When diving into any seemingly academic website, book, journal, or article that discusses film noir, it seems as though readers are relentlessly barraged with an excessively similar collection of opening sentences. Do any of these look familiar?
“what may be termed the noir cycle has a singular position in the brief history of American motion pictures: a body of films that not only presents a cohesive vision of America but that does so in a manner transcending the influences of auteurism or genre.” (Silver 1992: 1)
“It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict” (Schrader 1972: 1)
“People still struggle and bicker over what really is or isn't ‘film noir’, and I don't claim that this (or any) definition is the absolute correct one, but it does try to get to the heart and soul of it.” (To Define Film Noir 2006: 1)
“In an important sense, film noir- as a stable collection of cinematic objects with identifiable properties-does not exist. Put less certainly, film noir is not any one thing” (Fay, Nieland 2009: 124)
“Film noir has ‘no essential characteristics’” (Fay, Nieland 2009: 124)
“As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view, never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it , and why the contours of the larger noir canon in particular are so imprecise” (Neale 2000: 173-174)
I seem to be missing something here. What is the meaning of all these claims? Why is film noir seen to be something so complex that it exceeds the shackles of any kind of definition? Are we all so eager to over-analyze the “artistry” of films that we are missing the blatant signs that are being shoved in our faces? How is it not apparent to all supposedly levelheaded critics that film noir is quite possibly history’s most simple type of film to define? If you insist on saying that film noir is not a genre, then at least admit that its attributes are so mind-blowingly common that it is below the definition of a genre. Don’t take my word for it, though. As much as all “scholars” like to skew the traditional definitions of words to properly tailor their personal opinions, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the dictionary might just have the final say. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “genre” is defined as, “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Film noir, on the other hand, is defined in the same dictionary as, “a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music.” Sounds pretty particular to me; even more particular than that of a style of films undisputedly categorized as a genre. For example, “comedy” is defined as, “a medieval narrative that ends happily.”(merriam-webster.com)
There is a very distinct and specific set of features that we all associate with film noir, features that occur in literally all of the best-known noir films, leaving no room for any different structure. The outwardly present, yet rarely addressed (don’t get mad at this) lack of creativity and thematic recycling that is present in film noir has made it far more definable than other styles of film. It can be defined as a genre (certainly nothing more complex) at best, thanks to its tirelessly repetitive and simplistic content.
As if any type of character in film noir appears more than typically than another, it would appear as though the infamous femme fatale is what viewer and critics alike refer back to most consistently. While films from all genres often have storylines that revolve around a troubled male that is forced to make a hard decision, one of film noir’s distinctions in this scenario is the use of a femme fatale. Dressed strictly in low necklines, floppy hats, mascara, lipstick, high heels, red dresses, and elbow-length gloves, femme fatales were, as Tim Dirks, writer and editor from AMC, describes, “mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take (or have the fateful choice made for him). Invariably, the choice would be an overly ambitious one, to follow the dangerous but desirable wishes of these dames. It would be to pursue the goadings of a traitorous, self-destructive femme fatale who would lead the struggling, disillusioned, and doomed hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion coupled with twisted love. When the major character was a detective or private eye, he would become embroiled and trapped in an increasingly-complex, convoluted case that would lead to fatalistic, suffocating evidences of corruption, irresistible love and death. The femme fatale, who had also transgressed societal norms with her independent and smart, menacing actions, would bring both of them to a downfall” (Dirks 2010: 1). (Ebert 1995: 1)
Ever since the classic period of noir ended in 1958, people have tried labeling films that have at least one commonality with the general image of noir as being neo-noirs (which further instills the idea of it being a genre). Most often, these frequently poor attempts at drawing similarities with noir of the past starts with finding a relative femme fatale character. For a film that, by anyone, is referred to as a film noir, the femme fatale is the essential component that most rarely goes missing. Femme fatales have unmistakable places in every single one of the most famous and classic film noirs. For the sake of limiting this essay, I will only address a few.
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most “noir-ish”, film noir is agreed by many to be Double Indemnity (1944). Standing out in this film as the leading lady who arguably set the bar for all other femme fatales is the ever-so evil, ever-so seductive Phyllis Dietrichson, the disgruntled wife who blindingly convinces slow-on-the-draw insurance agent Walter Neff to assist in the murder of her alarmingly wealthy husband, insisting that the money earned from his death would have the two of them set for life. Neff ends up in prison, and both Dietrichsons end up dead. Oh my, what an unexpected and surprising ending. Way to go, film noir. None of us saw that coming.
Moving on to what is often seen as the first legitimate film noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941) utilizes the femme fatale in a similar fashion, also responsible for the bulk of the plot. In The Maltese Falcon, detective Sam Spade’s visit from a mysterious knockout by the name of Miss Wanderly is followed instantly by the death of his partner, quickly thrusting him into the rapidly changing mind games of Miss Wanderly (whoops, I mean Brigid O’Shaughnessy), and eventually a trio of criminals forcing him to retrieve a priceless statuette. Guess who goes to prison at the end.
A somewhat atypical example of the femme fatale (whose presence is made just as clear) is that of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950). A retired silent film actress who longs to redeem her stardom, Desmond pays Joe Gillis, a broke Hollywood screenwriter, to edit the script she has written and live in her house while doing so. Because the film belongs to the “psychological disturbance” phase of film noir, Desmond, rather than being a promiscuous and attractive young woman trying to tempt a man with sex, crime and money, begins to unravel through Sunset Boulevard as a mentally unstable and obsessive wench whose immoral activity roots from sheer insanity rather than materialistic desires. Still, though, film noir sticks to its particular, tunnel-visional script, and has her murder Joe Gillis by the end of the film.
While it is apparent that the use of the femme fatale can swing a little bit off center, she is still ever present, and always solidifying her very large spot as one of film noir’s non-drifting commonalities.
Quite naturally, the femme fatale needs a submissive target. After all, what would film noir be if the femme fatale didn’t have some poor sap to outwit and beat up on? We wouldn’t want to break the mold. Introducing the antiheroic protagonist; dressed indifferently from any and all other noir males in his cliché fedora, suit and tie. A man whose struggle, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, will center the plot of a film noir. The second large chunk of film noir’s “particular style, form or content”, the antiheroic protagonist is often represented in one of two ways. The first way, also explained by Tim Dirks, is that the leading men are, “corrupt characters and villains [including] down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, socio-paths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals, murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally-ambiguous low-lifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual or otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners . . . struggling to survive - and in the end, ultimately losing” (Dirks 2010: 1). On a more innocent note, film-noir-alley.com (which is, I assure you, a legitimate source with no author names provided) states that the second variation of noir protagonist is, “a fairly decent fellow whose life and psyche is thrown into distorted mayhem by a twist of fate” (film-noir-alley.com 2006). Whether they start as being corrupt or harmless, all noir protagonists end up finding themselves in a big heap of trouble by the end of the two hours. (Ebert 1995: 1)
One of the best examples of an innocent protagonist in film noir can be found in John Dahl’s femme fatale-based The Last Seduction (1994), a neo noir starring Linda Fiorentino. In Fiorentino’s illustrious performance as Bridget Gregory, she takes full advantage of small-town bachelor Mike Swale. Swale may have sealed his own fate by making a pass at her in the bar, but his innocence is proven when, after an affair between the two of them begins, he becomes unsettled by the fact that their relationship is built solely on sex. During the course of the film, Bridget Gregory’s forcefully seductive influence causes Swale to transition into both a rapist and an attempted murderer.
As for the other end of the spectrum, a more villainous type of protagonist is found in Ned Racine, a small-time lawyer played by William Hurt in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981). Also a neo noir, Racine’s villainy is somewhat subdued, as he is more established as an adulterer rather than somebody who goes far as to be involved with homicide. However, his villainy is taken further when, although it was his femme fatale counterparts’ plan all along, Racine makes the initial offer to kill her husband and takes complete charge of the situation, escalating into both an arsonist and a murderer. He also fits the mold as one of film noirs (and especially neo noirs) more malevolent protagonists in his complete lack of regret that is present during all of his illegal acts.
Yes, the tormented male; a bare essential. After all, the up rise of noir immediately followed WWII. In order for the American films to obligatorily “say something” about society at the time, every single one had to feature a male who has been overpowered by a female. Oh wait, that’s just in film noir.
Bleak City Setting
Where to place the stereotypically film noir battle between the femme fatale and antiheroic protagonist? In the street! In the dark! Make everything look dark, rainy, and uninspiring! We just need to relay the feeling of America! Billy Wilder, John Huston, and their team of followers have done just that. As if having the exact same roles and relationships in each film noir were not enough to prove it as a genre that follows the same guidelines within each film, once a particular set of films is noted for taking place in the same location, it should be safe to say that they are particular enough to be classified as being part of the same genre. I mean this one’s in the name, people, “dark film”? I suppose the Western is no longer its own genre, either.
Film noirs that lend themselves mostly to this setting are those that feature the protagonist as a detective. Double Indemnity is no exception. What time of day is it during Walter Neff’s entire narration? Night. When does the murder take place? Night. Where and when does the picture begin and end? It starts and finishes in the middle of the night in Los Angeles. Where does Walter work? His office is in downtown Los Angeles. When do the two lead characters meet up most often? Night. On the rare occasions that the two lead characters meet up during the day, what are they wearing? They wear sunglasses, even in stores, as if it is night.
There is, however, something more to the endless nights and cities of noir, something that is especially distinct in comparison to the nights and cities from films of different genres. In an attempt to further drive home the melancholic mood of noir, Roger Ebert describes that film noir is made up of, “locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all” (Ebert 1995: 1). The night does not always have to be so bleak and dark. On the contrary, many people view the night as the most inspiring and vivacious time of day. Depending on the film, night can be portrayed in that fashion. Noir, clearly, is different. Discussing noir’s particular use of night, Tim Dirks illustrates, “Settings were often interiors with low-key (or single-source) lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights, and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low-rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses” (Dirks 2010: 1).
As simply as any time of day can deliver the aura of a certain mood, if given the proper circumstances, it can just as simply deliver the opposite. Film noir’s use of night is quite in and of itself. It would not be “noir night” if there were a clip of teenagers going out and enjoying a party. Noir’s essence of loneliness and pessimism through its portrayal of night is very much on purpose and delivers a very specific presentation.
Post WWII Moods
Film noir enthusiasts like to pride themselves on the fact that film noir’s moods are so representative of such an unspeakable moment in American history; WWII. Noir limits itself so much to portraying this paranoia and suspicion (one might think that post-WWII America was often in a state of celebration due to the fact that a major war just ended, but noir seems to ignore that at all costs) that there is no room left for any positivity and optimism. This is yet another way that film noir digs itself deeper into a grave for which the tombstone reads, “genre”.
Tim Dirks, deepening his noir argument, addresses, “The primary moods of classic film noir were [obsessive,] melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia” (Dirks 2010: 1). Noir expert Alain Silver, elaborates on obsession, “obsessive behavior transcends such ordinary considerations as morality and causality. . . [it] erodes the sense of free will as it undermines the character’s ability to make rational decisions” (Silver 1992: 5). Silver continues his illustration of obsession with a memorable line from Steve Thompson in Criss Cross (1949), “I never cared about the money. All I wanted was you. I walked the streets of strange cities thinking about you” (Silver 1992: 5).
Does the presence of the aforementioned moods and states of mind not stand out far more in noir than it does in any other genre? Individual lines of dialogue that have comedic or uplifting aspects are impossible to find in film noirs, let alone entire plots that are based on positivity. Amongst an endless amount of examples, consider the instance in The Maltese Falcon where Brigid O’Shaughnessy holds Sam Spade at gunpoint. For Spade, he remains emotionless, exhibiting both disillusionment with Brigid as a person, and a general aura of detachment on his own, personal level. O’Shaughnessy, however, demonstrates both a lack of regret, and an inability to better her deceitful behavior. She throws herself at him, and when he refuses to not have her arrested, out of desperation, she insists that she will kill him.
Potentially all of film noir’s most identifiable moods are wrapped up in this once scene alone, and this is what noir is based around. And with plots, characters, settings, etc. that are made up of the exact same ingredients, it becomes the unavoidable norm for climactic noir scenes to be no different from the one previously mentioned.
Obscure Lighting and Camera Angles
Taking all-prior mentioned components of noir into consideration, it is relatively simple to conjure up a still image of what a film noir would look like. There is, however, another aspect in the still image of noir that provides an even more significant distinction; that is film noirs use of obscure lighting and camera angles. It is very rare that the lighting in film noir is used in any other type of film, and for the rare exceptions, the goal is always to provide a noir-esque mood.
Noir writers John and Stephanie Blaser define the uses of certain camera shots commonly used in noir.
“[Backlighting-] This phenomenon occurs when the lighting for the shot is directed at the camera from behind the subject(s), causing the figure(s) in the foreground to appear in semi-darkness or as silhouettes, or highlighted; with backlighting, the subject is separated from the background”
“[Chiaroscuro-] Literally, the combination of the two Italian words for "clear/bright" and "dark"; refers to a notable, contrasting use of light and shade in scenes; often achieved by using a spotlight; also referred to as low-key lighting or high-contrast lighting. This lighting technique had its roots in German Expressionism.
“[Crane Shot-] A shot in which the camera is mounted on a crane to achieve striking height or aerial movement”
“[Dutch Angle-] A tilted camera angle that shows images obliquely slanted to the frame's vertical axis; also called oblique or canted angle”
“[Hard Lighting-] Lighting that creates sharp-edged shadows”
“[High Angle Lighting-] Lighting coming from above a person or object, usually in order to outline the upper areas of the figure or to separate it more clearly from the background; also called top lighting”
“[High Contrast Lighting-] Lighting that creates strong contrast between light and dark areas of the shot, with deep shadows and little fill light; also called low-key lighting”
These shots are often used to create very specific ideal images that we all can associate with film noir. With the use of such uncommon angles, viewers are disoriented and purposely not shown the full view of each character. Such an approach draws the viewer into the mood of noir, making the viewer suspicious of what they cannot see; reminding the viewer that we cannot and should not see things for what they really are; forcing the viewer to remain curious, and perhaps even afraid of that which they are not being shown, and therefore cannot fully understand. (Blaser, Blaser 2008: 1)
Without these obscure visual displays, all of noirs moods would be captured solely through narrative, which is supposedly only half the battle. Take, for example, Double Indemnity. Every time Phyllis and Walter meet in the Dietrichson living room, whether their conversation is flirtatious or murderous, only half of the room is lit. Light may be coming from the moon or (rarely) daylight, but the blinds are set in such a way that most movement is through shadow.
A legendary snapshot from The Big Combo (1955) would also be impossible without a low-key backlight. There is an infamous photo of suspected mob leader Mr. Brown conversing with femme fatale Susan Lowell in the middle of the street. The only illumination is that of the smoke that fills the air behind the two entirely blacked out and unidentifiable bodies.
Finally, these angles are also used in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). A critically acclaimed neo-noir seeking to maintain all of the essential elements of classic noir, Chinatown provides a particular still image of protagonist J.J. Gittes sitting at his office desk, on the phone with a huge bandage over his nose. Running vertically across the suspicious man are shadowed lines, stereotypical of noir.
Film noirs visual “look” is one of its most particular features. Because film noir inarguably strives to create the same feelings in each of its stories, camera and lighting styles are not subject to change, therefore making them even more a product of themselves; even easier to identify through form; and making it even simpler to see film noir as its own genre.
As it is hopefully apparent by now, identifying a given plot as film noir is an extraordinarily simple task. As a matter of fact, Tim Dirks sums up, with simplicity, the basis of a noir plot, “a film noir story was developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [e.g., Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray, or Humphrey Bogart] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [e.g., Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, or Lana Turner]. She would use her feminine wiles and come-hither sexuality to manipulate him into becoming the fall guy - often following a murder. After a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero's life. As women during the war period were given new-found independence and better job-earning power in the homeland during the war, they would suffer -- on the screen -- in these films of the 40s” (Dirks 2010: 1). Really, the only somewhat open-ended aspect of this frighteningly accurate description is this “murder” that Dirks speaks of.
While the murder can be diversified to a certain extent, there is one reoccurring form of murder that noir constantly displays. The most common form of murder in film noir, and one that helps viewers recognize it even further, is that of the femme fatales husband; and any time her husband is murdered (and I mean any time), it is in the hopes of receiving a hefty amount of money. Lest I say, once again, double indemnity.
It is no secret that the film which is actually called Double Indemnity is based solely around double indemnity; a life insurance policy that, in the event of an accidental death, calls for two equal payments to the widow or widower. The concept of double indemnity, however, is referred to multiple times in the history of noir.
Possibly the most blatant reference to double indemnity comes in The Last Seduction. There is an instance when, in her new job, Bridget Gregory takes a phone call from a woman in Florida whose husband has beat her. Bridget takes it upon herself to advise the woman to kill her husband and receive all of the financial benefits; double indemnity included. Not only does she tell this to the woman over the phone, but she also brings it up again in conversation with Mike when attempting to justify her advice. And as if this idea wasn’t overused enough, at one point in the film, Bridget Gregory goes far enough as to address herself as “Mrs. Neff” over the phone.
Brief “shout outs” in reference to other films such as that, though, are not completely few are far between. The concept of double indemnity, however, reoccurs in film noir through more forms than a shout out. For example, Body Heat would be equally effective were it instead named Double Indemnity 2. Without quite as many financial terms being thrown around, Body Heat’s plot, form and content are exactly that of Double Indemnity. It’s the same old story; the protagonist is drawn in by the lustful femme fatale, and eventually ends up murdering her rich and unsatisfactory husband/lover. While Body Heat exhibits this structure perfectly, it is, quite frankly, one of many film noirs with said storyline.
From all these elements comes one very specific product indicative of what film noir is and how it is perceived. However, there is also the never-ending list of clear-cut fillers that always seem to conveniently place themselves within a film noir. These smaller indicators of what makes up a film noir can be seen in the overuse of the word “dame”, prolonged voiceovers, flashbacks, absurdly unrealistic slang, conversations made up entirely of innuendos, outwardly horrific acting, men who think that speaking as nasally as possible makes them seem more convincing, and the classic double-slap delivered by the protagonist across the antagonist’s face at least seven times throughout each film. Unfortunately, this list probably goes on. However, I will not list anymore; for I am too sickened by the thought that people still think, after lists like this, that these films hold too much complexity to be defined as a genre.
As we refer back to the established definition of “genre”, which is, “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content”, is it not obvious that film noir fits this term perfectly? As I hope to have explained well throughout this article, each film noir holds such precise ingredients that to say that it does not have a particular style, form, or content, would be completely unacceptable. There are no limits to the word “genre” that film noir has even come close to transcending. It is not an idea. It is not a period of film history. It is, quite simply, a genre of films that lends itself so strictly to the same content, time after time. There is no way around its particularity, for it has ingrained within all of us the same exact idea of what film noir is.