The Art of Film Noir
Updated: Dec 18, 2021
“Wanna hear one of my ideas for a perfect murder?”
This one dialogue perfectly summarises the genre of film noir. In the early 1940s Hollywood, there was an emerging film movement with recognisable characteristics of crime, psychopaths, beautiful women; that movement came to be known as film noir.
While one might call it a genre of film, noir is more than just that. It’s an art form. It was an experimental and progressive movement that aimed to stretch the band of conventional filmmaking. Although action, romance, and comedy remain widely recognisable genres in cinema, there are, on the peripheral perimeters of popular film genres, a wide range of black and white classic films that tread deeper into the darker and more despondent motifs of life.
So, what really is film noir? Even after decades after the movement ended why do cinephiles and filmmakers still rave about this genre so extensively? In this blog, we breakdown film noir through a filmmaking lens — its inventive cinematography, use of distinct symbols and many other such stylistic elements that have evolved further into various sub-genres as well.
What is film noir?
Let’s begin by understanding the name. It’s a fair bet to say that any word in the film glossary which takes you more than a try to pronounce right is probably French. Film noir is a French term that literally translates to “black film” or “black cinema” and was coined by the early French critic, Nino Frank in 1946 as an attempt to classify the dark and downbeat Hollywood films being produced post World War II. Besides its complex plot structure and characterisations, film noir is significant not just for the audiences, but also for filmmakers. As mentioned before, it started off as an artistic movement with an inventive style of filming with its influences that can still be found in some of the greatest modern films such as Memento, The Joker, Seven and so on.
How it Began
Across several decades of the world cinema, the greatest avant-garde films and movements can in one way or the other, be traced all the way back to the German Expressionistic Movement. In simple words, films during the German Expressionist Movement as the name suggests, were hyper-expressive and honestly, over the top. With dramatic lighting, exaggerated costumes and overstated themes and motifs, German Expressionism which began post World War I, resonated with the American filmmakers after the end of World War II.
Crime Fiction & Film Noir
Although the style originated in Europe, over 20 years later, it found itself an eager American audience through European émigré filmmakers. Besides this, another hand which shaped the film noir movement was that during the 1940s, the American audience were fiercely reading crime fiction or detective novels. Novels written by authors such as Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich were majorly crime fictions with plots revolving around serial killers, gruesome murders, exposing the underbelly of society along with mystery, lots of mystery.
Trivia: In Cornell Woolrich’s book the words “black,” “dark,” and “death” were so common for the titles that he became synonymous with film noir movement. Hence, just like that, hard-boiled fiction became a companion influencing central themes, narrative models, and the verbiage of film noir films.
Film Noir Characteristics
It’s film noir when...
It’s shot in black and white. The classic “true” noir films were black and white films with rarely any grey tones.
There’s a low-key and/or dramatic lighting. This complimented the b&w choice accentuating the tension further.
Recurrent characters include an investigator, a criminal and a femme fatale (a woman who uses seduction as the means to get what she wants).
Shadow is a character of its own. Unlike earlier Hollywood films which used a three-point lighting scheme, film noir uses sharp and often, harsh shadows. The shadows are usually cast dramatically on the protagonist.
Most of the scenes are set in dark alleys, narrow lanes, or rain-soaked pavements.
The camera angles are sharp, distorted, and asymmetrical — for example a Dutch tilt, extreme close-ups and so on.
Set props such as mirrors, window blinds, staircases are used to create more drama and tension. Usually, strong shadows would be bounced off from these pieces.
The above list is only the tip of the iceberg. Like any genre or style, there are many detailed idiosyncrasies that are harder to define and categorise. To make the article briefer, we will mainly look at three elements: Cinematography, Themes and Characters.
Film Noir Cinematography
Experimentation was central to how noir was shot. Breaking the foregone Hollywood pattern was not just important but essential. The classic Hollywood was revamped with use of high-quality negatives (black and white film stocks).
As for the lighting, filmmakers used intense but small lights to achieve harsh shadows. This style of lighting was familiarly known as chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word which translates to bright (chiaro) and dark (oscuro). An example of this effect can be seen in a still from The Killers (1946).
Harsh Lighting = Harsh Shadow = Strong Contrast
Many contemporary filmmakers use chiaroscuro in their cinematography. A widely recognisable scene would be from the film The Godfather, where shadows was used effectively to further the dramatic mood.
Hence, quite often, the push and pull between good and evil is often metaphorically represented through the monochromatic duality at the core of noir’s visual style.
Besides lighting, the camera angles play an integral role in dramatizing noir films as well. Asymmetrical composition along with deep focus staging skilfully captures the intensity and the mystery lurking both in the foreground and the background of a shot. A dutch angle or tilt shot were commonly observable in noir films and there’s a particular logic to it. The camera is usually taken to be the viewer and as we now know, most of the action in noir films takes place hidden away, which requires the viewer to also be hidden away. Hence, you would find the camera placed at odd angles, odd places, voyeuristically watching over the unfolding action.
Film Noir Themes
Before we get into the technical nitty-gritties of film noir, we must understand what kind of themes they present. Just like the crime novels they are based on, the films establish moods such as melancholy, mystery, suspense, paranoia, disillusionment etc. For instance, in the classic (and most popular film noir) Double Indemnity, the plot goes something like this...
An LA insurance salesman named Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) pays a visit to his client, Mr. Dietrichson’s to renew his policy. Mr. Dietrichson a wealthy man, has a wife named Phyllis’ who unbeknownst to him is scheming to kill him to get his insurance money. Falling prey to Mr. Dietrichson’s wife Phyllis’ seduction, Walter agrees to kill Dietrichson and does so by staging a train accident. While Walter’s boss suspects Mr. Dietrichson’s death to be foul play, Phyllis shoots Walter and is herself shot dead too. Walter drives to the insurance office to give his confession as he collapses.
A pretty wild story, right? Double Indemnity is hence a perfect example to illustrate the themes at play:
Gripping suspense? Check
A seductive femme fatale? Check
A gullible hero who turns into an anti-hero? Check
Questionable morality? Also check!
Film Noir Character Types
Besides the criminal and the detective, the three essential characters in a film noir would be the anti-hero, the femme-fatale and the psychopath.
The protagonist is a character who is morally ambiguous and hence the name ‘anti-hero’ caught on. Coming from different occupations, an anti-hero can either be on the more righteous end of the spectrum, for instance, a detective, government agent (as seen in Double Indemnity), cop, detective, or resident lowlifes such as gangsters, crooks, murderer, mobs and so on. Further are some more commonly observed traits in the anti-hero:
Tough guys or as critics term – “hard-boiled.” In John Huston’s Maltese Falcon, the protagonist Sam Spade fits this prototype well. He is a stern private detective who doesn’t just look tough but is also smart.
They’re not villains but they’re not heroes either. At different points in the film, you see a different dimension to the character. What’s interesting to note is that it is the circumstance that unveils this side of the character rather than their innate makeup.
They are inflicted with a tragic flaw. This flaw is rooted in past mistakes which later manifests as the reason of their downfall. Sex or temptation is another tug at the already collapsing hero.
You might perhaps think that characterising someone as a psychopath might be a little harsh but when there’s a protagonist (no matter how morally grey), there has to be someone who he is after. Murders are a quintessential plot device in the noir films and the perpetrator is usually a serial killer or a psychopath.
Here’s what legendary film historian Foster Hirsch had to say about this character trope:
“The noir psychopath, inevitably, is bedeviled, pursued by ghosts from his past; and he is often fatally self-divided” – Foster Hirsch.
In his book about film noir, Hirsch goes at length about the psychological underpinnings that afflict this character, highlighting the psychological impact of war on many of the veterans. Unlike the anti-hero, it is not sex or temptation that drive his actions and impulses but instead, the mental despair that subconsciously deters his life. In Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), the lead character Bruno proposes the idea of playing “swap murders” with another character, Guy Bannister. Bruno will kill Bannister’s wife, while Bannister will kill Bruno’s father.
“Your wife. My father. Criss-cross.” – Bruno trying to convince Bannister about his plan.
A femme fatale is a trope which became widely saturated during the era of film noir. Played by beautiful actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Jane Greer and so on, the femme fatale is the opposite of a damsel in distress.
She is beautiful but badass.
She knows what she wants and can manipulate her way into getting it.
She is also aware of the power of her sexual appeal which she uses as an advantage.
Like the morally ambiguous anti-hero, the femme-fatale which loosely translates to lethal woman, also wavers between being morally good and bad. Anything upon closer inspection reveals the minuscule details (good or bad) and similarly, film noir which explored feminity through a closer lens, showed both the beauty and the ugly.
To understand the archetype better, let’s compare two femme fatales from two different timelines.
Annie in Gun Crazy (1949): Partner is crime, Annie and Bart fall in love while performing at the circus, soon after which they turn to heists. Annie, the femme fatale, encourages Bart towards bigger heists and she is also the one who also turns it into a murder spree. You can see in one of the posters the way Annie’s character is negatively publicised – words like “vicious” and “wild” used informally.
Amy in Gone Girl (2014): To seek revenge against her cheating husband, Amy fakes her disappearance, she is cold-blooded and manipulative but unlike the traditional femme fatale she breaks the mould of what is expected of her. “He took and took from me until I no longer existed. That’s murder. Let the punishment fit the crime,” she says refuting. She subverts the traditional femme fatale trope, seeking revenge not through the means of a man but on her own, at her own will.
The New Noir
Looking at Amy Dunner from a contemporary lens of film noir, one opens the gates for the influences of film noir in recent cinema. Film noir as a movement slowly faded and eventually ended around the 1950s. There are many speculations leading to the movement’s demise but mainly allude to production of colour films and emerging popularity of television. Since film noir couldn’t differentiate itself any further, the audience preference shifted to more exciting developments in media and entertainment.
However, the power of this movement was such that even today, many of its influences can be found in recent films. The revival of this genre is known as Neo-noir. Neo-noir is an attempt at incorporating certain film noir elements (that we have discussed above) and giving it’s a more contemporary or modern spin. Films such as L.A.Confidential, Drive, Blade Runner 2049, The Big Lebowski and even The Fight Club were considered Neo-noir. The original elements that they particularly retained were the cinematography choices, the lighting, shadows as well as thematic concerns of existential dread, melancholy, suspense and so on.
A video that perfectly summaries Neo-noir:
The Indian Noir
Indian filmmakers too found a resonance with the Hollywood noir in their own context. As we’ve already inferred, noir is more than just black and white films. The noir stories see no bounds of language or borders, they are universal.
In India, it was director Guru Dutt who first introduced the audience with something that they hadn’t seen before, something that resembled close to noir. His 1951 film, ‘Baazi’ starring Dev Anand, Geeta Bali and Kalpana Kartik. The movie was inspired by 1946 noir-romance Gilda, involving murder mystery, gambling, deception as the driving forces of the film.
Baazi fuelled many future crime films in India and if we fast-forward to the 90s, we saw another variant of noir – Bombay noir. While one does not really know the primacy of the term ‘Bombay Noir,’ cinephiles collectively regard Ram Gopal Verma as the earliest and most critical filmmaker of this era.
With Satya (1998) he ambitiously led a gangster film cycle where, “protagonists are crime bosses, gangsters, kidnappers, and femme fatales, while the cityscape is a playground for land speculations and the sea-front open for smuggling.” (Lalitha Gopalan).
Struck with the underbelly of 90s Bombay, these common themes also dappled with neo-realism, a genre that attempted to portray the harsh and despondent reality of society. Bombay Noir certainly did shapeshift amongst these two genres. What’s worth pointing out is that in the era of 90s Bollywood where Shahrukh Khan’s utopian romance whipped every citizen, on the peripherals of the indie film scene, directors like Ram Gopal Verma, Mira Nair and Anurag Kashyap led a movement of thought-provoking films that reflected the reality of the times.
Film Noir Movies
If you love heists, murders, mystery or are just in mood for some b&w classics, here are some of the best film noir movies that you can watch.
In order -
The Maltese Falcon (1941) dir. by John Huston
Double Indemnity (1944) dir. by Billy Wilder
The Killing (1956) dir. by Stanley Kubrick
The Third Man (1949) dir. by Carol Reed
Strangers on a Train (1951) dir. by Alfred Hitchcock
Notorious (1946) dir. by Alfred Hitchcock
In order -
Drive (2011) dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn
Taxi Driver (1976) dir. by Martin Scorsese
Anon (2018) dir. by Andrew Niccol
L.A. Confidential (1997) dir. by Curtis Hanson
Cities of Last Things (2018) dir. by Ho Wi Ding
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) dir. by Quentin Tarantino
Indian Noir Movies
In order -
Baazi (1951) dir. by Anshuman Pratyush
Satya (1998) dir. by Ram Gopal Varma
No Smoking (2007) dir. by Anurag Kashyap
Munnariyuppu (2014) dir. by Venu Isc
Being Cyrus (2005) dir. by Homi Adajania
Johnny Gaddaar (2007) dir. by Sriram Raghavan