on linear logic.
NOIR CHARACTER ARCHETYPES:
THE NOIR HERO
Typical noir heroes do not need to be HARD-BOILED
DETECTIVES, although they often are because the social
alienation of those figures in that profession makes them
archetypal noir protagonists. Often they are merely
ANTISOCIAL LONERS, sometimes DRIFTERS or TRAMPS.
But even the gainfully employed can be subject to a certain
deadpan- existential angst, especially given their relatively
faceless anonymity in a larger, dehumanizing work environment.
Perhaps the most existential of all NOIR HEROES is the
AMNESIAC who possesses only enigmatic clues to his identity.
The amnesiac epitomizes the social estrangement and
psychological confusion that had settled in the formerly healthy
American psyche after the war. Audiences established a
troubled identification with these heroes who had become cut-off
from their own pasts and whose identity crises mirrored those of
the nation as a whole.
NOIR CHARACTER ARCHETYPES:
THE PROLETARIAN TOUGH GUY
This character is a working class man who achieves his
toughness by repressing all signs of weakness in himself. All
weakness, for him is associated with the feminine. He represses
“feminine virtues,” like feelings, and heightens “masculine
virtues,” like loyalty to a professional code and facing problems
with aggression and dominance. These men reject their
WOMEN IN FILM NOIR
WOMEN AS SOCIAL MENACE: The threat that women and the feminine posed
to the noir hero presented itself on two different fronts – the socioeconomic and
the psychoanalytic. On the socioeconomic front, the changing status of
American women during the war and postwar period challenged male
dominance. The entry of women into the workforce and their taking over of
traditional male roles violated the fundamental order of sexual relations.
Previously middle-class women were confined to the home, where they took
care of the domestic needs of the family, while men were able to move back and
forth freely between the home and the workplace.
These changes posed a threat to traditional values, which
centered in the institution of the family. Film Noir registered the
anti-feminist backlash by providing a picture of postwar America
in which there is no family or in which the family exists chiefly as
a negative phenomenon. In noir, the family was either non-existent
or negative. It was characterized either as a
claustrophobic, emasculating trap or as a bankrupt system of
perfunctory relationships, featuring murderous wives and corrupt
children. Film noir dramatized the consequences of the neglect
of family people believed was happening as a result of women
entering the workforce, transforming women into willful
creatures intent on destroying both their mates and the sacred
institution of family. Traditionally, Hollywood had taken great
efforts to shield the family from the world of crime. In film noir,
crime moved from outside the family to within it, and the impetus
for crime came as often from women as from men.
The destruction of the family was evident in extreme ways within NOIR
films. Wives murdered husbands. Children committed crimes,
sometimes even violent crimes. These deviations from standard moral
values were a reaction to the perceived threat to society prompted by
women claiming independence.
WOMEN IN FILM NOIR
WOMEN AS PSYCHOLOGICAL TERROR – The
psychoanalytical front reflected women in film noir who
presented a psychic threat to the typically insecure noir
hero. Basically, it is a fear of symbolic castration – of
emasculation. Hollywood tried to allay this fear through a
process called DISAVOWAL in which the female’s
“castrating status” was denied. This denial could be
achieved either through fetishization, or through her
devaluation, or both.
DESTRUCTION OF WOMEN
Fetishization is creating the
image of women as
overvalued, often through
the use of lingering close-ups,
glamorous costumes, or
other techniques that
transformed her into a
spectacle and not a human.
In becoming pure
spectacle, she is
objectified. The woman
becomes an object of male
desire and fantasy.
DESTRUCTION OF WOMEN
Devaluation is creating the image of the woman as guilty object. These
women were often objects of male investigations into the original
source of their guilt. These woman are “fallen women.” They are first
punished and then later, having revealed their guilty secrets, rescued.
In film noir, women are
routinely devalued by the
male protagonists, who feel
threatened by them. Thus,
women in film noir tended
to be characterized as
FEMME FATALES, intent
on “castrating” or otherwise
destroying the male
protagonist. This archetype
is also called a SPIDER
The FEMME FATALE, or
the “deadly woman,” is a
woman who exploits the
weaknesses of men to her
own advantage. These
characters are sexy,
Another female role
common in film noir is the
MENACED WOMAN. If the
main character is female,
she will often be tormented
physically by a man,
usually a love interest.
THE NARRATIVE VOICEOVER was very common in film noir. This is
due to the popularity of Freudian thought at the time. The voice-over
narration film noir characteristic represents psychological reflection and
introspection by a character.
CRITIQUE OF POPULISM
The destabilization of sexual relationships found in film noir is
symptomatic of a larger social disorder. Prior to WWII,
American society had been held together by various myths
that structured its identity as a nation. These myths rested, in
large part, on the principles of Jeffersonian democracy, which
assumed a fundamental equality based on the universal
ownership of property. This equality through ownership
concept provided a fundamental principle for 19th century
American Expansionist theory, the motivation for western
settlement, which became a realization of America’s manifest
destiny. But the closing of the frontier, the exhaustion of free
land, and the rapid industrialization of America began a slow
process of social change
CRITIQUE OF POPULISM
The agrarian ideal gave way to an industrialized mass society. By 1920, for the first
time in American history, more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones. The old
middle class consisting of shop owners, formers, and other property keepers gave
way to a new middle class dominated by hourly wage workers, who owned neither
land nor homes.
Though millions of laborers lived this new reality, they continued to subscribe to the
old, pre-industrial era myths. It was only after the Depression that the power of these
myths began to waver. Film noir reflects a transitional stage in American ideology and
American identity shifted from 19th century, preindustrial, agrarian prototypes to 20th
century models that acknowledged the nation’s transformation into a mass consumer
society and an industrialized, corporate state.
Characters in noir are products of post-war consumerist society. Film noir captured
the emptiness of these people’s world. As a movement, it reflected the chaotic period
in which old myths began to crumble and no new myths were there to take their place
– the period in which national identity was in crisis.
NOIR suggested that American innocence had been lost and could not easily be