If you are at all familiar with the history of film, chances are that you’ve heard of film noir. Unlike the many genres that are typically associated with films we watch, such as action-adventure, romance and horror, film noir is one of the few that can only be applied within the cinematic medium.
Below is a brief critical assessment of film noir, as well as a list of five films that are considered to be hallmarks of the genre. Whether you’re a budding film scholar or just looking to plan your next movie night, taking some time to review the information below will help you gain a better understanding of one of cinema’s most contentious genres.
What is Film Noir?
The trouble with defining film noir is that there is still a tremendous amount of debate among critics and scholars about what constitutes the genre, or if it even qualifies as a genre. Because definitions of film noir can be rather broad (if not completely vague), attempts have been made to include, as well as remove, certain films from the category. Blade Runner is an example of a science fiction film that is considered to fall under the film noir category due to the expansions made to the genre’s definition over the last several decades.
Attempting to apply the genre to films based solely upon a certain content formula is often problematic due to the various films that meet the standards of film noir but belong primarily to alternate genres. More concrete definitions of film noir arise when considering the atmosphere created by cinematography, often in conjunction with the film’s themes and characters.
Typically, films associated with the film noir genre rely upon subdued lighting and dark cinematographic effects, which are augmented by an eerie musical score that can only be described as seductive, foreboding and/or mysterious. A film’s music and cinematography, when combined with a story that emphasizes strange, erotic or morally ambivalent themes and characters, generally determines whether or not it fits within the film noir genre. Even then, chances are high that such a determination will be hotly debated by film critics and scholars who may hold the film to an even stricter definition of the genre.
Despite being developed primarily by the American film industry, film noir was directly influenced by the innovations of Expressionist directors and cinematographers from Germany’s golden age of film during the 1910s and 1920s. The films of German director Fritz Lang are considered to be the most influential prototypes of the film noir genre. Lang’s world-renowned crime drama M set the standard for the dark cinematography and suspenseful plot-lines that would later become hallmarks of the film noir genre.
In American cinema, film noir was directly influenced by several classic gangster and crime dramas of the 1930s, as well as the many innovations in cinematography made by the great American actor/director Orson Welles. Gangster films, such as Howard Hawks’ infamous Scarface, began to further popularize film protagonists with questionable, if not entirely reprehensible, morals. Released in 1941, Orson Welles’ universally lauded film, Citizen Kane, would almost single-handedly influence the cinematic techniques used in many film noirs released throughout the 1940s and beyond.
In the realm of characterization, the “femme fatale” archetype we often see in cinema is perhaps one of the most important character innovations of the film noir genre. German-American actress Marlene Dietrich is generally considered to be the quintessential femme fatale among film critics and enthusiasts. Her breakthrough role as the cabaret singer Lola-Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s irreverent musical drama The Blue Angel served to launch the young actress’ career both in Germany and abroad. Dietrich’s many celebrated roles in von Sternberg’s films would go on to influence the femme fatale character in the many film noirs that would later be produced by Hollywood.
While it is difficult to ascertain an exact definition of film noir, it is not always so difficult to see why certain films are considered to belong to the genre. Some critics have gone so far as to label film noir as a “style” of filmmaking, citing the general inability among critics and scholars to reach a consensus about film noir as a definitive genre. Despite the debates surrounding its definition, film noir remains one of the most iconic and recognizable styles/genres in the history of American cinema.
Five Essential Masterpieces of Film Noir
1. The Maltese Falcon (dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1931) Based on the novel by pulp crime fiction author Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon follows the story of private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his client Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) on a quest to locate the priceless Maltese Falcon statuette. The film is largely credited with expanding the film noir genre by introducing the dark, morally-ambiguous investigator as the male counterpart to the popular femme fatale archetype.
Quote: “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” – Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.
2. The Lost Weekend (dir. Billy Wilder, 1945) This acclaimed example of film noir follows the tragic story of writer and recovering alcoholic Don Birnam as he gives in to his cravings and begins a four-day stretch of binge drinking. While the film is an example of how themes and plot may only loosely follow film noir standards, Wilder’s dark cinematography and portrayal of Don Birnam as an exceptionally flawed human being has led many critics to celebrate the film as an essential example of the genre.
Quote: “Let me have one, Nat. I’m dying. Just one.” – Ray Milland as Don Birnam begging his bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva) for one last drink.
3. Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955) In addition to being one of the most culturally important films in American cinema, Night of the Hunter is also an example of film noir taken to the extreme. Set in 1930s West Virginia, the film successfully delves into the troubled mind of Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a preacher and serial killer, who is perhaps best remembered by those who watched the film for the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across his knuckles. In addition to being a masterpiece of suspense and psychological horror, Night of the Hunter represented a major shift away from the dark urban settings and themes of standard film noirs and into the uncanny wilderness of Appalachia.
Quote: “Not that you mind the killings! There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord…” – Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell speaking to himself in the film’s opening scene.
4. Raging Bull (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980) Martin Scorsese’s boxing epic follows the trials and tribulations of Italian-American boxer Jake La Motta (Robert de Niro) as his violent and sociopathic tendencies gradually begin to overtake him. Like Night of the Hunter and The Last Weekend, Scorsese’s masterpiece showcases one of the most iconic anti-heroes in American film history. Moreover, Michael Chapman’s ingenious cinematography is truly film noir at its darkest.
Quote: “I ain’t bad. I ain’t bad. I’m not that guy. I’m not that guy. I’m not a monster. I’m not an animal.” – Robert de Niro as Jake LaMotta as he repeatedly body punches the wall with his fists.
5. L.A. Confidential (dir. Curtis Hanson, 1997) Based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential stands as one of the preeminent examples of “neo-noir” in 20th century American cinema. The film’s post-modern plot focuses on the investigation of several Los Angeles police officers who are implicated in a scandal involving corruption, sex and murder. L.A. Confidential heavily draws upon common tropes in the film noir genre, such as the gorgeous femme fatale archetype (perfectly captured by Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken) and a host of troubled and corrupt police officers within the LAPD.
Quote: “Are you asking me for a date, or an appointment?” – Kim
Basinger as Lynn Bracken during an exchange with Russell Crowe as Officer Bud White.
As you can see, film noir has had an enormous impact on the progression of both American and world cinema. Film noir has also had a major influence on music, as evidenced by the mysterious and foreboding sounds created by famed Scottish trip-hop band Portishead. The genre also did much to popularize and expand upon the existentialist philosophy that was in vogue during the mid-20th century. Whether you’re a film buff, critic, or amateur academic, no study of film history is complete without an introduction to film noir and the tremendous influence it has had over our culture.