What is Film Noir?
It’s impossible to encapsulate film noir in a definition. The canon of classic film noir is vast and diverse, numbering hundreds of films released from 1941 through 1959. Let’s begin, instead, with a rough description.
Noir is a visual style
Film noir often and mistakenly is referred to as a film genre. It’s more accurate to describe noir as a black-and-white visual style employing low key, high-contrast lighting and unusual camera angles, with recurring plot themes, and a distinctive point of view, usually that of a male protagonist trapped by circumstance. It's a claustrophobic visual style, rooted in German Expressionist art and cinematography. Strange camera angles, swaying ceiling lights, bleak urban settings often shot on location, rain-drenched streets or flashing neons signs filtered through dingy venetian blinds combine to convey a vertiginous, dislocated universe of darkness and despair.
Fall guys and femme fatales
Noirs are often crime dramas, which revolve around cynical fall guys who succumb to the erotic wiles of calculating femme fatales, luring men to their doom. Many of the stories and attitude of classic noir derive from the hard-boiled school of lurid pulp crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression, coming from the typewriters of authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashielle Hamett, both of whom later did Hollywood screen-writing. A list of noir screen-writers would be very long, and includes such well-known authors as Hemingway and Faulkner, as well as writers such as Dalton Trumbo, who was black-listed during the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunt.
The complex role of women in classic noir has generated a great deal of discussion in recent years. Film historians often explain noir’s ambivalence toward women by pointing to the post-war disillusionment of returning vets, who frequently came home to discover that their wives and girlfriends were gone.
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity—The Paradigmatic Noir
The film which most deserves to be called “the paradigmatic noir” is Double Indemnity (1944), directed and written by Billy Wilder and co-written by Raymond Chandler. It stars Fred Macmurray as Walter Neff, an insurance salesmen who falls for the beautiful, sexy and scheming, Phyllis Dietrichson, brilliantly played by Barbara Stanwyck. She persuades Walter to do away with her husband so that they can collect insurance money. The plan goes awry, as it inevitably does in noir. Gun play ensues. Walter and Phyllis shoot one another in the belly in a final, futile orgasm of violence. “Just hold me close, Walter!” Phyllis gasps, holding the bleeding Walter in his arms. “Goodbye, baby!”, Walter replies, shooting Phyllis dead.
The entire story is told in flashback voice-over narration, a common narrative device in film noir. Walter sags in his office chair, bleeding to death, while he records a full confession of his deception on his dictaphone to his boss, Barton Keyes, played to perfection by Edward G. Robinson. Some commentators discern a homoerotic sub-theme in the loving relationship between Walter and his boss, which starkly contrasts with the crassly exploitative relationship between Phyllis and Walter.
“Film Noir”—A critical construct
No one knew, in the 40s and 50s, that they were making noir films. The term film noir, French for “black film”, was first applied to Hollywood films by French critic, Nino Frank, in 1946. Later, French critics Raymond Borde & Etienne Chaumeton published the first book-length study of noir cinema, Panorama du film noir américain 1941-1953, published in France in 1955. Very few in Hollywood took note. Cinema historians and critics have defined the concept retrospectively since then. The term "film noir" came into general acceptance only in the 1970s, a time when a trend now referred to as “neo-noir” was beginning to assert itself in motion picture making.
As fascinating as neo-noir is, we will not be discussing it on this webpage. This site concerns itself only with the classic era of film noir, from roughly 1941 to 1959. There are countless websites on film noir. In this small site, I can provide readers only a small glance at an immense area of cinematic art and history.