Any discussion by knowledgeable fans of film noir will likely provoke debate regarding
the actual definition of film noir. Read any of the many books on the subject or
look into any discussion group and you will find a variety of opinions. Some opine
that any post WWII black and white crime drama qualifies as a noir. At the other
end of the spectrum are those that subscribe to a narrowly defined set of elements
both in storey and cinematic style for a film to be considered a true noir. Like
most issues the answer falls somewhere in-
You might say film noir is in the eye of the beholder, but some things, at least from my perspective, are essential. Foremost, a noir is black and white. This goes to the heart of the genre. That may seem obvious but there have been a number of films made in color, which have tried to emulate noir style. Some critics have even coined the term, “neo noir”, to describe films like L.A. Confidential and City of Industry. Films that certainly make reference to classic noir in both story and style, yet lack the atmosphere that only black and white can project. Steven Spielberg recognized the power of black and white when he made Shindler’s List. The ability to evoke a sense of harshness and despair cannot be equaled in color. The best directors of noir knew this. Even though their use of black and white was often dictated by economics of the time, they used the medium to create the dark atmosphere that is noir.
For most films the storey defines the genre, but with film noir it’s much more open to interpretation. That’s because in noir the style of the film is as important in defining the genre as the story itself. In fact, it has long been argued by some critics that noir is a style of filmmaking not a genre. Film noir’s linage evolved from the crime drama, so within every noir there is an underpinning element of crime. It may serve as a backdrop or it may be the focal point of the storey. Either way, it’s the common thread that usually binds the characters together in some form or another. But it’s the focus on the individual that goes to the heart of noir. And a focus that audiences had not generally seen before noir. In noir the line between good and evil is often blurred. Viewers find themselves confronted with a host of unsavory characters and are left to their own emotional devices to make judgements. This type of storey was a sea change for moviegoers as noir started to flourish after WWII.
Another element that made noir different were the endings. Throughout the Depression era years of the 1930s audiences looked to the movies to provide a bit of respite from the drudgeries of the times. Indeed most of the fare during that period was light hearted melodramas with pleasant endings. Even the crime dramas were usually innocuous affairs which became known as “murder mysteries.” These were popular in series like The Thin Man, Charlie Chan, Boston Blackie and others. They were blithesome, full of wisecracking characters and had the prerequisite agreeable ending. There were exceptions of course, most notably at Warner Bros. where the gangster films ruled the day. With hard lighting, violent characters and crude treatment of women you might even say the gangster films were a forerunner of noir. But these were escapist fare with larger than life bad guys. There was a clear divide between good and evil. There was a disconnect between audiences and the gangsters depicted in these films. But in noir, the characters are ordinary people and their predicaments happen in real life. The inability to control one’s circumstances is a reoccurring theme in noir and the viewer is left to ponder their own susceptibility to such events.
There is no definable moment when noir began. No director ever expressed his intent to make a noir and thus begin the genre. In fact the term did not come into use by American critics until after the genre had pretty much ended. So its actual beginnings provide another aspect of the genre that is open for debate.
The origins of noir seem to coincide with the onset of WWII. As the Great Depression of 30s ended, the benign melodramas of the that era lost appeal to audiences as the realities of a more dangerous world took hold. War movies became a focus of most major studios in response to America’s involvement in the war. For moviegoers the war films imparted a justification for violence. Audiences also were becoming more desensitized to the killing and violence from the proliferation of war films. A few screenwriters took advantage of the changing public perceptions to put forth stories that had subtle, but consequential elements that seemed to go unoticed by the censors. Among these films, High Sierra in 1941 and This Gun For Hire in 1942, both encompassed story elements that would plant the early seeds of noir storylines.
In This Gun For Hire , Alan Ladd played a cold-
With some crafty writing the viewer’s emotions are manipulated. As events unfold
the viewer must make moral judgements, and everything is not black and white. We
see Ladd becoming victim of a greater evil while Bogart takes on the cause of the
crippled Velma and is snubbed for his efforts. It also did not hurt that both characters
formed bonds with animals. Of course the censors could only be pushed so far and
in the end both Bogart and Ladd had to pay for their crimes, being killed off. The
endings left audiences without any sense of satisfaction. Still, the success of
both films, and the fact that audiences connected sympathetically to on-
In the early 1940s a style of filmmaking emerged in Hollywood that was a clear departure from what audiences were used to seeing. This new style was discernible by a dark atmosphere, hard shadows and peculiar camera angles, the very elements that most directors tried to avoid since the earliest days of motion pictures. These films would also differ in their stories, where the line between good and evil was often blurred and a sense of despair prevailed. And, unlike most of the melodramas that served as a respite for moviegoers during the Great Depression of the 1930s, these films more often than not did not have a congenial ending. American viewers were less perceptive of this emerging film style as WWII had brought forth a stream of war films which depicted the precariousness of life and the realities of an dark world. But in war films their was a clear distinction between good and evil, and there was an abundance of heroes, real and fictional.
In France there was no such transitional period. American films had been popular in France before the war but the German occupation in 1940 meant that American films would not be seen in France for nearly five years. By the time American films returned to France, audiences there took notice of this dark, shadowy style that was conveyed so many of the films the were seeing. The French critics subsequently coined the term “film noir” to describe these films. It would be some years before the term was embraced by American critics. Film noir encompassed a relatively short time span of less than 20 years and essentially ended by the late fifties. Yet today, the interest in these films, both from a technical and cultural perspective is flourishing.
For nearly three decades most of the films that fall within the genre of film noir had all but disappeared from public view. But their significance has always been recognized by film historians and scholars. Film schools have long devoted serious study to the subject and a generation of filmmakers has been influenced. There has been a great renewed interest in the genre by those who are just now discovering that unique period of Hollywood filmmaking and the era it reflects.