What is Film Noir?

Film Noir may sound French, but it is actually a genre of film that was popular in America during the 40s and 50s. Noir actually means black and it is a way to describe how these films were made, with shadowy lighting, seedy settings and fatalistic overtones of themes. Often film noir is centered around detectives who are the main protagonists in the plot.

Key Elements

Elements that make film noir what it is are:

  • Detective films made in the 1940’s and 50’s
  • Low-budget effects especially in regard to lighting
  • Examples being Touch of Evil & The Maltese Falcon.

The Origins of Film Noir

Interestingly film noir was not a genre of film that Hollywood set out to deliberately make. In fact the term film noir was brought about by a French film critic, Nino Frank. He coined the phrase to classify low-budget crime dramas such as gangster films.

It became more mainstream in Hollywood as there were a plethora of crime novels being written in the 40’s that were being made into films. And in a way the films duplicated the seedy dime novels that they took as inspiration. Authors such as Raymond Chandler reeled off dozens of such stories that inspired many films, such as the classics The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, and The Long Goodbye.

The Characteristics of Film Noir

Unusually there is no definitive description of what a film noir movie actually is. This is probably because there were so many films made before they tried to pigeon hole it. But the following elements usually occur in all film noir movies.

  • Characters – the main character is often a detective or a private eye, who is definitely not a bold upholder of the law. The character is flawed who has either a dark past or is morally ambiguous. Another strong character is the femme fatale which is somebody who is both very much desirable but very unreliable. The other characters are usually people of uncertain morals that live on the very fringes of American society, such as nightclub owners, gangsters, and gamblers.
  •  Location – a great deal of film noir movies are set in inner-city America such as Los Angeles or New York which glitter on the surface but have a dark underbelly. Quite often these films are shot on location rather than the studio.
  • Lighting – nearly all film noir films are shot on a low budget, therefore lighting effects are kept to a very minimum. Often the characters are covered in shadow to add to the suspicion of the plot.
  • Themes – often film noir films are fatalistic in their situations that they simply cannot get out of and which are also totally out of their control. The use of voice-overs is a typical feature of this genre of film.

Film noir has entertained audiences for many years, and some of the classic Hollywood movies of all time have embraced this genre of film.