In 1946, as France slowly returned to normal after WWII, five American films that shared a dark, hard-edged look, and a strong feeling of alienation, were shown for the first time in Parisian theaters. Although each film ( "The Maltese Falcon", "Laura", "Murder, My Sweet", "Double Indemnity", and "The Woman in the Window" ) had a number of traits in common (style, atmosphere, and general subject matter), they didn't seem to fit into any specific film genre. Along with other American films that quickly followed, they seemed to be part of a unique new series marked by cynicism, violence, crime and/or death, unclear motives, and morally ambivalent characters.
The French critics began categorizing these haunting new American films as Film Noir (literally, "Black Film" or "Dark Film").
Classic noir is often marked from Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and The Maltese Falcon
(1941) to The Third Man(1958). Noir films were mainly shot in black and white. Film noir descended from the crime/gangster sagas of the 1930s, but is different in tone and character. While Hollywood tried to keep morale up with musicals and comedies during World War II, film noir looked at a more realistic and cynical view of life that the devastating World War had revealed. After World War II audience were ready for a different kind of movie. Classic noir took advantage of the postwar and Cold War era feelings of anxiety, paranoia and suspicion.
The movies were usually shot by smaller studios without big budgets or major stars. The writers and directors were free from the major studios formula driven pictures that contained wholesome positive messages and heroic stars with no flaws. Noir turned all this on its head, creating bleak, intelligent dramas tinged with nihilism and cynicism, in real-life urban settings, and using unsettling techniques such as the confessional voice-over or camera view from the hero's eye. The heroes were flawed, real people. Gradually the noir style re-influenced the mainstream it had subverted.
Although defining Film Noir is difficult it seems that the key elements that link all Films Noir together are the moral ambiguity of the plot and the characters, and an underlying sense of pessimism, fatality and alienation.
Some Elements often Identified with Film Noir
- An urban setting
- A lack of comic structure
- A denial by the main characters of the attainability of conventional happiness
- A voice-over narration and flashback
- A crime is usually at the heart of the story
- Low and high angle camera techniques
- The story is usually told from the perspective of the criminals, not the police (but not always)
- Visual motif that uses strong directional lighting and deep shadows
- An inverted view of traditional sources of authority, such as corrupt police
- Unstable alliances and allegiances
- The femme fatale-the woman who causes the downfall and/or death of a good man
- Brutal violence
- Bizarre plot twists and motivations (often told in non linear style)
- Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name. 2002. The University of Kentucky Press.