Film Noir
The Decade
Film Noir
Unexpected Noir


Film Noir • Characteristics • The Films


In addition to unsettling narrative themes of ambiguity and violent death, certain stylistic characteristics immediately come to mind when discussing film noir.

Stark, angular shadows. The isolated feel of modern cities. Conflicted anti-heroes and terse dialogue. Determined, beautiful, scheming women.

Taken together, these created a unique body of films that continues to be discussed and emulated even today.

Many film noir characteristics were the result of an interaction between filmmakers, new filmmaking techniques, and a tension and uncertainty that lay underneath the patriotism and optimism of the 1940s.


It can be argued that nearly every attempt to define the film noir comes to agree that the sometimes very diverse noir films are united by the consistent thread of a visual style that emphasizes a claustrophobic and off-balance feel to the world.

As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson state, it is the constant opposition of areas of light and dark that characterizes film noir cinematography. Harsh, low-key lighting brought about the high contrast and rich, black shadows associated with the films. Place and Lowell discuss the newly-developed technical significance of depth of field, which is essential for keeping all objects in the frame in sharp focus and the resultant need for wide-angle lens, which creates a distorted view of the image, as well as drawing the viewer into the picture and creating a sense of immediacy with the image.1

The impact of German Expressionist lighting was brought to bear by the large number of German and East Europeans working in Hollywood: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak to name a few.

Schrader noted that on the surface, the artificial studio lighting of the German Expressionist influence might have seemed incompatible with postwar realism, but the unique quality of film noir allowed it to meld the seemingly contradictory elements into a uniform style. Films such as Union Station, They Live by Night, and The Killers bring together an "uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and Expressionism."2

The visual look and feel of the films contributed to the unsettled sense of claustrophobia and distortion in the stories: nothing was as it seemed.


Many of the original American film noirs identified and analyzed by the French critics were adapted from popular and critically admired novels from the 1930s. William Marling writes that "the debt of film noir to the novels of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler may by now seem clear."3

These authors had their roots in pulp fiction, with a tough, cynical way of acting and talking. Schrader notes that when the filmmakers of the 1940s turned to the "American 'tough' moral understrata, the hard-boiled school was waiting with preset conventions of heroes, minor characters, plots, dialogue and themes."4


American cities grew tremendously during the war years as workers flocked to rapidly expanding urban areas for the promise of new jobs. As the urban population exploded, especially in the industrial north, a new modern prosperity and its problems weren't far behind.

In Somewhere in the Night, Nicholas Christopher writes evocatively of the complex connection between film noir and the city. "The great, sprawling American city, endless in flux, both spectacular and sordid, with all its amazing permutations of human and topographical growths, with its deeply textured nocturnal life that can be a seductive, almost otherworldly, labyrinth of dreams or a tawdry bazaar of lost souls: the city is the seedbed of noir."5

America rediscovered film noir in the 1970s, in part John Belton notes, because of Paul Schrader's well-recognized "Notes on Film Noir," written in 1972. When Belton refers to Taxi Driver (1976) in his introduction to a series of essays on Movies and Mass Culture, he could well be discussing late 1940s film noir as he writes, "New York City is portrayed as an urban inferno, inhabited by a disaffected and alienated populace that has surrendered itself to the crime and corruption brought about by industrialization and urbanization."6

This modern sense of alienation and underbelly of corruption in the mean cities played a significant part in creating the texture and dark mood of film noirs.


In the October 18, 1943 issue of The New Republic, Manny Farber took note of the development of a new breed of contradictory hero in American films who stood in opposition to the American traditional hero represented by Gary Cooper. This "anti-intellectual, anti-emotional and pro-action" hero was personified by Humphrey Bogart - the cynical Rick of Casablanca and the mercenary Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon.

Acknowledging changes in the American psyche during the early war years, he wrote, "in a world where so many people are doing things they dislike doing, Bogart expresses the hostility and rebellion the existence of which the Cooper tradition ignores," going on to note that, "he is the soured half of the American dream, which believes that if you are good, honest and persevering you will win the kewpie doll." 7

Noir protagonists were almost always single men, often detectives who were once cops, psychologically flawed or wounded, and although they might appear morally ambiguous or compromised, they usually adhered to their own personal code of right and wrong. In Projecting Paranoia, Ray Pratt finds that, "some form of cynicism – even fatalism – and hard-bitten wisecracking is universal among these PIs, as is their aura of compromised, world-wary morality."8

Often, these anti-heroes found themselves tempted by a woman, looking for a man to further their schemes.


Quart and Auster describe this relationship as, "a world where women, often in the central role, were glamorous and dangerous – seductive sirens whose every action was marked by duplicity and aimed at satisfying a desire for wealth and power – while the male protagonists were frequently weak, confused and morally equivocal, susceptible to temptation, and incapable of acting heroically."

They argue that many Hollywood films, especially in the postwar era, usually made sure that by the end, career women would be domesticated and see the error of their ways when they competed with men. The film Mildred Pierce, staring Joan Crawford, ended with Mildred being punished for being a strong, independent woman by being treated with contempt and being betrayed by her eldest daughter.

As they examine possible explanations for the diverse, powerful images of female menace and power as women took on the roles of murderous wives and lovers, Quart and Auster suggest that this tendency may be due in part from American soldier's fears of infidelity at home during World War II. However, they are quick to note, along with most critics, that no matter how much the camera focused on the "predatory sexuality or psychological strength of the female, male dominance was always restored by the film's climax."9

The new economic, social, and sexual freedoms that women experienced during the war years as they joined the laborforce in record numbers was deeply unsettling to many Americans. This conflict and fear of strong, independent women – and the desire to show the dangers of this independence – was reflected, consciously or not, in most film noir films.

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Film Noir • Characteristics • The Films


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