What is Film Noir

There are as many definitions of film noir as there are fans. Most any avid fan of these seedy, atmospheric films have a different notion as to what makes them great, what makes them come together as a group. However, there are some common threads and a certain essence that helps to make a movie a film noir.

The first thing you should know about film noir is that none of the filmmakers during its heyday (1940’s, 1950’s) knew that they where making films in the film noir genre. They were simply making, at least most of them, what were known at the time as B movies. The budgets were small and the filming time was short. One of the classic components of film noir, the darkness and shadow, is a result of the lack of a big budget. The darkness, at least in one sense, was used to cover up what were lackluster sets.

Being a B film meant the filmmakers were not under that same executive scrutiny as an A film. This was the ultimate saving grace for film noir, as it allowed the writers, directors and actors to experiment and to tackle topics that an A film simply could not. They were able to push the envelope and thus film noir’s are much “edgier” than other films of the day.

Many associated film noir with private detectives and murder cases, and while these where prevalent, there were plenty of other story lines within what can be considered film noir. Film noir was influenced greatly by WWII, Freud’s psychology, German expressionism, and existentialism. The anti-hero was the king of film noir and separated these films from the other films of the time. Man and woman’s place in the universe and the troubled hero formed the backbone of these films. The good guy did not always win; the good guy did not always live. The good guy was not always a good guy.

To me film noir is Robert Mitchum, Bogart, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Claire Trevor and Gloria Graham. It is Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, and Orson Welles. It takes me back to a part of history long before I was thought of, a foreign world that seems so real and so alien at the same time. It is old cars, the big city, small towns outside the big city, dames pulling out a pistol and not afraid to use it. It is also those who filled the smaller, but no less important roles, like Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., Esther Howard and Thelma Ritter. It is films that I can truly escape into but also learn a little from and be inspired by.

You could search for an exact definition of film noir and you will find plenty, but they will tell you nothing. To understand what film noir is you have to watch and watch and watch. You will then have your own definition and that is when you know that you understand what is film noir.

1 Comment

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