The term film noir was coined in the late 1940s by French critic Nino Frank, but it wasn’t adopted by most film critics until the 1970s. Instead, film noir pictures were referred to as melodramas. Mostly, because Nino Frank published his critiques in French papers and wasn’t credited for coining the term till later in his career.
Film noir translates to “dark film” and it was influenced by both the French New Wave and German Expressionist movements. The Great Depression made times for working Americans very difficult. The noir story arch and underlying themes aligned with the burden most Americans were feeling.
There is no official accord on how to carry out film noir depictions. It derives from many themes and personal context. Most critiques and scholars are still fighting the philosophy behind calling film noir a genre. Hollywood’s film noir is mostly about a crime and drama story arc, a detective/private eye and a femme fatale character. However, the definition of film noir isn’t based on their context. Other studios use noir techniques in more established genres such as parodies, comedies, and horrors. Yet, the underlying similarities between these genres using noir techniques are their themes and directors’ approach in cinematography.
A large amount of the screenplays were portrayals of fictional crime novels – The Big Sleep, The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, The Big Heat. The films were usually led by anti-heroes, including gangsters, private eyes, government agents, war veterans, cops, politicians, killers and many other societal or sinister roles. Seeing most of the appearances are twisting and menacing characters, film noir gravitates to exposing the evil of the world and showcasing the barbaric side of human nature.
The storylines of film noir tend to have a non-linear path with a heartbreaking ending. Ultimate lost, surviving day-to-day, desperation and paranoia are leading themes in noir stories. Cinematography has a trend of having a deep-focus, bewildering visual patterns, skewed camera angles, single-source lighting that give scenes a dark, confined and cloudy appearance. These techniques give off an aura of anxiety, suspicion and that anything can go wrong at any moment. The films also gave off themes of estrangement, hopelessness, noble corruption and cynicism.
Codes and Conventions
The fears of nuclear war, ties of corruption with government officials, paranoia, post-war fatigue and anguish of this era made the codes and conventions of noir films align with the emotions Americans were feeling.
A common film noir clichés: the protagonist is an embittered male, sharply dressed, a heavy smoker, and at a certain point in the story meets a gorgeous yet immoral and seductive femme fatale. Women in these films used their sexuality to manipulate men and bend them to their will. Usually, the protagonist will end up being the “fall guy” of the story.
As discussed in the themes of film noir, mankind is viewed as evil in society. The anti-hero protagonist being the reflection of an evil society. Most Americans understood too well the corrupt atmosphere they lived in. The ominous shadows play a key role in recreating societal anxieties. Generally, the protagonist is (to be believed) an innocent man that was framed or fell into temptation. The protagonist is a target. Being in constant pressures takes a mental toll, leading to flashbacks of the past about a critical life mistake made by the protagonist, and the fear to carry out the same outcome in the present.
A deep portion of films produced in Hollywood in the 1930s consisted of musicals and comedies. With the birth of the golden age of Hollywood that embarked in the 1920s and continued in the 1930s, it seemed that the trend of those genres would carry over into the 1940s & 1950s. Remarkably, that was not the case. It’s clear how films of this era were greatly influenced by the political landscape the world was facing.
- John Huston: One of the most noticeable directors of its era. High Sierra, The Maltese Falcone, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle – made the detective genre famous, and a tremendous screenwriter.
- Humphrey Bogart: Film noir star actor that Hollywood couldn’t get enough of. The most recognisable actor. – Casablanca, The Big Shot, Across the Pacific, The African Queen.
- Raymond Chandler: American writer that made crime fiction genre an instant classic. Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, Stranger on a Train are some of his screenplays that cemented film noir popularity in America.
- Gene Tierney: One of the generations most powerful actress. The Shanghai Gesture, Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, Night and the City.
- The introductory Stranger on the Third Floor, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Killers, Gilda, and Kiss Me Deadly are iconic depictions of noir technique and aided its popularity.
- Out in The Past is an archetypal drama/crime noir film and recognised as one of the best films of its era. Shadow manipulation with the use of low-key lighting around actors elicits an inner disturbance. The hard-boiled tale of betrayal and love.
- Orson Welles film noir masterpiece Citizen Kane is one of the most memorable featured films of all time. Achieved an unprecedented nine nominations for an Academy Award.
- The House of Seven Gambles, The Maltese Falcon, Detour, The Big Sleep, Gilda, Sorry, Wrong Number, In a Lonely Place, The Big Combo – these films accommodate to and owned the noir elements in a very exclusive and compelling ways.
With the success in the box office, film noir was king of Hollywood. Movie studios continued their pursuit of profit with noir techniques. With the sheer quantity of films coming out, many audiences felt fatigued of the same story lines. Studios seized an opportunity to start noir approach on parody films. The tone of these films had musical themes – Wonder Man. Others had a theme of self-parody – The Big Steal & His Kind of Woman. Both films starring Robert Mitchum and developed by RKO Pictures.
RKO Pictures produced a large portion of parody films in the 1940s & 1950s. The studio is recognised as the leader of parody films in the horror genre. Suggesting a suitable investment to create a cross over using noir methods. Paramount Pictures followed this trend when they distributed a noir comedy My Favorite Brunette starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.
Parody and musicals aren’t the only genres studios experimented with. More famously, the 1960s & 1970s neo-noir films recalled a lot of the dynamics of classical noir but are modernised to its times. Giving audiences masterpieces such as Blow Up, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Chinatown.
The parallel’s and influence the 1940s & 1950s had on American film are still felt in today’s cinematography. Christopher Nolan’s depiction of the Batman universe had a very classical noir element. The Dark Knight use of shadow, low-key lighting, anti-hero figure, and femme fatale are shared elements that lie in film noir.
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