An Introduction to Film Noir

In 1946, a French film critic by the name of Nino Frank introduced the world to the term "film noir." Meaning dark or “black” films, he used the phrase to describe American detective and crime films that were being played in French cinema at the time. He viewed these movies, such as the 1944 films Murder, My Sweet and The Woman in the Window, as having dark themes and imagery. The term soon became a popular one that encompassed many of the films that were made during the 1940s and up to the late 1950s.

These films were in stark opposition to the lighthearted and popular comedies and musicals of the time, like those made by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Where comedy and musical cinema displayed a certain sense of hope, film noir movies were often bleak and lacking in optimism. The primary emotions of these films mirrored many of the emotions that were prevalent following World War II. They highlighted a sense of pessimism, anxiety and mistrust. Male leads were often anti-heroes who were hard-boiled, disillusioned, misogynistic, or cynical. They were at times manipulated in some fashion by the primary female characters who were untrustworthy, scheming femme fatales. This too reflected the mindset of the day, where many men felt that they were without purpose, that there was a lack of justice, and highlighted their feelings towards the newly independent, post-war woman.

Although movies such as 1948's The Lady from Shanghai and 1946's The Blue Dahlia are classic examples of film noir, film noir itself is not considered a specific genre of movie. It is instead a style and feel of a movie that combines these dark aspects of storytelling, filming, characterization and backdrop. Directors such as Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Fritz Lang, became famous for this style of film. Movies that are considered film noir are easily recognizable by their visual style and themes.

There are several types of protagonists found in film noir, such as the hero or the anti-hero. These characters were male and could be anything from a criminal - such as a mobster, killer, or a typical crook - to a man of the law, such as a police officer, a federal agent or a private detective. Other protagonists included war veterans, which was appropriate during the time period, and average American men. The characteristics of the protagonist were crucial to this style of movie. Even the plain hero depicted some form of personality trait that made him less than satisfied with his life and the world around him. The protagonist often displayed traits that fed into the darkness of the film. He would be a man down on his luck, lonely or insecure, or he was portrayed as a man who had a sinister or disillusioned outlook on the world and society as whole.

Themes often dealt with crime, passion and manipulation. They made a point of showing the corruption of society. A common theme of many noir movies centered on situations that could not be won or resolved. These situations found the hero, often an innocent or naive average American man, caught in a trap of lies, deceit and bad moral choices. Themes were often fatalistic, and portrayed human nature in a way that was corrupt, sadistic and unhealthy. The story would be filmed in a complex manner that included cutting and cynical conversations between characters, flashbacks, or narration told from a first-person perspective. Rarely were stories told in a straight forward or linear fashion.

The images and overall look of film noir movies were artistically gloomy. Although the movies were black and white, they were made in a way that they appeared darker, filled with shadows and moonlight cast through window blinds. Scenes for the stories often took place in seedy, dark hotel rooms, warehouses or cheap apartments. Certain scenes were shot with camera angles tilted for dramatic effect. Trademark scenes of this style of movie often included certain elements, such as cigarettes and cigarette smoke, rainy nights, wet streets, and the illumination from flashing street lights or neon hotel lights.

The femme fatale played a large part in the darkness of film noir and its portrayal of a corrupt society. This particular character trope came about after soldiers came home from fighting in World War II. They found that the post-war woman was far more independent than ever as a result of working in factories during war. This new development challenged traditional gender roles and was another less-than-welcome change. As a result, Hollywood created a genre of women for the cinema that took the newly independent woman and turned her into a seductive character that was manipulative, ruthless, and scheming. Like many independent women, she was not passive, however, unlike most women of the time she was often a siren who used her femininity to corrupt and lead the protagonist down a destructive and dangerous path.

Femme fatale, meaning deadly or fatal woman in French, is characterized as a highly attractive woman who dresses seductively and has an air of mystery or intrigue about her. She is a woman of low morals and is most often portrayed as a villain or even a murderer. In some cases, the femme fatale may be reformed by the hero by the end of the film. Examples of the femme fatale include actresses Clair Trevor in 1945's Johnny Angel, Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda, Lana Turner in 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Jean Simmons in the 1952 film titled Angel Face.

Film noir and its themes can be traced back to both foreign works and American literature. Fictional crime and hard-boiled detective novels and novellas by authors such as James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett were an inspiration for early film noir stories and themes. It is because of these stories that much of the early film noir movies were detective or crime stories. Prior to that however, the noir style could be found in foreign films from the 1920s and 30s. Many of these were forms of German Expressionist cinematography that used visual style elements, such as certain camera angles and lighting, that were later featured prominently in American film noir.

The 1940 films Stranger on the Third Floor followed by They Drive by Night are considered the first of the film noir movies. The release of Strangers began what would be nearly 20 years of classic American film noir. This was followed by The Maltese Falcon in 1941 which made a star out of legendary actor Humphrey Bogart, who played the protagonist, detective Sam Spade. It was directed by John Huston, who would later become a well-known name in film noir and it was the first of the detective film noir. Another popular and critically acclaimed film was the 1944 release Double Indemnity by directory Billy Wilder. This film has the character Phyllis Dietrichson, one of the most memorable femme fatales, played by the actress Barbara Stanwyck. It was a film that was based on a novella written by author James M. Cain.

For more information about film noir, see the following links.

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