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the American crime film of the thirties. Following World War II, film noir also absorbed parts of Italian Neorealism, including everyday life and the feeling of desperation. Evil (bottom-right picture) to be the last of the classic-era film noir movies. Welles directed the picture and acted in it as crooked Police Captain Hank Quinlan.

These films were first classified as melodraThe classic movies of film noir usually fall with- mas. Film Noir was not in the range of two mov- used as a term for these ies. The first, The Maltese movies until the label Film noir is a descripFalcon (top-left picture), was coined by a group tive term for the Ameri- starts the film noir genre of French filmmakers can crime film as it of the late 1950s and with Humphrey Bogart flourished from the early as Sam Spade, a private 1960s, who were influforties to the late fifties. eye hired to find the enced by Italian NeorealIt embraces a variety ism and classical Hollypriceless artifact. It was of crime dramas, rangwood cinema. released in 1941 and is ing from claustrophobic considered to be the studies of murder and birth of film noir. psychological entrapment to more general From there, the film treatments of criminal noir classic era boomed organizations. with releases such as Double Indemnity (1944), Film noirs cinematic The Big Sleep (1946), Noorigins can be traced torious (1946), and Out of from the German Exthe Past (1947). pressionist films of the late 1910s and twenties Most film historians using visual symbolism recognize Orson Welles to the development of 1958 movie Touch of

The earliest American crime fiction story dates all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe. The Cask of Amontillado, published in 1846, it is one of the first American crime tales. From there, the hardboiled style of detective and crime fiction develops, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. These stories were then popularized by pulp fiction magazines. One of these pulp stories featured author Raymond Chandler who would write the famous private eye character Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (right picture). These pulp magazines in the twenties and thirties would have a great impact of film noir movies in the forties and fifties. During this development, the voice-over becomes a common characteristic of these stories. A voice-over is a subjective/confessional narration who is telling the story out of a need to confess/purify/cleanse his conscience. The narration personalizes the experience, similar to reading a first-person novel.



Existentialism the morality of whether an action is right or wrong depends on the individual circumstances of the situation. Fatalism the end is already determined; we cannot change or escape our fate/destiny/outcome.
The historical setting is the contemporary world that has been corrupted and lost its moral certainty. The prevailing cynicism of characters reflects the reality of the atomic bomb, Cold War, totalitarianism, propaganda, Hollywood blacklist, corrupting power of the government and press. World War II fragmented men, caused them to feel adrift, insecure, alienated, a feeling of having gone soft and lacking power to control their lives. The liberal movement was in crisis, due to powerful forces of communism and materialism, causing a loss of faith in progress and mans innate goodness.

The cinematic themes of film noir, derived from German Expressionism and Italian Neorealism, were imported to Hollywood by migr filmmakers. Noir movies were rooted in the German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, such as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) or Fritz Langs M (1931), Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). These films from German directors were noted for their stark camera angles and movements, chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy, high-contrast images -- which would all later become vital elements of film noir. Italian Neorealism and the American hardboiled crime drama share a stance of presenting things as they are; both styles wants a cool, unshockable tone when presenting the story. The Neorealist direct approach can complement a film noir story, an example being the 1943 film adaption of The Postman Rings Twice (left picture), directed by Italian Neorealist auteur Luchino Visconti.


Film noir films thematically showed the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism and doomed love, and they emphasized the brutal, unhealthy, seamy, shadowy, dark and sadistic sides of the human experience. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment were stylized characteristics of film noir. Things are not what they seem, people change identities, the plot has unforeseen twists and turns. Other themes that are common in film noir include the differences between appearance and reality; how far greed can go; emotional repression; and uncontrollable obsessions with love, money, and power. One last theme that remains in film noir: The protagonists in these movies were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes. Out of the Past (1947) features Jeff Bailey, a man who tries to start a new life away from his criminal background, but cannot escape his past. (Pictured below is Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, who cannot get rid of the femme fatale from his past.)


THE MAIN CHARACTER The protagonist character is a loner, introverted, troubled, hard-boiled, pessimistic. He is not the conventional film hero. He is confident, exceptional, and certain; but, at times, he can be rather average and conventional. He is often a war veteran or detective, and is defined by his ability to survive and restore normality. FEMALES The females in film noir were either of two types: 1) Dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women. These women usually survive the story. SUPPORTING PLAYERS Cops not only are cops usually in every film noir movie, but they are represented in either two ways that causes the protagonist to have the solve a mystery on his own accord: 1) Corrupt -- the cops have already been bought off by someone and will not solve the case righteously. (Touch of Evils corrupt police captain Hank Quinlen.) 2) Dumb -- the cops are too dumb to figure out the crime or they arrest the wrong man, etc. (Sam Spade does not think the cops will do anything, so he has to figure out who killed his partner on his own in The Maltese Falcon.) Old Man there is usually an older character who already knows the situation behind the story. Sucker sometimes the main character himself, somebody is falling for tricks or being a pawn for someone, usually to the femme fatale or to the true villain of the story.

2) Femme Fatales mysterious, duplicitous, doublecrossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, This seeker-hero is on a manipulative and desperate quest in the noir world. He women. The femme fatale is repeatedly tested, interro- usually got punished in gated, attacked, persecuted early film noir, but could get and will either emerge safe- away with their deception in ly, uncorrupted, strong or be later classics. killed. (Mrs. Dietrichson quietly (Sam Spade pictured below) talks to Neff about killing her husband below in Double Indemnity.)


Film noir storylines are often elliptical, non-linear and twisting. Narratives are frequently complex, maze-like and convoluted, and typically told with foreboding background music; flashbacks, or a series of flashbacks; witty, razorsharp and acerbic dialogue; and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. Interviews/interrogations are also very common in explaining the plot of the movie. An example of a film noir movie that uses interrogation is Murder, My Sweet (1944), where the main character, Philip Marlowe, has to explain to the police what has happened which sets up the movie as a frame story for the audience to watch. (Marlowes interrogation scene is in the picture below.) Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed. Revelations regarding the hero were made to explain/justify the heros own cynical perspective on life and why he feels that way.


The iconography of noir often uses dark sidewalks, rain-drenched streets, and flashing neon signs (1997s L.A. Confidential uses bright neon signs as lighting for a dark scene, top picture). The American city may look nice, but will be depicted as dangerous (Double Indemnity displays a beautiful house in the middle picture, but inside, a murder will be plotted). The border town, such as Los Robles in Touch of Evil, or the local bar/casino will be viewed as hostile. Fairgrounds and carnivals, which were associated with madness from German expressionism, might be a noir setting as well. Guns, smoking, and alcohol are the three main items found commonly in film noir classics. However, media icons are frequent as well, such as newspapers, voice recorders, and telephones, which could be viewed as a metaphor of desire to overcome limitations and alienation to connect with others. In the bottom picture, Humphrey Bogart holds a telephone and a gun in The Big Sleep.


Film noir not only presents a complex story, but also visually shows the dynamics of the plot and the characters. The beginning of Double Indemnity is a classic example. In this scene, the protagonist, Neff, meets the femme fatale, Mrs. Dietrichson. She appears from a low camera angle on top of a staircase (top right picture), displaying the power that she has over him. On the other side, Neff is shown from a high camera angle (middle right picture), signifying his weakness that he is helpless to fall for the allure of Mrs. Dietrichson and her plan to get wealthy from her killing her husband. Noir films were mostly shot in low-key lighting, featuring gloomy grays and contrasts between blacks and whites. Chiaroscuro, an art form that features strong contrasts between light and dark, quickly became a trademark characteristic of classic film noir. In the bottom right photo, Humphrey Bogart woos a woman by lighting her cigarette in the shadows of The Big Sleep.


The Private Eye Detectives have their own sense of honor. While dealing with oddballs and misfits, the private eye remains detached and wary of the current situation and keeps their feelings to themselves. They may be tempted by women or money, but they cannot be bought on their morality. Private eyes are men of principle; men with their own code of ethics whose cynicism masks their essential integrity.

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet.

The Woman The ethics of the woman in the noir world depends on the role that she playsin the film. If she is a woman who is seen as trustworthy, she will have conservative viewpoints as to what the protagonist should do. However, femme fatales are only out for themselves. They believe no one will help them, so they usually only act in their best interest. When dealing with men, femme fatales are all business and will even trade quips that are stronger than the mens are. The Cops The cops in film noir usually follow the letter of the law and will follow the appropriate procedures of arresting, interrogating, and persecuting suspects and criminals. This is unless they are otherwise established as crooked or corrupted beforehand A crooked cop can be the villain, such as Hank Quinlen in Touch of Evil. In other cases, the cops are working with the antagonist, giving the cops kickbacks and bribes to ensure the police stay on their side.

Veronica Lake could play both types of noir ladies.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlen in Touch of Evil.

The key point is understanding that in the world of Film Noir, morality is uncertain. Therefore, Film Noir characters do whatever they feel is the right thing to do.

THE RISE OF CULT FILMS (1960s -- 1970s)

Although it thrived in the fourties, classic film noir would seem repetitive in the fifties. Fifties noir films were alloted lesser budgets and were always labeled as B-Movies. Big movie stars started to stay away from them, which also hurt film noirs prominence. The genres that thrived during the fifties were westerns, science fiction thrillers, and musicals. In addition, fifties thrillers, such as On The Waterfront (1954, top-right picture) and The Phenix City (1955), introduced organized crime, where crime does not come from an individual, but is instead run like a business or corporate enterprise. This counters classic film noirs traditional view of crime, since film noir is interested in the isolated criminal and how his actions are determined by his character or by his fate, not by just a command from someone higher up. The idea of living for The American Dream became popular during the fifties. However, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the dream began to turn into a vision of violence and murder. At the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, American society was being shaken by riots in the black ghettos, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the growing opposition to the Vietnam War, higher crime and unemployment rates, and the Watergate scandal. A sense of counter-culture and discontent grew, which would help fuel the rise of Cult films and the beginning of Neo-Noir films. These Neo-Noir films had better production values (i.e., color and new cameras, such as Cinemascope), mainstream stars and directors, and were filmed with a less restrictive Hollywood rating system, which allowed for more on-screen violence, language, sex, and nudity. Characters were upgraded to grifters, psychopaths, and sci-fi gangsters. Harsher themes were introduced, such as deeply corrupt cops, serial killers, young fugitive couples on the run, and drugs. One of the most famous Neo-Noir films is Roman Polanskis Chinatown (1974, bottom-left picture), as the film utilizes strong characteristics of classic film noir, but uses an updated crime-mystery story.


Film noir goes against the Hollywood system as it was established in the 1920s and 1930s. Everybody involved in a film noir movie is out to beat the system and challenge social norms: males are sometimes cool, but sometimes dumb; women can be independent, manipulative, and relentless. The directors and actors had to try to get around the Hollywood film code that forbade explicit sex, crime, and murder. Film noir dialogue is loaded with sexual innuendos and double entendres. For example, in The Maltese Falcon, the character Joel Cairo is implied to be homosexual as he plays with a cane talking to Sam Spade and other characters note that he smells of gardenia perfume. These little tidbits of hidden information makes film noir, particularly classic film noir, interesting to watch. Most great directors have taken a shot at making a Film Noir or Neo Noir or have incorporated Noir styles into their movies:

Alfred Hitchcock Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Martin Scorsese Cape Fear (1991)

Quentin Tarantino Pulp Fiction (1994)


Besides money, the other temptation for a good man to go wrong in film noir is sex. In Double Indemnity, the allure of getting sex and money are combined for Neff to fall for Mrs. Dietrichsons plan to kill her husband. Sex in noir films are usually poisoned; characters, especially males, are enslaved or victimized by it. The characters involved in the sexual act become potentially dangerous, capable of acts of violence against themselves and others. Sex increases emotions, which can lead to jealousy and possessiveness. That is why sex in film noir invariably leads to crime. The poster for Dead Reckoning (1947, left picture) even tells about how Bogart will be seduced into crime because of sex. Love is also considered to be somewhat of a disease, as well. Love can deform and distort the personality of the characters that were fine on their own. Love can push already strange film noir characters to become further bizarre, which can be the catalyst for a crime to occur.