Perhaps no single stylistic visual element of film noir is more pervasive than that of chiaroscuro lighting. Chiaroscuro lighting is an artistic term dating back to the Renaissance that is noted by the contrast between dark and light. It is often times used in a bold manner so that it has a noticeable and dramatic effect on the entire composition of a work.
When people talk of the shadows and strange lighting of film noir, it is usually chiaroscuro lighting they are noticing. A dark room with streetlights bisecting a criminal as the light flows through partially opened blinds is a common film noir scene. Cinematographers used low-key lighting to get this effect because of its ability to show distinctness between light and dark areas.
One of the reasons many of the films of the 1940’s and 50’s have the “look” that came to be known as noir is due to small budgets. A cheap set looks much better when draped in darkness and shadow. When directors and cinematographers wanted to highlight something, they would simply spray the light specifically where they wanted, thus creating distinct contrasts.
The examples of chiaroscuro lighting in film noir are virtually endless. You can watch any of these great, old films and see one example after another. It is this type of lighting that adds to the beauty, suspense, and surreal nature of these visually stunning films. You can find chiaroscuro lighting in varying degrees in today’s films, but nothing like what existed during the film noir heyday of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Chiaroscuro lighting has a much greater effect on a black and white film and loses much of its effect if used in a color picture.
Chiaroscuro lighting, being combined with the other elements of noir, such as existentialism, fatalism, the dark city and the most catastrophic war of all time hanging over everyone’s head, helps to increase the drama and the reach of these films even today.
Notice how the light coming in from the window brightens only the face of Jane Greer and partially that of Robert Mitchum. The rest of the room is dark and the contrast is high between Greer’s face and everything else in the shot.