The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
“The Americans made [film noir] and then the French invented it.”
In a world of uncertainty, where the lines between good and bad are routinely blurred and peril lurks behind every hesitant corner, film noir had—and still has—a spellbinding way of cutting through the banalities of ordinary existence. Noir tarnishes the superficial sheen of domestic stability, peace and prosperity, and the naïve, sanguine euphoria of one’s best-laid plans. It revels in a realm of desperation, despair, and dread, leading audiences down long, lonely streets and engineering an entertaining and engaging descent into humanity’s dark side.
While there remains some question about what defines film noir, and even more debate concerning whether or not the form is a genre or a movement (or something of the two or something else altogether), there is a general consensus about its origins. Translated as “black film” or “dark film,” the phrase “film noir” was first used by Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank in 1946. It was a retroactive designation, submitted only after many emblematic titles had already been released, and it took time before the term was accepted and widely applied as a matter of popular and critical discourse. The expression as it became most famously directed, as suggested in the above quote from writer Marc Vernet, arose as French audiences enjoyed the onslaught of backlogged American movies previously withheld during World War II. Viewers were struck by the sinister assessment of America expressed on screen, and this, coupled with certain innate social traits of the time, spurred unique interpretations of what was being depicted. As author Mark Bould points out, quoting film noir scholar James Naremore, “the growing Americanism in postwar French culture and nostalgia for their pre-war cinema predisposed the French to discover or invent American film noir, and because of their affiliations with either surrealism or existentialism these early critics constructed it in particular ways.”
The trend was eventually picked up in America, as others recognized a singular form of cinema with distinctive subject matter and a style that was often intoxicating and brutal. But was it a whole new genre, or something fleeting, something purely of its time? Textbooks have grappled with this compound classification, including in their historical analysis films that pre-date the classic period of film noir but evince many of its fundamental features, “proto-noirs” like City Streets (1931) and You Only Live Once (1937). Furthermore, what Vernet and others perceived in these American productions had its roots in French cinema, particularly works of poetic realism, which likewise told stories occupied by doomed characters, moody atmospheres, and a rather bleak worldview. There was also an indebtedness to German Expressionism, an artistic movement that transferred seamlessly to cinema—and to noir films especially—displaying a penchant for discriminating illumination and psychological density. Then there was the influence of 1940s Italian neorealism, with its documentary-like presentation of life on the streets, an aspect of film noir perhaps best evinced in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). Away from the cinema, film noir as a phrase and style derived from American hardboiled crime fiction, written during the Great Depression by authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain, all of whom would have their work translated years later into model film noir features: The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Glass Key (1942), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), to name a few.
One picture commonly cited as the first “true” film noir is Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), produced at RKO and directed by Boris Ingster. More popularly, though, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, actually the second film adaptation of Hammett’s 1929 book, is held as a standard-bearer for later noir films, with its sarcasm, its air of opaque mystery, and with Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade. From there, however, it gets more complicated. Canonizing the classics of film noir in 1955, authors Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified 22 Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1952 as essential examples, while decades later, in subsequent studies, this number grew to nearly three hundred films released from 1940 to 1958. Film noir, at least in its later examination, was thus in constant flux, identified more by temperament and form than by the strictures typically used to identify a genre. Paul Schrader, who would employ various noir characteristics in his own films as writer (Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1976) and director (American Gigolo, 1980), argues film noir is not a genre because it is “not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict but rather by more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” It is also distinguished, he adds, by “a specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave.”
Although a definitive classification is variable, the customary features of film noir are generally more apparent. These are films which, to varying degrees, often deal with issues of sadistic violence, neurosis, and a deep-seated sense of ambiguity, conveyed in a way that is pessimistic yet enticing. Film noir frequently involves an ordinary “everyman” who succumbs to temptation or simple happenstance, a seemingly inevitable outcome in a world of menace, anxiety, suspicion, and futility. Marked by this patent fatalism, film noir delivers a sense of entrapment, as jaded protagonists become caught in a sometimes-convoluted web of conspiracy and scandal. In noir there are broad character types, usually male and embodied by actors such as Bogart, Robert Ryan, and Richard Widmark: private investigators, police officers, prizefighters, newspaper reporters, and swindlers. These are flawed, sometimes morally dubious antiheroes suffering a penetrating feeling of alienation and habitually donning fedoras, ties, and trench coats, three of noir’s many iconic signifiers. And more often than not, these men are confronted by the ostensibly dishonorable femme fatale, characters realized by the likes of Veronica Lake and Joan Bennett, women who used their feminine wiles and sexual allure to manipulate weak-willed men and hasten all manner of betrayal and duplicity. While noir could take such characterizations to the generalized extreme, there was something of a real-world impetus for such types, as men were returning home from war disillusioned and confused, feeling out of place in a world that had changed without them, while the women, now used to necessary independence and authority, held sway over their own livelihood. There was, therefore, a conjoined existential crisis, motivated by anguish, compulsion, obsession, and a pervasive vulnerability evolving from the prospect that anyone could fall victim to anything at any time.
Film noir is also defined by bold experimentation in terms of both storytelling and visual inventiveness. Noir storylines were often elliptical, their non-linear structures twisting and turning and often initiated by foreboding flashbacks or punctuated by caustic dialogue and brooding voice-over narration. Many relied heavily on the subjective, sometimes quirky rendering of the protagonist’s perspective; in Lady in the Lake (1947), star/director Robert Montgomery shoots the film from the point of view of its central detective, and in films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and D.O.A. (1949), the narratives are told by murdered men. The noir landscape, though frequently confined to urban settings in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, could also shift into rural and suburban surroundings, which only served to accentuate the notion of inescapability. And into the 1950s, a broader, universal sense of danger reflected the Cold War tensions of the time, in films like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Pickup on South Street (1953). Stylistically, film noir boasted a conspicuous use of low- and wide-angle shots, skewed vantage points, reflective surfaces like mirrors or wet asphalt, and low-key, chiaroscuro lighting scattered by the shadows of Venetian blinds, mingled with swirling cigarette smoke, or pulsating with the glow of neon lights. Set in bars, seedy hotel rooms, and low-rent apartments, noir expressed a severely claustrophobic mise en scène.
That many films noir were considered B-movies was significant, as lower budgets equaled lower risks and more opportunity to creatively commission technological developments like synchronized sound, mobile lighting equipment, and cheaper black and white film stock increasingly sensitive to light (essential for noir’s nighttime shoots). A comparably moderate status within the industry, in terms of studio prestige and resulting box office obligation, also allowed for the integration of controversial content, subverting or at least challenging the Motion Picture Production Code’s censure of sex and violence and general morality. Indeed, many of America’s greatest directors were attracted to film noir for these very reasons. While some were assigned to the various projects and others actively sought out the material, among those lending their talents to the form and elevating its potential were Otto Preminger (Laura, 1944), Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night, 1948), Henry Hathaway (The Dark Corner, 1946) Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, 1950), John Farrow (The Big Clock, 1948), and Anthony Mann (T-Men, 1947, and Raw Deal, 1948), whose noir work benefited greatly from the prototypical imagery of cinematographer John Alton.
The influence of film noir expanded far and wide, both during its heyday and in the years and decades that followed. This included, not surprisingly, French productions from directors such as Henri-Georges Clouzot, François Truffaut, and Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa (Stray Dog, 1949), and British filmmakers like Carol Reed, whose The Third Man (1949) starred Orson Welles, writer, director, and star of Citizen Kane (1941), a film that had integrated a number of noir’s peculiar qualities. Diverse genres also began assimilating traditional noir elements, from melodramas like Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and westerns like the string of pictures Mann made with James Stewart in the 1950s, to sci-fi “tech-noirs” like Blade Runner (1982). So-called “neo-noirs” also emerged in subsequent years, self-consciously alluding to traditional noir devices and amplifying the content and tone (Point Blank, 1967;The Long Goodbye, 1973; Body Heat, 1981). Meanwhile, films like Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997) kept intact the traditional era and milieu of film noir, while Fargo (1996) renewed the noir in terms of time period (present-day) and setting (frigid and snow-covered).
“Film noir,” writes Bould, “like the femme fatal, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always just out of reach.” A comprehensive style, a precise genre, or a contained spatiotemporal movement: whatever film noir is, it remains one of the most enduring forms of American cinema. Simply put by André De Toth, director of Pitfall (1948) and Crime Wave (1954), “film noir is reality.”
- Double Indemnity (1944): Billy Wilder had never heard the term “film noir” when he set off to make one of the form’s indispensable entries. Written with Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain, the basic noir credentials of Double Indemnity were certainly in place, but with ominous music by Miklós Rózsa, piercing cinematography by John Seitz, and shockingly sharp dialogue, this Paramount release proved exceptional. Exemplifying Wilder’s trademark cynicism, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are superbly suited to this tale of murder and seemingly unending scheming. It’s an acerbic portrayal of Americana and a scathing rebuke of hallowed institutions, told with wit and beguiling irony and receiving six Academy Award nominations in the process.
- Detour (1945): “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” This line from Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour could be the defining quote of film noir. Working on this “Poverty Row” production, Ulmer and his team overcome budgetary restraints by conceiving a variety of inspired artistic and narrative flourishes, resourcefully bolstering this unexpectedly efficient tale of one man’s luck going from better to bad to worse. Written by Martin Goldsmith, based on his 1939 novel of the same name, the nihilistic outlook of the picture is persuasive and powerful, which is why, according to critic Will Johnson, Detour is such a noir masterpiece: “The losers of the world can only aspire to greatness, or, at the least, great action, when their backs are against the wall.”
- The Killers (1946): Described by Bould as “a virtual inventory of film noir’s low-key expressionist cinematography [and] a compendium of film noir plots,” The Killers was based on a 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, who considered the film the only good adaptation of his work. But Hemingway’s story was just a jumping off point for this cool and enigmatic feature penned in part by an uncredited John Huston and starring Burt Lancaster (his debut), Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien. Directed by the German Robert Siodmak, The Killers typifies the visual and thematic sensibilities he and his fellow countrymen, like Fritz Lang, repeatedly used to embolden a burgeoning American form of cinematic drama.
- Out of the Past (1947): Aside from incorporating several of the same stylistic touches that singularized his horror films (horror being another genre with a patent influence on film noir), director Jacques Tourneur likewise infuses Out of the Past with a number of noir’s archetypal attributes: starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer, the film revolves around the entwined relationship between a sarcastic private detective, a calculating gangster, and a deceitful femme fatale, all told via manifold flashbacks and voiceover narration. Written by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his novel “Build My Gallows High” (both using his pseudonym Geoffrey Homes), this RKO picture validates noir’s interest in those who face an inexorable past and are left to reckon with prior deeds that will forever haunt their lives.
- Touch of Evil (1958): Commonly considered the last release of film noir’s classic period, Touch of Evil is an overtly stylized adaptation of Whit Masterson’s 1956 novel “Badge of Evil.” Beginning with a jaw dropping opening shot, director Orson Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty exult in noir’s capacity for formal embellishment, shooting in Venice, California as a double for the sordid Mexican town of Los Robles. Cast here alongside Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and Marlene Dietrich, Welles had dabbled in noir before with The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), but with Touch of Evil, although the film was marred by controversial post-production wrangling, he crafts an remarkably audacious and mesmerizing account of racism, sexual deviation, drug abuse, and rampant corruption.
- “Film Noir: A Study in Narrative Openings,” by Donato Totaro: Donato Totaro, editor of the online film journal Offscreen, presents an extraordinarily systematic analysis of how multiple films noir engage attention-grabbing opening sequences to hook the viewer and establish central themes and motifs. His aim “is not only to contextualize film noir but to add insight into its aesthetic by approaching film noir in a new and (hopefully) illuminating way,” which he surely does. In his breakdown of multiple illustrative specimens, Totaro concludes that “although there are many repeating formal and thematic gestures one can outline across these film noir openings, one thing this analysis bears out is that the emphatic openings discussed are as varied in style as the films themselves.”
- The Film Noir Foundation: The Film Noir Foundation is a self-described “non-profit public benefit corporation created as an educational resource regarding the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an international cinematic movement.” As such, its website is a rich assembly of information concerning noir news and information. Of particular note is The Film Noir Foundation’s dedication to preserving classic examples of the form, many of which are listed on the site and are shown at repertory cinemas “still eager to screen these films in 35mm.”
- Classic Noir: The Hardboiled World of Film Noir & American Film Noir: These are two of the most extensive noir resources available online. Highlighting Classic Noir is its collection of essays on the subject, with topics ranging from the impact on noir of the Hollywood blacklist, to reviews of specific films and surveys of popular noir directors and stars like Michael Curtiz and Mary Astor. American Film Noir has separate categories covering femme fatales, the role of Los Angeles as a staple noir backdrop, and a look at some of film noir’s more questionable entries: “During the film noir era there was no shortage of people wanting to take advantage of the new economics of film making. … [and] this spawned a collection of some real stinkers, many under the guise of noir. Besides getting a laugh, these films remind us to appreciate the merits of real noir.”
- More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, by James Naremore: There are many excellent books about film noir, with much left still to be written, but James Naremore’s 1998 study is among the very best of existing works. As described on goodreads.com, “This wide-ranging cultural history offers an original approach to the subject, as well as new production information and commentary on scores of films. …” At the same time, Naremore “discusses film noir as a term in criticism; as an expression of artistic modernism; as a symptom of Hollywood censorship and politics in the 40s; as a market strategy; as an evolving style; as a cinema about race and nationality and as an idea that circulates across all information technologies.”
- Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir; Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir; The Art of Noir, by Eddie Muller: Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir,” has done as much as anyone to heighten the awareness and appreciation of film noir, and his books on the topic are absorbing and enlightening works of passionate scholarship. As described by author Jake Hinkson, writing at criminalelement.com, “Dark City” is “the single best introduction to film noir you’ll find,” while “Dark City Dames” “examines the life stories of six noir goddesses—Evelyn Keyes, Marie Windsor, Ann Savage, Coleen Gray, Audrey Totter, and Jane Greer,” and “The Art of Noir” is a collection of the “often gorgeous (as well as the sometimes ridiculous, and occasionally shocking) posters and graphics from the classic era of noir.”