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Film Noir
by Eddie Muller
What is film noir anyway?

Film Noir is the flip side of the all-American success story. It's about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave. So they cross the line, commit a crime and reap the consequences. Or, they're tales about seemingly innocent people tortured by paranoia and ass-kicked by Fate. Either way, they depict a world that's merciless and unforgiving.

Linda Darnell, Percy Kilbride and Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel (1945).

Back in the post-WWII Hollywood era that spawned most films noir, these movies were called either Crime Thrillers or Murder Dramas. By and large, Crime Thrillers were movies about professional crooks - pictures such as Kiss of Death, T-Men, Cry of the City, The Asphalt Jungle. Murder Dramas involved desperate acts committed by amateurs: Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Criss Cross, Side Street, literally hundreds more. Tales of people bumping off their spouses, stealing the company payroll, blowing everything for that hot trick at the end of the bar. Thematically, noir is about the swampy dark place in the soul where crime ferments.

It's about what people want, how badly they want it and how far they'll go to get it.

Of course, that's looking at it from a writer's perspective. For many movie-lovers, noir is all about style: kanted camera angles, dense shadows, a romantic, doom-laden atmosphere, always in shimmering, high-contrast black and white. In truth, that's what most people think of as NOIR - rain-slick streets, guys in fedoras, dames in slinky gowns slipping into glistening Packards. It's a great look, and we'll never see it again. If that's what you love about noir, stick with the classics.

Where did the whole noir ethos originate?

Noir's roots can be traced to American pulp literature and German cinema in the years immediately preceding the Great Depression and the Third Reich's rise to power. It's as if American tough guy writers were pre-destined to fall under the spell of a world-weary Teutonic femme fatale.

American writers, inspired by Hemingway's modern, masculine pacing and vernacular speech, started churning out crime stories that reflected the fear and anxiety of rampant urban expansion and corruption in America. "Hardboiled" fiction was born in the pages of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, W.R. Burnett and many others. Simultaneously, in Europe's most prolific and creative film studio, Berlin's Ufa, a whole generation of cinematic geniuses (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Curtis Bernhardt - the list is mind-boggling) were being trained in a highly stylized, overtly theatrical form of storytelling, dubbed "expressionism," that stressed an almost baroque artifice and heightened theatricality in filmed narratives. Many scholars feel that Expressionism was a direct artistic response to Germany's dire post-WWI economic situation, which led to the rise of the Nazis.

In early 1940s Hollywood the influence of these American writers began combining with the storytelling style of these German emigrés - and what we now know as "film noir" was born - at precisely the same time American and German soldiers were killing each other. Once the smoke cleared, the French got in the act by bestowing the name, after some savvy Gallic critics noticed a revelatory change in the Hollywood product being shipped overseas once the embargo on US films had been lifted. Give critic Nino Frank credit for coining "film noir," as early as 1946. Trust me, no one in 1940s Hollywood thought they were making films noir.

When did these films reach their peak?

The pivotal year in its development was 1944, which saw the release of five significant films: Double Indemnity, Laura, Woman in the Window, Phantom Lady, and Murder My Sweet. The first four were directed by Ufa "graduates" (Wilder, Preminger, Lang, and Siodmak, respectively). The latter was directed by Canadian Edward Dmytryk, whose head was swimming with the influence of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, a significant noir precursor). Most importantly, they all made money, the prerequisite for any Hollywood "trend."

Three vital areas of influence: 1) All five films were about murder, presented with a much more daring and perverse tone than any previous films about the subject. Double Indemnity was particularly influential, presenting protagonists who were immoral and unredeemed - a benchmark in Hollywood history. 2) The writing was exceptionally witty, especially in Laura, Double Indemnity and Murder My Sweet (Chandler being involved in those last two). It showed that mordant humor was especially potent when mixed with the darkest aspects of human nature. Dozens of screenwriters were inspired to follow suit. 3) All the films shared a dramatic, brooding style of cinematography that turned the city into a starkly lighted stage set. The look would pervade crime thrillers for the next half dozen years.

Noir reached its cinematic zenith in 1949-50, when America's movie screens were inundated with dark, urban thrillers. So many, in fact, that theater owners in the hinterlands complained that the black tide had to be stemmed, because Hollywood's depiction of American cities was frightening off Middle America's moviegoers.

Why did noir rise and crest in that particular span?

Many, many reasons. The floodgates cracked open once Double Indemnity showed that a film about murderers could be nominated for seven Academy Awards and reap a huge return at the box office. Producers realized that these films could be made more cheaply because the look was dramatic but minimalist, the camerawork hiding the paucity of production values, especially in the "B" variations on noir. Politically conscious screenwriters knew they could slide social criticism into crime pictures fairly easily, since the studio bosses cared less about genre pictures. Hollywood was situated in the heart of a city with no shortage of glamour, venality and corruption - very inspiring to artists with a criminal bent. The newspapers of the day contained endless fodder for noir dramas. (In a weird twist, notable Hollywood crime writers of the day were solicited by the daily papers to conjure solutions to the Black Dahlia murder.) Starting in 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities launched an all-out campaign against communists (and Jews) in Hollywood, fomenting a climate of paranoia reflected in much film noir. So a better question might be: how could film noir not have flourished during that time?

Who were the primary practitioners?

I cite Robert Siodmak as the most prolific, as well as the most stylistically and thematically noirish director of them all. He made ten noirs in five years, all good, some incredible. Fritz Lang, of course, had a real feel for it, although, with the exception of Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, I think his Hollywood noirs are a bit overrated. Anthony Mann's major noirs (Desperate, T-Men, Raw Deal, Border Incident, Side Street, parts of He Walked by Night) are, as a body of work, better than Lang's. Of course, he had John Alton as his cameraman on most of those. Alton is the ace noir lensman, bar none. Jules Dassin's three-year run from '47 to '50 was pretty impressive: Brute Force, Naked City, Thieves' Highway, Night and the City. John Farrow is a director whose noir credentials are too often overlooked (Calcutta, The Big Clock, Night Has 1000 Eyes, Alias Nick Beal, Where Danger Lives, His Kind of Woman). And Robert Wise - the last guy you'd associate with the dark side of life - made three of the best films noir ever: Born to Kill, The Set-Up and Odds Against Tomorrow.

Practically every director took a crack at a crime thriller during the postwar period, and some of these "one-shots" were terrific: Edmund Goulding's adaptation of Nightmare Alley, Frank Borzage's Moonrise, Lewis Milestone's Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence - all top-shelf pictures made by directors never associated with film noir. It shows how pervasive the style was at that time.

So is noir a genre or a style?

Depends on your own philosophy. If you think movies are defined by their themes, then you probably think of noir as a genre. If you define films by their visual look and tone, then to you noir is definitely a style. Here's my take: If a private eye is hired by an old geezer to prove his wife's cheating on him and the shamus discovers long-buried family secrets and solves a couple of murders before returning to his lonely office - that's detective fiction. If the same private eye gets seduced by the geezer's wife, kills the old coot for her, gets double-crossed by his lover and ends up shot to death by his old partner from the police force - I can say with complete assurance: you are wallowing in NOIR.

Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946).

Are most noir films "B" movies?

That's a misconception. There were plenty of short, bare-bones "B" crime thrillers made during the 40s, but not many of them packed the noir pedigree of "A" productions like Double Indemnity, The Killers, Kiss of Death, Out of the Past or The Asphalt Jungle. Those are films that set the era's artistic agenda for cinematic crime - the "B" pictures from the majors, and the stuff from Monogram and PRC and Eagle-Lion studios, mainly copied what the "A" films did successfully. While I sincerely believe that noir was the only truly organic artistic movement in Hollywood's classic period, I'm just as sure that economics played an equal part in that movement. Audiences were captivated (for a while) by this nasty new type of adult fare, and producers appreciated that these movies didn't cost nearly as much to produce. Hence, an avalanche of these movies. The movement finally played itself out in terms of box office but the allure has proven to be timeless.

So noir ended because people stopped paying to see it?

Noir didn't really end. It moved to television. In the 50s, Hollywood had to re-gear itself to fight the onslaught of television. To lure people to theaters, studios had to show them things they couldn't see at home. That meant color, widescreen, hordes of swarming extras - stuff that is the antithesis of noir. But many of the same writers, directors, actors and performers who gave life to noir on the big screen moved to television. There's a gold mine of 1950s TV noir waiting to be rediscovered and put on DVD.

Which actors are synonymous with film noir?

Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, John Garfield, Richard Widmark, Richard Conte - Bogart, of course. On the distaff side, there's Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Marie Windsor, Audrey Totter, Claire Trevor, Gloria Grahame, Lizabeth Scott. Noir isn't the only thing these actors did, of course - it's just that they seem so perfectly suited to that Dark City atmosphere.

Can new movies realistically be considered film noir?

Once you accept Chinatown as the ultimate noir detective story, the argument is pretty moot. Recent films such as Bound, L.A. Confidential, Memento, Insomnia, The Grifters, The Man Who Wasn't There - not to mention the whole straight-to-video "erotic thriller" subgenre that owes so much to James M. Cain - all of it fits in the noir chronology. A couple of good recent films that have been unfortunately overlooked are Arlington Road and The Yards, both very dark. They seemed genuine extensions of classic noir, adapted to a contemporary milieu. I thought Arlington Road, in particular, was timely and timeless, an insightful thriller that didn't cop out at the end. I wonder if our newfound obsession with Homeland Security will spark a new wave of noir, the way HUAC did in the late forties.

Eddie Muller is the author of three acclaimed books on film noir: Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir; Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir, and The Art of Noir: Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir. He also writes a series of crime novels featuring sportswriter Billy Nichols, the first of which, The Distance, was nominated for multiple mystery writing awards. Muller is the programmer and host of annual film noir festivals at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. He is also co-writer and co-producer of the digital documentary Mau Mau Sex Sex, inspired by his book Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of Adults Only Cinema.

GreenCine Recommends...

Now Eddie's got me in the mood for more rain-slick streets, fast-talking thugs and double-crossing dames. Any other titles you can recommend he hasn't mentioned yet?

You bet. Roughly divvied up into two categories...

Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep.

Classic Noir

  • Like Eddie says, "Bogart, of course." It may be stating the obvious, but there's hardly a noir syllabus around that doesn't begin with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), and there are certainly noir-ish stylistic elements to Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942). Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946) is a virtual orgy of noir atmo made all the more fun to wallow in by the fact that the story simply does not add up. Key Largo (1948) deserves an honorable mention. Stray a bit off the well-beaten path then with John Cromwell's Dead Reckoning (1947) and Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950).

  • Dmytryk wasn't the only director taken by the noir-ish passages in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). Carol Reed cast Welles in his political thriller set in Vienna, The Third Man (1949), a year after Welles himself pulled out all the stylistic stops in The Lady From Shanghai (1948). But for sheer noir excess, it's hard to beat Touch of Evil (1958).

  • Alfred Hitchcock was not a straight-up noir director, but it'd be a shame not to explore the overlap between the genre-slash-style and his work, particularly in the 40s and 50s. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), definitely, and to an extent, Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), though to what extent is marvellous fodder for a post-screening argument.

  • Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (1953) has been called the only true noir directed by a woman, but those who make that claim probably also mean to include the provision "during the classic noir period." Regardless, the heroine of American independent cinema proclaimed it her best film and few would argue.

  • For connoisseurs of low-budget thrills, it rarely gets better than Edgar Ulmer's Detour (1945) or Joseph Lewis's The Big Combo (1955).

  • Though it was shot in Paris by an American, Frank Tuttle, Gunman in the Streets (1950) is a rare example of what some call "Euro Noir," of which there isn't just a whole lot on DVD - with the occasional exception made for Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville.

  • The femme fatale, who plays such a vital role in many of the titles already mentioned, probably deserves a list all her own, but right at the top would be Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946).

  • And finally, two classics in a class all their own: Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945), which scored Joan Crawford her only, but mightily deserved Oscar, and Charles Laughton's now legendary The Night of the Hunter (1955; and for more on that one, see peterme's sharp and enthusiastic appreciation).


    Eddie's named nine of the best, no doubt about it, but for the sake of further exploration, let's add a few titles representative of the various ways filmmakers have tipped their hats to the noir classics:

  • Their elevation to the status of "classics" in the first place can be credited in good part to the critics and filmmakers of what would become known as the French New Wave. You'll find homages to noir, at times more thematic than stylistic, in François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1959) and Alphaville (1965).

  • Back in the US, many of the now celebrated renegade filmmakers of the 70s grew up watching noir classics and showed it at times - note the hard-boiled narration and the fog rising from the mean streets of New York City in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), for example, or Robert Altman's resurrection of Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973).

    Tilda Swinton in The Deep End.

  • Were enough of it on DVD, noir on television could probably warrant a primer all its own. As Eddie writes, that's pretty much where it went after it faded from the silver screen. But special mention should be made of the 1986 series playwright and novelist Dennis Potter wrote for the BBC, The Singing Detective. Potter incorporates elements of his own autobiography into the tale of Philip E. Marlow, a writer of pulp detective novels who hallucinates himself from his hospital bed into his own tales.

  • American independent filmmakers have also tried their hands at noir, and probably the most intriguing examples are Scott McGehee and David Siegel's Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2001); the Coen brothers' Blood Simple (1984) and, as Eddie mentioned, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001); and the film and television work of David Lynch, who has taken selected noir conventions and cranked up the atmo, most notably with Twin Peaks (1990), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001).

  • The femme fatale, too, has been revived to varying degrees of success in films such as Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981), Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992) and John Dahl's The Last Seduction (1995).

  • In a category all its own would be Bryan Singer's critical and popular favorite, The Usual Suspects (1995).

  • Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) is surely the most prominent example of the "sci-fi noir" subset, which would include Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (1995) and Alex Proyas's Dark City (1998).

  • And then, along that line, but pushing it much further, there's the remarkable work being done in anime. "Dark City" could, in fact, describe a whole subgenre of anime that owes as much to noir for its look as it does to cyberpunk for its theme: Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988) and Mamoru Oshii's Patlabor 1 (1995) leap to mind. Other notable noir anime would also include Shinichiro Watanabe's contribution to the Animatrix collection, "A Detective Story," as well as The Big O and Nightwalker.

    Suggestions for further clicking

    Here at GreenCine, you can, of course, head straight for the Film Noir genre category, or, for more hand-selected offerings, SRhodes has two useful lists: Classic film noir and Modern film noir.

    Images Journal focuses on 10 Shades of Noir and runs an interview with Billy Wilder and one with Samuel Fuller, both taken from the Film Noir Reader.

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