Film Noir; A Genre & More

Academic Paper by Phill Hunziker.

Why? Many reasons, actually. Film Noir provided a fresh depiction of life for Americans worn down by The Great Depression and WWII, as well as provided major aesthetic and narrative influence for the industry and 70+ years of succeeding films. The Femme Fatale, utilization of previously unknown techniques, the melancholic themes, complex and multilayered narrative and characters, etc.; these all revolutionized the industry, embodied American post-war/Depression fatigue and provided a catalog of incredible timeless films. Additionally, the implementation of film noir themes, aspects and techniques into the early works of prominent filmmakers played an integral part in the development of the film industry as a whole. Not only should Film Noir be universally acknowledged as a genre, but as one of the most important movements in film history.

Film Noir developed at the right time for Americans. This genre was a byproduct of the frustrations with WWII and Hollywood’s depictions of life throughout the Depression. The glossy, high-class world depicted in Production Code ‘Classical Hollywood’ films of the 30’s was not an accurate representation of life during that time period. Society craved a darker, more realistic vision. What they got was a dark world bound to cynicism and dread as the line between right and wrong was blurred to the point of no return. The hero is not a knight in thing armor, rather is “hardly glamorous” whose “pessimism passes for heroism because—just look at that face—he has seen it all.” (Lewis) Though surrealistic aesthetically, the tone and inner turmoil of the characters was very much a dosage of realism injected into mainstream film.

The aesthetics of film noir are almost instantly distinguishable. The dark alleys, smoking silhouette, black and white world, bar-shaped shadows and sternly gripped guns; images apparent in nearly every film noir. Melancholy, deception, sexual tension and greed/lust-driven crime; apparent in most film noir narratives. Non-linear editing, voice-over, a stimulating score, and iconic mood/world establishing cinematography; the aesthetic tools and techniques that provide the depth and structure to most film noir. The unique world of Noir established by these characteristics, none as important is its cinematography. The films’ usage of low-key lighting both established the melancholic, enticing, mysterious, dream and prison like aura present in all of film noir.  As Place and Peterson put it, “the low-key noir style opposes light and dark, hiding faces, rooms, urban landscapes—and, by extension, motivations and true characters—in shadow and darkness which carry connotations of the mysterious and the unknown.” The camera captures everything within a carefully constructed world that blends the laws of morality and probability. Each character seems to stand out from their background, almost three-dimensional. Each set is clean-cut, 80’s style, and the camera applies both its order and they mystery that lays beneath the shadows. The camera can take a high angle to establish a character’s inferiority or sense of entrapment. Also, the camera similarly takes a low angle to establish a character, usually a silhouette, as a dominant force in a scene. Many films have used that tactic, but it can be defined as a film noir characteristic as it is both common and incredibly important in enhancing a film noir narrative. This melancholic world, comprised of the aforementioned attributes an many more, is both timeless and incredibly relevant to its time period as it slyly bent the rules of the flawed Production Code.

The majority of the films in the 1930’s were made during the enforcement of the Production Code, meaning they had to follow strict and, in many cases, unnecessarily oppressive guidelines. This played a part in many of these films to either follow a template or at least keep it safe with the intensity of their content. that lead to many of these films being glossy, unrealistically optimistic and lacking a certain level of depth. The world is supposed to influence film, and vice versa. However, this is a time period where that was simply not the case. The 1930’s were plagued by the Great Depression. However, any person without knowledge of this would not understand that by watching the production code films of the time. Those films, supposedly the Golden Age of Hollywood, presented a world littered with happy endings, villains always losing, prototypical 1st world problems, and women ultimately having minimal power in both the narrative and on screen. That last point makes sense, as the women’s rights movement had a long way to go by the 30’s. Still, times were changing and luckily Film Noir provided an outlet for more dominant female prominence in film.

Film Noir addressed post-war anxiety regarding nuclear weapons, damaged returning veterans, and a general distrust in government, Hollywood and ‘reality’. Additionally, there was an adjustment period regarding the status of women in society. As the men went off to war, women had entered the workforce. After the men returned, there was a relatively significant adjustment period in which mean and society as a wholes seemed to expect women to resume their obedient role in the home. Rightfully so, many women had no interest in that so there was a struggle between the sexes that further pressured society into acknowledging women’s rights issues. The femme fatale was Film Noir’s answer to this struggle. While not being the central character, the femme fatale acted as the driving force of the narrative in many of these films. They control men with their seductiveness and hold a sexually confident stature (like Mae West), especially when she reveals her true intentions. Women holding a dominant role in film was welcoming for many women at the time. Constantly dealing with sexual oppression and being treated as second-rate citizens, it was very important to women to see someone like them be so powerful and free in film. Their inner strength and desires being embodied on the screen holds great significance on both ends of the spectrum. It was great to have their concerns in the limelight, but it should not be forgotten that almost all of these films were written by men. It is not a coincidence that most femme fatales acted as complex villains (primarily influenced by greed) who ultimately met their demise at the end of the film. That being said, a women being a dominant figure in a film was a rare occurrence after the implementation of the production code. Female sexuality, and sexuality in general, was thoroughly suppressed during this time as well. Thanks to savvy filmmaking, film noir possessed an uncanny ability to skirt the lines of the production code.

Sexuality was a staple of prime film noir. It drove characters, was used to manipulate them and ultimately acted as one of the main aspects of their problems. During the production code, as mentioned earlier, filmmakers had to be cautious about how much they showed in their films. After all, there were some pretty ridiculous rules they had to follow (two characters on a bed, one foot on the floor). Explicit sex scenes were obviously forbidden and even hints of sex were closely monitored. The genre as a whole found a way to establish a mood and narrative incredibly reliant on sexuality without breaking any rules. This was done aesthetically through daring cinematography, delicate editing and the usage of clever sexual innuendo. The lighting, usually low-key, set the mood like an impressive assortment of dimly-lit candles would. The characters, shaded and intensified by this lighting, would express their uncontrollable attraction through their eyes and increasingly sensual dialect.

What fascinates me most, aside from the aforementioned ability to bend the rules of the production code, is just how influential film noir has been on the industry. The genre greatly affected how other contemporaries went about making their films. Filmmakers felt more comfortable, not necessarily taking risks, but constructing a more creative style that opened up their range of artistic expression. Additionally, the amount of films that have been developed over the years that posses many traits of film noir has been staggering. The effect the genre had can be compared to that of German Expressionism in the 20’s. It makes sense that their effects are similar because, as James Naremore explains, film noir emerged “out of a synthesis of hard-boiled fiction and German Expressionism” Aesthetically, I feel that no other genre is as easily distinguishable. Therefore, it is easy to point out films that possess Noir traits, much like it is easy to point out films with Western traits. For example, many films have utilized techniques (low-key lighting, voiceover, etc.) that are similar to those of film noir, either as a platform to build off of or a way to enhance their own genre techniques. Specifically for this paper, The Killing (Kubrick, 1956) relied on Film Noir staples as Kubrick was trying to develop his own style.

In this film, the narrative is littered with film noir mainstays (femme fatale, ill fates). The aesthetics are on point as well (low-key lighting, voiceover). This, by most definitions, is a classic film noir. What makes it interesting, however, is the fact that it was made in the later 50’s (near or past the end of the movement) and that it was the first feature for one of the greatest American artists of all time. Stanley Kubrick would go one to make some of the prominent films go their respective times, none of which that many people would claim to be film noir. If you watch the first feature for many great directors, you’ll see a soon-to-be genius working out the kinks. A director’s best friend (in my opinion) is a model with which to work from; a structure in which to get ultra-creative around. Classic film noir narrative and aesthetic characteristics acted as a fine formula for Kubrick’s first big design. The scene in which all the men meet around a table to discuss the track robbery plan in full detail  is a perfect example of its usage of film noir aesthetics. First of all, the entire frame of the scene is black; all that can be seen are the men, the table and the light. This creates an aura of secrecy; a conversation for nobody else’s ears. The dialogue is quick and concise. The subtlety involved with classic noir aesthetics allows for Kubrick to provide a plethora of information in rapid fire fashion without sacrificing entertainment or tone. The low-key lighting, which is only used as a tone, style and atmosphere setter for the majority of this scene, does interject itself into focus for a moment. As Johnny continues to give the details of the plan, he leans back and his entire face is draped in shadow. The details he gives in the state regard the source of the money and nothing more. The meaning and significance of why this happened at this time in the conversation is up for debate, but the fact is this is an example of Kubrick utilizing a signature film noir technique to inject an extra layer of meaning to one of his scenes. Another interesting thing to point out is the fact that George, the weakest and arguably the least trust worthy, is the one covered in the most shadow. The Killing itself can definitely be categorized as a film noir, as this scene specifically just oozes the genre’s vibes.

Film noir has developed many sub-genres and branching off genres such as neo-noir. Quentin Tarantino made a statement in which he described The Killing as a big influence on his partly neo-noir film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Like that film and The Killing, many other neo-noir films such as Memento (Nolan, 2000) have acted as gauges for experimentation with film noir aspects and techniques by future all-time great directors just starting out. Film noir has played an integral part in the development of many prominent and influential filmmakers as they just begin to get their feet wet. Aspects and techniques of film noir can provide a foundation for filmmakers who look to develop their own unique style. They provide a basis in which to build off of. That basis injects layers of depth, provocation and mind-blowing innovation to both a narrative and the execution of that narrative.

Film Noir is more than just a genre. It is one of the most important movements in both American and international film history. It gave relief to Americans jaded by the Great Depression, WWII and Hollywood’s lack of representation, to say. It is responsible for endless amounts of classic films, moments and stars (Humphrey Bogart, one of America’s biggest icons). It’s narrative and aesthetic characteristics have influenced over 70 years of filmmakers, who take this structure and reach new heights with it. Much like German Expressionism (Tim Burton), The Western (Tarantino) and Sci-Fi (Steven Spielberg), Film Noir played in important role in the development of some of America’s greatest directors and artists. Many genres and movements have achieved similar status, but Film Noir stands out as one of the most unique and influential of them.




-Naremore, James. “The History Of An Idea.” More Than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts Berkeley: U of California, 1998. Print.

-Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir (1974)” in Film Noir Reader, Alain Silver and James Ursini, ed. (New York: Proscenium Publishers, 1996, 1997, Fourth Limelight Edition, February, 1998), 65-76.

-Lewis, Jon. “Genre: Film Noir.” American Film: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 205. Print.


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