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date: 20 April 2018

Film Noir

Summary and Keywords

Film noir is a term coined by French critics in 1946 to describe what they considered an emerging and exciting trend in Hollywood films—one that signaled a new maturity in American cinema. The term translates into English as “black film,” and the darkness to which it refers applies both to the grim themes and events in many of these movies, as well as to their dark look. Many of them deal with doomed characters entangled in immoral and/or criminal activities that go horribly wrong. Such characters lose their psychological mooring and become increasingly desperate, and the depiction of that desperation can at times destabilize the traditional securities and aesthetic distance of the viewer from the events of the film. The cinematography of many of these movies often features images crisscrossed with ominous shadows and filled with dark, mysterious spaces.

This article explores the origins of the genre in the 1940s, major influences upon it, its development and many transformations, its intersections with other genres, its place in Hollywood history as well as postwar American culture, its frequent bouts with industry censorship, reasons for the difficulties that critics encounter with defining it, its ongoing popularity, and its extensive influence upon multiple media.

Keywords: film noir, genre, Hollywood cinema, censorship, hard-boiled fiction

Film noir is a term coined by French critics in 1946 to describe what they considered an emerging and exciting trend in Hollywood films—one that signaled a new maturity in American cinema. The term translates into English as “black film,” and the darkness to which it refers applies both to the grim themes and events in many of these movies, as well as to their dark look. Many of them deal with doomed characters entangled in immoral and/or criminal activities that go horribly wrong. Such characters lose their psychological moorings and become increasingly desperate; the depiction of that desperation can at times destabilize the traditional securities and aesthetic distance of the viewer from the events of the film. The cinematography of many of these movies often features images crisscrossed with ominous shadows and filled with dark, mysterious spaces.

Film Noir’s Chameleonlike Nature

Film noir is more difficult to define than most genres because, during its nearly 80-year history, it has morphed repeatedly and has repeatedly taken on new thematic and stylistic features, some of which seem antithetical to earlier ones. Many of the things that characterized film noir in 1946 would not characterize it in 1956, or in 1976, or today. It is a moving target, difficult to pin down, yet at the same time it has arguably become the most influential American film form, more so even than the Western, and its traces extend far beyond the world of film. They can currently be seen in television, fiction, graphic design, theater, radio drama, ballet, video games, comic books, and graphic novels. Commentators in many media regularly describe a show or a novel as having “a real film noir quality” or a painting or a theatrical set or a lighting design as having “a film noir look.” Best-selling novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have been described as belonging to the genre of “Nordic Noir.” M.A.C. even markets a Film Noir Lipstick. Since the term is so widespread and has been applied to virtually anything that is downbeat, criminal, ominous, mentally destabilizing, or grim in tone, it is important to focus on what film noir actually means, how it originated, why it has come to be used in so many diverse ways, and why, even considering its multiple meanings, it has endured for so long.

A useful place to start, and a point that also has contributed to the long-standing difficulty in categorizing film noir, is to note that the genre was not initially defined by those who made these films, but rather by the critics who viewed them. Until the 1970s, very few American filmmakers consciously set out to make a film noir, and in fact, a widely expressed sentiment among creative figures who made the first wave of these movies, like Billy Wilder, Edward Dmytryk, Gloria Grahame, Robert Mitchum, Nicholas Musuraca, Orson Welles, and Miklos Rozsa, was that when they were making film noir, they didn’t know they were doing it. Counterintuitive as it may seem, they were being quite honest. At the time, they might have said that they were making a mystery, a detective movie, a crime movie, a domestic melodrama, a social problem film, or perhaps a psychological study. The notion of film noir had not yet emerged.

However, consciously or not, they were participating in an emerging sensibility. Many of the films that they made were substantially darker in tone than those that preceded them. One factor enabling this was the loosening of censorship restrictions in Hollywood during World War II. To cite one example, when James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity first appeared in 1936, numerous Hollywood studios sought to option the film rights for it, and M-G-M requested an evaluation of its suitability for adaptation from Joseph Breen of the powerful Hayes Office. Breen declared it unacceptable, not only because he considered it a virtual blueprint for murder, but also because its central characters were unrepentant adulterers. Fear of censorship led the studios to back away from negotiations, and the book would not be adapted for a Hollywood movie until 1944, when Billy Wilder’s version appeared to great critical acclaim. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay.

That success opened the door for adaptations of other Cain novels, like Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which quickly followed, as well as for other works from the relatively new and often culturally transgressive genre of hard-boiled fiction. By the late 1940s, many books that had previously been considered censorable suddenly became fashionable, and they began to be adapted for the screen. Films like Double Indemnity, with its widely imitated retrospective voice-over narration, dark visuals, immoral and unsympathetic central characters, atmosphere of impending doom, and downbeat storyline, become models for much of film noir (as well as neo-noir films like 1981’s Body Heat).

As significant as Double Indemnity has been and continues to be to the development of film noir, however, it provided only one model for the genre. The diversity of paradigms in film noir is one reason that it took such a long time to be identified as a genre, and why there is still debate as to its status. The characteristics of many genres are easily identified. The Western, for example, has a specific geographic and temporal setting (the American West from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century), dominant character types (a sheriff, a gunfighter, a capitalist, a dance hall girl, among others), and a typical story arc (social discontent over corruption, climaxing in a gunfight that brings justice and peace to the town). The musical employs musical numbers to express its main themes. The gangster film generally depicts the rise and fall of a violent gangster in a modern city. The biblical epic is set in ancient times and often recounts biblical stories. Some genres, like the biblical epic and the Western, bind themselves to a specific place and time, while others, like comedies and romances, can be set in virtually any place and time.

Film noir can accommodate numerous styles and stories. Most of its canonical films (meaning those produced during its first wave, from the 1940s to the early 1960s) are set in their own era, although some have been Westerns like Pursued (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948), and there have even been historical dramas like Reign of Terror (1949). They generally focus on characters that transgress social norms, often by involvement in crime, and cope with failure, guilt, and emotional despair. The movies often generate a dark, hopeless, and frequently posttraumatic atmosphere.

Many of these films do not share common characteristics, however. Some center on a hard-boiled detective, like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), while others, like Double Indemnity, The Woman in the Window (1944), The Killers (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Scarlet Street (1945) have no such detective but feature femmes fatales. Many of the movies share some characteristics such as femmes fatales with others. Many of them have unhappy endings, but Gilda (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), Crossfire (1947), and Lady in the Lake (1947) did not. Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past employ voice-over narration, but not The Maltese Falcon, Scarlet Street, or The Big Sleep. Scarlet Street, Out of the Past, Crossfire, and Kiss Me Deadly make extensive use of Expressionist, chiaroscuro lighting, but The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (mostly) do not. And these examples do not touch upon the tropes and strategies of semidocumentary police procedurals like The Naked City (1948) and Call Northside 777 (1948), or of the neo-noir films that would appear after the 1960s.

This almost bewildering diversity would lead one to question whether there is any coherence to the notion of film noir at all and, if not, whether there is any value in studying it. Is there any such thing as film noir? At the same time, one should note that, in English-language discourse, it has been a widely used term for over half a century, and today, it is probably more common than ever. What are people referring to when they use the term? Confronting the issue, Dave Kehr, writing in The New York Times in 2008, quoted Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” This bears comparison with Louis Armstrong’s equally famous statement about jazz—another art form that is notoriously difficult to define.

Critics often refer to the dark and troubled atmosphere generated in these films. Certainly, as a group, they were grimmer than the movies that Hollywood had produced earlier—more invested in doomed and tormented characters and unhappy endings, and depicting a nonsupportive society. Some have cited the influence of the Great Depression, as well as World War II, both happening during this time period, on the sensibilities of the filmmakers. Many have noted the almost documentary style of the films at times, depicting contemporary society that can be at odds with their cumulative effect which has been described as surreal or Expressionistic. The tools of psychoanalysis, trauma studies, gender studies, and cultural and industry analysis have been particularly illuminating in grappling with the genre of film noir.

While the diversity of film noir tropes may make it seem like a hodgepodge that would confuse audiences, it is important to note how quickly the genre caught on and how popular it became. By 1946, it had become so recognizable that its style and themes were parodied in The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, a Daffy Duck cartoon, and a year later, by Bob Hope in Paramount’s My Favorite Brunette. These parodies are significant because they imply a popular understanding of film noir as a unified, commercially viable, and well-known genre. It would have made no business sense for a major studio like Paramount to feature one of its biggest stars in a parody of film noir unless it could presume widespread familiarity with what was being parodied, so that the audience would get the joke.

My Favorite Brunette opens with ominous, exterior shots of San Quentin prison, underscored by grim orchestral music. These shots are indistinguishable from the opening prison shots in Brute Force, a film noir about prison injustice appearing that same year. After the opening shots, in a style recalling “death row” films of the era, a prison warden solemnly enters a cell block to escort a condemned prisoner to the gas chamber. However, the movie then reveals that the prisoner is played by Bob Hope, in the goofball, smart-aleck film persona for which he was widely known in 1947. The mood abruptly changes. Although the story is still about a prisoner awaiting execution, Hope’s persona undercuts everything about the situation. This has turned into a comedy. Soon he is interviewed by reporters in a cell outside the execution chamber. His prison clothes, his imminent execution, and images of him behind prison bars all recall dark, serious films of the era. And, as in so many film noirs, he recounts his story in flashback. However, the comic tone makes the cinematography, the voice-over narration, and the grim images simultaneously recall and parody many film noirs. My Favorite Brunette sends up many tropes of film noir—an apparently doomed central character, his retrospective voice-over narration, a femme fatale, sinister plots in a malevolent environment, shadowy visual strategies, and anxieties about masculinity and femininity.

Since its beginning, film noir has inspired, and continues to inspire, numerous comedic takes and satires, including Play It Again, Sam (1972), The Black Bird (1975), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and Fatal Instinct (1992). As with My Favorite Brunette, their existence testifies to industry presumptions that film noir is a widely recognizable form of art, and therefore it can be joked about. However, even though many consider film noir a single entity, it is important to account for whatever commonality might exist among the multiple forms that it has taken.

A useful model in grappling with the idea of unity amid diversity is the one developed by Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott in their 1987 book, Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero. They demonstrate that a specific character (James Bond), with a specific identity (British secret agent), who appears in numerous formats ranging from novels to movies, has not one meaning, but many. The character is widely discussed as if he has a single identity and meaning, unchanged over time, even though the actors portraying him in films have changed from the 1950s to the present. However, Bennett and Woollacott say that the character has changed radically, again and again. At times, he is an anti-Soviet, British Cold War agent; at others, he supports British-Soviet cooperation in the glasnost era. Sometimes he is a cocky sexual predator who seduces many women; at other times, he is virtually monogamous. Bennett and Woollacott show that he is a bundle of contradictions and yet widely perceived as a single unified entity. And film noir is a much more complex and diverse entity than James Bond.

A related approach comes from Terry Eagleton in his 2003 book on tragedy, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, in which he explores the historical meanings of the word tragic. It has been applied to a specific dramatic form, as with Aristotle’s description of ancient Greek drama, but also to Senecan Roman and Elizabethan British drama, which are very different. In addition, it has been used to describe 20th-century American plays like Death of a Salesman, as well as 19th-century novels such as Anna Karenina, historical disasters like the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, and personal disasters like the death of a loved one. Although the term has endured for millennia, Eagleton ultimately finds little more commonality in its diverse usages than the idea that tragedy simply means “very sad.” Comparably, the most useful definition of film noir may have been established by the term’s literal translation—“dark film.”

Rather than being characterized by a single template, film noir is best understood as embodying a bundle of generic characteristics rather than a single paradigm.

Common Impressions of Film Noir

Before charting a genre’s development, it is useful to give a sense of its texture. What do people mean when they talk of film noir? One commentator categorized it with an iconic, black-and-white image of a desolate city street at night. Rain is falling, and areas in the darkness are impenetrable and mysterious. A trash can cover suddenly clatters onto the pavement, and a lone cat, followed by its long shadow, scampers across the street. The abrupt sound and brief movement only reinforce the overall sense of oppressive emptiness; this brief vignette evokes the type of physical and emotional environment that many associate with film noir.

The precredit sequence of Sin City (2005) provides a more detailed instance. This is a neo-noir movie—one that was produced decades after the end of the initial film noir era and that clearly evokes the flavor of the earlier films. Unlike movies from the canonical film noir era (early 1940s to early 1960s), neo-noir films leave no doubt as to whether the filmmakers were consciously drawing upon the conventions of film noir, and most audiences immediately recognize what the filmmakers are doing. Most of these movies are so explicitly referential to film noir in their style, themes, or both that they encourage their audience to view them through a kind of double prism. While they watch the events of this individual film unfold, they also realize that what they see is being filtered through echoes of the world of past films—the world of film noir.

Sin City opens on a high-rise apartment terrace overlooking an expansive, urban vista at night. As soft saxophone music plays, an elegantly dressed man approaches an isolated young woman in an evening gown. She accepts the cigarette that he offers, and its smoke soon drifts languidly in the air. After barely a minute has passed, it is obvious to us that the scene has an unrealistic, dreamlike quality. Its cinematography is mostly in black and white, with a few jarring intrusions of color, like the woman’s bright red dress and lipstick and, briefly, her green eyes. The slow, reflective tone of the man’s voice-over as he uses the present tense to describe what is going on conveys the sense that he is describing events of long ago and far away, filtered through mists of memory. Although the couple appears to be meeting for the first time, they have an instant and ominous rapport. She seems inexplicably expectant, and he tells her that she is everything a man could ever want. As they embrace, the film abruptly cuts to a dramatic long shot showing them as stark, white-on-black silhouettes.

Rain begins to fall heavily. They kiss, and, as his voice-over says that he told her he loved her, we hear a muffled gunshot. He has shot her. An overhead shot shows him holding her limp body, her red dress spread out like a pool of blood. His voice-over relates that he held her until she was gone, and that he will cash her check in the morning. Suddenly we hear pounding music, and the camera whirls rapidly up and around to show the city. Blood-red letters form the film’s title, Sin City.

Although we never learn more about this woman, we can infer that she has paid the man to kill her, and he has done it with an unexplained compassion. But what is most evident is the sequence’s aggressive stylization—its use of black-and-white cinematography with splashes of color, its moody voice-over narration, its ominous tone, its atmospheric use of cigarette smoke and falling rain, its sudden shift from representational figures to stark silhouettes, and its abrupt moments of betrayal, as well as of unexplained complicity. It is obvious from the outset that the movie wants to do more than simply tell a story; it is inviting us, while viewing that story, to recall a type of Hollywood tale from the past, particularly from the 1940s and 1950s—namely, film noir.

Sin City is a world apart from Double Indemnity, an initiating film noir that was made over 60 years earlier. Sin City, with its highly stylized visuals that blend black-and-white and color cinematography, as well as fully drawn images with stark silhouettes, its characters that receive grotesque mortal wounds and yet continue living, and its mix of representational-looking and cartoonlike characters, never attempts to appear realistic. Double Indemnity, however, after its expressionistic credit sequence, consistently presents itself as representing real-world characters and events—ones that 1940s viewers would recognize as resembling what they would see when they exited the theater, with clothing and hairstyles, social interactions, home and office design, and automobiles similar to their own.

This raises a complicating aspect of viewing these films. When they first were released, the world that they depicted looked to average filmgoers like their own. To a 21st-century viewer, however, they appear to show a distant, virtually foreign world, one from nearly a century in the past, in which social behavior, styles, clothes, slang, and automobiles were very different from theirs. Hence, the very normality depicted in many of these films often looks highly stylized to today’s audiences, perhaps more so even than the intense stylization of Sin City, and people viewing them for the first time in the 21st century can experience an odd sense of disconnection.

The Normalization of Evil

A common theme in much of film noir is the presence of extreme evil in the normal, the everyday. Earlier American films often associated evil and the grotesque with somewhere else, with inhabitants of exotic, faraway countries or people living in earlier, more primitive historical eras where “such things happen,” but not with the contemporary United States. This is evident in horror films of the early sound era. In Dracula (1931), the sinister count came from Transylvania; in Frankenstein (1931), the monster was created in central Europe: in The Werewolf of London (1935), an English botanist is transformed into a werewolf as the result of a bite that he received in Tibet; in The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the terrifying mutants are created on an isolated island in the South Seas.

In much of film noir, however, evil does not necessarily originate with the exotic; it can reside just below the surface of the everyday. The supposedly “normal” and familiar Mr. Jones, who lives on your street and smiles at everyone as he mows his lawn, might actually be a mutilating serial killer. The visual and sound design of many of these films evoked an atmosphere of horror, but without the use of the supernatural. They presented evil as part of the normal world.

The 1930s American horror films that have been cited thus far had a substantial influence on the visual style of film noir, and they were themselves influenced by German Expressionist films of the 1920s. Expressionist movies generated a suffocating, destabilizing atmosphere of a world gone wrong, bordering on the insane. The influential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), for example, not only tells the story of a series of mysterious killings, but also depicts that story in a bizarre, dreamlike, cockeyed visual environment, with characters, streets, rooms, and buildings that appear twisted and contorted. Most of it is narrated in flashback by one character. However, at the end, we learn that the narrator is in fact an inmate in an insane asylum, and that many of the characters that he has described are his fellow inmates. The master criminal in his narration is in fact the director of the asylum. Since this is the case, how is the viewer to differentiate what is real from what is illusion, and delusion, in the film? Can we trust anything about a story told by a madman?

This film, and many like it, destabilize the distant security that movies traditionally provided viewers by drawing them into the crazed world of the characters. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) charts the descent into madness of its central character, and many of its troubling and haunting images, such as revived murder victims from the past, turn out to be projections of his own disturbed mind. Similar films employ dreams and fevered disorientation to reveal psychological problems their characters are experiencing, thereby challenging the viewer’s ability to evaluate the truth of what is presented. In Martin Scorcese’s neo-noir Shutter Island (2010), U.S. marshals go to an isolated hospital for the criminally insane in 1954 in search of a missing inmate, who had been incarcerated for drowning her three children. The central character becomes tormented by memories of liberating concentration camps in World War II, as well as by his complicity in the deaths of his wife and daughter. It comes to appear that his reality is little more than an elaborate game on the part of the hospital staff to make him confront his guilt, paranoia, and insanity. Hence, he loses his grip on reality, and a good deal of what the viewer has initially been positioned to see as real has been dreams and hallucinations.

The strategy of drawing the viewer into the movie’s disorientation is widespread in film noir. A resonant example appears in the credit sequence that opens Double Indemnity. It shows a mysterious silhouette of a man on crutches who is ominously, relentlessly approaching the camera. Grim orchestral music plays on the soundtrack. Something is wrong—with the man’s legs, with the man, and with what will follow these credits. The steadily approaching silhouette erodes the “fourth-wall” distance between the viewer and the events depicted in the film—a distance that traditionally provided the viewer with a sense of safety, as merely an observer. Here, the silhouette intrudes into the viewer’s space as it comes directly at us, eventually overwhelming the camera space and enveloping us in the dark events that it augurs. At this point, although we have no idea of what the story is about, we do sense that it is about something that is very, very wrong.

The Expressionistic credit sequence is immediately followed by the film’s realistic opening, which, nevertheless, quickly reinforces the sense of a world gone wrong. We see a car careening nearly out of control in Los Angeles at night and finally stopping. A man exits the car, walks haltingly into a deserted office building, and then into a darkened office, where he proceeds to record a message into a Dictaphone. His message, a confession to his boss of his complicity in murder, provides the overall narrative structure for the film. The narration then splits at this point; in the first mode, we simply watch and listen as the man, Walter Neff, recounts his story into the Dictaphone; in the second mode, we see the events that he is describing. Even though he is the same person, this strategy makes us see him as virtually two different characters. When he is recording his story, he is sweating and breathing heavily; he appears exhausted and strained, moving with difficulty. When accessing things on his desk, he only uses his right arm; the left one is immobile. A dark stain is visible near his left shoulder, and whenever the camera returns to him after having cut away to depict the events that he describes, we see that the size of the stain has grown. It comes from a gunshot wound that will probably be fatal.

At the same time, however, intercut with the shots of him confessing, we see him in an entirely different way in the flashbacks that his voice-over narrates. In those shots, which reveal events that occurred only weeks earlier, he is bursting with vitality, ambitious and arrogant. He is weaving his own doom but does not yet know it. Those flashback scenes depict him as a man progressing with cocky assurance toward a successful future; the present-tense scenes, however, show him as a doomed man without a future—whose future is all behind him.

Storytelling Innovations in Film Noir

Double Indemnity’s retrospective storytelling strategy, heavily reliant on voice-over narration, was a relatively new practice in Hollywood at the time. It shapes the viewer’s response to the film in numerous ways.

A major one of those ways is that, by revealing the outcome of central plot elements at the outset, by announcing that the events that the movie will recount have already taken place, and have ended badly, the film removes any suspense as to the outcome. Traditional narrative strategies encouraged viewers to follow the sequence of events as they unfold and wonder how they will turn out, but here, the viewers know the outcome from the beginning. Since it discards the traditional pleasures of suspense, what does this strategy offer the viewer?

A related component of this strategy is that that it presents the film’s events not from an objective perspective, but rather inflected with the perspective of the narrator. If that narrator is deluded or villainous (or even insane), the film’s events come to us filtered through that point of view. This makes the viewer’s point of identification not someone who conformed to contemporary Hollywood moral and social codes, as had previously been the norm, but rather someone who deviated from them. At times, it positions the viewer in the disturbing position of, in effect, sympathizing with the devil.

Some of these films pushed that aspect to an extreme by making the narrating character not only one who is deeply compromised, but also one that is dying or even dead and recounting an enterprise or a life that has already failed horribly. Sunset Boulevard (1950), for example, opens with an underwater shot of a corpse floating face down in a swimming pool. The movie’s narration is then given by that dead man, who tells us how he came to this sad end. Sunset Boulevard, then, is literally narrated from beyond the grave. If this seems like an extreme perspective, the original opening that director Billy Wilder shot for the film was even more excessive. It showed a morgue in which half a dozen corpses begin to relate their stories as to how they had died, and the film then focused on the one who would become the main narrating character.

D.O.A. (1950) is only slightly less extreme. We see a man enter a police station and request to see the detective in charge. He tells the detective that he wants to report a murder and, when asked who was murdered, he replies, “I was.” He then explains that he has been poisoned and has only a short time to live. The movie’s narration, mostly in flashback, becomes his recounting of the experiences that led him to this point, as well as his efforts to discover the murderer. At the end, he dies. Although he has finally learned the identity of his murderer, it is of no use to him.

These and other scenarios infuse the bodies of such films with an aura of hopelessness and death. They go against the traditional expectations of happy endings or comforting resolutions in film and offer the viewer no hope of a positive outcome for the main character. Since that is the case, and since widespread presumptions about mysteries hold that viewers should be kept in suspense as to the outcome, as to “whodunit,” lest they lose interest, what would motivate viewers to continue to watch such movies? Wouldn’t viewers become annoyed at someone who reveals the outcome to them before they have seen the film, and feel that that knowledge spoiled the movie for them?

Not necessarily. There are multiple ways to make a narrative compelling to an audience even without traditional suspense. Double Indemnity and many other examples of film noir illustrate some of them. There are also numerous instances from outside the world of film, such as the storytelling strategies of tabloid journalism and of classical tragedy. The headlines of much of tabloid journalism grab the reader’s attention by summarizing the story and also revealing its outcome. “Neff Kills Lover and Her Husband, Confesses and Loses All!” Tabloid readers, however, do not generally lose interest in such articles; rather, they continue to read them, not driven by suspense as to how it turns out (since they already know that), but to learn more about the grisly details.

Classical tragedy often employs a similar strategy. Tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex reveal the fate of their tragic hero very early, often by means of the prophecies of a soothsayer. The hero does not believe these prophecies, but the audience knows them to be true. The play then unfolds while the audience watches the hero approach his or her own doom, step by step. The character is often warned, to no effect, and a sympathetic audience experiences the distress of watching it all unfold. Once again, although the audience knows the outcome all along, the intensity of the experience does not depend on suspense. One explanation of the appeal for the audience is the masochistic one of immersion in the erotics of doom.

This relates to the point outlined previously about the investment of many film noirs in individual rather than objective perspectives. Such an investment nudges the viewer away from the alignment with the dominant moral codes that much of Hollywood cinema had traditionally offered and opens up the possibility of sympathizing with evil or demented characters, as well as taking perverse pleasure in their heinous crimes. Most viewers, if asked if they wished to share such a perspective, would probably say not at all. However, some of these films skillfully maneuver viewers’ sympathies in that direction, regardless of their conscious disposition.

One instance appears in Double Indemnity immediately after the couple has murdered the woman’s husband and placed his body on the railroad tracks to make it look like he had died in an accidental fall from a moving train. They prepare to leave the scene in her car, but when she turns the key in the ignition, the car will not start. She tries again and fails again, and the two look tensely at one another, distressed by this simple, unexpected problem that could lead to the discovery of their crime. What is important here is that the scene is shot and edited in such a way as to draw the viewer into the anxiety that they are experiencing in the scene—and to actually make us want the car to start. Hence, immediately after we have witnessed the couple brutally murder the husband and then drag his body onto the railroad tracks to be mangled, the film is maneuvering us into the position of hoping that these cold-blooded murderers will succeed with their crime.

Another instance comes at the very end of the canonical film noir era, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Marion Crane, the young woman who initially appears to be the central character, is abruptly and brutally murdered by the psychotic motel keeper, Norman Bates, during what has become the film’s famous shower scene. Bates, hoping to erase all traces of her having been at his motel, packs her corpse and belongings into the trunk of her car and drives it into a nearby pond. He stands on the shore watching the car slowly sink but suddenly it seems to stabilize itself and remain partly afloat. Hitchcock cuts back and forth between shots of the car and shots of Norman as he watches the car sinking. When the car appears to stabilize itself, Norman is shown becoming deeply anxious because he knows that the visible car could expose him as Marion’s murderer.

Hitchcock’s framing and editing of the shots are done in such a way as to involve the viewers, to align the viewers with Norman’s anxiety, and induce the viewers to also want the car to sink. Even though only moments earlier, viewers had been horrified to witness Marion’s murder, Hitchcock has turned their sympathies 180 degrees, positioning them into wanting Norman to succeed in disposing of her body. It is a perverse strategy that drags the viewer into a spectatorial complicity with the film’s dark behaviors and is not uncommon in film noir.

A manipulation of audience sympathy going far beyond the structure of individual scenes relates to the appeal of film noir. Why would audiences subject themselves to these often-depressive movies? One explanation lies in the way that many work against the grain. For all of Double Indemnity’s dark activities and characters’ self-destructive behavior, it is an extremely witty film. The humor is dark, but it is sharp and crackling, and many of these films employ comparable types of humor.

A larger dynamic, however, is the often-counterintuitive sympathy that many of the characters elicit. Out of the Past provides a prime example. Its central character, Jeff, is a private detective who in the course of the film betrays all that is dear to him. He is hired to locate a gangster’s former girlfriend, who had shot and robbed the gangster. Jeff agrees, on the condition that the gangster will not harm her. However, when Jeff finds her, he falls in love with her, thus betraying his employer and business partner. Eventually he will betray his girlfriend too. Hence, he not only fails at his task, but he does so through duplicity. However, he holds the viewer’s sympathy throughout, as well as that of the girlfriend he betrays. In a revealing scene, he is confronted by a law enforcement figure who is also in love with the girlfriend, who wants to turn him in. Jeff tells him that if he does, the girlfriend will hate him forever, and the man lets him go. It is a cruel scene, since Jeff knows that the other man is a decent sort who could offer the girlfriend a respectable life, but Jeff also knows that the man does not have Jeff’s charisma and that, right or wrong, the woman is not in love with him. Part of the dynamic involves Robert Mitchum’s star charisma in the role of Jeff, but the overall pattern is that he is exactly the person with whom the audience should not sympathize, and yet the film perversely makes him its charismatic center.

Early Development of Film Noir

Because film noir’s development is unusual, in that it was identified as a distinct genre by critics long before the filmmakers themselves understood it in that light, it is useful to outline the shifts in its critical image, as well as the very different stages by which the critics and public came to understand and relate to it. Its development came in at least three very separate phases, and filmmakers did generally not see it as a distinct genre until the third stage. In its first two stages, its existence was predominantly defined by critics. Only during the third stage, after it had died out as a commercially viable form and then been revived in the neo-noir era, did filmmakers, critics, and audiences largely agree about what constitutes film noir.

During the first phase of film noir, from the early 1940s until the early 1960s, apparently disparate films were retrospectively identified as sharing a similar and new sensibility. This sensibility was not substantially noted by American critics beyond the awareness that these films were dark in tone, or tough, or gritty. However, things were different in France. The French, who had long been enthusiastic cinephiles, had had no access to recent American films during World War II. When, in the late spring and summer of 1946, these films began to appear in large numbers in Paris, critics like Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier saw many of them all at once. They declared that during the wartime period, American film had undergone a fundamental change and as a group demonstrated a surprising new maturity, as well as a profound darkness not typical of prewar Hollywood.

These critics coined the term film noir for the genre, which at that time applied to recent or current films that signaled a profound new change in the medium. They cited films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet, The Woman in the Window, and Laura (1944). Many of these movies ostensibly had little in common. They were thematically and stylistically diverse. Some were mysteries, detective films, or both; some were domestic melodramas; some grappled with psychically dysfunctional characters; and many manifested the influence of Freudian psychology. Many did not end happily for the central characters. Some of the movies were made by young, first-time directors like John Huston and Orson Welles; others were made by immigrant directors like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Siodmak. Many of the films were clearly studio bound, having largely been shot on soundstages and often creating a claustrophobic atmosphere by means of their dark, moody visual style.

First appearing during the wartime years, these films quickly proliferated into a recognizable trend. Examples include Phantom Lady (1944), Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour (1945), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Big Sleep, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Dark Corner (1946), Out of the Past, Kiss of Death (1947), Brute Force (1947), Secret Beyond the Door . . . (1947), The Big Clock (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1949), Sunset Boulevard, D.O.A., The Narrow Margin (1952), and Angel Face (1953).

However, no sooner had film noir become established than it quickly morphed. Many had been about doomed love affairs or failed crimes and had dark, Expressionistic visuals; however, other movies, appearing in the mid- to late-1940s, initially appear to violate nearly every element that categorized the earlier films. Many were shot outside of studios, making extensive use of on-location cinematography and amateur actors. Instead of illicit romance and psychological torment, many focused on public crimes like municipal corruption. Many of the newer films were influenced by current movements such as Italian neorealism and American documentary cinema. Some engaged social and political issues such as international crime cartels (Gilda), anti-Semitism (Crossfire), police work in modern urban society (The Naked City), anticommunism (The Woman on Pier 13, 1949), biological terror (Panic in the Streets, 1950), municipal corruption (The Racket, 1951), and anxieties about nuclear power (Kiss Me Deadly). Some of these films evidenced a shift from a studio look to a documentary one, and some combined the two, as with T-Men (1947), which deals with U.S. Treasury Department agents pursuing a counterfeiting ring. The scenes showing actual Treasury Department officials, as well as the activities of the Department’s bureaucracy and laboratories, were well-lit and shot in documentary style, whereas many of the scenes depicting the underworld gang are dark, shadowy, and Expressionistic. However, even while these changes were emerging, numerous films, such as Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession (1949), Fritz Lang’s House by the River (1950), and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), continued to manifest the earlier style.

Growing Critical Recognition of Film Noir

The 1950s brought the second phase of film noir. This phase did not so much mark a radical change in the films themselves as acknowledge a shift in their critical profile. Film noir began to be more widely identified in Europe and received serious critical recognition. A milestone in this development was the publication in Paris in 1955 of the first book-length study of film noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953. Unlike the case with earlier essays by critics like Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier, who treat film noir as an exciting new trend erupting into the contemporary film world, Borde and Chaumeton look at film noir as an established and important art form, which they are seeking to define and categorize. Their work provided a baseline for much of the voluminous work on the genre that would follow.

An original and significant characteristic of their book is that it takes care to situate film noir within its historical moment and to stress the importance of the context surrounding its reception. These authors categorize it as a form that arose within a cultural climate that was specific to the postwar era—one that held resonant meaning for audiences of that era. They freely acknowledge that while these films engaged potent but ephemeral emotional chords for that era, subsequent audiences living in different historical circumstances might respond very differently, and that the very same films might touch upon different emotional chords in the future.

Borde and Chaumeton agree with Frank that a central characteristic of film noir was what Frank had termed “the dynamism of violent death” (see Borde & Chaumeton, 2002, p. 4), and they also noted the misogyny that was widespread in the genre. They presage later difficulties in defining the form by placing it in different categories at different places in the book. They sometimes describe film noir as a series, meaning “a group of nationally identifiable films sharing certain common features (style, atmosphere, subject), features sufficiently strong to mark them unequivocally and to give them, over time, an inimitable quality” (See Borde & Chaumeton, 2002, p. 1). In other places, however, they describe it as a genre, a mood, and even a zeitgeist.

They differentiated between what they considered film noir and the newer trend of documentary-influenced police procedurals, like The Naked City, which began to appear in the mid-1940s and subsequently would be folded into most definitions of the genre. In support of this distinction, they described film noir as crime presented from within (from the point of view of the criminals), whereas the procedurals presented crime from without (from the point of view of the police investigating the crime). They also underscored the differences in narration, noting that procedurals do not have a troubled narrator, but rather one who is an authoritative agent of a benign state. They noted differences in the hero as well, with the hero in procedurals not a tormented sinner, but rather a morally righteous government agent; and differences in style, with procedurals dominated by a semidocumentary look rather than a studio-bound one.

Although Borde and Chaumeton did not consider the procedurals to fit into their conception of film noir, they make a singularly perceptive observation in noting that when many of the films they did consider to be film noir are viewed individually, they have a contemporary, semidocumentary look to them, but that their cumulative effect is that of a nightmare. They argue that this resulted from a shift in film conventions during World War II, which led to the abandonment of the primary reference point of earlier films—that of a moral center. The loss of this stable point of reference accounts for the genre’s destabilizing effect, propelling the viewer into the disorienting chaos of a nightmarish world and ultimately generating a profound sense of anxiety and alienation.

This destabilization took many forms. Two related ones involved the undercutting of traditional security about national identity and gender. Tom Brokaw’s popular 1998 book The Greatest Generation presented the retrospective image that many Americans of the World War II generation cherished about themselves. It categorized them as a generation which, when faced with global menace and warfare, heroically united in a common cause to share great sacrifice in order to defeat the primal menace of both fascist European powers and imperial Japan. In doing so, they made the world a place in which future generations could flourish in security. Many in this generation took great pride in this image of focused and righteous accomplishment, and they also noted that they had done this soon after having struggled through and survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. This in many ways was that generation’s image of what they had been.

Film noir, which emerged at precisely this same time, the World War II era, and scanned precisely the same social landscape, presented a radically different perspective on this generation and its ability to construct a national identity. It did not share the righteous sense of purpose evident in many World War II–era films, whether they depict overseas combat, such as Sahara (1943) or Action in the North Atlantic (1943), or show the sacrifice and struggle on the home front, such as Since You Went Away (1944) or Watch on the Rhine (1943). Even when such movies end with the death of the main character, they impart the sense that that death was heroic and ultimately beneficial to society. But film noir deflates such glorifying categorizations and shows the underbelly of the World War II generation. It does not present a generation able to heroically unite in a righteous, common cause, but rather, one whose members are isolated, delusional, and self-destructive. Many of their enterprises are wrong-headed, corrupt, or doomed. They are in reality a failed generation without a future; their future is all behind them. They could take no pride in the world that they would leave the next generation.

The dark image of national identity presented in film noir is related to the genre’s image of gender. Borde and Chaumeton’s observation about the widespread misogyny in film noir is perceptive. The genre’s gender images were deeply destabilizing in terms of traditional roles. It frequently reverses traditional gender relationships by presenting women who are strong and dominating and men who are weak. The strong women characters break the stereotype of women as rightfully submissive to men. But on the other hand, many of these women are severely punished for this transgression, often by being killed or imprisoned at the film’s end, and in such a way that the viewer is positioned to enjoy their punishment. So on one level, the form can be categorized as misogynistic.

However, as feminist scholars such as E. Ann Kaplan (1998) have pointed out, these characters also opened up a back door that allowed for female empowerment. Although female characters like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past were certainly evil and murderous, it went largely unnoticed at the time that, for the first time in Hollywood film history, these women were smarter and more capable of achieving their goals than the men in the story. They did not view themselves as subservient to men, but rather as their own persons. They sought many of the same things the men did, such as wealth, power, and social position, and they sought to get these things on their own terms. Although the cultural codes of the times required that they be punished for their refusal to “know their place,” the films, whether intentionally or not, acknowledge their intelligence and power, not to mention their ability to beat the men at their own game.

The acknowledgment of the existence of such women destabilized the accepted gender codes of the time and simultaneously pointed to problems with the men. Many of the male characters were weak, no longer able to dominate their environment as they had been raised to presume would be their rightful destiny, and puzzled as to how this sea change in gender dynamics had happened. Examples range from Chris Cross in Scarlet Street, who is controlled and degraded by his domineering wife as well as betrayed by his mistress, or the pathetic Mr. Grayle in Murder, My Sweet, who is betrayed and degraded by his murderous, much younger wife, as well as the powerful but deluded Moose Malloy, who is betrayed by the same woman. The obvious answer, for these male characters and some in the audience, was that such individual female characters were simply and purely evil—they were aberrations who did not “know their place” and fully deserved the punishment imposed upon them. But some observers came to realize that something much larger and more profound was going on, that past securities were eroding and a new social order was emerging. That new social order would take decades to appear and become evident with a vengeance in many neo-noir movies—not only the ones that show the breakdown of contemporary social codes, but also the ones engaging dystopian science fiction and apocalyptic scenarios.

Many neo-noir movies adopted the trope of the femme fatale or the Black Widow, who seduces and then murders men. Mattie Walker in Body Heat provides one example of a woman who is seductive, manipulative, and murderous. Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown (1974) is an interesting variation on this pattern. Her independent behavior and sexual freedom position both the central male character and the audience to presume that she is evil, but the surprise at the film’s end is that she is not, that her motivations have been grossly misconstrued and in fact, she has been horribly victimized by her monstrous, incestuous father.


When Borde and Chaumeton wrote their book in the early 1950s, they were describing a current and vital form. However, only a decade later, film noir had entered a period of precipitous commercial decline brought on by, among other factors, the perceived obsolescence of black-and-white cinematography, the collapse of the Hollywood studio system and the market for “B” pictures, and competition from the growing television industry for the kinds of material, like crime and detective stories, that had been a staple of film noir. Regardless of this decline, however, important films in the tradition continued to appear during this period, including Kiss Me Deadly, The Wrong Man (1956), Touch of Evil, Psycho, Underworld USA (1961), and Experiment in Terror (1962). But despite this, by the mid-1960s film noir was considered commercially obsolete, a widespread presumption that would position future commentary upon it differently. Commentators were no longer able to discuss it as a vital, current form, but rather as a faded one from the past.

However, only a few years later, the commercial and critical status of film noir changed yet again. Although there had been isolated instances of films engaging tropes of the genre throughout the 1960s, such as Point Blank (1967), they were simply viewed as dark crime films. By the mid-1970s, though, film noir suddenly became fashionable, albeit in a nostalgic mode. From that point to the present, not only did movies like Chinatown, Body Heat, and Farewell, My Lovely (1975) use the kinds of content and styles associated with the genre, they did so by employing a mode entirely alien to canonical film noir—nostalgia. These films presented their stories through a filter of the older films, in such a way that audiences were constantly reminded of their relationship with those films. Some, like Chinatown and Farewell, My Lovely, were “period” films set during the era associated with film noir, the 1930s–1950s; others, like Body Heat, were set during the time in which they were made, but used numerous stylistic strategies to remind audiences of the earlier films. Part of their agenda was to evoke nostalgia for “Old Hollywood.” In some ways, then, they were “safer” than the original films. Whereas the original films evoked the instability and evil of their current time, the newer ones, even with similar storylines and criminal activities, evoked the evil of the Hollywood past and provided audiences with the safe vantage point of nostalgia.

This trend also included numerous remakes of canonical film noirs. Some were explicit about their remake status by using the same title as the earlier film, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), D.O.A. (1988), The Killers (1964), The Narrow Margin (1990), and Kiss of Death (1995). Other remakes appeared with new titles, such as I Died a Thousand Times (1955, based on High Sierra, 1941), Against All Odds (1984, based on Out of the Past), and Farewell, My Lovely (1975, based on Murder, My Sweet).

Whether they kept the title of the earlier film or not, these movies often used strategies to remind audiences of their connections with film noir. In some cases, as with 1981’s contemporaneous Body Heat, they used acting styles, languid music, wardrobe, and hairstyles recalling the 1940s, as well as evocative visuals dwelling on moody images with drifting cigarette smoke to recall the earlier films. In other cases, they used iconic presences from the earlier films. For example, the 1991 version of Cape Fear features Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, who starred in the 1962 film, in supporting roles. While Farewell, My Lovely does not use actors from the 1944 film, it does star Robert Mitchum, who was working at the same studio (RKO Radio Pictures) when Murder, My Sweet was filmed and could very well have appeared in that film. His presence in this film evokes his appearances in that and other similar films in the 1940s. Farewell, My Lovely emphasizes the fact that he is aging, no longer the powerful, robust young man who had appeared in many early film noirs, but the presence of his character also maintains the spirit of those films. Mitchum provided a literal, iconographic connection with those earlier movies. Although his much younger costar, Charlotte Rampling, was too young to have participated in those films, she is dressed and made up to recall female stars of the 1940s like Lauren Bacall.

These films, which have come to be known as neo-noir, display marked differences from the canonical members of the earlier genre. Most were photographed in color instead of black and white, they employed profanity and graphic violence that had been impossible under the censorship codes under which the earlier films had been made, and they included explicit sex scenes, as well as sexual themes not permitted in the earlier films. They also displayed ideological shifts in representations of gender, race, and nation, among other things, that reflected major cultural shifts in the intervening period.

One major instance of the latter lies in the ways in which racial and national differences are depicted. Much of canonical film noir appeared at a time when the vast majority reflected widespread, often xenophobic, national presumptions. White American males were considered the privileged norm against which other cultures were measured. It was common for movies like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past to associate evil with pollution from the “other”—other nations, other races, and other cultures.

In some cases, this was overt. In The Maltese Falcon, for example, everyone in the movie’s murderous band of villains is established as having been in foreign countries before coming to San Francisco, and the fabled object which they are all pursuing and which has left a centuries-old trail of treachery and murder originated in Malta. In other cases, the associations are less obvious, but no less revealing. In Out of the Past, the main characters travel (with little narrative but considerable ideological justification), across the U.S. border with Mexico. While in Mexico, the main character becomes embroiled in a series of events that lead him to betray his employer, business partner, and girlfriend, and culminate in his degradation and death. A fascinating aspect of this is that, on the surface, Mexico is simply depicted as an exotic country outside the United States. No Mexican character or institution is ever depicted as evil or as causing any of the series of events that doom the main character. However, it is indirectly and symbolically associated with evil. It was chosen as a place of refuge by the film’s villainous femme fatale and is established as the kind of place where “such things happen.”

Major shifts in such presumption are evident in the neo-noir era—shifts that reflect changes in American culture at large. The notion of white American superiority and privilege comes into question again and again. In films like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (1997), figures of white power are depicted not as being victimized by people from other nations and races, but actually the opposite, consciously victimizing and exploiting them. The white patriarch in Chinatown is shown not only to be profoundly corrupt, but also to be the incestuous rapist of his daughter; the police chief of the all-white Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in L.A. Confidential blames three African-American youths for the massacre of six people in a diner, when in fact the massacre was committed by members of the LAPD. Furthermore, he heads a secret task force within the department that brutally intimidates and ejects dangerous outsiders such as gangsters and drug dealers to keep Los Angeles “pure.” It turns out, however, that the police themselves control the narcotics trade and eject or murder outsiders not in service of the public good, but to consolidate their hold on corruption.

Where in canonical film noir, it was common to establish white Americans as superior to and privileged over people of other nations, neo-noir films often show them as the cause of the evil that they try to blame on others. Furthermore, where much of the xenophobia in canonical film noir was muted and implicit, neo-noir frequently places blame explicitly on the white power structure’s abuse of its social privilege and its victimization of marginalized peoples. That blame often extends beyond the exploitation of people of other races and nationalities. A subplot in L.A. Confidential, for example, involves the police’s sadistic degradation of a gay man.

Neo-noir and Science Fiction

In a significant development with little precedent in the earlier films, film noir tropes have come to dominate science fiction, particularly dystopian science fiction movies like Blade Runner (1982), as well as many that have generated multiple sequels and prequels, like Mad Max (1979), The Terminator (1984), and Batman Begins (2005).

Few genres would seem to have less in common than film noir and dystopian science fiction, particularly since most of film noir deals resolutely with the world of the present, while much of science fiction concerns the future and the speculative. However, the logic linking them is that both are built upon a central assumption of the catastrophic failure of utopian modernism. From the late 19th century, modernism had posited the city as a utopian space, one in which civilization could avail itself of new ideas and technologies, new modes of transportation such as the railroad and the automobile, and new modes of communication such as the telegraph, telephone, radio, and motion picture in order to bring people together, improve their lives, and pave the way for a better future than had been thought possible. Much of early science fiction, such as Jules Verne’s depictions of undersea exploration and space travel, had also presented utopian possibilities for the future. However, dystopian science fiction, from at least the time of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), shows those anticipated utopias degraded into ugly, erosive, and at times apocalyptic dystopias. Novels like 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), as well as films like Blade Runner and The Terminator, depict the future in terms of a failed past. In both modernism and dystopian science fiction, brightly optimistic anticipation and hope have morphed into despair.

Much of film noir presents the modern city as a failed space—one that does not unite but rather alienates people and everywhere, whether in run-down architecture or dysfunctional social institutions, and shows evidence of failed dreams. Where many of the characters in canonical film noir experience their doom and depression individually, albeit within the context of a decaying and nonsupportive society, dystopian and apocalyptic science fiction often presents the characters as overtly and hopelessly crushed by their failed society.

During the decades surrounding the millennium in 2000, many movies focused obsessively on apocalyptic scenarios and commonly developed those scenarios using thematic and formal tropes drawn from film noir. They include Armageddon (1998), Independence Day (1996), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), The Book of Eli (2010), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004), 4.44 Last Day on Earth (2011), and The Hunger Games (2012), among many others. Such scenarios have become a staple of recent science fiction movies, especially big-budget disaster films, as well as a flood of grim superhero movies, like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), Batman vs. Superman: The Dawn of Justice (2016), and Doctor Strange (2016). The fascination with apocalypse manifested itself not only in films dealing with the end of this world, but also with the destruction of many other imagined worlds, as those in the Star Trek and Star Wars series. Such scenarios that conjure environments of pulsing, omnipresent menace have extended not only into the future, but also into the past of this world, as in television series like Penny Dreadful (2014–2016), which reconceptualize the world of 19th-century fiction under the menacing cloud of dark forces and imminent destruction, and feature entirely reconceptualized characters from literature such as Dracula, Dorian Gray, Mr. Hyde, and Dr. Frankenstein. These diverse scenarios all draw palpably upon film noir‘s diverse traditions.

The tendrils of film noir stretch everywhere and are too numerous to count. Their endurance, popularity, and multifarious continuities testify to the genre’s ongoing potency.

—Some material in this essay draws upon research done for my 2012 book Film Noir, for Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Review of the Literature on Film Noir and Primary Sources

An important essay that initiated much of the subsequent discourse on film noir is Nino Frank’s “A New Type of Detective Story” (L’Ecran Francais, 61, August 28, 1946), which appeared in Paris; it was later translated by Connor Hartnett in The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, Director (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995; pp. 132–135). Another significant essay contemporaneous with and related to that of Frank is Jean-Pierre Chartier’s “Les Americains aussi font des films ‘noirs’” (Revue du Cinema 2, 1946; pp. 67–70).

Further Reading

Brokaw, T. (1998). The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

Cawelti, J. G. (1985). Chinatown and generic transformation in recent American films. In G. Mast & M. Cohen (Eds.), Film theory and criticism: Introductory readings (3d ed., pp. 503–520). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Chandler, R. (1995). Introduction to “The simple art of murder.” In Raymond Chandler: Later novels and other writings (pp. 1016–1019). New York: Library of America.Find this resource:

Christopher, N. (1997). Somewhere in the night: Film noir and the American city. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Diawara, M. (1993). Black American cinema. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Includes perceptive approaches to issues of race in film noir.

Dimendberg, E. (2004). Film noir and the spaces of modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Durgnat, R. (1998). Paint it black: The family tree of the film noir. In A. Silver & J. Ursini (Eds.), Film noir reader (pp. 37–51). New York: Limelight Editions. First appeared in 1970.Find this resource:

Hirsch, F. (1981). Film noir: The dark side of the screen. New York: A.S. Barnes.Find this resource:

Hirsch, F. (1999). Detours and lost highways: A map of neo-noir. New York: Limelight Editions.Find this resource:

Krutnik, F. (1991). In a lonely street: Film noir, genre, masculinity. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Luhr, W. (Ed.). (1991). The Maltese Falcon: John Huston, Director. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

Contains the screenplay of this important early entry in film noir, as well as a number of essays placing it in the context of the genre.

Luhr, W. (1991). Raymond Chandler and film. 2d ed. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press.Find this resource:

Examines Chandler’s screenplays, essays on film, and film adaptations of his fiction to demonstrate the significance of this famous crime writer’s work to major tropes of film noir.

Luhr, W. (2012). Film noir. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

Naremore, J. (2008). More than night: Film noir in its contexts. Updated and expanded ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Phillips, G. D. (2000). Creatures of darkness; Raymond Chandler, detective fiction, and film noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.Find this resource:

Schrader, P. (1998). Notes on film noir. In A. Silver & J. Ursini (Eds.), Film noir reader (pp. 37–51). New York: Limelight Editions. First appeared in Film Comment in September 1972.Find this resource:

Silver, A., & Ursini, J. (Eds.). (1996). Film noir reader. New York: Limelight Press.Find this resource:

Silver, A., & Ursini, J. (Eds.). (1999). Film noir reader 2. New York: Limelight Press.Find this resource:

Silver, A., & Ursini, J. (Eds.). (2004). Film noir reader 4: The crucial films and themes. New York: Limelight Press.Find this resource:

Silver, A., Ursini, J., & Porfirio, R. (Eds.). (2002). Film noir reader 3: Interviews with filmmakers of the classic noir period. New York: Limelight Press.Find this resource:

Straayer, C. (2008). Transgender mirrors: Queering sexual difference. In K. Gabbard & W. Luhr (Eds.), Screening genders (pp. 123–137). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

Outlines a model of subject formation that is helpful in understanding the complex point-of-view shifts in film noir.

Telotte, J. P. (1989). Voices in the dark: The narrative patterns of film noir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Wager, J. B. (2005). Dames in the driver’s seat: Rereading film noir. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:


Bennett, T., & Woollacott, J. (1987). Bond and beyond: The political career of a popular hero. London: Methuen.Find this resource:

Eagleton, T. (2003). Sweet violence: The idea of the tragic. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Borde, R., & Chaumeton, E. (2002). A Panorama of American Film Noir (trans. P. Hammond). San Francisco: City Lights Books.Find this resource:

Translated from R. Borde and E. Chaumeton. (1955). Panorama du film noir Americain, 1941–1953. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.Find this resource:

Kaplan, E. A. (1998). Women in film noir. Rev. ed. London: British Film Institute. Originally published in 1978.Find this resource: