The conventions and evolution of film noir

Paper by Lea Lindell.

In this paper, I will do a comparative analysis of the central conventions of Film Noir. By utilizing the films “Out of the Past” (1947), “The Killers” (1946), and “Chinatown” (1974) as examples, the paper will explore the similarities and differences between classic noir and neo-noir films, highlighting the key conventions that define the genre, look closer at the significance and impact of specific conventions as well as how they contribute to the storytelling in each film. This analysis will not only offer insights into the evolution of film noir over time but also discuss the active employment of conventions and their function within varying contexts. By emphasizing the importance of the filmmakers’ choices in conveying meaning and creating impact, this paper will contribute to the discussion on the development of the film noir genre and showcase the importance and significance of cinematic style, narrative format, conventions, and iconography.

The movies “Out of the Past” (1947), “The Killers” (1946), and “Chinatown” (1974) all in different and unique ways incorporate many key conventions of film noir, for instance, its specific cinematic style and iconography. “Out of the Past”, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is a noir film that incorporates various cinematic styles, conventions, and iconography, often found within the film noir genre. This film, for instance, has a lot of symbolic imagery as it uses visualcues to convey deeper meanings. For instance, I think that the dark and shadowy
cinematography, a key convention of film noir, really emphasizes the moral ambiguity and
existential angst of the characters. Iconography, such as the femme fatale Kathie (Jane Greer)
embodies deception and danger which overall contributes to the mystery of the film. Along with
that, I think that the use of low-key lighting, low-angle shots, and expressive visuals do a good
job of heightening the suspense and tension within the film. Overall these choices are not merely
stylistic but crucial in conveying the psychological and moral complexities of the narrative.
Specific techniques such as deep-focus cinematography and low-key, shadowy lighting, all
contribute to the film’s intensity, creating a heightened sense of drama. Additionally, these
elements are very much characteristic of the classical film noir period, and “Out of the Past”
stands as a good example of how film noir conventions and cinematic styles can be strategically
employed to enhance storytelling. One notable scene that I think encapsulates the film noir
aesthetics and conventions well, is the beach house confrontation scene between the protagonist,
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), and the femme fatale, Kathie. In this scene, the cinematography
employs very low-key lighting to cast deep shadows on the characters, which I think intensifies
the moral ambiguity surrounding them. The light and shadows also accentuate the deception of
Kathie, as her face remains partly lighted as she is surrounded by darkness. The visual
composition with low-angle shots and dramatic framing, further adds a sense of a threat and
unease to the scene.

Like “Out of the Past”, “The Killers”, directed by Robert Siodmak, is a practical example
of a noir film, characterized by its distinctive cinematic style, conventions, and iconography. The
film is in many ways characterized by its symbolic elements that contribute to its noir
atmosphere along with the use of shadows, low-key lighting, and sharp contrasts, which creates a
visually striking iconography, often highlighting the moral ambiguity and existential dread often
found within film noir. Along with that, I think that the recurrent symbol of a ticking clock in a
way underscores the passage of time which further adds a layer of suspense to the film. The
cinematic style is also portrayed through Dutch angles, canted shots, and low-key lighting,
emphasizing the characters’ internal conflicts and the twisted narrative. Furthermore, film noir
conventions such as femme fatales, cynical protagonists, and complex plots, are very much
incorporated in “The Killers” which I think shapes the film’s unique aesthetic and atmosphere. In
the book An Introduction To Film Studies written by Friedman et al., it is explained how noir
films are famous for the locations that are used such as nightclubs, cafés, bars, apartment
buildings, etc. When combined with, for instance, rain, fog, or mist as well as a scene occurring
at night, it creates the strong characteristic that noir films are famous for (505). In “The Killers”
these characteristics are commonly shown throughout the movie, not only the previously
mentioned elements but also other characteristics that define the genre, such as the black-and-
white cinematography, high contrast lighting, low-key lighting, etc. In “The Killers” there is this
rainy scene fitting well into the common characteristic of rain, often found within film noir.

Elements like these are often effectively shown to portray a moody and suspenseful atmosphere
adding to the mystery of the story. These choices, in employing film noir conventions, are not
only relevant but essential to the storytelling as they contribute to the film’s depth and showcase
the complex relationships and motives of the characters. One scene that I think showcases the
film’s noir aesthetics well, is the opening sequence in the film. The use of low-key lighting is
immediately very distinct as we get to see the contrast between dark shadows and illuminated
faces. I think that the shadows in the sequence in a way show the characters’ true intentions
which also creates a sense of mystery as well as highlighting the moral ambiguity. As the two
hitmen enter the diner, we get to see a Dutch angle which creates a sense of disorientation and
unease for the audience. The ticking clock on the wall in this scene becomes a powerful symbol,
emphasizing the inescapable fate and the passage of time. Along with this, a series of close-ups
on the ticking clock builds tension and sets the tone for the scene and the narrative. Additionally,
the use of deep focus is notable in this sequence, allowing the audience to focus on the hitmen’s
actions and the reactions from the people around, enhancing the complexity and intensity of the
storytelling. I further think that the integration of these cinematic techniques, within the classical
period, exemplifies the film’s noir conventions which contributes to the genre’s lasting impact
and significance in the aspect of classic film noir.

“Chinatown”, directed by Roman Polanski, does a good job of incorporating central
conventions of film noir but it also differs quite a bit from the other two noir films from the
classic period. “Chinatown” has unique imagery, such as the recurring motif of water. In the
article “FLAWS IN THE IRIS: The Private Eye in the Seventies”, written by Donald Lyons, this
symbol of water is described as “It is water’s absence that structures Chinatown’s story, textures
its illumination, and eventually parches its dark heart” (51). From reading that I also think it
becomes a very powerful symbol of deception and sort of the uncontrollable corruption that is a
very central theme in the film. Furthermore, the cinematic style in “Chinatown” is, like the other
mentioned noir films, in some ways characterized by its use of low-key lighting, low-angle shots,
and atmospheric settings, all classic elements of film noir. Like in the other two movies, I think
that the film employs these conventions to create a sense of moral ambiguity and existential
dread. Along with that the use of a private detective, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, aligns well
with traditional film noir protagonists, while the complex plot and the theme of corruption serve
as a homage to classic noir storytelling. Unlike the other provided noir movies, the
cinematography in “Chinatown” employs a neo-noir aesthetic but also utilizes shadowy interiors
and dimly lit streets to create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Further on I think that the
use of muted colors and the incorporation of 1930s Los Angeles architecture, contribute to the
authenticity and uniqueness of the film. The film additionally uses specific techniques, such as
the use of deep focus shots and the manipulation of perspective to highlight the deception in the
narrative. In the last part of the movie a character says “Don’t worry about it, Jake. It’s
Chinatown” which I think, within the context, shows how corruption is sort of hopeless and
bound to happen in a way, it’s almost impossible to escape. Additionally, while “Chinatown”
incorporates many film noir conventions, its neo-noir characteristics are evident in the way that it
updates and substitutes some traditional elements. The film explores darker and more morally
ambiguous territory than many classical noir films such as “Out of the Past” and “The Killers” as
it reflects the changing sociopolitical climate of the 1970s. I think “Chinatown” in some ways
becomes a bridge between classic film noir and the evolving neo-noir, showcasing a cinematic
style that is found in classic film noir while also pushing the genre forward.

The three films “Out of the Past”, “The Killers” and “Chinatown” also have a unique
narrative format that is very specific for the film noir genre. “Out of the Past”, for instance, is a
classic noir film that explores narrative formats to enhance its atmospheric storytelling. The film
employs a non-linear narrative structure that skillfully throws the audience between past and
present to unravel the structure’s complexity. The use of flashbacks is in this film a key
storytelling technique, revealing important details about the characters and their motivations. The
protagonist, Jeff Bailey’s, voiceover in a way becomes a guide through the story, offering insight
into his thoughts and emotions which creates a sense of intimacy with the audience. It is further
described in the article “Out of the Light: An Analysis of Narrative in “Out of the Past””, written
by John Harvey, that “Out of the Past” is very similar to many other film noir thrillers as the film
features a storyline marked by escalating and intricate complications. This makes the audience
almost share the experience with the protagonist, creating a shared sense of confusion. Both we
and the main character consistently find ourselves slightly lagging behind, always aware that
there is a solution, a resolution, yet we are never quite able to grasp it (76). The non-linear
editing further heightens the feeling of suspense and engages the audience by letting them piece
together the puzzle of the whole narrative structure. One example of a scene is the flashback
sequence where Jeff Bailey recounts his past involvement with Kathie. This scene is an
important moment in the film as it provides insight into the character dynamics. As the scene
begins, there is a slight shift in lighting and the music signals the transition to the past. Jeff’s
voiceover narrates the events, guiding the audience through his memories. I think that the
integration of this voiceover and flashback in this scene not only advances the plot but also
reveals Jeff’s internal conflicts and emotional struggles. The nonlinear storytelling also becomes
important as the narrative jumps between the scenes of Jeff and Kathie’s initial meeting and the
moments that follow. Furthermore, the flashbacks and the voiceover of Jeff are well integrated as
a way of creating a compelling narrative that not only moves the story forward but also enhances
the audience’s understanding of the characters and their motivations.

“The Killers” is, like “Out of the Past”, a film noir classic known for its unique narrative
structure. The exploration of the narrative is also in this movie characterized by its non-linear
storytelling, employing a complex structure with flashbacks and multiple perspectives. The film
begins with an investigation into a mysterious murder, introducing a series of flashbacks that
gradually unravel the events leading up to the fate of the murdered man. This approach to
storytelling, again, creates a sense of suspense and engages the audience in a way as they get to
piece together the puzzle of the protagonist’s past. The film also incorporates a voiceover which
provides an insight into the characters’ thoughts and motivations. I would say that the non-linear
editing also serves an important purpose as it not only mirrors the confusion within the plot but
also reflects the psychology of the characters. One specific sequence as an example, is the
flashback that reveals the backstory of the murdered man, “The Swede” as he is called, played by
Burt Lancaster. In this scene, the investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), interviews
various characters connected to “The Swede”. In the scene, through the non-linear structure, we
get to see transitions between different perspectives and time periods which showcases the same
events but from multiple peoples’ viewpoints. The use of flashbacks also allows the audience to
witness different interpretations of the same incident which in a way heightens the mystery
surrounding The Swede’s fate. I think that the narrative technique effectively kind of “blurs the
lines” between the truth and the understanding of the whole mystery, emphasizing the nature of
how the human memory works as well as the unreliability of eyewitnesses. The voiceover
narration, provided by the characters being interviewed, further adds layers to the storytelling,
offering insights into their motivations and feelings.

“Chinatown” is also in some way characterized by its special narrative structure and
storytelling techniques, however, it differs in some aspects from “The Killers” and “Out of the
Past”, films in the classic film noir period. The film delves into 1930s Los Angeles, combining
elements of classic film noir with a more modern narrative style. The narrative structure is a key
aspect of this movie as the plot unfolds through a series of flashbacks and nonlinear sequences.
The use of voiceover, primarily through the protagonist Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), provides
insight into the characters’ perspective and adds a layer of his point of view to the storytelling.
The nonlinear editing further keeps the audience engaged and constantly questioning the
unfolding events. Like many classic film noirs, “Chinatown” also employs a complex and
ambiguous narrative. This movie, at the same time, reflects the evolving nature of the genre. One
scene in the movie that showcases the film’s complex storytelling is when Jake Gittes confronts
Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) about her true relationship with the murdered man as the nonlinear
structure comes to the forefront. The scene is shown through flashbacks and present-day
interactions which in a way blur the lines between the past and the present. This technique not
only creates suspense but also mirrors Jake’s confusion and understanding of the complex
happenings surrounding him. In the movie, we can see the classic noir conventions but also their
evolvement within the neo-noir framework.

Further on, these three films all depict themes common within the film noir genre. The
genre is characterized by its dark and cynical portrayal of human nature and moral ambiguity,
themes that we can find in “Out of The Past” for instance. One of the prominent thematic
elements in the film is the concept of fate and the inescapability of one’s past. The protagonist,
Jeff Bailey, is haunted by his previous life as a private investigator and finds himself surrounded
and entangled by deceit and betrayal when his past catches up with him. This theme is common
for film noir and reflects the fate-bound worldview often found in the genre. “Out of The Past”
also explores the complexities of relationships, especially those characterized by deception and
hidden motives. The femme fatale in the film, Kathie, embodies the archetype of a mysterious
woman who manipulates and deceives the male protagonist. Film noir also often explores moral
ambiguity and existential despair. The characters, including Jeff, often find themselves in
morally complex situations, and the film delves into the consequences of their choices. One
notable scene that showcases common film noir themes is the confrontation between Jeff and
Kathie at the Mexican resort. The scene begins with a long shot of the two characters,
immediately setting a noir-ish tone. Further on I think that the dialogue in this scene reveals the
complexity of their relationship, Kathie’s ambiguous words and Jeff’s reserved responses
highlight the theme of deceit and the inability to escape one’s past. The use of low-angle shots
and close-ups intensifies the emotional tension, emphasizing the characters’ internal struggles.
The Mexican setting further adds an exotic atmosphere, almost underscoring the idea that, even
in what on the outside looks like an idyllic location, also reflecting the moment, the past is right
behind, again strengthening the theme.

“The Killers” also contains many themes that the film noir genre is characterized by. One
important theme in the movie is existentialism, as the protagonist shows a sense of giving up and
accepting their fate. The film furthermore explores the consequences of greed and betrayal,
emphasizing the corrupting influence of money and the moral ambiguity of its characters. In
“The Killers”, as well as in “Out of The Past”, the characters grapple with questions about fate,
choices, and the consequences of their actions. The plot revolves around the investigation of a
man’s past and the characters must confront their moral dilemmas which is common within the
film noir genre. A scene that exemplifies this, is again the scene that occurs early in the film
when two hitmen arrive at a small-town diner to find their target known as “The Swede”. The
Swede’s fate is apparent, showcasing the existential themes often seen in film noir. The use of
deep-focus cinematography allows the audience to absorb the details of the diner environment
while still focusing on the characters, enhancing the sense of entrapment and the theme of fate.
This scene also encapsulates the theme of crime, a very common theme in the film noir genre.

“Chinatown” is also deeply entrenched in the thematic elements of film noir. Central in
the film is the exploration of moral ambiguity as the film delves into the corrupt 1930s Los
Angeles, exposing the dark secrets that lie beneath the societal norms. The theme of corruption
that is central in this movie is also often found in classic film noir narratives. Furthermore,
“Chinatown” embraces the motif of a flawed protagonist with Jake Gittes embodying the
archetype of the hard-boiled detective. Additionally, characters in film noir often navigate a
morally ambiguous world, and “Chinatown” is no exception. The boundaries between right and
wrong are blurred, and characters’ motivations are often shrouded in ambiguity. The film has a
pervasive sense of fatalism, where characters are trapped in a web of deceit and corruption. The
ending of “Chinatown” is particularly bleak, emphasizing the idea that the protagonist’s attempts
to make a difference are sort of pointless.

In conclusion, the Film Noir conventions in “Out of the Past”, “The Killers”, and
“Chinatown” reveal the genre’s dynamic evolution over time. The cinematic styles, conventions,
and iconography in “Out of the Past” and “The Killers” exemplify classic noir, utilizing
shadows, low-key lighting, and symbolic imagery to convey moral ambiguity and existential
angst. “Chinatown”, rooted in classic aesthetics, introduces neo-noir elements like unique
imagery and a modern narrative style, acting as a bridge between classic noir and the evolving
neo-noir. In terms of narrative formats, all three films employ non-linear storytelling techniques,
engaging the audience with flashbacks, voiceovers, and multiple perspectives. Themes of fate,
moral ambiguity, existential despair, corruption, and betrayal permeate each narrative, reflecting
film noir’s enduring relevance. The thematic exploration in “Chinatown” expands beyond classic
noir, revealing the genre’s evolution and adaptability which ultimately underscores the genre’s
lasting impact on cinematic storytelling.

Work cited:
Friedman, Lester D. et al. An Introduction to Film Genres. First ed. W.W. Norton & Company.
Accessed 18 Nov. 2023.
Harvey, John. “Out of the Light: An Analysis of Narrative in ‘Out of the Past.’” Journal of
American Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1984, pp. 73–87. JSTOR,
27554401. Accessed 18 Nov. 2023.
Lyons, Donald. “FLAWS IN THE IRIS: The Private Eye in the Seventies.” Film Comment, vol.
29, no. 4, 1993, pp. 44–53. JSTOR, Accessed 18
Nov. 2023.
Polanski, Roman, director. Chinatown. Paramount Production, 1974.
Siodmak, Robert, director. The Killers. Universal, 1946.
Tourneur, Jacques, director. Out of the Past. RKO Pictures, Inc., 1947.

About this entry