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Film noir

Related: crime fiction - detective - noir - Série Noire

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958) - Louis Malle
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Film noir is a stylistic approach to genre films forged in depression-era detective and gangster movies and hard-boiled detective stories which were a staple of pulp fiction. Film noir is based in large part on naturalism, a movement in literature based on realism. Film noir is French for "black film", and is pronounced accordingly ("f?lm nwahr"): the transliterated plural is films noir. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir [May 2005]

The term film noir is often attributed to French film critic Nino Frank. Prior use of the term has been cited to the French writing team Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau whose novels were adapted into films: D'entre les morts became Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo; Celle qui n'était plus became Diabolique.

Ultimately, the term derived from the name of a long-running series of hard-boiled detective fiction books entitled Série Noire, from the French pattern of naming a series of books after the color of their bindings. Film noir movies were mainly shot in black-and-white in the United States between the early 1940s and the late 1950s. Most experts regard The Maltese Falcon (1941) to be the first true film noir and Touch of Evil (1958) to be the last. Many of these films were low-budget supporting features without major stars, in which 'moonlighting' writers, directors and technicians, some of them blacklisted, found themselves relatively free from big-picture restraints. Many of the most popular examples of film noir center upon a woman of questionable virtue and are also known as bad girl movies. Major studio feature films demanded a wholesome, positive message. Weak and morally ambiguous lead characters were ruled out by the "star system", and secondary characters were seldom allowed any depth or autonomy. Flattering soft lighting, deluxe interiors and elaborately-built exterior sets were the rule. Noir turned all this on its head, creating bleak but intelligent dramas tinged with nihilism and cynicism, in real-life urban settings, and using unsettling techniques such as the confessional voice-over or hero's-eye-view camerawork. Gradually the noir style re-influenced the mainstream it had subverted.

In the 1960s American filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Robert Altman created genre films that broke the strict format of the genre's rule to convey social and political messages. In The Long Goodbye Altman's hard-boiled detective is presented as a hapless bungler who can't help but lose the "moral battle". While not a direct descendant or derivative, the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Italian director Sergio Leone incorporated the moral ambiguity and gritty characterizations of film noir, reviving the moribund genre of the American Western.

The genre has been parodied (both ruthlessly and affectionately) on many occasions, the most notable examples being Steve Martin's black-and-white "cut and paste" homage Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Many of Joel and Ethan Coen's films are excellent examples of modern films influenced by the film noir genre – especially The Man Who Wasn't There, the comedy The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple, the title of which was lifted from the Dashiell Hammett story Red Harvest.

The cynical, pessimistic worldview of noirs strongly influenced the creators of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction in the early 1980s. Blade Runner is among the most popular films coming from this era. Characters in these films are derived from 1930s gangster films and, more importantly, from pulp fiction magazines such as The Shadow, Dime Mystery Detective and The Black Mask.

Influences on film noir
The aesthetics of film noir are heavily influenced by German Expressionism. When Adolf Hitler took over Germany, many important film artists were forced to emigrate (among them were Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak). They took with them techniques they developed (most importantly the dramatic lighting and the subjective, psychological point of view) and made some of the most famous films noir. Another important influence came from Italian neorealism. After 1945, film noir adopted the neorealist look, and scenes were shot in real city locations, not in the studio; a perfect example of this being the film which is often referred to as the archetypal film noir, Double Indemnity. Books by the Black Mask writers Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (Murder My Sweet, based on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep) became among the most famous films noirs.

Recent development related to film noir-type media include the 2005 comic book movie Sin City and even a video game, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Many films that contain film noir aspects but were not made in the 1940s or 1950s are called "neo-noir".

Technical aspects
Noirs tend to include dramatic shadows and stark contrast (a technique called low-key lighting). Technically speaking, film noir specifies a movie made using monochrome, high contrast images, typically a 10:1 ratio of light to dark, rather than the more typical 3:1 ratio. Film noir in this sense makes use of deep shadows and carefully directed lighting. Since films using this technique usually fit the genre described above, the term lost its technical meaning and became the name of the genre itself.

Film noir tends to feature characters existential situations and making choices out of desperation. Frequent themes are murder/crime, infidelity, jealousy, corruption, betrayal, and hopeless fatalism. Comedy, however, has been handled with the stylistic affectations of noir, for example the Thin Man movies, Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.

Film noir is at its core pessimistic. The stories it tells are of people trapped in a situation they did not want, often a situation they did not create, striving against random uncaring fate, and usually doomed. Almost all film noir plots involve the hard-boiled, disillusioned male and the dangerous femme fatale. Usually because of sexual attraction or greed, the male commits vicious acts, and in the end both he and the femme fatale are punished or even killed for their actions. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir [May 2005]

See also: 1940s - 1950s - detective - crime fiction

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Peter Lorre and John McGuire in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Another influential — if less celebrated — example of early film noir is Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940). This film centers around a newspaper reporter who testifies as a witness in a murder trial in which an innocent man is found guilty. Immediately after the verdict is delivered — following a trial in which one of the jurors is caught snoring during crucial testimony — the reporter begins to doubt his own testimony and to wonder whether the convicted man might be a victim of circumstantial evidence and an over-zealous criminal justice system. When he later discovers that his next-door neighbor has been murdered, he realizes that he himself could be convicted of the second murder through circumstantial evidence. That night, he dreams that he is on trial for his life and that no one will believe in his innocence. But in the dream he recognizes the real killer (Peter Lorre), lurking in the back of the courtroom. --http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/noir/hb-all.html [May 2005]

The American hard-boiled detective film began to appear in the early 1940s, providing an alternative to the traditional murder mystery that had dominated detective films throughout the silent era and into the 1930s. These films represented an artistic effort to break the rules of the game laid down by countless movies about Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance, and by the ongoing "Thin Man" series. Embracing the techniques and outlook of film noir, which the hard-boiled detective film would come to represent, the people who made these films set out to create on the motion picture screen a different kind of world, and to provide it with a darker, more cynical interpretation.

The makers of this new type of detective film seemed to recognize that if they were going to create a new cinematic view of the world, they also would have to create a completely new hero to exist in that world. Yet, they did not all create the same type of hero, nor did the film noir hero remain static during his entire run. Instead, the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s supplied a surprisingly diverse set of heroes, each offering a variation on the common theme of crime and detection in the dark urban scene. --http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/noir/hb-all.html [May 2005]

Neo Noir

Eddie Constantine

image sourced here. [Jul 2005]

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville
image sourced here.

Expatriate American actor/singer Eddie Constantine made a career in the 1950s playing the quick-fisted FBI agent Lemmy Caution in the adaptations of British author Peter Cheyney: La Mome vert-de-gris / Poison Ivy (1952), Cet homme est dangereux / This Man is Dangerous (1953), Les femmes s'en balancent (1954), etc. Those films were self-consciously tongue-in-cheek and increasingly verged on parody. --http://www.geocities.com/Athens/6384/noirfilmsfr2.html [Jul 2005]

Eddie Constantine (born Los Angeles, California, October 29, 1917 - died Wiesbaden, Germany, February 25, 1993) was an expatriate American actor and singer who spent his career working in Europe. His most significant film was Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965), in which he reprised (to a more radical end) the role of the hard-boiled detective/secret agent he had played in a series of French B-pictures, including Cet homme est dangereux (1953), Lemmy pour les dames (1961) and À toi de faire ... mignonne (1963). He took up the part of Lemmy for a last time in 1991, in Godard's Allemagne 90 neuf zéro. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Constantine [Jul 2005]

Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution is a 99-minute 1965 science fiction film (dystopia) directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Howard Vernon and Akim Tamiroff. Several scenes incorporate concepts from La Capitale de la Douleur (The Capital of Pain), a book of poems by Paul Éluard. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphaville%2C_une_%C3%A9trange_aventure_de_Lemmy_Caution [Jul 2005]

Caution (Constantine) is a parody of an American private eye: wearing a trench-coat and photographing people carelessly he is defiantly erratic in the logical city, dominated by the Alpha 60 computer which he has sworn to destroy. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphaville%2C_une_%C3%A9trange_aventure_de_Lemmy_Caution [Jul 2005]

Certainly neo-noir – which many consider to be the same as film noir, only applied to films made after the 1958 barrier – has not been limited to the United States. The popularity and influence of film noir has expanded all over the world, and neo-noir films have been made in most countries with a prominent film industry. These include High and Low (Japan), Insomnia (Norway), Alphaville (France), The American Friend (Germany), and Blind Shaft (China). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir#Film_noir_outside_the_U.S. [Jul 2005]

see also: 1965 - French cinema - crime fiction - film noir


  • Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) - Carl Reiner[Amazon US]
    Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was a movie first released in 1982 directed by Carl Reiner and featuring the inimitable talents of comedian Steve Martin. It is both a pastiche and act of homage to film noir, the pulp-fiction detective movies of a bygone age.

    The film's concept is an interesting one in that it is largely comprised of a collage effect of old black and white movie clips from films of the 1940s and 1950s with more recent footage of Martin and other actors (including Carl Reiner, Rachel Ward, and Reni Santoni) similarly shot in black and white. In many ways the construction of the film anticipates the later Oscar winning movie, Forrest Gump. --Wikipedia, Oct 2003

    Women in Film Noir - E. Ann Kaplan

    1. Women in Film Noir - E. Ann Kaplan [Amazon.com]
      Film noir flourished in the years during and immediately following World War II, but the genre has never disappeared, as shown by the recent popularity of films like Basic Instinct, Bound, and LA Confidential. These academic essays, compiled by Kaplan (English, SUNY), ponder the "absent family" in noir, the role of woman as destroyer and redeemer, the common theme of female duplicity, and the role of women in the narrative structure. Other films considered here are Blue Gardenia, Gilda, Double Indemnity, modern noir films like Klute, and the horror classic The Haunting, which one critic sees as a representation of the "disruptive force of lesbian desire." Though few studies of women in this popular genre exist, the book's academic format and language will discourage most general readers.

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