You can find many definitions of classic film noir on the web, in books, and from film historians and self-proclaimed film “experts”. The basic attributes of film noir are generally agreed upon, but things can get a little fuzzy when trying to determine which films actually qualify as film noir.
The stereotypical image associated with film noir is of a hard-boiled private eye, in trench coat and fedora, cigarette hanging from the mouth, inhabiting shadowy city streets, on his way to a fateful encounter with a venomously seductive femme fatale who packs a pistol in her purse and is willing to crush anyone who stands in the way of her selfish goals. And throughout it all, the private eye’s inner thoughts form a cynical commentary.
That certainly sounds like film noir, and generally, it is. But it represents only one part of the entire noir landscape. Not all noir films feature private eyes and femme fatales. To understand what makes a movie “film noir”, we need to understand how certain key elements came together at a particular time in America’s history to forge the noir style. These elements include an influx of expressionist directors from Eastern Europe, anxiety brought about by the horrors of World War II, significant numbers of women entering the work force and gaining financial independence, traumatized servicemen returning from war, advances in camera technology, rising crime rates, and the threat of Communism. Noir films reflect the loss of innocence, social unease, and post-war transformation America experienced during the 1940s and 50s.
If we were to attempt an encapsulated definition it would go something like this: classic film noir are black & white films* from the 1940s and 50s that explore the darker side of human nature. Stories often center around murder, greed, corruption, or grave moral dilemmas. Frequently, the main character is an average person thrust into a hopeless situation with no apparent way out. There is usually an emphasis on gritty realism and the action often takes place at night or in stark environments. Note the use of words like “often”, “frequently”, and “usually”. That’s because there are occasional exceptions. You know film noir when you see it, but what you’re seeing doesn’t always conform to any rubber-stamped cookie-cutter definition.
For a respectable list of definitive film noir movies, we recommend this: 250 Quinetessntial Noir Films
Author & Curator,
– Johnny Gumshoe
* There are a handful of color films from the period that are often classified as film noir, but we here at the Film Noir Report tend to lean towards black & white.