WHAT IS FILM NOIR? ‘Film Noir’ is a term applied by French critics to a type of film, usually of a detective/crime genre. Film Noir is a movie that is marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, menace and cynical characters. The characters are often corrupt or desperate. Film Noir is a term used primarily to describe crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity and sexual motivation. The films are characterized by low-key lighting and a grim, bleak urban setting that deals mainly with dark and violent passions. They are downbeat films set in a criminal underworld. Film Noir is the mood, point-of-view, or tone of the film.
THE HISTORY OF FILM NOIR Film Noir was developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, seductive female. She would use her feminine wiles and sexuality to manipulate him. After a betrayal she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero’s life. The earliest Film Noirs were round about the 1940’s when many sources claim that ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’ (1940) was the first full-featured film noir. The first detective film to use the shadowy noir style in a definitive way was ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) and since the 40’s Film Noir has developed and further progressed into a much loved part of the industry.
CHARACTER Heroes or anti-heroes, corrupt characters and villains include conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, socio-paths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals, murderers etc. Distinctively they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive, brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners struggling to survive and in the end, ultimately losing. The protagonists in film noir are normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
VISUAL STYLE Film Noir films are marked visually by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus or depth of field camera work, disorienting visual schemes, jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, ominous shadows, skewed camera angles, circling cigarette smoke, existential sensibilities, and unbalanced or moody compositions.
SETTING Settings are often interiors with low-key or single source lighting and dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low-rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities or abandoned warehouses.
NARRATIVE DEVICES Narrative devices create a relationship between the plot and the story. Voice-over and flashbacks are persistent stylistic and narrative elements of Film Noir. Narrative brings time and memory together while the unusual juxtaposition of temporalities gives the spectator a premonition of what will occur/has occurred in the flashback story. The protagonist’s voice over is used to update the audience and to progress the film.
ICONOGRAPHY Things the audience expect to see in Film Noir are detectives, police, murder, corruption, criminals, the seductive female etc. Items and settings which the audience expect are things such as guns (often with silencers), knives, false love, dark and dingy claustrophobic places etc.
THEMES The main moods of Film Noir are moral corruption, guilt, desperation, paranoia, evil, pessimism, ambiguity, bleakness, alienation, melancholy, disillusionment and disenchantment. Protagonists of Film Noir are often morally ambiguous low-lives from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. The storylines are usually elliptical, non-linear and twisting. The narratives are frequently complex and typically told with background music, flashbacks, witty dialogue and sometimes first-person voice-over narration. Film Noir films thematically showed the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism and doomed love, and they also emphasized the brutal, shadowy, sadistic sides of the human experience. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, futility, defeat and entrapment are stylized characteristics of Film Noir.
SOUND A sophisticated use of soundtrack was a defining innovation of Film Noir. Sometimes the same voice narrated and participated in the dramatic action, this is common in Film Noirs, which used sound to present two versions of a single character simultaneously. The narrators voice-over in Double Indemnity, for example, appears throughout the film, telling us his story at a time when he already knows he is doomed; he also speaks throughout the flashback scenes. We hear both his depressed narrating voice and his optimistic younger self, which has not yet been learned when both narrator and viewer already know that his scheme will fail. The aural and visual contrast between his optimistic self an the somber, despairing tone of his narrating self create complex layers of character. (Taken from www.filmreference.com)