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The Essential Elements of Film Noir


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What are the essential elements of film noir? We can name essential elements for genres such as Westerns, crime dramas, romances, musicals, mysteries, and on and on. What are the essential elements of film noir? There's one element which is almost essential but there are still exceptions for that as well.  Let's see:

Black&White cinematography? Contemporary setting? Nope. Femme fatale? Redemptive female? Nope. Chiaroscuro lighting? Extensive use of wide angle lenses? Nope. Urban setting? Flashbacks? Voice over? Just about anything you can name- even homicide- is not essential for films we classify as noir. Excepting the given parameters of the "classic period" of 1941 to 1959, just how does one identify/classify film noir? Borde and Chaumeton, in their seminal work, Panorama du film noir Américain, give us a clue. Heck, you don't even need to make it out of the introduction of their book to see what I'm talking about.

This is one of the reasons film noir is a style , not a genre.

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About 8 years ago TCM and Ball State University teamed up.    TCM showing films and Ball State had online classes about noir,  and they hosted a noir forum at this website where the professor of the class would participated (but it was mostly the students).     One of the main topics was:  What are the essential elements of film noir? 

Of course there are multiple POV on the subject,  with the extremes being there are essential elements and these are them (i.e.  a film without these isn't "noir"),   to there are no essential elements and each of us defines what is  "noir" for us.

I fall somewhere in the middle:   there are common elements but none are essential.     The more of these elements a film has the more "noir" it is for me.     


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  • 5 weeks later...

Interesting topic. I guess I'm like the guy that said he couldn't describe pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. For me, noir is usually done in black and white with lots of shadow shots, deals with dark subject matter, usually has a seedy private detective or cop, has a femme fatale and/or a "good girl", often has a murder and doesn't have a very happy ending. Watching NOIR ALLEY has really broaden my definition, but I still have a fairly narrow scope.  Having said that, if Eddie Muller says it's noir; who am I to argue  with the czar.

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