“ Film Noir is literally “black film”, not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting a dark mood in American society, but, equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on a which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to relieve them”. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward in Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference Guide
The term Film Noir was first used by French Film Critics after the Second World War, to describe the dark way in which American society was portrayed in films from the 1940’s to 1950’s. The films counteracted the American Dream introducing a noir universe that had underlying themes of corruption and despair.
The Noir Universe and its Protagonists
Film Noir is characterised by a wide range of wrongdoing, immorality and criminality. Policeman and detectives populate these films coming into contact with a range of villains including: gamblers, hustlers, war veterans and seductive women. In all cases they are single men and women with little sense of family. They nearly always live in the city choosing the hectic lifestyle with busy jobs. This is reflected in their encounters with people which tend to be fast paced and quick-witted.
Women in Film Noir
There is often a distinct contrast between the normal women and the femme fatale, who is sexually alluring, manipulative and devious. The male hero is inevitably drawn towards the femme fatale as a result of her sexual attraction
They cannot repress their desires despite the consequences.
They often fail to impose themselves on events.
If they are successful it is often at a great cost to themselves and others.
They are presented as the victims of circumstances or of forces beyond their understanding or reach.
The Noir Universe and Visual Style
“ Film Noir creates a visually unstable environment in which no character has a firm moral base from which he can confidently operate”. All attempts to find safety and security are undercut by the mise-en-scene and non traditional cinematography.
Film Noir doesn’t use the conventional three point lighting system instead using the following methods:
Low key lighting, intense fill light doesn’t eliminate shadows, resulting in high contrast between light and dark images.
Unconventional positioning of the key light.
The use of night time shooting helps create added darkness.
Often known as chiarscuro lighting.
Framing and Composition
The protagonists are often not as prominent in the frame as other elements of the composition.
The protagonists are often placed in a frame within the frame within the frame by windows, stairways or other features of urban environments.
The camera will also adopts unusual angles or positions.
It uses wide angle lenses which provide a distorted image in close-up and depth of field or long shots which aim to stress the insignificance of the protagonist in the setting.
Narrative and Narration
The visual style intrigues and disconcerts the audience, mixed with the noir narrative which consists of a confusing set of events involving seemingly unconnected characters. The noir protagonist is often trying to make sense of the events and the links between the characters. The protagonist may also recall on past events through flashbacks with voice-overs. Flashbacks are often seen as an important tool as they can create a sense of entrapment.