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Much debate has gone into deciding what is noir and what isn't.  I found this in a Wikipedia article about Nino Frank.

"In 1946, Frank and fellow critic Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote two film articles that described Hollywood crime dramas from the 1940s as “film noir.” Frank’s article, “Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle,” (“A new police genre: the criminal adventure”) was published in the socialist-leaning film magazine L’écran français in August 1946. Frank’s article listed “…rejection of sentimental humanism, the social fantastic, and the dynamism of violent death” as being obsessive French noir themes and called attention to the American proclivity for criminal psychology and misogyny.” [3] Frank’s article stated that “these "dark" films, these films noirs, no longer have anything in common with the ordinary run of detective movies”, and the article "reflects the difficulty of finding a suitable label for these dark films."[4]

Frank’s article states that the noir films "belong to what used to be called the detective film genre, but which would now be better termed the crime, or, even better yet, the "crime psychology film.” Jean-Pierre Chartier's essay, from November 1946, appeared in the conservative-leaning Revue du cinema, titled "Les Américains aussi font des films 'noirs'" ("the Americans also make 'black' films"), and criticized what he deemed the common thread of film noir, the “pessimism and disgust for humanity.”[3] "

So to qualify for the term, a film must be:

 

About crime

Nihilistic

Mysogynist

Extremely violent

Have elements of fantasy

 

Notice there is no mention of chiaroscuro lighting.  This comes from German Expressionist films.

So check each movie you watch for the five elements listed and 'you got noir'.

 

 

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Much debate has gone into deciding what is noir and what isn't.  I found this in a Wikipedia article about Nino Frank.

"In 1946, Frank and fellow critic Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote two film articles that described Hollywood crime dramas from the 1940s as “film noir.” Frank’s article, “Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle,” (“A new police genre: the criminal adventure”) was published in the socialist-leaning film magazine L’écran français in August 1946. Frank’s article listed “…rejection of sentimental humanism, the social fantastic, and the dynamism of violent death” as being obsessive French noir themes and called attention to the American proclivity for criminal psychology and misogyny.” [3] Frank’s article stated that “these "dark" films, these films noirs, no longer have anything in common with the ordinary run of detective movies”, and the article "reflects the difficulty of finding a suitable label for these dark films."[4]

Frank’s article states that the noir films "belong to what used to be called the detective film genre, but which would now be better termed the crime, or, even better yet, the "crime psychology film.” Jean-Pierre Chartier's essay, from November 1946, appeared in the conservative-leaning Revue du cinema, titled "Les Américains aussi font des films 'noirs'" ("the Americans also make 'black' films"), and criticized what he deemed the common thread of film noir, the “pessimism and disgust for humanity.”[3] "

So to qualify for the term, a film must be:

 

About crime

Nihilistic

Mysogynist

Extremely violent

Have elements of fantasy

 

Notice there is no mention of chiaroscuro lighting.  This comes from German Expressionist films.

So check each movie you watch for the five elements listed and 'you got noir'.

 

Most noirs are not extremely violent.   They are fair less violent than pre-code gangster films made in the 30s.    Since American films were subject to the Production Code violence is often implied where the focus is more on the pain caused by acts of violence instead of showing the actual act like early 30s films.

 

Anyhow in my book there are no set list of qualifications for a film style.

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I'd agree that most noir films are not extremely violent.  There is violence, but there's also a lot of tension from the "violence withheld" or at least delayed. My opinion is that fantasy is not always present either, although there are usually some pretty wacky schemes floating around.  You can write books about whether it's just "misogyny", or in some way men dealing with the changes in society and the power of women during and post war.  "Deadlier than the Male" could be a sub-title for many, many films noir.  Is that misogyny or something more?  

 

I've shared this quote before, and I think it's interesting because it is roughly contemporary to Nino Frank's original article, but it's from an American reviewer and he doesn't try to give the trend a name.  It mentions both visual and narrative style elements.

 

Whoever went to the movies with any regularity during 1946 was caught in the midst of Hollywood's profound postwar affection for morbid drama. From January through December deep shadows, clutching hands, exploding revolvers, sadistic villains and heroines tormented with deeply rooted diseases of the mind flashed across the screen in a panting display of psychoneurosis, unsublimated sex and murder most foul.

Donald Marshman, Life (August 25, 1947)
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For me film noir is a film from is.. and not all noirs contain all these elements but enough

1940-1959 (the originators,classical period)

 

-filmed in black and white- (to see the beautiful shadows and lighting)

-plot twists

-a femme fatal

- a private detective

- an unhappy ending

-corruption

-flashbacks

-voiceovers

- a mystery or crime that needs to be solved

- a character telling a story about what went wrong

- not getting away with their misdeed

 

as for elements of fantasy, i've racked my brains and i can't think of fantasy in film noirs that have fantasy elements in the 1940-1959 if any one knows of any i would be interested in knowing the titles.. i just can't think of any like that 

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For me film noir is a film from is.. and not all noirs contain all these elements but enough

1940-1959 (the originators,classical period)

 

-filmed in black and white- (to see the beautiful shadows and lighting)

-plot twists

-a femme fatal

- a private detective

- an unhappy ending

-corruption

-flashbacks

-voiceovers

- a mystery or crime that needs to be solved

- a character telling a story about what went wrong

- not getting away with their misdeed

 

as for elements of fantasy, i've racked my brains and i can't think of fantasy in film noirs that have fantasy elements in the 1940-1959 if any one knows of any i would be interested in knowing the titles.. i just can't think of any like that 

They may mean fantasy as in drugged sequences, dream sequences, etc., didn't Murder My Sweet have Marlowe awakening in a room filled with cobwebs? There was another that had a spiral fun house slide sequence. Spellbound had a Salvador Dali sequence.

 

But there are very few overall Noirs that feature private detectives.

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Thanks cigarjoe, now to think about it, dark passage had that oddball sequence when humprey bogart was put under to get his plastic surgery and you are right, not too many p.i's . but the movies with p.i.'s are so strong they stick out

They may mean fantasy as in drugged sequences, dream sequences, etc., didn't Murder My Sweet have Marlowe awakening in a room filled with cobwebs? There was another that had a spiral fun house slide sequence. Spellbound had a Salvador Dali sequence.

 

But there are very few overall Noirs that feature private detectives.

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I tend to think that films noir usually portray protaganists who self-consciously follow a code of behavior (of which fidelity to one's partner in crime or in love is an important element) even as it drives them to their doom in a nihilistic universe.  While this type of plot outline is not a strict requirement, films noir seem to favor this type of modern-day tragic hero (or anti-hero, as the case may be).

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I tend to think that films noir usually portray protaganists who self-consciously follow a code of behavior (of which fidelity to one's partner in crime or in love is an important element) even as it drives them to their doom in a nihilistic universe.  While this type of plot outline is not a strict requirement, films noir seem to favor this type of modern-day tragic hero (or anti-hero, as the case may be).

Robert Wise's "The Set Up" is an interesting case.  It's a terrific film noir without much of the narrative iconography; no detective, no femme fatale, no murder, no real plot "twists" (in my opinion), etc.  On CJ's list, it does have B&W photography, an unhappy(?) ending, and corruption.  Towards PH's list, it does have extreme violence. I don't believe that it nihilistic.

 

It may be the only noir based (however loosely) on a poem.  It certainly reveals a claustrophobic world of flea bag motels, cheap amusements and third rate filthy arenas, in which the "sport" appeals to the basest of human instincts.  The action shot / reaction shot sequence during the boxing match is pure genius.  Who could forget the reactions of the fat man stuffing his face, the blind man having the fight narrated for him, the woman screaming "kill him", or the gangster's wife betting on the outcome?

 

Anyway, great film noir, but few of the "standard" narrative elements.  It makes the argument, at least to me, that the "visual motif" approach has more value in helping to define the style. 

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The thing I've found about film noir, once you think you have it tapped down another film blows that out of the water, like I consider the lost weekend a noir, but no real lady femme fatale. Out of the Past is like the blue print for noir because it has all the elements. Witness for the Prosecution I consider a noir and most of the action is a courtroom, As for motivations, that;s a tricky one too.  I guess that's why film noir is a category of much discussion.

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Would 'True Confessions' (1981) be considered noir? Edit - sorry, didn't realize the thread was about the earlier films. I suppose I should be asking if it resurrects strong noir elements noted in the previous posts here.

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As with any film genre, I feel like there is a solid core of movies that seem to be "obviously" film noir (such as Out of the Past or The Maltese Falcon) and then almost like a set of concentric circles that get further and further from that core as certain movies may contain a handful of "noir" elements but not others.

 

When I think of noir I tend to think of some combination of crime plots (sometimes with a detective investigating, otherwise pretty much contained within the criminals themselves), characters who are blinded by lust/greed/love, chiaroscuro lighting, "I did something wrong . . . once" type plots, and fatalistic overall themes and plot arcs.

 

When defining a genre, I think there's something dangerous in creating a checklist of elements. It's like the way that people have completely lost track of what the Bechdel test is actually supposed to examine (ie whether or not women have a significant role in a narrative independent of their relationship to central male characters) and instead rigidly look only at whether or not movies meet the criteria (even if they meet them in letter but not in spirit).

 

There is no one even remotely approaching a femme fatale in He Walked by Night (mostly because there aren't really any female characters, period), but I wouldn't argue with its classification as film noir.

 

At the right of sounding too wishy-washy, I think that trying to rigidly define genre is an exercise in futility. Art by its very nature will zig-zag--it will respond to what has come before it. It will both borrow and alter.

 

Knowing that a movie is or isn't considered noir shouldn't impact how you feel about it or its worth. I think that the best use of genre definitions (or an inclusive, flexible list of genre elements) is that it lets you look for certain structures and tropes, to see how a movie is either using or reacting to certain expectations. Knowing a movie is considered noir might, for example, make you a lot more suspicious of a potential love interest, or it might make you pay more attention to the camera angles used.

 

(Part of my feelings about this topic--genre definitions--comes from the fact that I'm a huge fan of horror movies. Conversations about certain movies always devolve into debates about genre classification--is a movie really horror? Or is it sci-fi? A thriller? Etc. At a certain point, you aren't even discussing the movie itself, just whether or not it ticks every box on some set of genre expectations. I prefer to think that movies can exist under multiple classifications. Mildred Pierce can be a noir and a drama, for example.)

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I think it's a style combined with a certain type of story line that has people trying to pigeon hole it into a genre.  Now I'm describing both Classic & Neo's below.

 

For me personally, I have what I call tipping points. If the story is extremely hard boiled and no question NOIR-ish, and its visually hitting all the tropes, it's a winner.

 

UNLESS

 

* it's got too much obvious product placement, too screen filled with luxury items (noirs are predominantly about desperate down & outers making bad decisions, I know there are exceptions i.e, Laura)

 

* all the characters are pretty unbelievable in their roles (they got to look as if they've gotten some hard knocks in life, got to be at least over 30 and look it)

 

* it's got machine gun battles, excessive physic deifying car chases, lots of explosions. These tropes tip it too far into the Action Genre, I know it when I see it.

 

-the above are tipping points that take me out of the noir world.

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I know it when I see it.

 

-the above are tipping points that take me out of the noir world.

 

Exactly--and everyone might have a different "tipping point" for what is or isn't noir.

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Exactly--and everyone might have a different "tipping point" for what is or isn't noir.

Exactly, which is why there is always going to be disputes of what is and isn't Noir. I'm willing to cut a lot of slack to Classic Noir, they were the catalyst, a stew of various combos of German expressionist cinematography, obsessive or alienated characters, jazz, intercity/industrial locations juxtaposed occasionally with the anti-city, the tropics or the desert and stories that had to make ends around a production code that sparked creativity. The original creators didn't have a name for it but they had this creative zeitgeist of the times that shaped it.

 

What I don't cut slack for is (noir visual impaired) Neo Noirs

 

There is no Hayes Code now so the stories can be told the way the creators wish. Given that, for me, I now weight the visuals very high (higher that the classics) on my personal Noir-dar scale, the story can be extremely Noir but if there are no decent length interludes of any Noir cinematic style or none what-so-ever then I call them simply Crime films that are NIPOs, noir in plot only.

If all the other constraining factors are now absent then the only link to Classic Noir is the visual style.

 

For example in the Film Noir, The Encyclopedia, 4th edition, they list 150 Neo Noirs, of those, I haven't seen 63 I disagree with 44 of the films listed, here are a few of those entries that has me scratching my head (After Dark My Sweet, Bad Lieutenant, Basic Instinct, Sharkey's Machine, Pretty Poison, Charley Varrick ???, The Driver (1973), Fatale Attraction???, Fight Club???, The Getaway (1972), Miami Vice (2006), Night And The City (1992) The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Witness?????, Sleeping With The Enemy, barest if any Noir Visual Style. They are Crime films.

 

I agree with 43 of those listed, but even a film like The Salton Sea on my agree list, is very high on its Noir visual credentials, but it's story is extremely stupid.

 

The Tashen book Film Noir 100 All Time Favorites has more ridiculous entries i.e. (The Dark Knight), From Sheldon Hall's review "45 of the hundred films selected for the book were made outside that key period. Among the dubiously relevant later titles included are Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and The Passenger (1975), both of which are distinctly lacking in the stylistic and generic qualities associated with classic noir, along with Peeping Tom and Psycho (both 1960), The Getaway (1972) and Black Swan (2010). In casting the net so widely, the editors risk making noir a category so diffuse and nebulous as to be meaningless. Although most of the chosen films deal in some way with crime, virtually anything ‘a bit dark’ could be made to fit into parameters as loose as these. As if to prove the point, a filmography of 1,000 titles includes such unlikely candidates as Metropolis (1927), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Wages of Fear (1953), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), Lethal Weapon (1987), The Matrix (1999) and almost everything by Hitchcock (including the lighter ones). "

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I think we should use the "extreamely violent"  criteria. However, you must take into account the implied violence. A shadow in an alley with a lead pipe hitting someone on the head; the o.s. sound of a gun shot and the fall of a body; a scream and screatching of tires when someone falls (or is pushed) off a roof; etc. These were frightning things in Hayes Code era.

Today however, with no code, we see everything. Most filmmakers assume their audience needs to be spoon fed the visual information.(don't get me started, please!) So you no longer have a crime thriller, you have a gore fest. The psychological thrill is nothing but shock value schtick.

When imagined violence is used, it affects us more. A great example, even though it is not noir, is in Get On Up. The bio-pic of James Brown. In a scene he walks behind a wall in his house and his wife follows. Only a slap is heard and she falls back into view as she hits the ground. If we had seen the slap, the impact would not have been as great.  Same in noir.. fear of what's around the corner or in the shadows can put one on the edge of their seat, and if you live in a world of criminals, it can almost stop your heart.

 

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I think we should use the "extreamely violent"  criteria. However, you must take into account the implied violence. A shadow in an alley with a lead pipe hitting someone on the head; the o.s. sound of a gun shot and the fall of a body; a scream and screatching of tires when someone falls (or is pushed) off a roof; etc. These were frightning things in Hayes Code era.

Today however, with no code, we see everything. Most filmmakers assume their audience needs to be spoon fed the visual information.(don't get me started, please!) So you no longer have a crime thriller, you have a gore fest. The psychological thrill is nothing but shock value schtick.

When imagined violence is used, it affects us more. A great example, even though it is not noir, is in Get On Up. The bio-pic of James Brown. In a scene he walks behind a wall in his house and his wife follows. Only a slap is heard and she falls back into view as she hits the ground. If we had seen the slap, the impact would not have been as great.  Same in noir.. fear of what's around the corner or in the shadows can put one on the edge of their seat, and if you live in a world of criminals, it can almost stop your heart.

 

The pre-code gangster films were a lot more violent than Noir films.   i.e.  pre-code films showed a lot more direct violence (gun battles,  shooting out of cars,  etc..),  while, as you noted,  noir was more about implied violence with the focus more on the pain violence subjected on the victim than the actual act of violence.

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I think there's very few hard and fast rules for what's noir that will work. That's why, in my opinion, the best way to approach the subject of defining 'what is film noir' is weighing factors rather than the typical definition method. So to determine if a film is a noir, one should look at each film and see if it has enough factors with enough heft to be called a noir.

 

I'm not sure how to weight each factor all, but I'd say any list of the factors to be weighed should have some elements of the structural, stylistic, and genre approaches to defining noir.

 

Here's a non-exhuastive list:

 

GENRE things

-unhappy endings (for the main character(s))

-fate

-femme fatale

-morally ambiguous

-murder or threat of murder as a key plot point or intrigue lure

-violent characters

-hard-boiled private eye fiction influence

-involving worlds of crime and/corruption

-wisecracking protagonist who is usually cynical

-romance that is wildly passionate, and typically burns too brightly to last.
-theme of luck or chance (often bad luck mucking up plans. I think of the Killing's ending, in particular, for this one).
-alienated and/or obsessive characters
-sense of doom

 

STYLE

-lots of high contrast cinematography

-actors and settings both receive heavy lighting attention

-frequently shot in B&W

-use of diagonals in composition and photography

-german expressionism influence

-post-war realism

-nighttime settings for scenes

-urban environments

-lots of smoking

-fast paced and clever dialogue

-movie typically has a cynical tone

-stylishly shot "oners" (i.e. long single takes that are visually creative)

-complex narratives

-"suffering with style" 

-use of flashbacks

-use of voiceovers

-heavy tension emphasis, even though there's usually also some physical action (shootings, fist fights, slaps, etc.) the films are more thriller in tone. sound usually plays a key role in setting this tone.

-venetian blinds and shadows from them casting onto the setting and/or characters

 

edit: forgot about music!

-jazz music. often with a strong horn and a sense of either melancholy, depression, wandering, or tension. percusion often comes in to signal strong danger or excitement and the percussion often involves cymbals. 

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