Film Noir: Getting Started
As a film buff, I like a lot of different types of movies, but film noir is a genre
I particularly enjoy. I find a lot of people are familiar with the term, having
seen it in a review or movie description, but don't really understand what puts
a film in this category. You'll find various attempts to answer this question,
but here are some of the generally accepted characteristics of the genre. (Many
books have been written on the subject, so this is obviously just a slight overview
of all that could be talked about.)
The term itself was coined by a French cinephile named Nino Frank in 1946. Noir
source material often came out of the hard-boiled novels of writers like Raymond
Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and others. Around the time of World War 2, American
cinema took a definite term towards darker themes and moods. Certainly the
horrors of war may have had something to do with this. Also, many German directors
(Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, etc.) made their escape from Nazi Germany around this
time and brought various influences, especially German Expressionism, to Hollywood.
Hitchcock, a personal favorite of mine, also worked in Berlin during his early career
and picked up some of these same influences.
German Expressionism is characterized by an emphasis on extreme contrast between
light and shadow, as well as creative camera angles not in use in early Hollywood
film making. Some of these techniques were already in use in silent film as
well. Often sparse lighting was used to disguise the cheap or limited sets
available. Citizen Kane, which is arguably not a film noir, is considered a
masterpiece partly because of its influence in lighting and camera work. Sometimes
it is hard to realize today in our world of quick-cuts and Steadicam work how revolutionary
this seemed at the time.
A number of common movie themes first gained popularity in noir, including the "femme
fetale", man on the run (often wrongly accused), the big score gone wrong, double
and triple twisting plots, the gangster trying to go clean, use of flashbacks and
memory devices (including amnesia), the lone-wolf detective, etc. Even today
many commonly used movie themes owe a debt to noir, if not ripping it off entirely
or updating it to modern themes. Psychology also began to play a big part
in later noirs and Hitchcock continued to use this theme throughout his work (almost
all of which contained elements of noir even through later films like Psycho or
I've been trying to develop a DVD collection over the past few years, so I'm including
links to Amazon. If you already have a Netflix subscription and you want to
start exploring film noir, you can click the Netflix link to go directly to the
detail screen for that DVD on Netflix. I've seen most if not all of these.
I'm always open for recommendations, as there are still some highly rated noirs
I haven't seen. There are a number of good noirs that are not yet available
on DVD, so I link to the VHS for now.