"Noir Through The Decades:
Ten Film Recommendations"
By Noir Director Darko Tresnjak
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5 Characteristics of Classic Noirs
A wide spectrum of characteristics define the noir style. Some classic noir characteristics include:
- Cynical Male Leads: The (typically, though not always, male) protagonists of film noirs are often brooding, fatalistic, or totally disenchanted. They might be drifters, salesmen, professors, or detectives, but they mostly follow their own personal code. Male noir leads are seen as existentialist, unemotional but pragmatic, and sometimes morally ambiguous.
- Femme Fatales: In addition to its hardened male protagonists, the film noir genre is equally famous for its mysterious female leads. Femme fatales in noir films are shadowy, cunning, and ruthless.
- Low-Key Lighting: Noirs are black and white films that use high contrast for stark, chiaroscuro lighting—which involves hard lights and harsh, deep shadows to create a visually intriguing aesthetic that most mainstream black and white films lacked during the era.
- Flashbacks: In film noir, the protagonist often narrates over flashbacks, revealing information to the audience and providing context or perspective. Flashbacks also help ramp up tension and suspense by taking the audience through the events leading up to the movie’s premise, revealing details that are helpful for understanding the plot (since most noirs that have intricate, convoluted storylines).
- Dutch Angles: A Dutch angle skews the camera to shoot on the diagonal. This particular shot gives viewers an uneasy feeling, implying that something isn’t quite right. This type of camera shot can create a feeling of disorientation, madness, or imbalance. Dutch angles can enhance tension, generate fear, and exacerbate unsteadiness, making them a favorite shot of many noir directors.
What is noir?
A definition and brief history
Film noir began as a style that quickly coalesced into a genre. In many ways, the history of film noir begins with the pulp novels of the 1930s. Fueled by the anxieties of the Great Depression, pulp fiction novelists like Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, 1939), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930), and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, 1943), found success writing hardboiled crime fiction novels. These novels featured antihero detectives entrenched in corruption, danger, and mystery. They were exactly the kind of downbeat melodramas Americans were looking for at the time.
In the wake of World War II, some Hollywood studios determined that American film audiences were drawn to crime dramas, so they had many of these dark crime novels turned into scripts. Many of those scripts were brought to the screen, primarily by European émigré directors who shared a certain storytelling sensibility: highly stylized, overtly theatrical, with imagery often drawn from an earlier era of German “expressionist” cinema. Movie audiences responded to this fresh, vivid, adult-oriented type of film — as did many writers, directors, cameramen and actors eager to bring a more mature world-view to Hollywood.
The term “film noir” is typically credited to French critic Nino Frank, who apparently coined it in a 1946 essay published in the magazine L’Écran français to describe four American crime films: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger’s Laura, and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. The French derived film noir literally translates to “black cinema.” Few, if any of the artists in Hollywood who made these films called them “noir” at the time, but the vivid co-mingling of lost innocence, doomed romanticism, hard-edged cynicism, desperate desire, and shadowy sexuality proved hugely influential, both among industry peers in the original era, and to future generations of storytellers.
How did the City of Angels become ground zero for the form?
Two of the most famous film noirs Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet, based on novels by Cain and Chandler, respectively—were specifically set in Los Angeles, a city whose glamorous reputation became laced with stories of crime, scandal, and corruption. The hardboiled fiction of Cain, Chandler, and other Los Angeles-based authors, such as Dorothy B. Hughes and Ross MacDonald, partially arose from the local tabloid journalism of the 1920s and ’30s, which highlighted the city’s enticing dualities.
During that time, Los Angeles was spun as a place of dreams, a wide-open landscape both literally and figuratively, where your greatest desires could become reality. Between 1920 and 1929 the city’s population doubled, flooded by romantics hoping to make their mark—as well as the con artists and self-styled religious gurus who descended to take advantage of their naïveté. Shining like a beacon over it all was Hollywood, the ultimate dream-maker, whose toxic underbelly began erupting to the surface in sensational headlines.
The city editor at the Herald-Express, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, wrote in a hardboiled style that was typical of tabloid journalism at the time and which undoubtedly influenced contemporary LA crime novelists, who dreamed up wisecracking, hard-living Southland investigators, such as Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. Many of these novels served as the basis for a spate of character-driven crime films churned out by Hollywood beginning in the early 1940s. A good number of them were helmed by German filmmakers, such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Robert Siodmak, who landed in Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis in the lead-up to WWII. Film noir as a style combined elements of the hardboiled fiction of the day with German Expressionistic techniques imported by those directors.
While the film that is widely considered to be the first Hollywood noir—John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon—was set in San Francisco, many of the earliest and greatest film noirs took place in Los Angeles including The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard, and Kiss Me Deadly. Post-1959, a wave of L.A. neo-noirs began hitting the movie theaters including: The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, The Grifters, Devil In A Blue Dress, American Gigolo, LA Confidential, and Mulholland Drive. The L.A. noir’s popularity persists with even more contemporary examples such as Inherent Vice, Drive, Nightcrawler, and Under the Silver Lake.