Film Noir - Explained

Film Noir - Explained

So, you want to learn about the film noir genre, and sound like a brainy movie buff? Then watch our film noir tribute, and learn everything you need to know about film noir in just two minutes.

Film noir is French for black cinema, and is a genre popularised in Hollywood in the 1940's and 50's, with black & white films like ‘The Maltese Falcon' and ‘Double Indemnity'. Later films, such as ‘Chinatown' in the 70's, are known as neo-noir. And even more recently there have been films like ‘Sin City', which are known as post-modern neo-noir. The style is characterised by dark, expressionistic visuals, with actors faces only lit on one side. The characters tend to smoke a lot, and look very glamorous while doing it.

The main character in film noir is usually a cynical, wise-cracking detective, who wears a trench coat and fedora hat. He's a bit of a loner, and likes to drown his sorrows. He lacks some of the heroic qualities of a traditional square-jawed leading man, so he's often referred to as an anti-hero.

The female lead is known as a femme fatale, and is an enigmatic beauty, who may or may not turn out to be a devious back-stabber. With her seductive charms she lures the private eye into the dark world of the noir story.

Then of course there's the villain, a shadowy underworld crime figure who's up to all sorts of dastardly deeds. But who's really the villain in this story? The key thing to remember with film noir is that any of the characters can reveal a dark and corrupt side. Or even a soft, merciful side. Moral ambiguity abounds.

You also need to know that films noir usually contain a MacGuffin, which is an object that everyone in the film is trying to get hold of, such as diamonds, or a roll of film used for blackmail. It doesn't matter what the MacGuffin is, as it's only purpose is to drive the plot forwards, and make the characters act in increasingly desperate ways. In film noir, everyone is double-crossing and triple-crossing each other, and the plots can be very confusing. Even Raymond Chandler, writer of the ‘The Big Sleep', is quoted as saying he did not know who the murderer was in his own story.

If you really want to impress your friends, say that you think a clear line can be drawn between the moral corruption in films noir, and the bleakness of World War II and the Great Depression. Or say that the frankness in the neo-noir films of today undercuts the tension of the original noirs made in the more conservative 1940's.