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What Makes Film-Noir Film Noir?


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I've been asking around and so far i've got this.


Film-Noir is/has/involves/consists of:



The Mob or some moblike group is involved

Smuggling/trafficing diamonds, drugs, weapons, money...

the lighting is dramatic

a detective is usually the focus character

There is a "damsel in distress" sort of deal

it takes place in a big, steamy city


Anything else? I'm gonna get that Dark CIty book soon...

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  • 2 weeks later...

Your definition of noir seems to include only the crime-centric films, trasher. There are plenty other subgenres.


One aspect most noirs have in common is a happy ending that doesn't work. In noir, evil or crime or paranoia or some variation thereof may invade a relatively innocent climate. If normalcy is ostensibly restored, and all the good characters return to their happy lives, then you've got yourself a noir ending; how can these characters just pretend that their worlds are still as innocent as they once were? See Shadow of a Doubt and Cause for Alarm! for the loss of suburban innocence, Suspicion and Spellbound for the way paranoia can poison a relationship.


Inevitability plays a huge roll in some noir. If you did something dirty in the past or betrayed your own code of honor, there?s no way you can ever redeem yourself. Or perhaps you?re just born bad. This idea of fate is typically embodied in a femme fatale, but she?s just the visible vehicle. See Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, and the original Cat People for the idea that you never have a clean slate.


Threatened masculinity is another main motif in noir. Femmes fatales are great at undermining a man?s agency or will, but so are other men. Noirs feature a shocking number of heroes chained to a bed, drugged, for days (Murder, My Sweet and Kiss Me Deadly); hypnotized in their sleep by complete strangers (Fear in the Night); and ?kept? by men (Gilda and The Hitchhiker) or women (Sunset Boulevard). Even in your hard-bitten detective stories, the heroes are slipped mickeys, drugged, knocked out, and/or abducted (Maltese Falcon). Look for disturbing levels of homoeroticism and submissiveness.


Noir can also be as simple as showing the ugly side of human nature. The Set-Up is a fabulous little boxing flick that shows the bloodthirstiness of the fans, the crooked agents, and local mafia--and even the evil in the heart of the boxer?s devoted wife. Mildred Pierce rips the pretty fa?ade off an extremely dysfunctional family and the heroine?s bad-seed daughter.


As you noted, many of these movies end with a shooting or with the death of the villain. But noir plots do not require a mobster-like crime, a righteous policeman or private detective, or even premeditation. They simply demand that the villain appear to be defeated. This primarily plays back into the whole happy ending problem of noir; to restore ?order,? the ?evil? must be cast out or destroyed. This is most easily represented with a bullet.

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 6 months later...

Venetian Blinds!


Yes, that's what makes a Noir film.


Actually....I don't really believe that there is such a thing as Noir. And I say this after reading every book on Noir, that I could get my hands on for years, after reading up on everything that Cahiers du Cinema has said at the start about the Post-War American films, with the dark sensibilities, fatal flaws, emasculated males, femme fatales and other tipoffs.


After talking to a few authors even, who take their Noir straight, think they are experts, yet even they cannot agree...my belief is that Noir is just other genres reclassified due to a few abstruse plot lines, like flashback or downbeat ending, and perhaps unlike Jazz, asking for a definition does not mean that you will never get it.


Noir is a state of mind. Some people see The Maltese Falcon as Noir, but it does not even compute, yet there have been tales since time immemorial which could classify as Noir, with its constantly hazy structures.


So I say...just look for the shiny wet streets and venetian blinds, and you mostly cannot go wrong.


Save your money...Dark City is just a rehash and all you need to know about Noir, you can see by watching TCM films with Mitchum.

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  • 2 months later...

Robert Osbourne just said last week that there are many definitions of film noir but it really is based on the dark shadowy unhappy personality of the characters. I KNOW I'm not paraphrasing him correctly but that's kinda what he said. He said it technically wasn't based on the dark forboding sets - or the venetian blinds, although I liked that lol - but on the personalities of the characters. And I always listen to Bob. ;-)

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Bob is right. The visual motifs are merely unique conventions used by the Directors, Film Noir is about the characters. Oftentimes tragic, or very ordinary people who make decisions that lead them down the wrong path.


Getting involved with a woman who wishes her husband dead, or joining up with a gang of thieves for a one time only deal, or not knowing when to quit a life of crime.



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  • 5 months later...

One major facet of film noir I've noticed is overlooked in most of the definitions within this discussion is the second part (aside from the plot) that gives the "noir", the darkness, to film noir - the use of heavy shadows and patterns of darkness, the often unusual and skewed camera angles used as a visual psychological tool to further express turmoil, conflict, and fear.


One of the clearest definitions I found was at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir, so check that for help.


An interesting fact - The term film noir (French for "black film") was unknown to the filmmakers and actors while they were creating the classic films noir. Film noir was defined in retrospect by film historians and critics; many of the creators of film noir later professed to be unaware at the time of having created a distinctive type of film.


The use of the phrase film noirs is untrue to the French origin of the term. The plural form of film noir in French is films noirs, which is sometimes used in English as is films noir.


Another - A movie characterized by low-key lighting, a bleak urban setting, and corrupt, cynical characters.


Yet another - A genre of film between 1940 and 1960, originating in the United States, employing heavy shadows and patterns of darkness, in which the protagonist dies, meets defeat, or achieves meaningless victory in the end.


And a BIG, fat definition - Film noir began in the 1930's and remained as a strong cinematic medium until the early 1960's. Film noir literally means "black film" in French and features themes which are more negative than positive, with an overall dark and shadowy outlook--being filmed in black and white. This film genre takes in detective and crime noir as well as many gangster films of the 1930's. Noir also moves into more modern films combining with other genres. These would include western noir--"High Noon", romance noir--"Laura", crime noir--"The Big Heat" and even modern detective noir--"L.A. Confidential" and "Chinatown".


The first recognized noir movie was "Stranger on the Third Floor" from 1940, although films made use of many noir facets well before. "Stranger on the Third Floor" featured what was at the time a new cinematic technique that made use of dark or dim lighting effects, dreary settings, filtered lights and generally dark themes and characterizations. Noir scenes are made from interesting camera angles and with dramatic close-ups and shadowed lighting. Frequently the stories use of smoke-filled rooms, views of light filtered through venetian blinds, seedy downtown areas with neon lights, dark wet streets to heighten the noir effect. Brightly-lit scenes are not used in noir films since the desired effect is that of dreary hopelessness.


The content of noir films keeps pace with the settings. Most noir stories feature main characters who find themselves embroiled in hopeless situations, fighting against a force that threatens to overtake them, the force being their inablility to resist temptation. Most often this main character is male, although there are some noir movies in which the main character is female.


In any case, the protagonist always has a major character flaw which leads to ruin. It might be that the character is a small-time criminal, adulterer, thief, of a weak-will, etc. The character also may appear to be honest at the outset of the film. In these cases, as the story unfolds, the protagonist becomes tainted by some dishonest deed and is sent to his doom. In most cases, the protagonist, if male, is brought to ruin by another staple of the noir movie--the femme fatale.


The femme fatale is most often depicted as a beautiful woman, cruel and dishonest, who is willing to do anything necessary to reach her ends. She uses the protagonist as a tool to help her accomplish some unsavory deed and the protagonist is powerless to refuse her. The femme fatale is often distrustful and even contemptuous of the protagonist but still holds him within her grasp by using promises of their new life together after the deed is complete. The distrust that the femme fatale holds for her pawn is also what brings her to destruction as well. Often, the femme fatale is seen weaving her evil web around a victim who, at first is unwilling. However, the protagonist always falls prey to the wiles of the haunting beauty and promised charms of the woman. Famous noir femme fatales include Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnit), Rita Hayworth (Gilda) and Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice). There are some films in which both the protagonist and the femme fatale are female such as "Mildred Pierce", where Joan Crawford is the protagonist and Ann Blyth, playing her daughter, is the cruel and manipulative femme fatale. There may also be cases where the noir characters are used even more creatively, as in "Gaslight", where Ingrid Bergman is the protagonist to an evil tormenter-husband played by Charles Boyer.


The femme fatale is not always the only woman in the life of the main character. There is often a balance of the evil femme fatale with another pure and virtuous woman who only wishes the best for the protagonist. In this battle, it is the evil that always triumphs in noir. The protagonist is powerless to make the choice of the woman who is best for him.


Another facet of noir films is the flashback. In nearly all noir films, generous use is made of this vehicle. Often the flashbacks are voice-overs, narrated by the protagonist recounting, somewhat sarcastically, the reasons and details of his downfall. A good example of this is William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard", where he narrates the entire story in flashbacks of what occured before his death.


The plot of a noir movie is circuitous and holds many surprises and unanswered questions for the viewer. Sometimes the resolution of the plot is left hanging, casting an even darker aura over the film, such as the ending of "Scarlet Street", another great film noire in which the audience is left to wonder what eventually happens to the main character. Still, there is much action in noir films, even with the plot unwinding slowly and building to a riveting climax.


Noir heroes are flawed humans and always shown to have character imperfections. Many of those heroes are detectives, taking the cases of mysterious women who draw them into a tangled maze of evil by making use of their hypnotic sensuality. Detective noirs are among some of the most popular films of this genre. Films like the Sam Spade mysteries began the whole detective and crime noir sub-genre and cemented actors such as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the minds of noir buffs.







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  • 3 weeks later...

Very nice post lucky/SwankHipster. Thanks.


Just want to let you all know that here is a very good Noir web site -- has reviews of many noir films, interesting definitions of noir, etc. Worth a look. Here are some links from that web site:




Have fun,



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  • 1 month later...



I think rather than defining the film-noir genre using words, maybe a better tactic is watch, uhm...four films that are generally regarded as film-noirs.


Oh, I will choose four I have watched:

"The Spiral Staircase".

"Where The Sidewalk Ends".

"Phantom Lady"

and the recently broadcast (TCM)..."Raw Deal".


Whatever four "defining" films you choose--watch 'em and note the elements the four films have in common. I bet, watching a few "generally regarded as film-noir" movies make it easier to 'get a handle' on how to define the film-noir genre.



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