When film noir is mentioned, images are immediately conjured up of brooding detectives in trench coats and fedoras and sultry women with long legs. While these two types of characters are certainly found in many film noir movies, the genre is best defined by its filmmaking techniques and the social undertones of the stories told.
The History of Film Noir
The term "film noir," meaning black film, was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946. He had noticed the bleakness of the American crime dramas he was seeing post--World War II. Film noir was greatly influenced by the German Expressionism movement of the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the use of shadows and stark camera angles. "Stranger on the Third Floor," from 1940 and starring Peter Lorre as the sinister title character, is considered by many to have been the first true film noir movie. The first film noir detective movie was "The Maltese Falcon" from 1941, starring Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade. Note that film noir refers to movies made in the 1940s and 1950s. Anything after that is considered "post-noir" or "neo-noir."
Film Noir Character Types
Certain character archetypes show up in film noir that go deeper than the surface image of the hard-boiled gumshoe or the dame with the long gams. The usual protagonist, no matter what his profession, is the antihero. He is a cynical man, alienated from society and often going through an existential crisis. He is always faced with morally ambiguous situations. In his mind, the world is out to get him, so he has no reason to be anything other than obsessive, misanthropic and even menacing or sinister. Women in film noir movies either have the dutiful and loving traditional role or are the seductive "femme fatales," independent and mysterious but also double-crossing and manipulative.
Film Noir Plot, Theme and Tone
The tone of film noir is pessimistic. A defeatist attitude surrounds the characters, and most of the time, none of them get what they want in the end, though some do get what's coming to them for their misdeeds. Plots tend to be nonlinear and labyrinthine with all the loose ends getting tied up at the very end. The male and female lead characters will have a lot of sexual tension between them. Men and women are often made to take the fall following a murder or heist. The double-cross is ubiquitous, and flashbacks and flash-forwards are common. The chilly feel of these movies reflects the insecurity and paranoia of the Cold War era.
The Look of Film Noir
Long shadows are the norm for film noir. The stark contrast between light and dark is often employed to showcase the difference between the protagonists and the antagonists. Characters often carry guns, and men often wear fedoras and trench coats. Skewed camera angles add to the feeling of unease. In any given film noir movie, its a good bet every night will be a rainy one. Settings include various haunts, such as dimly lit bars, gangster-filled nightclubs, seedy warehouses, murky backstreets and claustrophobic hotel rooms and apartments, all in large cities. Interestingly, the gloomy, often cramped look has as much to do with diminished movie budgets during and immediately after World War II as it does with chosen aesthetics.