Film Noir
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Film Noir • CharacteristicsThe Films


Film noir is a unique body of works in American film history. As Alain Silver writes in his introduction to Film Noir Reader, "film noir is a self-contained reflection of American culture and its preoccupations at a point in time."1

That point in time was the turbulent wartime decade of the 1940s – a decade in which Americans experienced contradictory feelings of great success and optimism mixed with new and unsettling changes at home and abroad.

After World War II ended, American films that had been made during the war years began to make their way to Europe. A small, but influential group of French critics – perhaps because they saw the films with a fresh eye and almost as a unit – recognized a new darkness in mood, style, and theme that hadn't been present in films made before the war.


R. Barton Palmer, who translated several of the original essays written by these critics for his book, Perspectives on Film Noir, notes in his introduction that "the just-released films from America were scanned closely for what they had to say about developments in the political and cultural life of an esteemed ally."2

In addition to Nino Frank, who is credited with first using the term film noir in print to describe the films, others such as Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton examined not only the sense of violence, but also the moral uncertainty, cynicism, and off-balance mood they found in these new American films.

In their 1955 essay, "Toward the Definition of Film Noir," Borde and Chaumeton observed that even more than from the characteristic violence, "feelings of anguish arise from the unforeseen haphazardness that characterizes the course of events."3

PAUL SCHRADER: "Notes on Film Noir"4

The theme of American angst is echoed by Paul Schrader in his widely-quoted essay, "Notes on Film Noir." Writing in 1972, Schrader described how the narrative structure, themes, and visual component in film noirs combined to give a bleak look at America, noting that "never before had films dared to take such a harsh, uncomplimentary look at American life, and they would not dare to do so again for twenty years."

Schrader discusses major influences on film noir, with a disclaimer that "almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles... How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?"

He argues, as do others, that film noir is not a genre, but rather is defined by more subtle stylistic qualities of tone and mood. He emphasizes that film noir is "a specific period of film history" and encompasses Hollywood films of the 1940s and early 50s which portrayed a world of "dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption."

Schrader finds four catalytic elements – all of which came together in America during the decade of the 1940s – that influence film noir and give it its dark and cynical tone: 1) war and postwar disillusionment 2) postwar realism 3) German expressionism and 4) the "hard-boiled" tradition.


Like Schrader, many critics see film noir as a mixture of elements found in America during the 1940s. In Movie-Made America, Robert Sklar notes that film noir, in a narrow sense, refers to the "psychological thrillers that emerged at the time of the war," many of which were directed by a new generation of European expatriates who had arrived in Hollywood.5

Brian Neve argues in Film and Politics in America that although film noir was perhaps not evidence of a national postwar zeitgeist, it still invites examination as a study of the anxieties that existed in at least part of society. He acknowledges that "while film noir does seem to reflect – from somewhere – a cynicism about the family relationships held in such esteem in polite society, a pessimism more appropriate to a self-conscious 'age of anxiety,' and even a visual style more in keeping with a modernism spread by the new commercial culture, it is still difficult to account for the tendency in precise terms."6

A hallmark of film noir, as Sklar indicates is a sense of "people trapped – trapped in webs of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false." Mirroring the contradictory uncertainties found in wartime and postwar-America, he states, "In the end, evil is exposed, though often just barely, and the survival of good remains trouble and ambiguous."7

Sklar and others remark upon the fact that these feelings of claustrophobia and entrapment are found in pictures quite distinct from classic film noir. Jon Tuska argues in Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective that because film noir is a style and narrative structure, not a genre, it cuts across generic lines.8 Evidence of film noir is often noted in gangster films such as White Heat (1949), westerns such as Pursued (1947), and comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

While there is not a universal agreement among critics about what films constitute film noir, there are certain characteristics about the films – the mood of darkness, violence, and ambiguity – that are undisputed.

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