Film Noir

Film noir: black film or cinema. 

The cinematic term ‘film noir’ was coined by French film critics, first by Nino Frank in 1946, who noticed the dark and downbeat themes of many American crime/detective films that were released in France. Film noir first developed after World War 2, as it took advantage of the post-war anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion. Fear, mistrust, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are evident in film noir as it reflects the Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was present. There were rarely happy endings in film noirs.

Film noir also creates particular emphasis on cynical attitudes and sexual motivations which can be referred to as femme fatale.

Femme fatale is French for “fatal woman” whose purpose is to charm her lovers and leads them to dangerous and deadly situations using her femininity; eg. beauty, charm and sexuality. She is an archetype of fine literature and art as she has the ability to hypnotise her victims with a spell, which in the earlier stories was seen to be supernatural, which is why the femme fatale today is still often referred to as an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch or demon who is able to have power and control over men. In the early 20th century, femme fatale characters were referred to as vamps, as an allusion to their role as sexual vampires. A femme fatale is usually seen to be mysterious and seductive, who does not always use her femininity but lies and makes use of weapons such as sleeping gas, which is a modern substitute of magical powers which were typical in older tales. She may imply that she is a victim who is caught in a situation from which she cannot escape, like a damsel in distress, but turns it around on the male who is seen to be the hero.

A younger version of a femme fatale can be referred to as a fille fatale, or “fatal girl”.

One of the most common traits of the femme fatale include promiscuity and the rejection of motherhood, which is seen as one of her most threatening qualities as she is seen to be denying immortality which then leads to the ultimate destruction of a male.

Here are some common characteristics of film noir:

  • Dark setting
  • Shadows
  • Neon signs
  • Rain soaked streets
  • Claustrophobic interiors
  • Criminal underworld
  • Femme fatale
  • Male detectives
  • Dark alleys
  • Guns
  • Smoking cigarettes

These are some of the best film noir movies:

  1. The Big Sleep (1939)
  2. Chinatown (1974)
  3. Touch of Evil (1958)
  4. Double Indemnity (1944)
  5. Out of the Past (1947)
  6. The Third Man (1949)
  7. Lift to the Scaffold (1958)
  8. Blood Simple (1984)
  9. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
  10.  They Live by Night (1948)

These are some of the most popular film noir directors:

  • Robert Siodmak (8 August 1900 – 10 March 1973) was a German-born American film director. He is best remembered as a thriller specialist and for a series of stylish, unpretentious Hollywood films noirs he made in the 1940s. He directed ‘The Killers’, ‘Phantom Lady’, ‘The Dark Mirror’ and many more film noirs.
  • Fritz Lang (5 December 1890 – 2 August 1976) was an Austrian-German filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor. He directed many film noirs such as, ‘Scarlet Street’, ‘The Big Heat’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’.
  • Otto Preminger (5 December 1905 – 23 April 1986) was an American theatre and film director, originally from Austria-Hungary. He directed more than 35 feature films in a five-decade career after leaving the theatre. He first gained attention for film noir mysteries such as ‘Laura’ and ‘Fallen Angel’.
  • Orson Welles (6 May 1915 – 10 October 1985) was an American actor, director, writer, and producer who worked in theatre, radio, and film. He directed multiple film noirs, such as ‘Touch of Evil’, ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ and ‘The Third Man’.
  • Billy Wilder (22 June 1906 – 27 March 2002) was an Austrian-born Jewish-American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, artist, and journalist whose career spanned more than five decades. He directed 5 film noirs: ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘Ace in the Hole’, ‘The Lost Weekend’ and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’.

Modern day film noir

Film noir is not as common as it used to be as film has adapted majorly since the 1940’s, however many directors today are influenced by it and have tried to make a film noir of their own. Joseph Dougherty is a one of three directors of the hit TV show,  ‘Pretty Little Liars’. It is a very popular TV series targeted mainly at teenage girls. It is a well produced and is mainly of the crime/drama genre. There are seven seasons in total, however season 4, episode 19 was influenced by film noir. This is the link to a scene from the episode:

Personally, I really enjoyed this episode as it has been made really well, following the characteristics of film noir. It was very different from anything I have seen before and it gave me an insight into what film noir was like in the 1940’s. Here is a behind the scenes video of the making of the episode:

Is film noir a genre?

It can be argued that film noir is a genre, however the majority argue that it is not a genre but is the mood/tone of a film. The debate is ongoing and there is evidence for both sides, but there is no right answer. It can be argued that film noir is a genre as its characteristics excludes it and puts the film into the classification of film noir, nevertheless some people believe that these characteristics help to set the mood of the film which also supports the crime/mystery genres. Personally, I do not think that film noir is a genre as many of its characteristics can be found in multiple genres. For example, low key lighting and a high use of shadows can be of the thriller, crime or mystery genres. I believe that these film noir characteristics help create a much larger genre by creating the right atmosphere. 

Personally, I really enjoy the idea of film noir as it is very different to what we see in films now.



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