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Film Noir Genre - A Closer Look

Updated on May 15, 2014
tillsontitan profile image

Mary has been a movie fan since she was a little girl. She watched movies every night of the week on Million Dollar Theater..

Film Noir at its best

Screenshot from "Big Combo".
Screenshot from "Big Combo". | Source

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

Even this shot shows a camera angle not common in 1941.  This is to show how important he is during his rise to power.
Even this shot shows a camera angle not common in 1941. This is to show how important he is during his rise to power. | Source
Gutman and Cairo confront Sam Spade.
Gutman and Cairo confront Sam Spade. | Source

Other films noir of the 1940s

  • Double Indemnity
  • Stranger on the Third Floor
  • Gilda
  • The Woman in the Window
  • Out of the Past
  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • I Wake Up Screaming
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • Murder My Sweet
  • Cornered
  • 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
  • Laura

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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    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      I spent every Saturday at the movies when I was a kid ;) Yes, the Lost Weekend is definitely film noir. The way the camera was used, Ray Milland's character's desparation, the use of lighting, and the internal conflict between good and evil, all lead to film noir in my book. They seem to be still arguing about it, but many of us think it is.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      6 years ago

      Wow - you must watch a lot of movies tillsontitan! Gotta love film noir. They always have that great edge to them. Is "The Lost Weekend" considered one?

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Oh thank you Vinaya...having you leave such a nice comment is truly a compliment to me!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal


      your hubs on movies are wonderful. I'm a fan of film noir. Citizen Kane and Maltese Falcon are some of my best films.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Thank you Elias for reading and commenting. Glad I could offer you a few suggestions.

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 

      6 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Great overview of a very important film genre. While film-noir's best movies are the American and french ones of roughly 40s - 60s, I've also enjoyed neo-noir films, in particular John Dahl's early work. Thanks for your recommendations.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Yes Patty, I loved "Dead Man Don't Wear Plaid" but guess I'll have to look for "Guy Noir"...this is certainly a genre one can go on about! Thanks for the votes.

      Thanks Bill. I do love these old movies and looking deeper into them and their meaning. I hope lots of people read my hubs too ;)

      mperottet, there are many film noir films beyond those I have written about as you so aptly pointed out. I'm glad you enjoyed my introduction and appreciate your votes and shares.

      drbj it seems film noir does stand above the rest. Thank you for the votes and shares, I always appreciate seeing you here.

      Thanks Pamela.

      Faith Reaper, "Baby Jane" certainly must be...the color, the story line... there may be a few cynical options missing but it should be in the genre. It was a terrifying film when it came out for sure. Thanks for voting and sharing! God bless Faith Reaper.

      Alicia I will certainly look for and link your hub. After all, we do have to stick together and I have no doubt your hub is excellent. Pls email your hub link. Thank you for leaving such a great comment.

      HawaiiO I am so glad I could be of service to you my friend! Loretta Young was a beautiful lady no matter what part she was made a great choice! Hope you are enjoying your day as well.

      WND glad you like being spooked, I do too! Not the blood and gore, but the edge of your seat stuff.

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      6 years ago from London

      Pretty good presentation of a film genre that has many fans... one of them being me of course :)

      I think that the American film noir movies of the 40s - 50s and the French film noir films of the 50s - 60s are the best by far... I really appreciate Jules Dassin's films from the French and as from the American directors I would certainly vote for guys like Orson Wells and for movies like Kiss Me Deadly...

      Thanks for sharing this, maybe it's time to watch some of there freat movies once again!

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      6 years ago from Alabama

      I had seen some of the movies you mentioned. I know I would enjoy them all. Guess I like getting spooked.

      Great write.

    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 

      6 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      Mary, you know how it is when you hear about a term or concept yet never reach for the dictionary to look up the definition? Film noir has been one of those concepts for me. So I'm very grateful that you wrote this piece because now I finally know what it means. I have seen a few in my lifetime, but as I recently told my wife, the old classics are way better than some of the crap Hollywood is putting out today. Last thing, when I was a little boy, I had a crush on Loretta Young, so it was with fond nostalgia that I gazed upon her lovely face in the photo above. : ) Have a wonderful day, my friend!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I did a hub on film noir and you're more than welcome to link it to yours. I'm going to link mine when I get time (about to head to work now) but you did an excellent job.

      I first discovered film noir in one of my favorite classes in college. I was looking for a major requirement and saw this. Initially I was hesitant because growing up I didn't watch films much older than me but I fell in love the second week of class. Double Indemnity was the film we saw and ever since I've been entranced.

      I particularly am partial to any 40s, 50s noir but neo-noir is interesting as well.

      Awesome hub, I could talk about film noir forever!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      Woooo, I love these films! I don't know if "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" with Bette Davis is considered a Noir film, but it was awesome and I just love it, plus it frightened me to death!!! She was great in that movie.

      Thanks for the great write once again, and taking us back to those great "Noir" films. I knew what noir meant, as I had taken four years of French in high school.

      Voted up ++++ and sharing

      God bless, Faith Reaper

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      These are some of my favorite old films. You listed many of them. Excellent hub.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      Film noir is one of my favorites, Mary, and you have done the genre proud with your fascinating hub. 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Citizen Kane' are two outstanding examples of this type of film. And your videos are top drawer. Voted Up!

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 

      6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

      I didn't know what this type of movie was called, but I know now that many of my favorite movies fall into this category. I just checked on the top 10 modern film noir movies, and it included Blade Runner, The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential, Basic Instinct, Minority Report and The Grifters - all movies that I've loved. Pulp Fiction is another one of my favorites. Great hub as usual, Mary - voted up, interesting, useful and will be sharing.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I didn't realize it until this hub, but I'm a big fan of film noir. LOL I have seen most of the ones you listed and loved them. What a wonderful hub, Mary. You are developing a niche and I hope many read it and follow along. Well done!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      6 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      You have hit on one of my favorite film and literary genres! Excellent Hub and a good selection of films to illustrate the genre. I must watch one again soon.

      Have you seen Steve Martin's noir spoof "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid"? The Dixon Hill episodes on ST:TNG also come to mind - kind of space noir with a hard boiled detective. Or how about Garrison Keillor's "Guy Noir"? This thread is waking me right up out of a drippy drizzly damp and foggy Wednesday morning! -- The Maltese Falcon remains one of my favorites, tho.

      Rated Up Up Up.


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