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FILM NOIR CLUB: What Makes a Movie a Film Noir

What Makes a Movie a Film Noir

Film noir is not a genre.  It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film “noir” as opposed to the possible variants of film gray or film off-white.

Film noir is also a specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave. In general, film noir refers to those Hollywood films of the forties and early fifties which portrayed the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption.  Film noir can stretch at its outer limits from the “Maltese Falcon” (1941) to “Touch of Evil” (1958) and most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements. 

Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir. Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?  

There were four conditions in Hollywood in the forties which brought about the film noir:

  • War and postwar disillusionment, which was, in fact, a delayed reaction to the thirties. All through the Depression, movies were needed to keep people’s spirits up, and for the most part, they did.  Toward the end of the thirties, a darker crime film began to appear (“You Only Live Once,” “The Roaring Twenties” and, were it not for the War, film noir would have been at full steam by the early forties.

  • Postwar realism: shortly after the War, every film-producing country had a resurgence of realism. The postwar realistic trend succeeded in breaking film noir away from the domain of the high-class melodrama, placing it where it more properly belonged, in the streets with everyday people.

  • The German Expressionism influence, seen in highly stylized visuals, atmospheric lighting and harsh contrasts between dark and light, became dominant in film noir.

  • The Hardboiled tradition.  The hardboiled writers had a style made to order for film noir and in turn they influenced noir screenwriting as much as the German expressionist influenced noir cinematography.  Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.


  Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Elisha Cook (Wilmer Cook) in The Maltese Falcon 

  (John Huston: USA 1941)
  Elisha Cook: "Keep on riding me and they’re going to be picking iron out of your liver."
  Sam Spade: "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) to Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) in "In a Lonely Place" (Nicholas Ray: USA 1950).

"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me".