By: Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89

Antiheroes, femme-fatales, crooked cops, spineless lawmakers, all coming together in a twisted dance through light and shadows, sin and corruption. Vice, manipulation, degradation. This was film noir.

The term was coined in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank. Translated into English, film noir means “black film”. There’s really no better way to describe this cinematic movement that started in the late 1940s and is generally thought to have ended in the late 1950s. It isn’t just dark thematically, but aesthetically as well.
Film noir was the bridge between the patriotic wartime films of the 1940s brimming with hope for the future and the feel-good musicals of the 1950s, the sort of bridge you really don’t want to cross when you see it—rickety and dilapidated, shrouded by shadows and corrupted by weeds due to negligence. There are probably really bad guys with guns hiding in those shadows. Your chance of surviving on that bridge is slim to nonexistent.

If you’ve played Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire, you’re familiar with the noir style. Corruption, crime-solving, and the thin line between the bad guys and the good guys, all wrapped up in a gorgeous, dark package of quiet jazz, shadowed alleyways, seedy bars, and even seedier people dressed in typical 1940s fashion. Films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Mulholland Drive (2001), Brick (2006) starring a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the 2011 film Drive starring Ryan Gosling are all updates of the film noir movement, classified as “neo-noir” by film historians. Even the sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner (1982) sampled the styles and themes of film noir. Most recently, Marvel’s Agent Carter flirted with the noir aesthetic, both in fashion and cinematography, even going so far as to present a few characters teeming with moral ambiguity.

Moral ambiguity is one of the cornerstones of film noir. For the first time in cinematic history, filmmakers were using criminals as their protagonists. Audiences were seeing the world through the bleak point of view of mobsters, thieves, liars, killers, and others who had before this movement been presented as villains. Pretty delicious, isn’t it? The film noir protagonist was given unsympathetic treatment, both by the society he lived in, and by the story’s plotline in which he existed. He was cynical, hard-boiled, crass, rude, sarcastic, and corrupted by an equally corrupt world. He was the antihero, lacking in conventional heroic qualities like loyalty, honor, morality, and the idealism filmgoers saw in the heroes who were the protagonists of wartime films. He was teeming with flaws and foibles, and almost always fell prey to romantic obsession with a dangerous woman.

Ava Gardner absolutely doesn't have something sinister planned in "The Killers" (1946)

Ava Gardner absolutely doesn’t have something sinister planned in “The Killers” (1946)

That dangerous woman was the femme fatale, one of the biggest archetypes to come out of film noir. She’s still used in every form of media today, from television and film to video games and literature. The femme fatale usually uses her looks and cunning to wrap the antihero around her finger. She’s oftentimes trapped as a rich and/or bad man’s mistress or wife, or she’s trapped in a difficult financial situation. Her way out requires manipulation, lies, sex, and eventually leads to violence and usually murder. The Hays Production Code of 1930 was a very strict set of moral guidelines about Hollywood’s portrayal of sex, violence and other vices in an attempt to stamp out vulgarity in films. Not since the Code was earnestly enforced in 1934 did filmgoers see female characters whose primary ambition was love, marriage and family. A femme fatale worked as a dancer, a club singer, a waitress, et cetera. She was driven, many times by power, money, fame, and sometimes survival. She was making her own way in the world, no matter what she had to do to succeed. Even if she had to lie, cheat, and kill her way to the top. As sometimes was the case, her end goal was simply to get out of her current situation, to find a safe place where she could start over. Sometimes the femme fatale was the main villain of the film. Barbara Stanwyck brilliantly portrayed Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s wildly successful Double Indemnity as the baddest of baddies, manipulative down to her very core, and arguably lacking in any remorse whatsoever.

That being said, the antihero and the femme fatale usually worked together, whether it was to solve a case, murder someone who was a thorn in both their sides, and/or to find a way to be together in some lovely paradise outside of the noir setting. It has to be said, it very rarely worked out for them. The Hays Code made it impossible for corrupt, manipulative, murderous protagonists to get any sort of happy ending, which meant most of them were either arrested or killed in the end. C’est la vie dans un film noir.

One of film noir's most influential shots in "The Big Combo" (1955)

One of film noir’s most influential shots in “The Big Combo” (1955)

One of the most influential characters in a film noir was the cinematography itself. Many times it ended up moving the plot forward as much as the dialogue did. The majority of film noirs during the 1940s and 50s were B-movies. That meant a very low budget to make the film and small windows of time in which to finish shooting. Using dim lighting meant saving on electricity and masking the low quality of the production’s sets. A dark alleyway filled with mist would hide the shoddy walls flanking the characters in the shot. The smoke billowing from the femme fatale’s cigarette served to obscure the cheap set behind her. Many times, they had to shoot at night because they were being rushed to finish on time.

Fred MacMurray in box office success "Double Indemnity" (1944)

Fred MacMurray in box office success “Double Indemnity” (1944)

But filmmakers started finding ways to use this to their stylistic advantage, to create a sense of intrigue or mystery. One of the most familiar images of film noir is that of a room illuminated only by light filtering through Venetian blinds. What lurks in the shadows of the room? Or who? What’s going to happen next? And then there is the quintessential noir image of a beautiful woman whose face is half-hidden in shadow. Can she be trusted? Does she have a secret past? The shadows in film noir might obscure, even as they help tell the story. Hays Code forced filmmakers to shoot grisly murders artistically: a man being followed into a pitch black alleyway, the sound of a gunshot, a scream, and the murderer sprinting out of the shadows alone. Shining light on the shroud of fog rolling in from the San Francisco bay had the same mysterious, dangerous effect. Camera angles were also used to help tell the story, and sometimes hint at the hidden nature of a character. Such as pointing the camera at an upward angle to capture the villain’s bigger-than-life monstrous nature, most notably used for Kasper Gutman, the villain in John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. (Funnily enough, his massive gut filled the screen in most of his scenes.) Sometimes the camera work was shaky or off-balance, projecting a sense of panic or confusion onto its viewers.

It all contributed to the bleak, downbeat, cynical view of the world that most film noirs portrayed. It was organic filmmaking, populated by smoking guns, sex, murder, vengeance, greed, and evil, in which do-gooders faded into the background to make room for more dystopia-minded, fatalistic protagonists, alienated from society. Film noir was nervous movement through a world that only existed at night, a world without the sweet relief of daylight.
There is no consensus about whether film noir is a genre in and of itself, as it encompasses many genres, from horror/thriller flicks and urban detective mysteries to courtroom dramas and road films. So if it isn’t a genre, is film noir simply a mood? Or is it a movement?

Whether or not we eventually succeed in finding the perfect way to define film noir (a sub-genre maybe?) the best definition I’ve personally been able to come up with is that it is the journey through a tunnel that ultimately has no light at the end.

Here’s a list of some of our favorites: Double Indemnity (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Killers (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gilda (1946), Out of the Past (1947), The Big Sleep (1946)


  1. JayneMarch 26th, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    A lovely article … With some great suggestions for what to watch! Thank you Karen

  2. JaimeMarch 26th, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Fantastic article! Thank you for reminding us of the golden age in film making.

  3. KenMarch 27th, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    What a great article Karen. I always thought you were born in the wrong decade with your love of the old movies. I have seen many of them and the favorite movies you list are Great. I enjoy your writing and looking forward to read some other articles. Thanks Karen

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