The term film noir (French for "black film"), first applied to Hollywood movies by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, was unknown to most American film industry professionals of the era. Cinema historians and critics defined the canon of film noir in retrospect; many of those involved in the making of the classic noirs later professed to be unaware of having created a distinctive type of film.
"We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.... This is the first of many attempts to define film noir made by the French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir), the original and seminal extended treatment of the subject. They take pains to point out that not every film noir embodies all five attributes in equal measure—this one is more dreamlike, while this other is particularly brutal. The authors' caveats and repeated efforts at alternative definition have proved telling about noir's reliability as a label: in the five decades since, no definition has achieved anything close to general acceptance. The authors of most substantial considerations of film noir still find it necessary to add on to what are now innumerable attempts at definition. As Borde and Chaumeton suggest, however, the field of noir is very diverse and any generalization about it risks veering into oversimplification.
Film noirs embrace a variety of genres, from the gangster film to the police procedural to the so-called social problem picture, and evidence a variety of visual approaches, from meat-and-potatoes Hollywood mainstream to outré. While many critics refer to film noir as a genre itself, others argue that it can be no such thing. Though noir is often associated with an urban setting, for example, many classic noirs take place mainly in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road, so setting can not be its genre determinant, as with the Western. Similarly, while the private eye and the femme fatale are character types conventionally identified with noir, the majority of film noirs feature neither, so there is no character basis for genre designation as with the gangster film. Nor does it rely on anything as evident as the monstrous or supernatural elements of the horror film, the speculative leaps of the science fiction film, or the song-and-dance routines of the musical.
A more analogous case is that of the screwball comedy, widely accepted by film historians as constituting a "genre"—the screwball is defined not by a fundamental attribute, but by a general disposition and a group of elements, some (but rarely and perhaps never all) of which are found in each of the genre's films. However, because of the diversity of noir (much greater than that of the screwball comedy), certain scholars in the field, such as film historian Thomas Schatz, treat it as not a genre but a "style." Alain Silver, the most widely published American critic specializing in film noir studies, refers to it as a "cycle" and a "phenomenon," even as he argues that it has—like certain genres—a consistent set of visual and thematic codes. Other critics treat film noir as a "mood," a "movement," or a "series," or simply address a chosen set of movies from the "period." There is no consensus on the matter.
By 1931, Curtiz had already been in Hollywood for half a decade, making as many as six films a year. Movies of his such as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) and Private Detective 62 (1933) are among the early Hollywood sound films arguably classifiable as noir. Giving Expressionist-affiliated moviemakers particularly free stylistic rein were Universal horror pictures such as Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932)—the former photographed and the latter directed by the Berlin-trained Karl Freund—and The Black Cat (1934), directed by Austrian émigré Edgar G. Ulmer. The Universal horror that comes closest to noir, both in story and sensibility, however, is The Invisible Man (1933), directed by Englishman James Whale and shot by American Carl Laemmle Jr.
The Vienna-born but largely American-raised Josef von Sternberg was directing in Hollywood at the same time. Films of his such as Shanghai Express (1932) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), with their hothouse eroticism and baroque visual style, specifically anticipate central elements of classic noir. The commercial and critical success of Sternberg's silent Underworld in 1927 was largely responsible for spurring a trend of Hollywood gangster films. Popular movies in the genre such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) demonstrated that there was an audience for crime dramas with morally reprehensible protagonists.
An important, and possibly influential, cinematic antecedent to classic noir was 1930s French poetic realism, with its romantic, fatalistic attitude and celebration of doomed heroes; an acknowledged influence on certain trends in noir was 1940s Italian neorealism, with its emphasis on quasi-documentary authenticity. (The Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang  presciently combines these sensibilities.) Director Jules Dassin of The Naked City (1948) pointed to the neorealists as inspiring his use of on-location photography with nonprofessional extras; three years earlier, The House on 92nd Street, directed by Henry Hathaway, demonstrated the parallel influence of the cinematic newsreel. A few movies now considered noir strove to depict comparatively ordinary protagonists with unspectacular lives in a manner occasionally evocative of neorealism—the most famous example is The Lost Weekend (1945), directed by Billy Wilder, yet another Vienna-born, Berlin-trained American auteur. (In turn, one of the primary influences on neorealism was the 1930 German film Menschen am Sonntag, codirected and cowritten by Siodmak, cowritten by Wilder, and codirected and produced by Ulmer.) Among those movies not themselves considered film noirs, perhaps none had a greater effect on the development of the genre than America's own Citizen Kane (1941), the landmark motion picture directed by Orson Welles. Its Sternbergian visual intricacy and complex, voiceover-driven narrative structure are echoed in dozens of classic film noirs.
The primary literary influence on film noir was the hardboiled school of American detective and crime fiction, led in its early years by such writers as Dashiell Hammett (whose first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929) and James M. Cain (whose The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared five years later), and popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. The classic film noirs The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Glass Key (1942) were based on novels by Hammett; Cain's novels provided the basis for Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Slightly Scarlet (1956; adapted from Love's Lovely Counterfeit). A decade before the classic era, a story of Hammett's was the source for the gangster melodrama City Streets (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian and photographed by Lee Garmes, who worked regularly with Sternberg. Wedding a style and story both with many noir characteristics, released the month before Lang's M, City Streets has a claim to being the first major film noir.
Raymond Chandler, who debuted as a novelist with The Big Sleep in 1939, soon became the most famous author of the hardboiled school. Not only were Chandler's novels turned into major noirs—Murder, My Sweet (1944; adapted from Farewell, My Lovely), The Big Sleep (1946), and Lady in the Lake (1947)—he was an important screenwriter in the genre as well, producing the scripts for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951). Where Chandler, like Hammett, centered most of his novels and stories on the character of the private eye, Cain featured less heroic protagonists and focused more on psychological exposition than on crime solving; the Cain approach has come to be identified with a subset of the hardboiled genre dubbed "noir fiction." For much of the 1940s, one of the most prolific and successful authors of this often downbeat brand of suspense tale was Cornell Woolrich (sometimes using the pseudonyms George Hopley or William Irish). No writer's published work provided the basis for more film noirs of the classic period than Woolrich's: thirteen in all, including Black Angel (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), and Fear in the Night (1947).
A crucial literary source for film noir, now often overlooked, was W. R. Burnett, whose first novel to be published was Little Caesar, in 1929. It would be turned into the hit for Warner Bros. in 1931; the following year, Burnett was hired to write dialogue for Scarface, while Beast of the City was adapted from one of his stories. Some critics regard these latter two movies as film noirs, despite their early date. Burnett's characteristic narrative approach fell somewhere between that of the quintessential hardboiled writers and their noir fiction compatriots—his protagonists were often heroic in their way, a way just happening to be that of the gangster. During the classic era, his work, either as author or screenwriter, was the basis for seven movies now widely regarded as film noirs, including three of the most famous: High Sierra (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Most of the film noirs of the classic period were similarly low- and modestly budgeted features without major stars—B movies either literally or in spirit. In this production context, writers, directors, cinematographers, and other craftsmen were relatively free from typical big-picture constraints. Enforcement of the Production Code ensured that no movie character could literally get away with murder or be seen sharing a bed with anyone but a spouse; within those bounds, however, many films now identified as noir feature plot elements and dialogue that were—in some cases, still are—quite risqué. Thematically, film noirs as a group were most exceptional for the relative frequency with which they centered on women of questionable virtue—a focus that had become rare in Hollywood films after the mid-1930s and the end of the pre-Code era. The signal movie in this vein was Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder; setting the mold was Barbara Stanwyck's unforgettable femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson—an apparent nod to Marlene Dietrich, who had built her extraordinary career playing such characters for Sternberg. An A-level feature all the way, the movie's commercial success and seven Oscar nominations made it probably the most influential of the early noirs. A slew of now-renowned noir "bad girls" would follow, such as those played by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947). The iconic noir counterpart to the femme fatale, the private eye, came to the fore in movies such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, and Murder, My Sweet (1944), with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe. Other seminal noir sleuths served larger institutions, such as Dana Andrews's police detective in Laura (1944), Edmond O'Brien's insurance investigator in The Killers, and Edward G. Robinson's government agent in The Stranger (1946).
Many claim that there is a significant distinction between the noirs of the 1940s and those of the 1950s—other than the relative disappearance of the private eye as a lead character there is no consensus on how that distinction manifests, but it often comes down to a view that the later classic noirs tend to be more "extreme" in one way or another. A prime example is Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, the best-selling of all the hardboiled authors, here the protagonist is a private eye, Mike Hammer. As described by Paul Schrader, "Robert Aldrich's teasing direction carries noir to its sleaziest and most perversely erotic. Hammer overturns the underworld in search of the 'great whatsit'...[which] turns out to be—joke of jokes—an exploding atomic bomb. Orson Welles's baroquely styled Touch of Evil (1958) is frequently cited as the last noir of the classic period. Some scholars believe film noir never really ended, but continued to transform even as the characteristic noir visual style began to seem dated and changing production conditions led Hollywood in different directions—in this view, post-1950s films in the noir tradition are seen as part of a continuity with classic noir. A majority of critics, however, regard comparable movies made outside the classic era to be something other than genuine film noirs. They regard true film noir as belonging to a temporally and geographically limited cycle or period, treating subsequent films that evoke the classics as fundamentally different due to general shifts in moviemaking style and latter-day awareness of noir as a historical source for allusion.
During these two decades in which noir is now seen as flourishing, conventional A films, however emotionally tortuous, were ultimately expected to convey positive, reassuring messages; in terms of style, invisible camerawork and editing techniques, flattering soft lighting schemes, and deluxely trimmed sets were the rule. The makers of film noir turned all this on its head, creating sophisticated, sometimes bleak dramas tinged with mistrust, cynicism, and a sense of the absurd, in settings that were frequently either real-life urban or budget-saving minimalist, with often strikingly expressionist lighting and unsettling techniques such as wildly skewed camera angles and convoluted flashbacks. The noir style gradually influenced the mainstream—even beyond Hollywood.
While the inceptive noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, was a B picture directed by a virtual unknown, many of the film noirs that have earned enduring fame were A-list productions by name-brand moviemakers. Debuting as a director with The Maltese Falcon (1941), John Huston followed with the major noirs Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Opinion is divided on the noir status of several of Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers from the era; at least four qualify by consensus: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), and The Wrong Man (1956). Otto Preminger's success with Laura (1944) made his name and helped establish 20th Century-Fox's reputation for well-appointed A noirs. Among Hollywood's most celebrated directors of the era, arguably none worked more often in a noir mode than Preminger—his other classic noirs include Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) (all for Fox) and Angel Face (1952). A half-decade after Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951), noirs that weren't so much crime dramas as satires on, respectively, Hollywood and the news media. In a Lonely Place (1950) was Nicholas Ray's breakthrough; his other noirs include his debut, They Live by Night (1948), and On Dangerous Ground (1952).
Orson Welles had notorious problems with financing, but his three film noirs were reasonably well budgeted: The Lady from Shanghai (1947) received top-level, "prestige" backing, while both The Stranger—his most conventional film—and Touch of Evil —an unmistakably personal work—were funded at levels lower but still commensurate with headlining releases. Like The Stranger, Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1945) was a production of the independent International Pictures. Lang's follow-up, Scarlet Street (1945), was one of the few classic noirs to be officially censored: filled with erotic innuendo, it was temporarily banned in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and New York State. Scarlet Street was a semi-independent—cosponsored by Universal and Lang's own Diana Productions, of which the movie's costar, Joan Bennett, was the second biggest shareholder. Lang, Bennett, and her husband, Universal veteran and Diana production head Walter Wanger, would make Secret Beyond the Door (1948) in similar fashion. Before he was forced abroad for political reasons, director Jules Dassin made two classic noirs that also straddled the major/independent line: Brute Force (1947) and the influential documentary-style Naked City were developed by producer Mark Hellinger, who had an "inside/outside" contract with Universal similar to Wanger's. Years earlier, working at Warner Bros., Hellinger had produced three films for Raoul Walsh, the proto-noirs They Drive by Night (1940) and Manpower (1941) and the recognized classic High Sierra (1941). Walsh had no great name recognition during his half-century as a working director, but his noirs—White Heat (1949) and The Enforcer (1951) would follow—had A-list stars and are now regarded as important examples of the cycle. In addition to the aforementioned, other directors associated with top-of-the-bill Hollywood film noirs include Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet ; Crossfire ), the first important noir director to fall prey to the industry blacklist, as well as Henry Hathaway (The Dark Corner , Kiss of Death ) and John Farrow (The Big Clock , His Kind of Woman ).
As noted above, however, most of the Hollywood films now considered classic noirs fall into the broad category of the "B movie. Some were Bs in the most precise sense, produced to run on the bottom of double bills by a low-budget unit of one of the major studios or by one of the smaller, so-called Poverty Row outfits, from the relatively well-off Monogram to shakier ventures such as Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Jacques Tourneur had made over thirty Hollywood Bs (a few now highly regarded, most completely forgotten) before directing the A-level Out of the Past, considered by some critics the pinnacle of classic noir. Movies with budgets a step up the ladder, known as "intermediates" within the industry, might be treated as A or B pictures depending on the circumstance—Monogram created a new unit, Allied Artists, in the late 1940s to focus on this sort of production. Such films have long colloquially been referred to as B movies. Robert Wise (Born to Kill , The Set-Up ) and Anthony Mann (T-Men , Raw Deal ) each made a series of impressive intermediates, many of them noirs, before graduating to steady work on big-budget productions. Mann did some of his finest work with cinematographer John Alton, a specialist in what critic James Naremore describes as "hypnotic moments of light-in-darkness. He Walked by Night (1948), shot by Alton and, though credited solely to Alfred Werker, directed in large part by Mann, demonstrates their technical mastery and exemplifies the late 1940s trend of "police procedural" crime dramas. Put out, like other Mann–Alton noirs, by the small Eagle-Lion company, it was the direct inspiration for the Dragnet series, which debuted on radio in 1949 and television in 1951.
Directors such as Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street , Underworld U.S.A. ), Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy , The Big Combo ), and Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential , The Brothers Rico ) built now well-respected oeuvres largely at the B-movie/intermediate level. (Dalton Trumbo—like Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten—wrote the Gun Crazy screenplay disguised by a front while still blacklisted.) The work of others such as Felix E. Feist (The Devil Thumbs a Ride , Tomorrow Is Another Day ) await critical rediscovery. Edgar G. Ulmer spent almost his entire Hollywood career working at B studios—once in a while on projects that achieved intermediate status; for the most part, on unmistakable Bs. In 1945, while at PRC, he directed one of the all-time noir cult classics, Detour. Ulmer's other noirs include Strange Illusion (1945), also for PRC; Blonde Ice (1948), distributed by tiny Film Classics; and Murder Is My Beat (1955), for Allied Artists.
A number of low and modestly budgeted noirs were made by independent, often actor-owned, companies contracting with one of the larger outfits for distribution. Serving as producer, writer, director, and "star," Hugo Haas made several such films, including Pickup (1951) and The Other Woman (1954). It was in this way that accomplished noir actress Ida Lupino became the sole female director in Hollywood during the late 1940s and much of the 1950s—her best-known film is The Hitch-Hiker (1953), developed by her company, The Filmakers, with support and distribution by RKO. It is one of the seven classic film noirs produced largely outside of the major studios that have been chosen to date for the United States National Film Registry. Of the others, one was a small-studio release: Detour. Four were independent productions distributed by United Artists, the "studio without a studio": Gun Crazy; Kiss Me Deadly; D.O.A. (1950), directed by Rudolph Maté; and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. One was an independent distributed by MGM, the industry leader: Force of Evil (1948), directed by Abraham Polonsky and starring John Garfield, both of whom would be blacklisted in the 1950s. Independent production usually meant restricted circumstances, but not always—Sweet Smell of Success, for instance, despite the original plans of the production team, was clearly not made on the cheap, though like many other cherished A-budget noirs it might be said to have a B-movie soul.
Perhaps no director better displayed that spirit than the German-born Robert Siodmak, who had already made a score of films before his 1940 arrival in Hollywood. Working mostly on A features, he made eight movies now regarded as classic film noirs (a figure matched only by Lang and Mann). In addition to The Killers, Burt Lancaster's debut and a Hellinger/Universal coproduction, Siodmak's other important contributions to the genre include 1944's Phantom Lady (a top-of-the-line B and Woolrich adaptation), the ironically titled Christmas Holiday (1944), and Cry of the City (1948). Criss Cross (1949), with Lancaster again the lead, exemplifies how Siodmak brought the virtues of the B-movie to the A noir. In addition to the relatively looser constraints on character and message at lower budgets, the nature of B production lent itself to the noir style for directly economic reasons: dim lighting not only saved on electrical costs but helped cloak cheap sets (mist and smoke also served the cause); night shooting was often compelled by hurried production schedules; plots with obscure motivations and intriguingly elliptical transitions were sometimes the consequence of scripts written in haste, not every scene of which was there always time or money to shoot. In Criss Cross, Siodmak achieves all these effects with purpose, wrapping them around Yvonne De Carlo, playing the most understandable of femme fatales, Dan Duryea, in one of his deliciously charismatic villain roles, and Lancaster—already an established star—as an ordinary joe turned armed robber, a romantic obsessive on a one-way road to ruin.
|Classic-era film noirs in the National Film Registry|
The Maltese Falcon |
Shadow of a Doubt |
Double Indemnity |
Mildred Pierce |
The Big Sleep | Notorious | Out of the Past | Force of Evil | The Naked City | White Heat
Gun Crazy |
Sunset Boulevard |
In a Lonely Place |
The Hitch-Hiker ||
Kiss Me Deadly | The Night of the Hunter | Sweet Smell of Success | Touch of Evil
During the classic period, there were many films produced outside the United States, particularly in France, that share elements of style, theme, and sensibility with American film noirs and may themselves be included in the genre's canon. In certain cases, the interrelationship with Hollywood noir is obvious: American-born director Jules Dassin moved to France in the early 1950s as a result of the Hollywood blacklist, and made one of the most famous French film noirs, Rififi (1955). Other well-known French films often classified as noir include Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Le Salaire de la peur (released in English-speaking countries as The Wages of Fear) (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), all directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; Casque d'or (1952) and Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), both directed by Jacques Becker; and Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958), directed by Louis Malle. French director Jean-Pierre Melville is widely recognized for his tragic, minimalist film noirs—Quand tu liras cette lettre (1953) and Bob le flambeur (1955), from the classic period, were followed by Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), and Le Cercle rouge (1970).
A number of thrillers produced in Great Britain during the classic period are also frequently referred to as film noirs, including Contraband (1940) and The Small Back Room (1949), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Brighton Rock (1947), directed by John Boulting; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), directed by Alberto Cavalcanti; and Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), directed by Lewis Gilbert. Terence Fisher directed several low-budget thrillers in a noir mode for Hammer Film Productions, including The Last Page (aka Man Bait; 1952), Stolen Face (1952), and Murder by Proxy (aka Blackout; 1954). Before leaving for France, Jules Dassin had been obliged by political pressure to shoot his last English-language film of the classic noir period in Great Britain: Night and the City (1950). Though it was conceived in the United States and was not only directed by an American but also stars two American actors—Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney—it is technically a UK production, financed by 20th Century-Fox's British subsidiary. The most famous of classic British noirs is director Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), like Brighton Rock based on a Graham Greene novel. Set in Vienna immediately after World War II, it stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, both prominent American actors who starred in U.S. film noirs; despite being a completely British production, the movie is sometimes discussed as if it is a classic Hollywood noir.
Elsewhere, Italian director Luchino Visconti adapted Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice as Ossessione (1943), regarded both as one of the great noirs and a seminal film in the development of neorealism. (This was not even the first screen version of Cain's novel, having been preceded by the French Le Dernier tournant in 1939.) In Japan, the celebrated Akira Kurosawa directed several movies recognizable as film noirs, including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), and High and Low (1963).
Among the first major neo-noir films—the term often applied to movies that consciously refer back to the classic noir tradition—was the French Tirez sur la pianiste (1960), directed by François Truffaut from a novel by one of the gloomiest of American noir fiction writers, David Goodis. Noir crime films and melodramas have been produced in many countries in the post-classic area, some of them quintessentially self-aware neo-noirs—for example, Il Conformista (1969; Italy), Der Amerikanische Freund (1977; Germany), The Element of Crime (1984; Denmark), As Tears Go By (1988; Hong Kong)—others simply sharing narrative elements and a version of the hardboiled sensibility associated with classic noir—The Castle of Sand (1974; Japan), Insomnia (1997; Norway), Croupier (1998; UK), Blind Shaft (2003; China).
In a different vein, filmmakers such as Arthur Penn (Mickey One , clearly drawing inspiration from Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste and other French New Wave films), John Boorman (Point Blank , similarly caught up, though in the Nouvelle vague's deeper waters), and Alan J. Pakula (Klute ) directed movies that knowingly related themselves to the original film noirs, inviting audiences in on the game. Conscious acknowledgment of the classic era's conventions, as historical archetypes to be revived, rejected, or reimagined, is what puts the "neo" in neo-noir, according to many critics. Though several late classic noirs, Kiss Me Deadly in particular, were entirely self-knowing and post-traditional in conception, none that were top- or midbudgeted (like Aldrich's masterpiece) tipped its hand in a way noticeable to most audiences of the time. The first broadly popular crime drama of an unmistakable neo-noir nature was not a movie, but the TV series Peter Gunn (1958–61), created by Blake Edwards.
A manifest affiliation with noir traditions—which, by its nature, allows for different sorts of commentary on them to be inferred—can also provide the basis for explicit critiques of those traditions. The first major film to work this angle (that might be thought of as the most "neo" of "neo") was French director Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle (Breathless; 1960), which pays its literal respects to Bogart and his crime films while brandishing a bold new style for a new day. In 1973, director Robert Altman, who had worked on Peter Gunn, flipped off noir piety with The Long Goodbye. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, it features one of Bogart's most famous characters, but in iconoclastic fashion: Philip Marlowe, the prototypical hardboiled detective, is replayed as a hapless misfit, almost laughably out of touch with contemporary mores and morality. Where Altman's subversion of the film noir mythos was so irreverent as to anger many contemporary critics, around the same time Woody Allen was paying affectionate, at points idolatrous homage to the classic mode with Play It Again, Sam (1972).
The most acclaimed of the neo-noirs of the era was director Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown. Written by Robert Towne, it is set in 1930s Los Angeles, an accustomed noir locale nudged back some few years in a way that makes the pivotal loss of innocence in the story even crueler. Where Polanski and Towne raised noir to a black apogee by turning rearward, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader brought the noir attitude crashing into the present day with Taxi Driver (1976), a cackling, bloody-minded gloss on bicentennial America. In 1978, Walter Hill wrote and directed the The Driver, a chase movie as might have been imagined by Jean-Pierre Melville in an especially abstract mood. Hill was already a central figure in 1970s noir of a more straightforward manner, having written the script for director Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972), adapting a novel by pulp master Jim Thompson, as well as for two tough private eye films: an original screenplay for Hickey & Boggs (1972) and an adaptation of a novel by Ross Macdonald, the leading literary descendant of Hammett and Chandler, for The Drowning Pool (1975). Some of the strongest 1970s noirs, in fact, were unwinking remakes of the classics, "neo" mostly be default: Altman's heartbreaking Thieves Like Us (1973), based on the same source as Ray's They Live by Night, and Farewell, My Lovely (1975), the Chandler tale made classically as Murder, My Sweet, remade here with Robert Mitchum in his last notable noir role. Detective series, prevalent on American television during the period, updated the hardboiled tradition in different ways, but the show conjuring the most noir tone was a horror crossover touched with shaggy, Long Goodbye–style humor: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–75), featuring a Chicago newspaper reporter investigating strange, usually supernatural occurrences.
The turn of the decade brought Scorsese's black-and-white Raging Bull (cowritten by Schrader); an acknowledged masterpiece—often voted the greatest film of the 1980s in critics' polls—it is also a retreat, telling a story of a boxer's moral self-destruction that recalls in both theme and visual ambience noir dramas such as Body and Soul (1947) and Champion (1949). From 1981, the popular Body Heat, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, invokes a different set of classic noir elements, this time in a humid, erotically charged Florida setting; its success confirmed the commercial viability of neo-noir, at a time when the major Hollywood studios were becoming increasingly risk averse. The mainstreaming of neo-noir is evident in such films as Black Widow (1987), Shattered (1991), and Final Analysis (1992). Few neo-noirs have made more money or more wittily updated the tradition of the noir double-entendre than Basic Instinct (1992), directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas. Over the past twenty-five years, the big-budget auteur to work most frequently in a neo-noir mode has been Michael Mann, with the films Thief (1981), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004), and the 1980s TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story. Mann's output exemplifies a primary strain of neo-noir, in which classic themes and tropes are revisited in a contemporary setting with an up-to-date visual style and rock- or hip hop–based musical soundtrack. Like Chinatown, its more complex predecessor, Curtis Hanson's Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential (1997), based on the James Ellroy novel, demonstrates an opposite tendency—the deliberately retro film noir; its tale of corrupt cops and femme fatales is seemingly lifted straight from a movie of 1953, the year in which it is set.
Working generally with much smaller budgets, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have created one of the most substantial film oeuvres influenced by classic noir, with movies such as Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996), considered by some a supreme work in the neo-noir mode. The Coens' most recent nod to the noir tradition is The Man Who Wasn't There (2001); a black-and-white crime melodrama set in 1949, it features a scene apparently staged to mirror the one from Out of the Past pictured above. The Coens cross noir with other generic lines in the gangster drama Miller's Crossing (1990)—loosely based on the Dashiell Hammett novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key—and the comedy The Big Lebowski (1998), a tribute to Chandler and an homage to Altman's version of The Long Goodbye.
Perhaps no contemporary films better reflect the classic noir A-movie-with-a-B-movie-soul than those of director-writer Quentin Tarantino; neo-noirs of his such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) display a relentlessly self-reflexive, sometimes tongue-in-cheek sensibility, similar to the work of the New Wave directors and the Coens. Other movies from the era readily identifiable as neo-noir (some retro, some more au courant) include director John Dahl's Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1992), and The Last Seduction (1993); four adaptations of novels by Jim Thompson—The Kill-Off (1989), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), The Grifters (1990), and the remake of The Getaway (1994); and many more, including adaptations of the work of other major noir fiction writers: The Hot Spot (1990), from Hell Hath No Fury, by Charles Williams; Miami Blues (1990), from the novel by Charles Willeford; and Out of Sight (1998), from the novel by Elmore Leonard. On television, the series Moonlighting (1985–89) paid homage to classic noir while demonstrating an unusual appreciation of the sense of humor often found in the original cycle. Between 1983 and 1989, Mickey Spillane's hardboiled private eye Mike Hammer was played with wry gusto by Stacy Keach in a series and several stand-alone TV movies (an unsuccessful revival followed in 1997–98). The British miniseries The Singing Detective (1986), written by Dennis Potter, tells the story of a mystery writer named Philip Marlow; widely considered one of the finest neo-noirs in any medium, some critics cite it as the greatest television production of all time.
Among the leading Hollywood directors of noir during the current decade has been the British-born Christopher Nolan, with the acclaimed Memento (2000), the remake of Insomnia (2002), and his dark-toned superhero films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). Harsh Times (2006) is written and directed by David Ayer, also the screenwriter for Training Day (2001) and, adapting a story by James Ellroy, Dark Blue (2002). The latter two update the classic noir bad-cop tale, typified by Shield for Murder (1954) and Rogue Cop (1954). In 2005, Shane Black directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, basing his screenplay in part on a crime novel by Brett Halliday, who published his first stories back in the 1920s. The film plays with an awareness not only of classic noir but also of neo-noir reflexivity itself, making it a model neo²-noir. Director Sean Penn's The Pledge (2001), though adapted from a very self-reflexive novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, plays noir comparatively straight, to devastating effect. The most commercially successful of recent neo-noirs is Sin City (2005), directed by Robert Rodriguez in extravagantly stylized black and white with the odd bit of color. The film is based on a series of comic books created by Frank Miller (credited as the movie's codirector), which are in turn openly indebted to the works of Spillane and other pulp mystery authors. Similarly, graphic novels provide the basis for Road to Perdition (2002), directed by Sam Mendes, and A History of Violence (2005), directed by David Cronenberg; the latter, according to many critics, is the neo-noir of the decade. Writer-director Rian Johnson's Brick (2005), featuring present-day high schoolers speaking a version of 1930s hardboiled argot, won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. The television series Veronica Mars (2004–7) also brought a youth-oriented twist to film noir.
The characteristic work of David Lynch combines film noir tropes with scenarios driven by disturbed characters such as the sociopathic criminal played by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (1986). Lost Highway (1996) and Mulholland Drive (2001) feature delusionary protagonists. The Twin Peaks cycle, both TV series (1990–91) and movie, Fire Walk with Me (1992), is built on a succession of bizarro spasms. This Lynchian mode has come to be grouped with other noir-influenced films sharing similarly skewed centers of interest as "psycho-noir." Two of the earliest examples after Blue Velvet are literary adaptations directed by David Cronenberg, Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996).
Director David Fincher followed the noir science fiction of Alien³ (1992) and the immensely successful neo-noir Se7en (1995) with a film that earns much greater regard today than it did on original release, the psycho-noir Fight Club (1999). Nolan's Memento, as well as his debut feature, the British Following (1998), may both be classified as psycho-noir. The torments of The Machinist (2004), directed by Brad Anderson, evoke both Fight Club and Memento. In the first decade of the new millennium, Park Chan-wook of South Korea has been the most prominent director to work regularly in a psycho-noir mode—a current of noir that can be traced back through Taxi Driver, through Brainstorm, through White Heat, all the way to Stranger on the Third Floor and further still, to Fritz Lang's original M.
In the post-classic era, the most significant trend in noir crossovers has involved science fiction. In Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), Lemmy Caution is the name of the old-school private eye in the city of tomorrow. The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972) centers on another implacable investigator and an amnesiac named Welles. Soylent Green (1973), the first major American example, portrays a dystopian, near-future world via a self-evidently noir detection plot; starring Charlton Heston (the lead in Touch of Evil), it also features classic noir standbys Joseph Cotten, Edward G. Robinson, and Whit Bissell. The movie was directed by Richard Fleischer, who two decades before had directed several strong B noirs, including Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952).
The cynical and stylish perspective of classic film noir had a formative effect on the cyberpunk genre of science fiction that emerged in the early 1980s; the movie most directly influential on cyberpunk was Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, which pays clear and evocative homage to the classic noir mode (Scott would subsequently direct the poignant noir crime melodrama Someone to Watch Over Me ). Scholar Jamaluddin Bin Aziz has observed how "the shadow of Philip Marlowe lingers on" in such other "future noir" films as Twelve Monkeys (1995), Dark City (1998), and Minority Report (2002). The hero is the target of investigation in Gattaca (1997), which fuses film noir motifs with a scenario indebted to Brave New World. The Thirteenth Floor (1999), like Blade Runner, is an explicit homage to classic noir, in this case involving speculations about virtual reality. Science fiction, noir, and animation are brought together in the Japanese films Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), both directed by Mamoru Oshii, and the short A Detective Story (2003), set in the Matrix universe.
Film noir has been parodied many times, in many manners. In 1945, Danny Kaye starred in what appears to be the first intentional film noir parody, Wonder Man. That same year, Deanna Durbin was the singing lead in the comedic noir Lady on a Train, which makes fun of Woolrich-brand wistful miserablism. Bob Hope inaugurated the private-eye noir parody with My Favorite Brunette (1947), playing a baby photographer who is mistaken for an ironfisted detective. The Big Steal (1949), directed by Don Siegel, and His Kind of Woman, are both clear examples of the classic film noir parodying itself. The "Girl Hunt" ballet in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953) is a ten-minute distillation of—and play on—noir in dance. The Cheap Detective (1978), starring Peter Falk, is a broad parody of several films, including the Bogart classics The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Carl Reiner's "cut and paste" noir farce, the black-and-white Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), is a well known example of the obviously comedic latter-day parodies. Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) develops a noir plot set in 1940s L.A. around a host of cartoon characters.
Noir parodies come in darker tones as well. Murder by Contract (1958), directed by Irving Lerner, is an eighty-one-minute-long deadpan joke on noir, with a denouement as bleak as any of the movies it kids. An ultra-low-budget Columbia Pictures production, it may qualify as the first intentional example of what is now called a neo-noir film; it certainly seems to have been a source of inspiration for Melville's Le Samouraï and Scorsese's Taxi Driver. One of the quintessential 1970s neo-noirs, Taxi Driver caustically deconstructs the "dark" crime film, taking it to an absurd extreme and then offering a conclusion that manages to mock every possible anticipated ending—triumphant, tragic, artfully ambivalent—while being each, all at once. Flirting with splatter status even more brazenly, the Coens' Blood Simple is both an exacting pastiche and an exaggeration of classic noir. Adapted by director Robinson Devor from a novel by Charles Willeford, The Woman Chaser (1999) sends up not just the noir mode but the entire Hollywood filmmaking process, with seemingly each shot staged as the visual equivalent of a Marlowe wisecrack—funny, but it smarts.
In other media, the television series Sledge Hammer! (1986–88) lampoons noir, along with Dirty Harry, capital punishment, and anything else available. Sesame Street (1969–curr.) occasionally casts Kermit the Frog as a private eye; the sketches refer to some of the typical motifs of noir movies, in particular the voiceover. Garrison Keillor's radio program A Prairie Home Companion features the recurring character Guy Noir, a hardboiled detective whose adventures always wander into farce (Guy also appears in the Altman-directed film based on Keillor's show). Firesign Theatre's Nick Danger has trod the same not-so-mean streets, both on radio and in comedy albums. Cartoons such as Garfield's Babes and Bullets (1989) and comic strip characters such as Tracer Bullet of Calvin and Hobbes have parodied both film noir and the kindred hardboiled tradition—one of the sources from which film noir sprang and which it now overshadows.
The history of film noir criticism has seen fundamental questions become matters of controversy unusually intense for such a field. Where aesthetic debates tend to concentrate on the quality and meaning of specific artworks and the intentions and influences of their creators, in film noir, the debates are regularly much broader. Four large questions may be identified, two of them addressed at the beginning of this article:
A third question applies at a more specific level, but is sweeping:
This article refers to movies from the classic period as "film noir" if there is a critical consensus supporting that designation. That consensus is almost never complete and is in many cases provisional: The Lost Weekend and The Night of the Hunter, for instance, are now routinely referred to as film noirs, but they were seldom considered as such a quarter-century ago. The process is ongoing: today, a growing number of critics refer to Suspicion (1941), directed by Hitchcock, and Casablanca (1942), directed by Curtiz, as film noirs. Outside of the classic period, consensus is much rarer—movies are considered as noir herein if a substantial number of critics have discussed them as such. In order to decide which films are noir (and which are not), many critics refer to a set of elements they see as marking examples of the mode. This leads to a fourth major point of controversy in the field, one that overlaps with all those noted above:
For instance, some critics insist that a film noir, to be authentic, must have a bleak conclusion (e.g., Criss Cross or D.O.A.), but many acknowledged classics of the genre have clearly happy endings (e.g., Stranger on the Third Floor, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and The Dark Corner), while the tone of many other noir denouements is ambivalent, in a variety of ways. The ambition of this section, then, can be no more than modest: it is an attempt to survey those characteristics most often cited by critics as representative of classic film noirs. As diverse as that set of movies is, the diversity of films from outside the classic period that have been discussed as noir is so great that any similar survey would be impractical; however, those classic noir identifying marks often referenced in neo-noirs—however frequently or seldom they actually appeared in the original films—are noted as are certain signal trends of the latter-day mode.
Film noirs tended to use low-key lighting schemes producing stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning. The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in film noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters' faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness—a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood moviemaking. While black-and-white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir, color films such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Niagara (1953), Slightly Scarlet, and Vertigo (1958) are regarded as noir by varying numbers of critics.
Film noir is also known for its use of Dutch angles, low-angle shots, and wide-angle lenses. Other devices of disorientation relatively common in film noir include shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and special effects sequences of a sometimes bizarre nature. Beginning in the late 1940s, location shooting—often involving night-for-night sequences—became increasingly frequent in noir.
In an analysis of the visual approach of Kiss Me Deadly, a late and self-consciously stylized example of classic noir, critic Alain Silver describes how cinematographic choices emphasize the story's themes and mood. In one scene, the characters, seen through a "confusion of angular shapes," thus appear "caught in a tangible vortex or enclosed in a trap." Silver makes a case for how "[s]ide light is used...to reflect character ambivalence," while shots of characters in which they are lit from below "conform to a convention of visual expression which associates shadows cast upward of the face with the unnatural and ominous.
Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic heroes of noir are described by many critics as "alienated"; in the words of Silver and Ward, "filled with existential bitterness. Certain archetypal characters appear in many film noirs—hardboiled detectives, femmes fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, intrepid claims adjusters, and down-and-out writers. As can be observed in many movies of an overtly neo-noir nature, the private eye and the femme fatale are the character types with which film noir has come to be most identified, but only a minority of movies now regarded as classic noir feature either. For example, of the nineteen National Film Registry noirs, in only four does the star play a private eye: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly. Just two others readily qualify as detective stories: Laura and Touch of Evil.
Film noir is often associated with an urban setting, and a few cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, in particular—are the location of many of the classic films. In the eyes of many critics, the city is presented in noir as a "labyrinth" or "maze." Bars, lounges, nightclubs, and gambling dens are frequently the scene of action. The climaxes of a substantial number of film noirs take place in visually complex, often industrial settings, such as refineries, factories, trainyards, power plants—most famously the explosive conclusion of White Heat. In the popular (and, frequently enough, critical) imagination, in noir it is always night and it always rains.
A substantial trend within latter-day noir—dubbed "film soleil" by critic D. K. Holm—heads in precisely the opposite direction, with tales of deception, seduction, and corruption exploiting bright, sun-baked settings, stereotypically the desert or open water, to caustic effect. Significant predecessors from the classic and early post-classic eras include The Lady from Shanghai; the Robert Ryan vehicle Inferno (1953); the French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plein soleil (Purple Noon in the U.S., better rendered elsewhere as Blazing Sun or Full Sun; 1960); and director Don Siegel's version of The Killers (1964). The tendency was at its peak during the late 1980s and 1990s, with films such as Dead Calm (1989); After Dark, My Sweet; The Hot Spot; Delusion (1991); and Red Rock West, and TV's Miami Vice, which premiered in 1984 and turned increasingly mordant over its five-year run.
Rather than focusing on simple "black and white" decisions, film noirs tend to pose moral quandaries that are unusually ambiguous and relative—at least within the context of Hollywood cinema. Characters that do pursue goals based on clear-cut moral standards may be more than willing to let the "ends justify the means." For example, the investigator hero of The Stranger, obsessed with tracking down a Nazi war criminal, places other people in mortal danger in order to capture his target. Whereas the Production Code obliged almost all classic noirs to see that steadfast virtue was ultimately rewarded and vice, in the absence of shame and redemption, severely punished (however dramatically incredible the final rendering of mandatory justice might be), a substantial number of latter-day noirs flout such conventions; in their very different ways, the conclusions of Chinatown and The Hot Spot provide two clear examples.
The tone of film noir is generally regarded as downbeat; some critics experience it as darker still—"overwhelmingly black," according to Robert Ottoson. Influential critic (and filmmaker) Paul Schrader wrote in a seminal 1972 essay that "film noir is defined by tone," a tone he seems to perceive as "hopeless. In describing the adaptation of Double Indemnity, leading noir analyst Foster Hirsch describes the "requisite hopeless tone" achieved by the filmmakers, which appears to characterize his view of noir as a whole. On the other hand, definitive film noirs such as The Big Sleep, The Lady from Shanghai, and Double Indemnity itself are famed for their hardboiled repartee, often imbued with sexual innuendo and self-reflexive humor—notes of another tone.