Film Noir: A Working Definition

The term `film noir' is a messy one. This is how I define it.


  • The very term `film noir' came after its first claimed exemplars. It was coined, after the pulp paperback imprint Serie Noir, by a french critic when French cinemas flooded with Hollywood movies after the fall of Germany in 1945. Seeing these films all at once, contrasted with the memories of sunny, more hopeful Hollywood productions from the pre-war period, the French were struck at a very evident change in the sensibilities of studio filmmakers.

    • It is important to remember, though, that in Hollywood itself, the term film noir' was not used, and the men and women who made the movies that were later called film noir, were unaware they were making any such thing -- that any such thing existed. They instead were working within the standard genres Hollywood had laid down long before, such as Westerns, dramas, crime films, mysteries, musicals, biopics and the like. So in a very real sense,film noir' is an artificial distinction, an alien term from outside Hollywood.
  • Film noir belongs to an historical period of roughly the 1940s and 1950s. The trend reached its strong height in the late 1940s and during the 1950s gradually ebbed away in the face of more moralistic Westerns and the gray flannel suit era of rising suburbia.

  • The roots of film noir come out of several trends both within and outside of America, including films of the late 1930s France and mid-1920s Germany, crime novels and pulps of 1930s America, psychoanalysis, events of the war, and anxieties of big city living.

  • All these combined to manifest in a sensibility or attitude in American popular culture in all media -- radio, fiction, comic books, and movies.

The sensibility

  • The sensibility or attitude inherent in film noir can be summed up in 7 words: the world is darker than you think.

  • Darkness

    • I am deliberately vague when I use the word darkness' because the sensibility that lay behind film noir was never defined or sharply outlined at the time, either among those who produced this type of tale, nor among those who consumed it. More: the trend came upon the public gradually, so that it took an outsider sitting in cinemas in Paris, seeing the movies of the past half-dozen years all at once, even to mark the change that, now we have the termfilm noir' to aid our perception, seems so plain to us.

    • Darkness exists in many senses here:

      • dark as in unknown -- and unknowable
      • dark as in mysterious (hence the popularity of mystery tales in the noir era)
      • dark as in inspiring terror or fear or dreaddark as in sinful, bad, or evil
      • dark as in night, and the things that pertain to the nightland, including dreams (the opening through which Freudian psychoanalysis crept into the movies)
      • dark as in shadows
      • dark as in death and mourning
      • dark as in the alien, foreign, and strange (akin to the mysterious)

The definition

  • With these thoughts in mind I define film noir then as:

    • The manifestation in commercial Hollywood movies of the general sensibility in American culture between roughly 1940--1960 that the world is darker than you think.
  • Darker' carries its own implications. Once any depth ofdarkness' in whatever form the darkness might take, has been marked and plumbed, later noir tales must take us deeper -- darker. It is not enough, once heroes have been proven to be corrupt, to show us another corrupt hero. He must be more corrupt, or corrupt in some darker sense -- twisted, sick in the head. Once a certain ugliness of aspect has been revealed to us, we need the next one to be darker, and uglier.

  • Such a tendency is common to most artistic movements. The creators strive to capture some sensibility, some aesthetic. They move deeper into its realm, and achieve greater mastery over depicting it. Audiences want more of the frisson, the shock of the new sensation. Until it wears itself out. It can go no farther, can expose no more, can achieve no greater mastery. And a new sensibility takes its place.

Last built: Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 9:41 AM

By SWP Pond, Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 4:13 PM. Only steal from the best.