01 October 2008

Film Noir 101: An Introduction to America’s Greatest Cinematic Phenomenon

Just like jazz, baseball and apple pie, film noir is a singularly American phenomenon. A French term literally meaning black film, film noir is a label that was applied to 1940’s American cinema after its inception by French film thinkers. Some consider noir to be a genre, while others see it as a style or atmosphere, and many deem it to be both.

Regardless of its lack of an official status or text book definition, film noir is an indelible force in American cinema. Here is a brief introduction to the nature of noir.


Stylistically noir developed out of the 1920’s German Expressionist movement of filmmaking. Expressionist films such as “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” and “Nosferatu” evoke a dark and sinister world through the use of low key, high contrast lighting known as Chiaroscuro. This moody visual style heavily influences the dark and desolate city streets so prevalent in the noir environment.

Noir’s themes and narrative style also derive significantly from 1930’s hard boiled crime fiction, most notably the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and James M. Cain. In fact, many of the greatest noir films are direct adaptations of their books.  Such stories feature complicated twists and turns, and often weave intricate tales of crime, murder, sex and corruption.

1930’s gangster films such as “Scarface” and “Little Caesar” also influenced film noir, featuring dark nights, tough streets, and even tougher criminals.


Noir films feature convoluted plots full of crime, murder, violence, backstabbing, treachery, deceit, loss and misfortune. Determinism and entrapment play a large factor in the world of noir. The protagonist, often a private detective, is typically doomed to ill fated misfortune, often caused by the most infamous of noir characters, the femme fatale. Beautiful, seductive yet seemingly innocent, the femme fatale often leads the protagonist down a dark and dangerous road.

Film noir is just as dark and mysterious stylistically as it is thematically; low key, high contrast lighting known as chiaroscuro, black and white photography, as well as dark and rainy city streets all contribute to its intriguing sense of style. Other familiar noir trademarks include recurring voice over, psychological dream sequences, and flashbacks.


Although there is much dispute as to which films should be categorized as noir, film noir’s classic genre period is generally considered to have taken place in the 1940’s. Here are several must see films from this period.

“Out of the Past” (1947)
Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and an excellent Kirk Douglas, “Out of the Past” is about a seemingly ordinary gas station owner with a secret, mysterious and potentially dangerous past.

“Murder My Sweet” (1944)
“Murder My Sweet” stars Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s famous detective protagonist, who is featured in numerous noir thrillers.

“Double Indemnity” (1944)
This classic film noir is based on a novella written by James M. Cain, and stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and the always impressive Edward G. Robinson, whose career success began with early gangster films such as “Little Caesar.”

“The Stranger” (1946)
Orson Welles directs and stars in this 1946 noir classic about a Nazi hiding out in the United States after WWII.


From the dark science fiction future noir of “Blade Runner”, to 2005’s graphic novel adaptation “Sin City,” to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning crime thriller “The Departed,” no other cinematic style or genre has had such a long lasting and deeply impacted effect on cinema. Some of America’s greatest contemporary filmmakers owe much of their vision and success to the influence of film noir. Many of the Coen brother’s films are influenced heavily by film noir, and their 2001 film “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a direct homage to the classic noir period. Among many others, directors such as Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann have all been struck by film noir’s dark influence.

There is something carnal to the dark and gritty toughness exuded by the noir world that captivates and fascinates audiences. Whether you consider it to be a genre, style, environment or something else entirely, film noir’s themes, visual style, and technical trademarks have influenced countless genres and filmmakers since the 1940’s, and will continue to do so for many years to come.