I love film noir. Dark streets, femme fatales, shadows, venetian blinds, mirrors, smoke, rain, murder, ambiguity. These are the dark, crime ridden streets of the 1940s and 50s - where the women were dangerous and unpredictable and the men fell for them every time. Guys and dames and fantastic dialogue when dialogue was censored. The way these filmmakers were able to present their films so that they passed inspection (adhering to the Production Code) yet still had a tinge of something subversive is inspiring.
I think Janey Place explains the tone of film noir well when she writes, "The dominant world view expressed in film noir is paranoia, claustrophobia, hopeless, doomed, predetermined by the past, without clear moral or personal identity.... Values, like identities, are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn. Nothing - especially woman - is stable, nothing is predictable" (1998:51).
First, here is a short list of identifying markers of film noir - more detailed explanations are given further down the page.
What follows is an excerpt of a paper I wrote for one of my graduate classes. It will give you an idea of what film noir is and where it came from. References I make to authors/books will follow at the end.
....There is some controversy over what exactly film noir is - a genre, a style, a movement. Although not identified as "film noir" until 1946 in France (and the phrase didn't really catch on in America until the 1950s), these films shared many characteristics (Palmer, 1996). Most of the films of the period 1941-1958 (the standard era of classic film noir) fall in the categories of detective film, thriller, and crime melodrama or mystery (Palmer, 1994). In terms of plot, there are generally 5 steps: 1) man meets beautiful/mysterious woman; 2) woman manipulates man into committing some crime against a man she is attached to; 3) woman betrays man; 4) woman is destroyed either metaphorically or physically; and 5) man and his victim (the other man) are also destroyed in some capacity (Palmer, 1996). The main characters in film noir are morally ambiguous and corruptible yet attractive. So, while the audience is identifying and sympathizing with these characters, they are committing atrocious acts which creates a sense of unease in the viewer.
The most popular narrative strategy in the 1940s and 1950s was the flashback/voice- over. In this style the viewer learns what has happened from the man's point of view - he presents the events as they appeared to him. In this way, the film creates a complex chronological order - not strictly linear - and a sense of pre-determined fate and impending doom (Telotte, 1989; Dick, 1995; Naremore, 1995-96; Schrader, 1996). Perhaps the most distinctive features of film noir are its stylistic conventions: use of darkness through low-key lighting, shadows, silhouettes, nighttime; the use of mirrors and reflections to indicate everything is not what it seems - ambiguity; and the use of oblique and vertical lines rather than horizontal - splintering the screen into odd shapes of light and dark - again, creating an unstable feeling (Schrader, 1996; Place, 1998).
According to Borde and Chaumeton, "[I]t is our view that all the elements of noir style achieve the same result: confusing the viewer, who is able to find none of his normal points of orientation. The cinema public, after all, is accustomed to certain conventions, a logically constructed narrative, a strict demarcation between good and evil, well-delineated characters, simple motivations, sequences that are more spectacular than brutal in some realistic way, an exquisitely feminine heroine paired with a high-minded hero….[T]he moral ambiguity, the criminal violence, and the contradictory complexity of events and motives work together to give the spectator the same feeling of anxiety and insecurity….Film noir strives to create a quite specific feeling of uneasiness. (1996:65)
Thus, whether one chooses to call it a style, genre, or movement, it was clear that something new was happening in 1940s Hollywood....
...This new type of film was the result of a convergence of several factors culminating in the mid-1940s America: World War II and post-war disillusionment, postwar realism, German expatriates, the hard-boiled tradition, and Freudian psychoanalysis (House, 1986; Christensen, 1987; Walker, 1993; Osteen, 1994; Schrader, 1996).
During WWII, while the men were fighting in Europe, Asia, and Africa, the women were entering the factories and business world in the United States. War propaganda, including Rosie the Riveter, encouraged women to do their part in the war effort, and so since they couldn't participate in combat, they participated in the war industry. By 1943, over 310,000 women were employed in the aircraft industry alone. In 1940 and 1944 respectively, both the Republican and Democratic parties came out in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Then the bomb dropped, both literally and figuratively. The men came back from war and pushed more than 6 million women out of the workforce. This momentous change in the labor force and gender expectations heightened confusion over traditional gender roles, created a resentment among women which would slowly gain steam, and increased male fears of loss of identity and control (Telotte, 1987). In many of the film noirs, themes of soldiers coming home to find unfaithful wives, cheating business partners and a generally unsavory, immoral world were common (Schrader, 1996). In addition, according to Rebecca House, "there was also the threat of the bomb and the death of Franklin Roosevelt to worry about. It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty, change, and vague, unnamed fear that film noir was finally able to realize its darkest fantasies" (1986: 71).
The second factor contributing to film noir was postwar realism. After the war, there was a resurgence in realism. Film noir took to the streets instead of confining themselves to the lot of the studio.
A third factor were the German expatriates who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. A large number of the film noir creators were part of this group: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmark, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, John Alton, Douglas Sirk, Fred Zinnemann, and John Brahm to name a few (Schrader, 1996). They brought to film noir German expressionism - specifically the reliance on lighting to create moods of unease and instability.
The fourth contribution consisted of the hard-boiled tradition of the 1930s. The tough, cynical characters of novels by Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Ernest Hemingway became the basis for many film noirs. It wasn't until the mid-1940s that these novels became popular among sections of the population besides the working class. Once they became acceptable means of entertainment, they were approved for presentation on the screen.
The final influence on film noir was Freudian psychoanalysis which hit the U.S. in the 1940s (Walker, 1993). Film noir focused on the psychological aspects of crime rather than the good guy/bad guy chases of the 1930s action films. Many times they were described as psychological thrillers in the press. Thus the post-WWII period was ripe for a new kind of representation - one which picked up on the psychological unease of the time by combining two different styles - realism and expressionism....
Want to know more about neo noir?
Borde, Raymonde & Etienne Chaumeton. 1996. "Toward the Definition of Film Noir" in Palmer, R. Barton, ed. Perspectives on Film Noir. G.K. Hall & Co.: New York.
Christensen, Terry. 1987. Reel Politics: American Political Movies from Birth of a Nation to Platoon. Basil Blackwell: New York.
Dick, Bernard. 1995. "Columbia's Dark Ladies and the Femmes Fatales of Film Noir." Literature/Film Quarterly. 23:3:155-62.
House, Rebecca. 1986. "Night of the Soul: American Film Noir." Studies in Popular Culture. 9:1:61-83.
Naremore, James. 1995-96. "American Film Noir: The History of an Idea." Film Quarterly. 49:2:12-27.
Osteen, Mark. 1994. "The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear." Journal of Popular Film and Television. 22:2:79-90.
Palmer, R. Barton. 1994. Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. Twayen Publishers: New York.
Palmer, R. Barton. 1996. Perspectives on Film Noir. G.K. Hall & Co.: New York.
Place, Janey. 1998. "Women in Film Noir" in Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Women in Film Noir. British Film Institute: London.
Schrader, Paul. 1996. "Notes on Film Noir" in Palmer, R. Barton, ed Perspectives on Film Noir. G.K. Hall & Co.: New York.
Telotte, J.P. 1989. Voice in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. University of Illinois Press: Chicago.
Walker, Michael. 1993. "Film Noir" in Cameron, Ian, ed. The Book of Film Noir. Continuum: New York