Film Noir is a cinematic french term created by critic Nino Frank in 1946, translating to “Black Film”. However I know there is much more to it than just that…
For instance Hollywood’s Crime drama films which emphasise “downbeat” themes and saturated with the dark aspects of life, are considered film noirs. In particular those released during the time period of the 1940’s and 1950’s as the experiences of post war despair and pessimistic attitudes were most often used. Therefore the films reflected the issues of that era, juxtaposing the optimism of American comedies and musicals; meaning the darker vision in film was something American citizens had not expected.
Following the war, detective style crime films released to French theatres included:
This 1994 classic is regarded by many as one which set the standards for noir films. The plot follows Fred MacMurray as “Walter Neff”, an insurance representative who becomes influenced by a seductive woman into a scheme that entails killing a man in order to receive the accident insurance money. But “Barton Keyes”, the insurance analyst suspects the wife “Phyllis Dietrichson” and a anonymous man murdered the man…
Early noir director Billy Wilder achieved four of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies Double Indemnity being one, as well as his other noir film Sunset Boulevard. As arguably, it’s the “first true” film noir through the presentation of Venetian blind lighting which is now a typical convention associated with noir films.
Another great noir film is “Maltese Falcon” released in 1941 and based on Dashiell Hammetts novel with the same name. The plot involves a detective attempting to solve a case with three criminals all of which desire the falcon statuette; the trailer can be viewed below:
In my opinion this remarkable film is popular for the reason that the detective mystery leaves the audience apprehensive as a result of the pessimistic ending to the film. In which I find the cinematographer Arthur Edeson used unusual camera angles such as extremely Low angle shots to direct the audience’s attention to the deceitfulness of each character and their menacing behaviour/actions.
Arthur Edeson an American cinematographer who’s career covered 4 decades.
This 1958 crime noir film called Touch of evil is said to be one of the last film noirs:
I find Orson Welles’ film great because the dark mystery uncovers the themes of betrayal, police corruption and racism through the amazing black and white cinematography highlighting the stark contrast in the low-key lighting and shadows. The plot centers around these themes as well as various crime offences such as murder in a Mexican border town.
However, an element which is too significant to dismiss is the most famous, 3 minute long opening sequence; this can be viewed below:
The twenty-second tracking shot is considered one of the greatest long takes in cinema history and I agree for the reason that this movement cinematography occurred in the late 1950’s when technology was not yet developed. So Welles has done a seamless performance by identifying the main details the audience need to acknowledge in just 3 minutes of the film starting. For instance the close up shot of an explosive timer/device foreshadows something bad is about to occur later in the film; which the tick-tock sounds in the soundtrack remind us about the foreboding tone. The camera then pulls away to uncover the location to which the film is set in, this being Mexican border town. From the crane shot, and then the camera tracking a couple driving a car through the town indicates the location for the film. But also the black and white visuals suggest their death is inevitable because they are darkly lit reflecting an unhappy ending. So as the camera moves to locate a new couple the audience gain the sense that these are the main characters because they are given dialogue whereas the other couple isn’t; only the woman saying she hears a noise and the men ignoring her comment. It’s not until after the two shot displaying Miguel Vargas and his wife Susan briefly kissing before the sound of a car exploding can be heard, which then we presume the people inside are dead.
Therefore, the way in which Weller has established the tone and ideas just under 4 minutes for this noir film, within one take, is unbelievable.
Film noirs have said to last to the classic “golden age” era in the 1960’s, but many have proved they are still made up until this day as they reflect the social norms of that time period.
An example of a modern day film noir is the 2000 “Memento” crime drama directed by Christopher Nolan:
This is an American neo noir film as it uses elements of film noir such as themes, content and the alternating scenes of black and white with colour sequences to reflect the mental state of the protagonist Guy Pearce as Leonard. For the reason that the major theme is amnesia, where he suffers short term memory loss and is unable to create new memories because of a past traumatic experience. This was when an anonymous murderer killed his wife; so by using photographs the film follows his attempt to gain revenge on the murderer.
I find the narrative of finding clues help to associate the film as a noir because the storyline in black and white moves chronologically whereas the coloured sequences display flashbacks uncovering hints about who killed his wife. Not only is the atmosphere intensified when watching, but also the narrative constructed in this way puts the audience in the position of feeling like the protagonist. As a result, when the two sequences come together at the end, “Memento” leaves an unforgettable effect on the audience who feel to watch the film again.
Conventions of film noirs:
A wide variety of characters are present, including:
- Corrupt police officer/government officials
- The alienated protagonist is portrayed stereo typically as it’s always a male in film noirs which exert the conventional beliefs of a man being emotionless as to cry would represent a feminine trait. Therefore, the men are morally ambiguous living in a violent, corrupt and crime ridden area. They are usually detectives who use to be police officers and are either attempting to escape their mysterious past or following the “Femme Fatale” who leads the protagonist into murder. As a result, the film centers around the protagonist’s obsession, anxieties and desires; reflected through the use of point of view shots that represent his deteriorating psychological state of mind.
In “Sunset Boulevard” Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) exemplifies the characteristics of the “anti-hero” although he is identified as the protagonist. For the reason that he is displayed with weak and vulnerable traits, which eventually lead to his death by murderer Norma Desmond.
- The female character is naturally seductive by using their heavy make up and revealing clothes to manipulate a man. Which the camera angles focusing on the female body emphasise their appearance; as a result Laura Mulvey, a British film theorist, developed the idea of the “Male Gaze”. For the reason that she argued woman are presented as objects for male pleasure, therefore the portrayal of women in noirs demonstrate exactly this. Also, since the character subverts conventional beliefs of women being domesticated housewives, due to the social freedom women experienced after the war, film noirs reflect the fear of the strong independent women in the 1940’s society. As they are conveyed as dangerous people, the French term “Femme Fatale” meaning “Fatal woman” was created and exemplified in every noir film throughout this era.
- Cigarettes and alcohol
- Dark paths
- Rainy streets
- Trench coat and top hats
- Flashing street lights
- Vertical and oblique lines
- Typically, the location in a film noir is in an abandoned urban or industrial setting for the reason that what occurs in the film, is made to appear realistic to the viewer who would then be able to engage with the film.
- Nightclubs and bars can help to highlight the isolation of the protagonist due to the contrast with the busy city.
- Rainy streets and dark pathways instantly suggest the theme of mystery being central to the film as the audience begin to focus on the shadows.
- Fog displays the darkness which is metaphoric for the mysterious and dangerous atmosphere surrounding the noir film.
- The protagonist looses control of the situation, their eventual downfall is death.
- Voice over narration uncovers a majority of details the audience need to acknowledge; in particular it’s the voice of the protagonist.
- First person narrative from the protagonist’s perspective.
- Narrative gaps keep it suspenseful throughout watching.
- Film narratives are non-linear meaning the events don’t take place chronologically hence why flashbacks are often used.
- Corruption of law
- Shots are often used to emphasise the type of lighting, for instance low-key lighting would frame the shadows in that particular shot.
- Establishing shots in the opening sequence will reveal the urban environment to which the film is set in.
- Dutch tilt or canted camera angles create a feeling of disorientation for the audience as the framing makes the shot seem off balance; evoking feelings of uneasiness when watching.
- Medium close up shots on mirrors focus the audience’s attention to the character’s reflection.
- High angled close up shots of the “Femme Fatale” exaggerate the character’s beauty and thus their manipulative behaviour.
- Low key lighting has became a convention of film noir because shadows are created through this hard lighting which draws attention to particular characters as their silhouette could suggest they are anonymous or dangerous, as well as the setting being expressed through Venetian blinds.
For several decades there has been an ongoing debate about whether noir is a film genre or just a style of film making. So by defining both of these terms would help in the consideration of what film noir actually is.
A film genre is defined as a category based on similarities in narrative or emotional response form the audience. For example, evidence to support noir being categorised as a genre is the idea of defined character roles such as “Femme Fatale” and the flawed protagonist.
Whereas a film style refers to recognisable film techniques used to value or give specific changes to film maker’s work;this includes elements such as the cinematography, sound, mise-en-scene and editing. The style elements of film noir is demonstrated through the black and white visuals with a stark contrast in every frame.
However, to this day films have been categorised as hybrids of film noir as gray films or even “semi-noir” for the reason that it’s not just crime dramas which are considered a film noir because many western and comedies have been named by critics as noirs. For example the American comedy-drama film produced and directed by Frank Carpa called “It’s a wonderful life” (1946) is also classified as part noir by critics due to the narrative involving a suicidal protagonist George played by James Stewart who’s guardian angel is sent to reveal what life would be like if he didn’t exist. I think it’s the portrayal of the frightening view of the world at Christmas which brings him back from his pessimistic outlook on life, that makes this film be seen as a noir.
In my opinion film noir isn’t a genre because it’s more of a mood/tone and style in which it reflects the period of film history as from 1940 to 1950 after the Second World War, film makers hadn’t considered their films to be labelled as noirs like other genres. Furthermore, the specific film visuals of black and white and other elements I have described above depict film noir as a style focused on cinematography and a complex narrative.