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Arts & Entertainment

Guide to the Film Noir Style: 6 Iconic Film Noirs

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 30, 2020 • 4 min read

With its high-contrast visuals, low-key lighting, and its intricate, crime-centric story plots, film noir has a specific bleak style that make it unique as a filmmaking aesthetic.

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What Is Film Noir?

Film noir, a term coined by French critics, describes the stylish, post-World War II American crime dramas that were pessimistic in outlook and often dealt with corruption and murder. While other films of this time aimed to raise spirits, film noirs were thrillers that cut through postwar disillusionment with a cynical attitude and sharp dialogue.

A Brief History of Film Noir

In many ways, the history of film noir begins with the pulp novels of the 1930s. Fueled by the anxieties of the Great Depression, pulp fiction novelists like Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, 1939), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930), and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, 1943), found success writing hardboiled crime fiction novels. These novels featured antihero detectives entrenched in corruption, danger, and mystery. They were exactly the kind of downbeat melodramas Americans were looking for at the time.

In the wake of World War II, some Hollywood studios determined that American film audiences were drawn to crime dramas, so they had many of these dark crime novels turned into scripts. Noir filmmaking was heavily influenced by German expressionism, French poetic realism, and an art deco style, giving the black and white films noir films of the 1940s and ’50s their own distinct mood, perspective, and tone.

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5 Characteristics of Classic Film Noirs

Film noir covers a wide spectrum of characteristics that define the noir style. Some classic film noir characteristics include:

  1. Cynical male leads: The (typically, though not always, male) protagonists of film noirs are often brooding, fatalistic, or totally disenchanted. They might be drifters, salesmen, professors, or detectives, but they mostly follow their own personal code. Male noir leads are seen as existentialist, unemotional but pragmatic, and sometimes morally ambiguous.
  2. Femme fatales: In addition to its hardened male protagonists, the film noir genre is equally famous for its mysterious female leads. Femme fatales in noir films are shadowy, cunning, and ruthless.
  3. Low-key lighting: Noirs are black and white films that use high contrast for stark, chiaroscuro lighting—which involves hard lights and harsh, deep shadows to create a visually intriguing aesthetic that most mainstream black and white films lacked during the era.
  4. Flashbacks: In film noir, the protagonist often narrates over flashbacks, revealing information to the audience and providing context or perspective. Flashbacks also help ramp up tension and suspense by taking the audience through the events leading up to the movie’s premise, revealing details that are helpful for understanding the plot (since most noirs that have intricate, convoluted storylines).
  5. Dutch angles: A Dutch angle skews the camera to shoot on the diagonal. This particular shot gives viewers an uneasy feeling, implying that something isn’t quite right. This type of camera shot can create a feeling of disorientation, madness, or imbalance. Dutch angles can enhance tension, generate fear, and exacerbate unsteadiness, making them a favorite shot of many noir directors.

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6 Examples of Iconic Film Noirs

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Many film noirs were adapted from pulp fiction books, including:

  1. The Big Sleep (1946): Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel of the same name, this film features Humphrey Bogart as private eye Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as divorcee Vivian Rutledge. Directed by Howard Hawks, this noir film explores murder, blackmail, and deception.
  2. The Maltese Falcon (1941): Based on the novel written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1930, this American film noir was John Huston’s directorial debut. It features Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade, who finds himself immersed in a web of lies a quest for a priceless MacGuffin.
  3. Double Indemnity (1944): James M. Cain’s book, published in 1943, was adapted for the silver screen as a feature-length noir film the following year. Directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, the film centers around insurance fraud, murder, and seduction.
  4. The Woman in the Window (1944): Based on the 1942 J. H. Wallis novel Once Off Guard, this film, directed by Fritz Lang, stars Edward G. Robinson as a professor who murders the lover of a beautiful model and femme fatale, played by Joan Bennett. The characters dispose of the body together but leave a trail of evidence and witnesses behind, leading to a disastrous climax.
  5. Laura (1944): Based on the 1943 novel of the same name by Vera Caspary, this film adaptation, directed by Otto Preminger, is another classic example of film noir. The premise involves mystery, obsession, murder, and deceit—all hallmarks of the noir style.
  6. Touch of Evil (1958): Loosely based on Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil, this noir film was directed and written by Orson Welles, who also co-starred in it. The plot centers around kidnapping, police corruption, and murder in a Mexican border town.

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