For the Carly Simon album, see Film Noir (album).
Film noir (; French pronunciation: [film nwaʁ]) is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywoodcrime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood's classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionistcinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.
The term film noir, French for "black film" (literal) or "dark film" (closer meaning), first applied to Hollywood films by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, was unrecognized by most American film industry professionals of that era. Cinema historians and critics defined the category retrospectively. Before the notion was widely adopted in the 1970s, many of the classic films noir[a] were referred to as "melodramas". Whether film noir qualifies as a distinct genre is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars.
Film noir encompasses a range of plots: the central figure may be a private investigator (The Big Sleep), a plainclothes policeman (The Big Heat), an aging boxer (The Set-Up), a hapless grifter (Night and the City), a law-abiding citizen lured into a life of crime (Gun Crazy), or simply a victim of circumstance (D.O.A.). Although film noir was originally associated with American productions, films now so described have been made around the world. Many pictures released from the 1960s onward share attributes with film noir of the classical period, and often treat its conventions self-referentially. Some refer to such latter-day works as neo-noir. The clichés of film noir have inspired parody since the mid-1940s.
Problems of definition
The questions of what defines film noir, and what sort of category it is, provoke continuing debate. "We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel […]"—this set of attributes constitutes the first of many attempts to define film noir made by French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir), the original and seminal extended treatment of the subject. They emphasize that not every film noir embodies all five attributes in equal measure—one might be more dreamlike; another, particularly brutal. The authors' caveats and repeated efforts at alternative definition have been echoed in subsequent scholarship: in the more than five decades since, there have been innumerable further attempts at definition, yet in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir remains an "elusive phenomenon […] always just out of reach".
Film analyst Eddie Muller writes, “If a private eye is hired by an old geezer to prove his wife’s cheating on him and the shamus discovers long-buried family secrets and solves a couple of murders before returning to his lonely office – that’s detective fiction. If the same private eye gets seduced by the geezer’s wife, kills the old coot for her, gets double-crossed by his lover and ends up shot to death by his old partner from the police force – I can say with complete assurance: you are wallowing in NOIR."
Though film noir is often identified with a visual style, unconventional within a Hollywood context, that emphasizes low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions, films commonly identified as noir evidence a variety of visual approaches, including ones that fit comfortably within the Hollywood mainstream. Film noir similarly embraces a variety of genres, from the gangster film to the police procedural to the gothic romance to the social problem picture—any example of which from the 1940s and 1950s, now seen as noir's classical era, was likely to be described as a "melodrama" at the time.
While many critics refer to film noir as a genre itself, others argue that it can be no such thing. While noir is often associated with an urban setting, many classic noirs take place in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road; setting, therefore, cannot be its genre determinant, as with the Western. Similarly, while the private eye and the femme fatale are character types conventionally identified with noir, the majority of film noirs feature neither; so there is no character basis for genre designation as with the gangster film. Nor does film noir rely on anything as evident as the monstrous or supernatural elements of the horror film, the speculative leaps of the science fiction film, or the song-and-dance routines of the musical.
An analogous case is that of the screwball comedy, widely accepted by film historians as constituting a "genre": the screwball is defined not by a fundamental attribute, but by a general disposition and a group of elements, some—but rarely and perhaps never all—of which are found in each of the genre's films. Because of the diversity of noir (much greater than that of the screwball comedy), certain scholars in the field, such as film historian Thomas Schatz, treat it as not a genre but a "style".Alain Silver, the most widely published American critic specializing in film noir studies, refers to film noir as a "cycle" and a "phenomenon", even as he argues that it has—like certain genres—a consistent set of visual and thematic codes. Other critics treat film noir as a "mood", characterize it as a "series", or simply address a chosen set of films they regard as belonging to the noir "canon". There is no consensus on the matter.
The aesthetics of film noir are influenced by German Expressionism, an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s that involved theater, photography, painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as cinema. The opportunities offered by the booming Hollywood film industry and then the threat of Nazism, led to the emigration of many film artists working in Germany who had been involved in the Expressionist movement or studied with its practitioners.M (Fritz Lang 1931), shot only a few years before his departure from Germany, is among the first crime films of the sound era to join a characteristically noirish visual style with a noir-type plot, in which the protagonist is a criminal (as are his most successful pursuers).Directors such as Lang, Robert Siodmak and Michael Curtiz brought a dramatically shadowed lighting style and a psychologically expressive approach to visual composition (mise-en-scène), with them to Hollywood, where they made some of the most famous classic noirs.
By 1931, Curtiz had already been in Hollywood for half a decade, making as many as six films a year. Movies of his such as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) and Private Detective 62 (1933) are among the early Hollywood sound films arguably classifiable as noir—scholar Marc Vernet offers the latter as evidence that dating the initiation of film noir to 1940 or any other year is "arbitrary". Expressionism-orientated filmmakers had free stylistic rein in Universal horror pictures such as Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932)—the former photographed and the latter directed by the Berlin-trained Karl Freund—and The Black Cat (1934), directed by Austrian émigré Edgar G. Ulmer. The Universal horror film that comes closest to noir, in story and sensibility is The Invisible Man (1933), directed by Englishman James Whale and photographed by American Arthur Edeson. Edeson later photographed The Maltese Falcon (1941), widely regarded as the first major film noir of the classic era.
Josef von Sternberg was directing in Hollywood at the same time. Films of his such as Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), with their hothouse eroticism and baroque visual style, anticipated central elements of classic noir. The commercial and critical success of Sternberg's silent Underworld (1927) was largely responsible for spurring a trend of Hollywood gangster films. Successful films in that genre such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) demonstrated that there was an audience for crime dramas with morally reprehensible protagonists. An important, possibly influential, cinematic antecedent to classic noir was 1930s French poetic realism, with its romantic, fatalistic attitude and celebration of doomed heroes. The movement's sensibility is mirrored in the Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), a forerunner of noir. Among films not considered films noir, perhaps none had a greater effect on the development of the genre than Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles. Its visual intricacy and complex, voiceover narrative structure are echoed in dozens of classic films noir.
Italian neorealism of the 1940s, with its emphasis on quasi-documentary authenticity, was an acknowledged influence on trends that emerged in American noir. The Lost Weekend (1945), directed by Billy Wilder, another Vienna-born, Berlin-trained American auteur, tells the story of an alcoholic in a manner evocative of neorealism. It also exemplifies the problem of classification: one of the first American films to be described as a film noir, it has largely disappeared from considerations of the field. Director Jules Dassin of The Naked City (1948) pointed to the neorealists as inspiring his use of location photography with non-professional extras. This semidocumentary approach characterized a substantial number of noirs in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Along with neorealism, the style had an American precedent cited by Dassin, in director Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945), which demonstrated the parallel influence of the cinematic newsreel.
The primary literary influence on film noir was the hardboiled school of American detective and crime fiction, led in its early years by such writers as Dashiell Hammett (whose first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929) and James M. Cain (whose The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared five years later), and popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. The classic film noirs The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Glass Key (1942) were based on novels by Hammett; Cain's novels provided the basis for Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Slightly Scarlet (1956; adapted from Love's Lovely Counterfeit). A decade before the classic era, a story by Hammett was the source for the gangster melodrama City Streets (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian and photographed by Lee Garmes, who worked regularly with Sternberg. Wedding a style and story both with many noir characteristics, released the month before Lang's M, City Streets has a claim to being the first major film noir.
Raymond Chandler, who debuted as a novelist with The Big Sleep in 1939, soon became the most famous author of the hardboiled school. Not only were Chandler's novels turned into major noirs—Murder, My Sweet (1944; adapted from Farewell, My Lovely), The Big Sleep (1946), and Lady in the Lake (1947)—he was an important screenwriter in the genre as well, producing the scripts for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951). Where Chandler, like Hammett, centered most of his novels and stories on the character of the private eye, Cain featured less heroic protagonists and focused more on psychological exposition than on crime solving; the Cain approach has come to be identified with a subset of the hardboiled genre dubbed "noir fiction".
For much of the 1940s, one of the most prolific and successful authors of this often downbeat brand of suspense tale was Cornell Woolrich (sometimes under the pseudonym George Hopley or William Irish). No writer's published work provided the basis for more films noir of the classic period than Woolrich's: thirteen in all, including Black Angel (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), and Fear in the Night (1947).
Another crucial literary source for film noir was W. R. Burnett, whose first novel to be published was Little Caesar, in 1929. It was turned into a hit for Warner Bros. in 1931; the following year, Burnett was hired to write dialogue for Scarface, while The Beast of the City (1932) was adapted from one of his stories. At least one important reference work identifies the latter as a film noir despite its early date. Burnett's characteristic narrative approach fell somewhere between that of the quintessential hardboiled writers and their noir fiction compatriots—his protagonists were often heroic in their own way, which happened to be that of the gangster. During the classic era, his work, either as author or screenwriter, was the basis for seven films now widely regarded as films noir, including three of the most famous: High Sierra (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the "classic period" of American film noir. While City Streets and other pre-WWII crime melodramas such as Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), both directed by Fritz Lang, are categorized as full-fledged noir in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's film noir encyclopedia, other critics tend to describe them as "proto-noir" or in similar terms. The film now most commonly cited as the first "true" film noir is Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), directed by Latvian-born, Soviet-trained Boris Ingster. Hungarian émigré Peter Lorre—who had starred in Lang's M—was top-billed, though he did not play the lead. He later played secondary roles in several other formative American noirs. Though modestly budgeted, at the high end of the B movie scale, Stranger on the Third Floor still lost its studio, RKO, $56,000, almost a third of its total cost.Variety magazine found Ingster's work "too studied and when original, lacks the flare to hold attention. It's a film too arty for average audiences, and too humdrum for others."Stranger on the Third Floor was not recognized as the beginning of a trend, let alone a new genre, for many decades.
Whoever went to the movies with any regularity during 1946 was caught in the midst of Hollywood's profound postwar affection for morbid drama. From January through December deep shadows, clutching hands, exploding revolvers, sadistic villains and heroines tormented with deeply rooted diseases of the mind flashed across the screen in a panting display of psychoneurosis, unsublimated sex and murder most foul.
Most of the films noir of the classic period were similarly low- and modestly budgeted features without major stars—B movies either literally or in spirit. In this production context, writers, directors, cinematographers, and other craftsmen were relatively free from typical big-picture constraints. There was more visual experimentation than in Hollywood filmmaking as a whole: the Expressionism now closely associated with noir and the semi-documentary style that later emerged represent two very different tendencies. Narrative structures sometimes involved convoluted flashbacks uncommon in non-noir commercial productions. In terms of content, enforcement of the Production Code ensured that no film character could literally get away with murder or be seen sharing a bed with anyone but a spouse; within those bounds, however, many films now identified as noir feature plot elements and dialogue that were very risqué for the time.
Thematically, films noir were most exceptional for the relative frequency with which they centered on women of questionable virtue—a focus that had become rare in Hollywood films after the mid-1930s and the end of the pre-Code era. The signal film in this vein was Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder; setting the mold was Barbara Stanwyck's unforgettable femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson—an apparent nod to Marlene Dietrich, who had built her extraordinary career playing such characters for Sternberg. An A-level feature all the way, the film's commercial success and seven Oscar nominations made it probably the most influential of the early noirs. A slew of now-renowned noir "bad girls" followed, such as those played by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947). The iconic noir counterpart to the femme fatale, the private eye, came to the fore in films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, and Murder, My Sweet (1944), with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe. Other seminal noir sleuths served larger institutions, such as Dana Andrews' police detective in Laura (1944), Edmond O'Brien's insurance investigator in The Killers, and Edward G. Robinson's government agent in The Stranger (1946).
The prevalence of the private eye as a lead character declined in film noir of the 1950s, a period during which several critics describe the form as becoming more focused on extreme psychologies and more exaggerated in general. A prime example is Kiss Me Deadly (1955); based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, the best-selling of all the hardboiled authors, here the protagonist is a private eye, Mike Hammer. As described by Paul Schrader, "Robert Aldrich's teasing direction carries noir to its sleaziest and most perversely erotic. Hammer overturns the underworld in search of the 'great whatsit' [which] turns out to be — joke of jokes — an exploding atomic bomb." Orson Welles's baroquely styled Touch of Evil (1958) is frequently cited as the last noir of the classic period. Some scholars believe film noir never really ended, but continued to transform even as the characteristic noir visual style began to seem dated and changing production conditions led Hollywood in different directions—in this view, post-1950s films in the noir tradition are seen as part of a continuity with classic noir. A majority of critics, however, regard comparable films made outside the classic era to be something other than genuine film noirs. They regard true film noir as belonging to a temporally and geographically limited cycle or period, treating subsequent films that evoke the classics as fundamentally different due to general shifts in filmmaking style and latter-day awareness of noir as a historical source for allusion.
Directors and the business of noir
While the inceptive noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, was a B picture directed by a virtual unknown, many of the films noir still remembered were A-list productions by well-known film makers. Debuting as a director with The Maltese Falcon (1941), John Huston followed with Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Opinion is divided on the noir status of several Alfred Hitchcock thrillers from the era; at least four qualify by consensus: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Wrong Man (1956).Otto Preminger's success with Laura (1944) made his name and helped demonstrate noir's adaptability to a high-gloss 20th Century-Fox presentation. Among Hollywood's most celebrated directors of the era, arguably none worked more often in a noir mode than Preminger; his other noirs include Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) (all for Fox) and Angel Face (1952). A half-decade after Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951), noirs that were not so much crime dramas as satires on Hollywood and the news media. In a Lonely Place (1950) was Nicholas Ray's breakthrough; his other noirs include his debut, They Live by Night (1948) and On Dangerous Ground (1952), noted for their unusually sympathetic treatment of characters alienated from the social mainstream.
Orson Welles had notorious problems with financing but his three film noirs were well budgeted: The Lady from Shanghai (1947) received top-level, "prestige" backing, while The Stranger, his most conventional film and Touch of Evil, an unmistakably personal work, were funded at levels lower but still commensurate with headlining releases. Like The Stranger, Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1945) was a production of the independent International Pictures. Lang's follow-up, Scarlet Street (1945), was one of the few classic noirs to be officially censored: filled with erotic innuendo, it was temporarily banned in Milwaukee, Atlanta and New York State.Scarlet Street was a semi-independent, cosponsored by Universal and Lang's Diana Productions, of which the film's co-star, Joan Bennett, was the second biggest shareholder. Lang, Bennett and her husband, the Universal veteran and Diana production head Walter Wanger, made Secret Beyond the Door (1948) in similar fashion.
Before he was forced abroad by political persecution, Jules Dassin made two classic noirs that also straddled the major–independent line: Brute Force (1947) and the influential documentary-style The Naked City were developed by producer Mark Hellinger, who had an "inside/outside" contract with Universal similar to Wanger's. Years earlier, working at Warner Bros., Hellinger had produced three films for Raoul Walsh, the proto-noirs They Drive by Night (1940), Manpower (1941) and High Sierra (1941), now regarded as a seminal work in noir's development. Walsh had no great name during his half-century as a director but his noirs White Heat (1949) and The Enforcer (1951) had A-list stars and are seen as important examples of the cycle. Other directors associated with top-of-the-bill Hollywood film noirs include Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet , Crossfire )—the first important noir director to fall prey to the industry blacklist—as well as Henry Hathaway (The Dark Corner , Kiss of Death ) and John Farrow (The Big Clock , Night Has a Thousand Eyes ).
Most of the Hollywood films considered to be classic noirs, fall into the category of the "B movie". Some were Bs in the most precise sense, produced to run on the bottom of double bills by a low-budget unit of one of the major studios or by one of the smaller Poverty Row outfits, from the relatively well-off Monogram to shakier ventures such as Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Jacques Tourneur had made over thirty Hollywood Bs (a few now highly regarded, most forgotten) before directing the A-level Out of the Past, described by scholar Robert Ottoson as "the ne plus ultra of forties film noir". Movies with budgets a step up the ladder, known as "intermediates" by the industry, might be treated as A or B pictures depending on the circumstances. Monogram created Allied Artists in the late 1940s to focus on this sort of production. Such films have long been colloquially known as B movies. Robert Wise (Born to Kill , The Set-Up ) and Anthony Mann (T-Men  and Raw Deal ) each made a series of impressive intermediates, many of them noirs, before graduating to steady work on big-budget productions. Mann did some of his most celebrated work with cinematographer John Alton, a specialist in what James Naremore called "hypnotic moments of light-in-darkness".He Walked by Night (1948), shot by Alton and though credited solely to Alfred Werker, directed in large part by Mann, demonstrates their technical mastery and exemplifies the late 1940s trend of "police procedural" crime dramas. It was released, like other Mann-Alton noirs, by the small Eagle-Lion company, it was the inspiration for the Dragnet series, which debuted on radio in 1949 and television in 1951.
Several directors associated with noir built well-respected oeuvres largely at the B-movie/intermediate level. Samuel Fuller's brutal, visually energetic films such as Pickup on South Street (1953) and Underworld U.S.A. (1961) earned him a unique reputation; his advocates praise him as "primitive" and "barbarous".Joseph H. Lewis directed noirs as diverse as Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955). The former—whose screenplay was written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, disguised by a front—features a bank hold-up sequence shown in an unbroken take of over three minutes that was influential.The Big Combo was shot by John Alton and took the shadowy noir style to its outer limits. The most distinctive films of Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story  and The Brothers Rico ) tell stories of vice organized on a monstrous scale. The work of other directors in this tier of the industry, such as Felix E. Feist (The Devil Thumbs a Ride , Tomorrow Is Another Day ), has become obscure. Edgar G. Ulmer spent most of his Hollywood career working at B studios and once in a while on projects that achieved intermediate status; for the most part, on unmistakable Bs. In 1945, while at PRC, he directed a noir cult classic, Detour. Ulmer's other noirs include Strange Illusion (1945), also for PRC; Ruthless (1948), for Eagle-Lion, which had acquired PRC the previous year and Murder Is My Beat (1955), for Allied Artists.
A number of low- and modestly-budgeted noirs were made by independent, often actor-owned, companies contracting with larger studios for distribution. Serving as producer, writer, director and top-billed performer, Hugo Haas made films like Pickup (1951) and The Other Woman (1954). It was in this way that accomplished noir actress Ida Lupino established herself as the sole female director in Hollywood during the late 1940s and much of the 1950s. She does not appear in the best-known film she directed, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), developed by her company, The Filmakers, with support and distribution by RKO. It is one of the seven classic film noirs produced largely outside of the major studios that have been chosen for the United States National Film Registry. Of the others, one was a small-studio release: Detour. Four were independent productions distributed by United Artists, the "studio without a studio": Gun Crazy; Kiss Me Deadly; D.O.A. (1950), directed by Rudolph Maté and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. One was an independent distributed by MGM, the industry leader: Force of Evil (1948), directed by Abraham Polonsky and starring John Garfield, both of whom were blacklisted in the 1950s. Independent production usually meant restricted circumstances but Sweet Smell of Success, despite the plans of the production team, was clearly not made on the cheap, though like many other cherished A-budget noirs, it might be said to have a B-movie soul. Stanley Kubrick's early 'Killer's Kiss' (1955) and 'The Killing'(1956) are both excellent examples not only of film noir itself, but also the over arching influence of the tone of noir on many of his subsequent movies, not least his climactic 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999) which is, from many angles, a return to the world of 'Killer's Kiss.'
Perhaps no director better displayed that spirit than the German-born Robert Siodmak, who had already made a score of films before his 1940 arrival in Hollywood. Working mostly on A features, he made eight films now regarded as classic-era film noirs (a figure matched only by Lang and Mann). In addition to The Killers, Burt Lancaster's debut and a Hellinger/Universal co-production, Siodmak's other important contributions to the genre include 1944's Phantom Lady (a top-of-the-line B and Woolrich adaptation), the ironically titled Christmas Holiday (1944), and Cry of the City (1948). Criss Cross (1949), with Lancaster again the lead, exemplifies how Siodmak brought the virtues of the B-movie to the A noir. In addition to the relatively looser constraints on character and message at lower budgets, the nature of B production lent itself to the noir style for economic reasons: dim lighting saved on electricity and helped cloak cheap sets (mist and smoke also served the cause); night shooting was often compelled by hurried production schedules; plots with obscure motivations and intriguingly elliptical transitions were sometimes the consequence of hastily written scripts, of which there was not always enough time or money to shoot every scene. In Criss Cross, Siodmak achieved these effects with purpose, wrapping them around Yvonne De Carlo, playing the most understandable of femme fatales; Dan Duryea, in one of his many charismatic villain roles; and Lancaster as an ordinary laborer turned armed robber, doomed by a romantic obsession.
Although the term "film noir" was originally coined to describe Hollywood movies, film noir was an international phenomenon. Even before the beginning of the generally accepted classic period, there were films made far from Hollywood that can be seen in retrospect as film noirs, for example, the French productions Pépé le Moko (1937), directed by Julien Duvivier, and Le Jour se lève (1939), directed by Marcel Carné. In addition, Mexico experienced a vibrant film noir period from roughly 1946 to 1952, which was around the same time film noir was blossoming in the U.S.
During the classic period, there were many films produced in Europe, particularly in France, that share elements of style, theme, and sensibility with American film noirs and may themselves be included in the genre's canon. In certain cases, the interrelationship with Hollywood noir is obvious: American-born director Jules Dassin moved to France in the early 1950s as a result of the Hollywood blacklist, and made one of the most famous French film noirs, Rififi (1955). Other well-known French films often classified as noir include Quai des Orfèvres (1947) and Les Diaboliques (1955), both directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Casque d'Or (1952), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and Le Trou (1960) directed by Jacques Becker; and Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958), directed by Louis Malle. French director Jean-Pierre Melville is widely recognized for his tragic, minimalist film noirs—Bob le flambeur (1955), from the classic period, was followed by Le Doulos (1962), Le deuxième souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), and Le Cercle rouge (1970).
Scholar Andrew Spicer argues that British film noir evidences a greater debt to French poetic realism than to the expressionistic American mode of noir. Examples of British noir from the classic period include Brighton Rock (1947), directed by John Boulting; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), directed by Alberto Cavalcanti; The Small Back Room (1948), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; The October Man (1950), directed by Roy Ward Baker; and Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), directed by Lewis Gilbert. Terence Fisher directed several low-budget thrillers in a noir mode for Hammer Film Productions, including The Last Page (a.k.a. Man Bait; 1952), Stolen Face (1952), and Murder by Proxy (a.k.a. Blackout; 1954). Before leaving for France, Jules Dassin had been obliged by political pressure to shoot his last English-language film of the classic noir period in Great Britain: Night and the City (1950). Though it was conceived in the United States and was not only directed by an American but also stars two American actors—Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney—it is technically a UK production, financed by 20th Century-Fox's British subsidiary. The most famous of classic British noirs is director Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), from a screenplay by Graham Greene. Set in Vienna immediately after World War II, it also stars two American actors, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, who had appeared together in Citizen Kane.
Elsewhere, Italian director Luchino Visconti adapted Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice as Ossessione (1943), regarded both as one of the great noirs and a seminal film in the development of neorealism. (This was not even the first screen version of Cain's novel, having been preceded by the French Le Dernier Tournant in 1939.) In Japan, the celebrated Akira Kurosawa directed several films recognizable as film noirs, including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), and High and Low (1963).
Among the first major neo-noir films—the term often applied to films that consciously refer back to the classic noir tradition—was the French Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), directed by François Truffaut from a novel by one of the gloomiest of American noir fiction writers, David Goodis. Noir crime films and melodramas have been produced in many countries in the post-classic area. Some of these are quintessentially self-aware neo-noirs—for example, Il Conformista (1969; Italy), Der Amerikanische Freund (1977; Germany), The Element of Crime (1984; Denmark), As Tears Go By (1988; Hong Kong), and El Aura (2005; Argentina). Others simply share narrative elements and a version of the hardboiled sensibility associated with classic noir, such as The Castle of Sand (1974; Japan), Insomnia (1997; Norway), Croupier (1998; UK), Blind Shaft (2003; China), and The Square (2008; Australia).
Neo-noir and echoes of the classic mode
See also: Neo-noir
The neo-noir film genre developed mid-way into the Cold War. This cinematological trend reflected much of the cynicism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation of the era. This new genre introduced innovations that were not available with the earlier noir films. The violence was also more potent than in earlier noir films.
1960s and 1970s
While it is hard to draw a line between some of the noir films of the early 1960s such as Blast of Silence (1961) and Cape Fear (1962) and the noirs of the late 1950s, new trends emerged in the post-classic era. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer, Shock Corridor (1962), directed by Samuel Fuller, and Brainstorm (1965), directed by experienced noir character actor William Conrad, all treat the theme of mental dispossession within stylistic and tonal frameworks derived from classic film noir. The Manchurian Candidate examined the situation of American prisoners of war (POWs) during the Korean War. These incidents that occurred during the war as well as post-war incidents that ensued, functioned as an inspiration for a different "subgenre of Cold War Noir". The television series The Fugitive (1963–67) brought classic noir themes and mood to the small screen for an extended run.
Film Noir(literally 'black film or cinema') was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of how 'dark', downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theatres following the war, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Laura (1944). A wide range of films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period, and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood's musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are readily evident in noir, reflecting the 'chilly' Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. The criminal, violent, misogynistic, hard-boiled, or greedy perspectives of anti-heroes in film noir were a metaphoric symptom of society's evils, with a strong undercurrent of moral conflict, purposelessness and sense of injustice. There were rarely happy or optimistic endings in noirs.
Classic film noir developed during and after World War II, taking advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion. It was a style of black and white American films that first evolved in the 1940s, became prominent in the post-war era, and lasted in a classic "Golden Age" period until about 1960 (marked by the 'last' film of the classic film noir era, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958)).
Important Note: Strictly speaking, film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. It is also helpful to realize that 'film noir' usually refers to a distinct historical period of film history - the decade of film-making after World War II, similar to the German Expressionism or the French New Wave periods. However, it was labeled as such only after the classic period - early noir film-makers didn't even use the film designation (as they would the labels "western" or "musical"), and were not conscious that their films would be labeled noirs.
Very often, a film noir story was developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [e.g., Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray, or Humphrey Bogart] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [e.g., Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, or Lana Turner]. She would use her feminine wiles and come-hither sexuality to manipulate him into becoming the fall guy - often following a murder. After a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero's life. As women during the war period were given new-found independence and better job-earning power in the homeland during the war, they would suffer -- on the screen -- in these films of the 40s.
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Greatest Femmes Fatales in Classic Film Noir
Titles of many film noirs often reflected the nature or tone of the style and content itself: Dark Passage (1947), The Naked City (1948), Fear in the Night (1947), Out of the Past (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), etc.
Primary Characteristics and Conventions of Film Noir:Themes and Styles
The primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia.
Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, 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, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally-ambiguous low-lifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual or otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive - and in the end, ultimately losing.
Storylines were often elliptical, non-linear and twisting. Narratives were frequently complex, maze-like and convoluted, and typically told with foreboding background music, flashbacks (or a series of flashbacks), witty, razor-sharp and acerbic dialogue, and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed. Revelations regarding the hero were made to explain/justify the hero's own cynical perspective on life.
Film noir films (mostly shot in gloomy grays, blacks and whites) thematically showed the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism and doomed love, and they emphasized the brutal, unhealthy, seamy, shadowy, dark and sadistic sides of the human experience. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment were stylized characteristics of film noir. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Film noir films were 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 (usually vertical or diagonal rather than horizontal), circling cigarette smoke, existential sensibilities, and unbalanced or moody compositions. Settings were often interiors with low-key (or single-source) lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, 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. [Often-times, war-time scarcities were the reason for the reduced budgets and shadowy, stark sets of B-pictures and film noirs.]
Some of the most prominent directors of film noir included Orson Welles, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Henry Hathaway and Howard Hawks.
Femmes Fatales in Film Noir:
The females in film noir were either of two types (or archetypes) - dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women; or femmes fatales - mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take (or have the fateful choice made for him).
Invariably, the choice would be an overly ambitious one, to follow the dangerous but desirable wishes of these dames. It would be to pursue the goadings of a traitorous, self-destructive femme fatale who would lead the struggling, disillusioned, and doomed hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion coupled with twisted love. When the major character was a detective or private eye, he would become embroiled and trapped in an increasingly-complex, convoluted case that would lead to fatalistic, suffocating evidences of corruption, irresistible love and death. The femme fatale, who had also transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would bring both of them to a downfall.
Cinematic Origins and Roots of Classic Film Noir:
The themes of noir, derived from sources in Europe, were imported to Hollywood by emigre film-makers. Noirs were rooted in German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, such as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Germ.) or Fritz Lang's M (1931, Germ.), Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). Films from German directors, such as F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene, were noted for their stark camera angles and movements, chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy, high-contrast images - all elements of later film noir. In addition, the French sound films of the 30s, such as director Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko (1937), contributed to noir's development.
Another cinematic origin of film noir was from the plots and themes often taken from adaptations of American literary works - usually from best-selling, hard-boiled, pulp novels and crime fiction by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, or Cornell Woolrich. As a result, the earliest film noirs were detective thrillers. Film noir was also derived from the crime/gangster and detective/mystery sagas from the 1930s (i.e., Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932)), but very different in tone and characterization. Notable film noir gangster films, such as They Drive By Night (1940), Key Largo (1948) and White Heat (1949) each featured noir elements within the traditional gangster framework.
The Earliest Film Noirs:In the 1940s
Many sources have claimed that director Boris Ingster's and RKO's Stranger on the Third Floor(1940) was the first full-featured film noir. The expressionistic film starred Peter Lorre as the sinister 'stranger' (cast due to his creepy performance in M (1931)), in a story about the nightmarish after-effects of circumstantial testimony during a murder trial. Others claim Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) was also an early and influential pre-film noir.
The first detective film to use the shadowy, nihilistic noir style in a definitive way was the privotal work of novice director John Huston in the mystery classic The Maltese Falcon (1941), from a 1929 book by Dashiell Hammett. [Actually, Huston's film was not the first version - it had been directed earlier by Roy Del Ruth in 1931, starring Ricardo Cortez in the lead role.] It was famous for Humphrey Bogart's cool, laconic private eye hero Sam Spade in pursuit of crooks greedy for a jewel-encrusted statue, and Bogart's foil - Mary Astor as the deceptive femme fatale.
Noir Duo: Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
The acting duo of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake was first teamed in the superb early noir thriller This Gun For Hire (1942) (with the tagline: "He's dynamite with a gun or a girl"). From the novel A Gun For Sale by renowned British novelist Graham Greene, the moody noir featured Ladd in a star-making role (his first lead role) as a ruthless, cat-loving, vengeful, unsmiling San Francisco professional hit-man named Raven working for a peppermint-candy loving fat man Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) and his wheelchair-bound Nitro Chemicals executive Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall) - both double-crossers who were selling secrets to foreign agents (the Japanese). Ladd was paired with popular wartime pinup star Lake as nightclub showgirl singer Ellen Graham, his hostage (and unbeknownst to him working as a federal agent).
Another Dashiell Hammett book of political corruption and murder was adapted for Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key (1942) for Paramount Studios - again with the duo of Ladd and Lake, and noted as one of the best Hammett adaptations. Ladd starred as Ed Beaumont, a right-hand man and political aide attempting to save his employer (Brian Donlevy) from a murder frame-up, while Lake played the seductive fiancee of the boss. The film was noted for the vicious beating given to Ladd by a crime lord thug (William Bendix).
The popular noir couple were brought together again in George Marshall's post-war crime thriller The Blue Dahlia (1946), with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Raymond Chandler (the only work he ever wrote directly for the screen). Alan Ladd portrayed returning war veteran Johnny Morrison who discovered that his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) was unfaithful during his absence. When she turned up dead and he became the prime suspect, he was aided in the case by the mysterious Joyce Harwood (Lake) - the seductive ex-wife of his wife's former lover.
Orson Welles and Film Noir:
Orson Welles' films have significant noir features, such as in his expressionistically-filmed Citizen Kane (1941), with subjective camera angles, dark shadowing and deep focus, and low-angled shots from talented cinematographer Gregg Toland. Welles' third film for RKO, the war-time mystery Journey Into Fear (1943), was one in which he acted and co-directed (uncredited) - it was set in the exotic locale of Istanbul. The film's story was inspired by Eric Ambler's spy thriller about the flight of an American arms engineer (Joseph Cotten) on a Black Sea tramp steamer where he was threatened by Nazi agents intent on killing him.
The complex The Lady from Shanghai (1948) - with its plot (from Sherwood King's novel If I Should Die Before I Wake), told about a destructive love triangle between Irish seaman Michael O'Hara (Welles himself), a manipulative Rita Hayworth as the platinum blonde-haired femme fatale Elsa (or Rosalie), and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Its final sequence in a San Francisco "hall of mirrors" fun-house was symbolic and reflective of the shattered relationships between the characters, exemplified by a wounded O'Hara's last words: "Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying."
Welles' Mexican border-town B-movie classic Touch of Evil (1958) is generally considered the last film in the classic cycle of film noirs. It starred Charlton Heston as Vargas - a naive Mexican-American narcotics cop, Janet Leigh as his imperiled, honeymooning wife Susan, and Welles' own corrupt and corpulent local cop Hank Quinlan. The film also featured a comeback appearance by cigar-smoking bordello madam Marlene Dietrich, and a breathtaking opening credits sequence filmed in a single-take. Later, Welles' expressionistic noir and psychological drama The Trial (1962) was an adaptation of Franz Kafka's classic novel, with Anthony Perkins as Joseph K - a man condemned for an unnamed crime in an unknown country.
More Definitive 40s Noirs:
Early classic non-detective film noirs included Fritz Lang's steamy and fatalistic Scarlet Street (1945) - one of the moodiest, blackest thrillers ever made, about a mild-mannered painter's (Edward G. Robinson) unpunished and unsuspected murder of an amoral femme fatale (Joan Bennett) after she had led him to commit embezzlement, impersonated him in order to sell his paintings, and had been deceitful and cruel to him - causing him in a fit of anger to murder her with an ice-pick. Director Abraham Polonsky's expressionistic, politically-subversive Force of Evil (1948) starred John Garfield as a corrupt mob attorney.
British director Carol Reed's tense tale of treachery set in post-war Vienna,The Third Man (1949), with the memorable character of black market racketeer Harry Lime (Orson Welles), ended with a climactic shootout in the city's noirish underground sewer. And the nightmarishly-dark, rapid-paced and definitive D.O.A. (1949) from cinematographer-director Rudolph Mate - told the flashback story of lethally-poisoned and doomed protagonist Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), a victim of circumstance who announced in the opening: "I want to report a murder - mine." [It was remade as D.O.A. (1988) with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.]