What Is Film Noir? Elements and Examples of the Genre
Film noir is a style of American filmmaking from the 1940s and 50s characterized by detective protagonists, seedy settings, shadowy lighting, and a fatalistic tone. The genre established memorable cinematic elements and tropes that influence filmmakers to this day.
Key Takeaways: Film Noir
- Film noir is a genre of dark detective films made primarily during the 1940s and 1950s.
- The genre is known for using low-budget filmmaking tricks to create striking visual effects, particularly with regard to lighting.
- Notable examples of film noir include The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Sweet Smell of Success, and Touch of Evil.
Origins of Film Noir
Unlike other stylistic genres, film noir was not a genre that filmmakers of the classic Hollywood era set out to make. In fact, films in the so-called film noir style had been popular for six years before French film critic Nino Frank coined the term in 1946.
Frank used the term to describe lower-budget “dark film” crime dramas released by Hollywood studios. While the “gangster film” had existed since at least D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the specific style and presentation of film noir was new. Film noir emerged from the popularity of American hard-boiled crime fiction novels—low-cost, entertaining paperbacks popular in the 1930s. The popularity of these books, written by authors like Raymond Chandler, caught the attention of Hollywood. In fact, Chandler and other crime novelists found work writing film screenplays in the 1940s.
Film Noir Characteristics
Because the category emerged after many film noir movies had been created, there is no universally agreed upon definition of film noir. However, there are some key elements that can be found in most examples of the genre.
The standard film noir protagonist is a private eye or detective, whose persona often has shades of grey, such as a dark past or moral ambiguity. Another standard character is the femme fatale: a desirable, aggressive woman with suspicious or uncertain loyalties. Film noir movies are often filled supporting characters who exist on the moral fringes of society, such as gangsters, gamblers, boxers, and nightclub performers.
Most film noir movies take place in New York City or Los Angeles. The city is presented as having both a glamorous surface and a seedy underbelly. Several film noir movies shot in Los Angeles took advantage of on-location shooting, rather than filming on a studio lot.
To cover for low budgets, film noir tends to feature stark lighting with heavy use of shadows. Shots of characters obscured by shadowing are common, particularly the technique of low-key lighting to create suspicious shadows.
Reflecting Cold War-era attitudes, many film noir films feature cynical or fatalistic tones, with protagonists put in desperate situations due to circumstances beyond their control. Other storytelling devices common to film noir are flashbacks and voiceovers in order to tell the story from a first-person perspective.
Top Film Noir Movies
Notably, many Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, including classics like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, have stylistic and narrative similarities to film noir, yet scholars and critics generally consider them outside of film noir. The following list contains some of the most well-known movies in the film noir genre.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Though two prior adaptations of detective novelist Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon were made before this adaptation, John Huston’s 1941 version remains a film noir classic. Humphrey Bogart plays private eye Sam Spade, who gets tangled in a complicated case involving a murder and a statue of a bird coveted by numerous shady individuals. The narrative of The Maltese Falcon established a prototype that dozens of later films followed.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Based on the crime novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity was directed by Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the script with famed crime novelist Raymond Chandler. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is seduced by the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to help her kill her husband and make it look like an accident so that she receives double the insurance payout. The scheme begins to unravel when Neff’s colleague, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), becomes suspicious, and Neff suspects that Phyllis is playing him for a fool. Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, and her character became one of the archetypes for film femme fatales. The “venetian blind” lighting featured in the movie became a trademark of film noir.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Though Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. eschews many of the common narrative elements of film noir, it is unarguably one of the most important works of the genre. The film depicts the dark side of Hollywood, with washed-up screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) getting involved with aging silent film starlet Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who is obsessed with her past fame. Sunset Blvd. might be short on gangsters, but it dramatizes the dark fringes of society as effectively as any other film noir movie.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Director Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success follows New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) who is blackmailed by a famous newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) into framing a jazz musician for drug possession. The twisting narrative features Falco sparring with the columnist’s influence as he tries to keep his reputation intact in the seedy nightclub scene. A box office failure upon its initial release, Sweet Smell of Success was later recognized by critics and audiences as a classic example of 1950s film noir.
Touch of Evil (1958)
After defining much of the film noir style with Citizen Kane (1941) and starring in the film noir classic The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles wrote and directed Touch of Evil, considered by many critics to be one of the final film noir movies ever made. Charlton Heston stars as a Mexican drug enforcement agent who witnesses a car bomb and becomes involved in the investigation.
The original version, which was cut by Universal, did poorly in the United States. A 1998 restoration that followed Welles’ editing notes received greater acclaim.
Legacy of Film Noir
Because the style of film noir is specifically tied to a particular era, the genre is considered to have formally ended in the 1950s. However, hundreds of films have since embraced elements of film noir. More recent films influenced by film noir include Blade Runner (1982), L.A. Confidential (1997), The Big Lewbowski (1998), Sin City (2005), and Blade Runner 2049 ( 2021). These movies are often labeled “neo-noir” for reproducing key elements of the film noir style.