I usually write about a single movie and actually, that’s what I started with but I kept rambling on about Film Noir so I decided to dedicate the post to it entirely. Warning: This post just kept getting longer and longer.
If you’re not quite sure what film noir is or means, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Even the experts can’t seem to agree on it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? Is it a movement or a period? There are some fascinating and convincing arguments for all of the above. It’s one of my favorite film topics because no one can agree – it sparks some good articles, essays and books because naturally, everyone thinks they’re right. I’m no different…so, here’s my two cents…
First, to define exactly what a genre is. Here’s a definition straight from Dictionary.com:
Genre: a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.
Naturally, after I looked that up I was curious to see their definition of Film Noir:
Film Noir: a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.
(This illustrates my earlier point completely – they’re technically calling a film noir “a motion picture” – they avoided the debate by not saying “a style” or “a genre” or “a movement”…cracks me up)
Anyways, I agree with their genre definition. With that said, I personally believe that Film Noir is a sub-genre. It’s not an out and out genre all by itself – like Drama, Comedy, Musical, Western, Romance, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, etc.
Instead, a Film Noir is like an off-shoot of the big genres. Using the genre definition above – a film noir does have a particular form, content and technique so it does meet the definition BUT – no one set out to make film noirs in the 40s and 50s. They were making mysteries and thrillers and detective films and dramas…no one making these films set out to make “a film noir.” That term wasn’t coined until AFTER many of the movies we call Film Noirs were produced.
So, in other words, Film Noirs can be classified as a genre because they all share specific characteristics but they were originally classified in other genres – and still hold to those other genre’s definitions. Thus, I call them a sub-genre.
Now, if you don’t know, you’re probably wondering where the term came from and why it was after many of the movies were made. This historical aspect is a big part of why I love them so much. They were an unintentional byproduct of the time and along with Westerns, are the only other uniquely American genre.
During WWII, American films were banned in Nazi-occupied France. Once the war ended, the French and the very influential French film critics got to see the whole backlog of American movies they missed during the war. Rather than seeing the movies spread out over several months and years the way American audiences did, the French saw them in rapid succession. Because of this, they picked up on something that no one in America did. During the War, many of our films became dark – and they became dark in all senses of that word. The French critics began referring to these films as “noir” which is the French word for black.
So how were these films “noir”?
These are general explanations. Obviously each film is unique and follows these “rules” a little differently or follows some and not others but, in general, this is how it is:
If you’re like your films with a happy ending, Film Noirs are not where you’ll find them. The stories always have a criminal element. Murder and blackmail are the most common plot devices. The characters are often just one step ahead of the law – trying to frame each other or come up with an acceptable ‘fall guy.’ Often, the plot in these stories can be very convoluted – the plot doesn’t always matter. In a detective story for example, traditionally the story is all about how it happened and the plot is very important. But in a detective film that’s also a noir, the story is more about why. Noirs tend to be very interested in psychology or human behavior.
The settings are almost always urban – the cities are concrete jungles: cold, callous and unforgiving. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the most common. Most scenes take place at night, in the dark because that’s when the characters of Noir come out. Their business is always transacted at night. During the day, they’re inside. The only sunlight to be seen comes in through the blinds, casting prison-like bar shadows over everyone. This leads to the next noir characteristic….entrapment.
Noir characters are often trapped somehow. Sometimes they’re forced to do the things they do or feel they have no choice. Usually, they accept their fate – often they know or at least sense that they’re doomed.
Another popular theme is greed. People do bad things for money. These films like to show that.
Noirs have an extremely distinct style. Most of them are in black and white which adds to their sinister look and feel. The lighting is done in a way to create many shadows. Noirs are heavy on symbolism. One character might always be in the light, another might always be in a shadow. I mentioned blinds casting prison bar shadows earlier. Also, wrought-iron fences or gates cast bars over the characters – we’re constantly bombarded with imagery that tells us, they’re trapped or there’s no way out. The characters have distinct styles too. The men always smoke and usually drink heavily. The smoke adds to the visual style – clouding out whatever speck of light makes its way into a scene. The men usually wear suits, often pinstriped. When they go out, they wear a trench coat and a fedora. The women dress elegantly – gowns, gloves, jewels, impeccable hair and make-up. The script is full of razor-sharp wit, dripping with cynicism.
Common Noir Characters:
Femme Fatale: Definitely the most famous character type. So famous, the French coined a term for her too: “The Fatal Woman.” She’s beautiful, mysterious and can make normally level-headed men, fall for her instantly. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants and men are there to do her bidding. She’s cold and calculating. Every move she makes is for herself. The men who fall for her, figure it out way too late. They’re bad people but feminist film theorists make some good points that the Femme Fatales were some of the first strong women on the silver screen. When all the men were overseas, the women went out, got jobs and kept things running. They became stronger members of society than they ever were before. The Femme Fatales aren’t good but they are independent women. Some theorize, these strong women helped make these movies even more unsettling to the men in the audiences. These women were out in the world with the men – they weren’t home baking, cleaning or raising children.Duped Man: This is one of the guys that falls for the Femme Fatale. He’s a regular guy who crosses paths with a gorgeous woman. She gets him to do something for her and soon, he’s in too deep to ever get out. At first, he loves her – soon, he knows he’s been ‘a sap.’
Tough Guy: This is the other guy that falls for the Femme Fatale but unlike the duped man, this guy – often a detective, is a little too smart to fall all the way. He’s very smart. It’s clear he’s had a hard life where he needed to be smarter and tougher than the other guy. His past is always mysterious and usually implied to be questionable. He doesn’t trust anyone completely and is often a man of few words. When he does speak, it’s clear he’s not to be messed with. Deep down, he might be a good guy but something or someone has led him astray. Now he’s just trying to survive. He hopes to get out but doesn’t put much stock in hope.
Rich Sophisticated Bad Guy: The ‘boss’ of the henchmen is quite often a rich and sophisticated man. Like the femme fatale uses her sexuality, the rich guy uses his money to get others to do his bidding. He’s charming and charismatic – but definitely evil or at least no good.
Nice Girl: She’s usually the girlfriend of either the tough guy or duped man. She often represents an unattainable peaceful life. These guys love her but feel bad for dragging her into their mess of a life. Then the Femme Fatale comes along and she gets brushed aside. Ever faithful, she waits for her guy to see the light but often is left behind. She’s too good for them and they know it.
Hired Gun: Usually a very young guy – inexperienced but quick to put a bullet in someone to prove he’s tough. The real ‘tough guys’ have fun pushing this kid around. But, this kid is usually psychopathic. He isn’t really tough or smart – he just wants people to think he is and tries way too hard. He’s only dangerous because he’s trying to prove himself. If he’s not a young guy, he’s still not really any good. He’s like a big dumb henchman and often gets killed off or made to play the fall guy.
As I mentioned, Noir scripts are full of razor-sharp lines. Here are a few of my favorites:
Out of the Past (1947)
Kathie Moffat: I don’t want to die.
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, Baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.
Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.
Kathie Moffat: I’m sorry he didn’t die.
Jeff Bailey: Give him time.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Sam Spade: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.
Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation…
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?
Waldo Lydecker: I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.
Waldo Lydecker: In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.
Waldo Lydecker: My dear, either you were born on a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?
Walter Neff: I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.
Johnny Farrell: Pardon me, but your husband is showing.