What is film noir and how can you use its legendary cinematic tropes in your next production? Let's take a little trip through the history of noir.
As for the distinctive look of the film, the tough black and white silhouettes of Film Noir are one of the most iconic and iconic in film history. And surprisingly, this isn't just a sophisticated film school slang – this style and look can be found and referenced in everything from Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple to animated features like Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
But what is film noir? Where does it come from? And most importantly, how can you use the basic elements in your current film and video projects? Let's delve into the history of film noir, examine some of its tenets, and explain how you can use the genre's traps to shape your film narrations and video projects today.
What is film noir?
By definition, film noir is a cinematic term for a specific style of film that was produced in Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. These noir films were mostly detective and crime stories, which were characterized by their strong contrast and their harsh lighting style and at the same time contained the characteristics of crime novels from the time of the Great Depression. These early noir films were very popular at the time, and some of the genre's iconic characters and storylines still influence cinema today.
Some classic film noir examples include John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), and Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946), although these directors (and many others) offer a lot more) from that early period.
Now let's switch to Genre Theory mode to better understand all things film noir. (Want to catch up on genre theory to better understand how classic movie styles have evolved over the years? We have you with us.)
Characters and plot
So a lot of what makes a film noir a film noir has to do with the characters and the plot. Yes, there is the visual appearance and aesthetic (which we will get into later), but if you really want to capture that film noir-esque story for your projects, you should start with the most basic parts of film noir.
At the center of every story is a kind of world-weary detective. Those private eyes are an integral part of the die-hard crime stories that define the standard film noir plot. And most of the time the main focus of the conflict is presented in the imagination of a woman who has to solve a case.
These two characters make up the majority of the Film Noir storylines and often involve a romantic entanglement, along with the now recognizable element of femme fatale in which she plays a role in seducing the detective while turning him into one Kind of compromise trap leads.
Rian Johnson's Brick (2005) is a shining example of film noir characters and plot devices used in modern production. Johnson uses all of the classic noir tropes to tell a mystery, crime, and redemption story set against the backdrop of a suburban high school. If you're interested, it's a great introductory film for understanding how film noir works – characteristically and narrative.
Dialogue and language
The other non-cinematic elements of Film Noir that are instantly recognizable to most viewers are the use of language and dialogue. Film noirs were characterized by a heavy use of voice-over narration, which included plot details and character descriptions, and harked back to the genre's crime thriller roots. If you don't know how to best work with voice-over (VO) on your projects, these resources will help:
Because of the dark and cynical nature of Film Noir, these voice-over narrations usually come from the protagonist of the private eye. As such, they are highly questionable and unreliable in their intent. These narratives are also littered with classic noir language, largely representative of the way people spoke in the 20s and 30s, though the movies themselves were the most popular in the 40s and 50s. This, in turn, is due to the literary roots that are firmly anchored in the dark days of the Great Depression.
If you're looking for dialogue and terms to use in your Film Noir projects, take inspiration from author Ian Tregillis, who has a great glossary of all of the slang words and phrases found in die-hard Film Noir.
High contrast and hard lighting
It can be assumed that the moment you hear the words "film noir", you start thinking "black and white". Obviously, the genre's association with black and white stems from the fact that most film noir was made at a time when there were no color films.
However, over the years it has become hard to imagine the genre without that iconic black and white look. The iconic sharp contrast and genre are synonymous and make each other stand out. Noir just needs shade.
These high-contrast, harsh lighting optics prefer low-key lighting configurations, where subjects are often painted in a direct light, as opposed to the more traditional triple-lit lighting configurations that prefer to stay away from shadows. These lighting traditions carry over to early German Expressionist films, and their inherent limitations helped define the genre's unique, beveled angles and framing devices (like the iconic look of shutters).
In addition to the tutorial above, here are some additional resources that demonstrate different ways to nail Film Noir lighting configurations:
Modern neo-noir and the future
Like most film genres, film noir has certainly evolved over the years. And while you can find plenty of examples of parody and comedy replicas of classic film noir used in television and film (think Steve Martin in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid), the genre could actually make itself into a new transforming style that you can still find and use in modern cinema.
From the late 1970s, Michael Mann, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch developed a new style called "Neo-Noir". These filmmakers found creative ways to incorporate classic elements of film noir into modern crime stories, often mixing them with other genres such as action, comedy, and art house.
One of my favorite examples of postmodern film noir is the Coen Brothers man who wasn't there as he was shot in black and white and uses a lot of noir plotter and film styles like sharp contrast and harsh lighting. Unlike traditional film noir, however, the Coen Brothers bring a bit of comedy to their story. The main character is not a detective, but a hairdresser who is forced to solve a mysterious murder.
Whatever your stylistic preferences, understanding the genre tropes of Film Noir can help you incorporate these stylish looks into your next one-of-a-kind project.
For more genre insights and breakdowns on filmmaking, see the articles below.
Cover image of The Maltese Falcon (via Warner Bros.).