Film Noir
Tribute by Jeffrey Sward
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Film noir is a type of American crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting with an ominous atmosphere conveyed by shadowy black and white photography and foreboding background music. The terminology "film noir" was originally applied by French critics and translates as "black cinema." File historians defined the category of film noir retrospectively. Directors and producers were unaware of the term film noir when the films were being created. True film noir is generally an American black and white film created between 1940 and 1959. Thusly, true film noir is temporally and geographically limited to this specific time period and place.
Characteristics of Film Noir

Below are several authors' descriptions of the characteristics of Film Noir.

Christine Gledhill

  1. Investigative structure of the narrative
  2. voice over, flashback
  3. proliferation of points of view
  4. frequent unstable characterization of the heroine
  5. Expressionist visual style, emphasis on sexuality in photographing of women

Raymond Durgnat

  1. Crime as Social Criticism
    1. Prohibition-type gangsterism
    2. Corrupt penology
    3. The fight game
    4. Juvenile delinquency
  2. Gangsters
  3. On the run
  4. Private eyes and Adventurers
  5. Middle class murder
  6. Portraits and doubles
  7. Sexual pathology
  8. Psychopaths
  9. Hostages to fortune
  10. Nazis and Communists
  11. Guignol. horror, fantasy

Paul Schrader

  1. Majority of scenes lit for night
  2. Oblique and vertical lines preferred to horizontal
  3. Actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis
  4. Compositional tension preferred to physical action
  5. Freudian attachment to water (rain, docks, piers)
  6. Romantic narration
  7. Complex chronological order frequently used to reinforce feelings of hopelessness and lost time

Robert Profirio

  1. The non-heroic hero
  2. Alienation and loneliness
  3. Existential choice
  4. Man under sentence of death
  5. Meaninglessness, purposelessness, the absurd
  6. Chaos, violence, paranoia
  7. Sanctuary, ritual and order

Jeremy Butler

  1. Low key high contrast lighting
  2. Imbalanced lighting
  3. Night for night
  4. Deep focus
  5. Wide angle focal length
  6. Asymmetrical mise-en-scene
  7. Extreme low and high angles
  8. Foreground obstructions

To which this author adds:

  1. Lighting through Venetian blind gobos
  2. Dialogue scenes where all of the actors face the camera, especially at different distances.
  3. All main characters are doomed and die in the course of the picture. Just like Shakespeare.
  4. Femme fatales.
  5. Hopelessness, inevitability, and fate
Quintessential Film Noir examples
  • Out of the Past (1947) ***
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955) ***
  • The Big Combo (1955) **
  • Detour (1945) **
  • Gun Crazy (1949) **
  • His Kind of Woman (1951) **
  • Murder My Sweet (1944) **
  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950) *
  • The Big Sleep (1946) *
  • Act of Violence (1949)
  • Armored Car Robbery (1950)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • City that Never Sleeps (1953) (Chicago at night)
  • Criss Cross (1949)
  • Cry of the City (1948)
  • Dark Corner (1946)
  • D.O.A. (1950)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • Force of Evil (1948)
  • The Hitchhiker (1953)
  • The Killers (1946) (Dragnet theme)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
  • Macao (1952)
  • The Naked City (1948) (Dragnet theme) (There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them.)
  • Night and the City (1950)
  • Pickup on South Street (1953)
  • Pitfall (1948)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  • Roadblock (1951) (Chase through L.A. River)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  • This Gun for Hire (1942)
  • Touch of Evil (1958) (Famous opening long shot under titles)

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