Most audiences have seen that quick-talking, gin-soaked hero before. It’s the private eye type that sits in a dive bar swirling with cigarette smoke, as well as the untouchable villain that wreaks havoc from a cushy armchair and has a list of dirty cops at beck and call. This is noir at its finest.
The noir genre resulted from German Expressionists emigrating to Hollywood and the increasingly cynical outlook of post-World War II America. Initially considered to be B-movies, this gritty genre produced string of quality films – often with stories adapted from pulp novels – characterized by cynicism and moral decay in society.
Their cinematography features overwhelming shadows that create a sharp contrast between light and dark – a result of the German Expressionism influence – and dialogue that is witty and fast paced. Usually they center on detectives, or some figure on the right side of the law who is immersed in the seedy underbelly of society while seeming to be completely outmatched. Their contributions to the world of cinema also include many quintessential murder mystery tropes and the iconic “femme fatale.”
Though the “true noir” era is considered to be between the 1940s and 1950s, its influence is evident in many films. It has even lead to the creation of a sub-genre, neo-noir. The following ten films are either true noir and neo-noir, but they all showcase the genre’s strengths.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Directed by John Huston
What it’s about: Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a San Francisco detective chasing down leads about the sudden death of his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), after he is hired by a mysterious woman. With the police looking to pin it all on him, Spade finds himself in the company of the nefarious Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) in search the truth. The bond that links them all is the quest for a statue called The Maltese Falcon.
Why it’s noir: Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name captures the bleak reality that noir strives to show. Human life holds little value, and there are menacing villains whose greed is unparalleled. By the end, there’s no mistaking Spade’s true meaning when he uncovers the “stuff that dreams are made of…”
Double Indemnity (1944) – Directed by Billy Wilder
What it’s about: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) plays an insurance broker who is conned into the murder of Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) cold and distant husband, so she can collect on his life insurance policy. In order to do so, Neff must commit insurance fraud, lying to his company’s insurance analyst, and his best friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). It is only when Neff meets Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola (Jean Heather), he realizes that the seductive Phyllis had a greater plan in the works the entire time.
Why it’s noir: Like Huston, Wilder relied on a novel for the story – James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. What makes this film an excellent example of noir is the lack of morality. An insurance agent is manipulating his own system for personal gain. Phyllis is willing to kill her own husband for a profit. Only Keyes shows any integrity in a world filled with deception. Also, Phyllis Dietrichson’s violent nature and use of Neff as a pawn is typical of a femme fatale.
The Big Sleep (1946) – Directed by Howard Hawks
What it’s about: Hawks takes Raymond Chandler’s famous novel to the big screen with Humphrey Bogart as the iconic Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a private eye hired by a wealthy family to investigate a series of issues plaguing them, including blackmail and the disappearance of a son-in-law. After meeting the vivacious Vivian (Lauren Bacall), her flirtatious younger sister, Carmen (Martha Vickers), and their ailing father, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), Marlowe is sucked into a world of extortion and murder as he uncovers the ugly truth.
Why it’s noir: Since his performance in “The Maltese Falcon,” Bogart appears to have become even saltier than before. Though he’s cynical, it’s clear Marlowe isn’t doing this job for money, but rather for the principle of the matter. What makes his journey even more difficult is the level of deceit he’s dealing with. His uphill battle to find a little bit of justice in a wicked world embodies the trials and tribulations of a noir hero.
Out of the Past (1947) – Directed by Jacques Tourneur
What it’s about: Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is a former private eye that is trying to escape his mysterious past and start anew with his girlfriend, Ann (Virginia Huston), in a quaint little California suburb. When he’s summoned by a powerful crime lord and his former employer, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), Jeff is pulled back into his former lifestyle as he relives all his past mistakes – including his relationship with Sterling’s mistress, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer).
Why it’s noir: Tourneur’s take on Daniel Mainwaring’s novel, Build My Gallows High, incorporates a fantastic use of shadows. It has been noted by film scholars that the shadows in “Out of the Past” envelope many of the characters – symbolizing the inescapable darkness of human nature and moral decay. Also, Kathie Moffat’s stunning appearance and duplicitous ways embody everything that is a femme fatale.
Chinatown (1974) – Directed by Roman Polanski
What it’s about: J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private detective hired by a woman claiming to be a wealthy socialite, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), to expose her cheating husband. It is only when the real Evelyn Mulwray sues him for invasion of privacy that Gittes finds out he’s been pulled into a twisted web of murder, deception, and greed. Somehow, it all leads to millionaire Noah Cross (John Huston).
Why it’s noir: Robert Towne’s script is filled with fantastic dialogue. With Jack Nicholson delivering most of it, each word is even snappier and smoother than it is on the page. Aside from the typical private eye motif, Polanski also has John Huston, the same John Huston of “The Maltese Falcon,” as a major player in the film. It’s hard to imagine casting a major figure in the noir genre was just a coincidence.
Se7en (1995) – Directed by David Fincher
What it’s about: A rookie detective, Mills (Brad Pitt), is partnered with a veteran, Somerset (Morgan Freeman), to stop a serial killer obsessed with the seven deadly sins. Both men are pulled into the eerie and bleak world of the serial killer, who eventually begins terrorizing them.
Why it’s noir: Undoubtedly the most gruesome film on the list, “Se7en” boasts many tropes of noir in a contemporary setting. First off, it centers on a murder and the detectives that solve it. At the start of the film, Mills is considered a rookie, innocent to the sleazy underworld he is about to enter. By the end, he is anything but innocent. Also, Mills and Somerset’s dialogue would be the R-rated version of Philip Marlowe’s or Jeff Bailey’s vocabulary, but it still conveys their cynical but altruistic nature. Another element that is undoubtedly noir is the use of shadows. Characters are overtaken by darkness, again alluding to the cynical world they inhabit. This is paralleled with the fact that both detectives are overpowered and outmatched by their target.
The Usual Suspects (1995) – Directed by Bryan Singer
What it’s about: Verbal (Kevin Spacey) is the only survivor from his gang after a horrific shootout. While he is in police custody, Verbal is interrogated by Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) to decipher what transpired during the shooting. Kujan listens to Verbal as he recalls how the gang was assembled after a police lineup, and he learns of a mysterious and unknown criminal called Keyzer Soze.
Why it’s noir: Though the use of shadow isn’t as overpowering as something like “Out of the Past,” Singer employs cinematography with distinct very crisp and distinct lines, which creates the classic grit of a noir flick. What makes “The Usual Suspects” interesting is that it’s from the perspective of the villain. Though the audience isn’t deprived of a law figure in Kujan, the main focal point of the story is from career bad guy Verbal.
L.A. Confidential (1997) – Directed by Curtis Hanson
What it’s about: Set in 1950s Los Angeles, three policemen – Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Bud White (Russell Crowe), and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) – investigate a series of murders. What separates them all is their investigative methods and personal motivation. However, they must each navigate corruption and the parasitic tabloid journalists as they try to solve the murders.
Why it’s noir: Like so many of the aforementioned films, Hanson’s project is an adaptation of a book – James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential. Besides corruption and murder, it’s also chock full of slang like “shitbird” and “greaseball” to authenticate the traditional noir era. Its main goal is to capture the disillusionment of 1950s America, as each detective has a different idea of doing what is “right,” while others look to keep things “hush-hush” and will do anything to keep the illusion going and the truth covered up.
Brick (2005) – Directed by Rian Johnson
What it’s about: A high schooler, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), finds his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie De Ravin), dead in a ravine. It’s only after that he explores the circumstances of her death that he uncovers a crime ring in his high school, run by a shady character known as The Pin (Lukas Haas).
Why it’s noir: Do not be fooled by the high school setting. Even though Brendan reports to a principal instead of a police chief, he absolutely fits the mold of a noir-style detective. He’s driven by an inherent desire to do good, even though there’s evil surrounding him. Brendan also has his own femme fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner). From a production aspect, this film also aligns itself with the noir genre. Between the low budget and limited release, “Brick” is considered a B-movie, much like “Out of the Past” and “Double Indemnity.”
The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, and 2012) – Directed by Christopher Nolan
What it’s about: Nolan chronicles the famed cape crusader/billionaire, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), in his quest to protect Gotham from unwavering evil. Whether it is the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), The Joker (Heath Ledger), or Bane (Tom Hardy), Wayne spends little time in his penthouse and more time in the underbelly of the city, breaking up crime rings and thwarting wicked plans.
Why it is noir: While this is definitely a comic adaptation first, at its core the story is about Gotham’s greatest detective solving crimes. Like so many other noir stories, there are a string of murderers and mobsters with corrupt politicians in their pocket. While Wayne doesn’t sip on gin and chain smoke, he has the bold sense of right and wrong. Wayne is destroying himself to ensure the bad guy doesn’t always win. Nolan also utilizes a great contrast between darkness and light to makes the audience feel the malicious atmosphere that envelopes the city.Continue Reading Issue #27
Any information on the formation of the Noir genre is credited to the following:
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment Spring (1972): 8-13