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Film Noir Genre - A Closer Look
Film Noir at its best
Definition of Film Noir
I have always been fascinated by classic films. Films made in the thirties and up that hold a special place not only in our hearts but in the foundation of all movies. There are many types of classic films and among them is film noir. Exactly what is film noir?
The literal meaning of "film noir" is black or dark film from the French. It is believed the term was first used by a French Film critic named Nino Frank back in 1946. A melodramatic film which encompasses many features. One of the main features is a cynical hero. You know, the hard boiled detective who had a cynical outlook on the world in general. Oftentimes our detective is as bad as the villains in the movie. They will be emotionless, not caring about what is happening around them, even the crimes of murder. I guess they have been called "anti-heroes". Although our detective is disillusioned with the world and the people in it he still fights for the right. It is not, however, always a detective story.
Most of these films used a narrative, with the hard boiled detective recounting the story and how things happened. Sometimes those narratives were twisted and confusing. Dreams and flashbacks were also used but in a surreal setting, many times with nightmares and murders happening.
Lighting in the films was another requisite. These films had stark lighting differences and a lot of "dark" scenes, Some of the film characters were shown in a soft light while others were always shown in shadows or darkness. Actually a lot of shadows were used. Night scenes, fog, dark rooms, all lending to the darkness of the theme. Tilted cameras often provided skewed images on the screen. Rain and cigarette smoke were often a staple.
The post-war era was pessimistic and the Great Depression followed by McCarthyism certainly left America in a dark place and these films used that darkness to create intrigue and cynicism for the hero and the rest of the characters. As for the rest of the characters, no film noir is complete without a beautiful woman or two. Glamorous and often times dangerous, sometimes murderous.
Samples of Classic Film Noir
Photos from Citizne Kane and Maltese Falcon
Other films noir of the 1940s
- Double Indemnity
- Stranger on the Third Floor
- The Woman in the Window
- Out of the Past
- Kiss Me Deadly
- I Wake Up Screaming
- Shadow of a Doubt
- Murder My Sweet
- Somewhere in the Night
- The Naked City
- Lady in the Lake
- The Third Man
- Secret Beyond the Door
- Sorry Wrong Number
- Dead Reckoning
- The House on 92nd Street
Examples of Film Noir
Citizen Kane - A 1941 film, Charles Foster Kane's story is told mostly in flashback in a narrative by a newsreel reporter. The film starts with Kane's death and reporters trying to figure out what his last word meant, that word being "Rosebud". Which also happens to be one of the most famous words in filmdom history. He is also holding a snow globe which adds to the mystery. Although this is not a crime film involving a cynical detective it is still in the film noir genre. The journalist giving the narrative is akin to a detective trying to solve a crime as he looks back on Kane's life.
Now that the scene is set the flashbacks begin. The film follows Kane's rise to power. He begins as a small boy, poor and living with his mother and father, both of whom are tortured characters. His mother comes into money and sends him to be raised by a guardian, Mr. Thatcher, a banker. His childhood and his innocence are left behind at that moment.
While he is a successful newspaper owner, has several marriages, collects lots of "things", he never finds the innocence or happiness of his youth. The youth he shared with "Rosebud", his sled. Further loneliness encompasses Kane as he begins to lose those things around him as an adult, leading us to his death in his Florida mansion, Xanadu. Throughout the film different camera angles portray him either as a giant of a man or at other times, with low ceilings used, you almost feel trapped or claustrophobic. Certainly a great film noir and one that should never be overlooked.
Maltese Falcon - Another 1941 film noir. Here we have the classic components, a detective, Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart, a prospective client who is looking for her lost sister, the murder of his partner and his prospective client checking out of her hotel, and that's just the beginning.
Along comes Joe Cairo played by Peter Lorre, who wants to hire Spade to help him find a figurine - a black bird. The next murder makes Sam look like a suspect but then the plot thickens. Did I mention Brigid O'Shaughnessey? She goes by the name of Miss Wonderly until her real name is found out. Peter Lorre in the meantime has a partner, Kasper Gutman played by Syndney Greenstreet. It turns out Brigid, Cairo and Gutman know each other.
Confused? Watch the movie. This is a classic film noir with the hard boiled detective, always making wise cracks, lots of camera angles with the camera moving up and down. If you've seen this movie you need to see it again. Every time you watch it you see something you missed the last time.
Charles Kane as he leaves his parents
Loretta Young in Cause for Alarm
Films Noir Continue
Not all film noir was made in the thirties and forties, they continue to be made. For instance, take fifties movies like "Dark City". With a dark plot, some gamblers take an outsider for all his money. Soon after they start getting killed. Who is doing the killing? This movie has some famous names and is considered the first major role for Charlton Heston. Costars include Lizabeth Scott, Dean Jagger, and Jack Webb.
Of course there were lots of "B" films like "Destination Murder" and "Edge of Doom". Then there's "Cause for Alarm", depending on which reviewers you read this could be a good movie or a "B" movie but it is considered film noir.
Beyond nineteen fifty? What about "Chinatown" and "Pulp Fiction" just to name two!
So we've looked at film noir and it's basic characteristics;
- a main character may think fatalistically, like there is nothing he can do to change his lot in life
- There may be hysteria in panic depicted by the main character, whether it is true or not
- Narration throughout the film, sometimes called voice-over
- A femme fatale, that beautiful woman who is just no good
- The cynical detective or protagonist
- The dark and light film techniques
- Further doom and gloom in the lighting of the movie
- Seedy locations; dark foggy streets, cheap hotel rooms
While those are the basics there are as many opinions about film noir as there are films. We started out with disillusionment after WWII, then it was cynical detectives which moved on to hysteria or panic in a main character. I guess the best way to describe film noir is that it is the dark side of film, the Darth Vader of movies.
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