What is Film Noir?

Some say that film noir is an independent genre; others consider it to be ‘only’ a visual style of a specific feeling; and yet still according to some other people, it is a historically defined cycle of American movies of the 40s and 50s. But no matter what point of view we take, film noir will always be a phenomenon fascinating spectators, film makers and film historians from all over the world.

Many people believe that film noir has taken roots in a number of national cinemas, particularly in Great Britain, France and Japan. However, no one would argue against the fact that film noir appeared in its purest form in a Hollywood production of the 40s and 50s. At that point of the time, film noir became a fitting way of expressing war anxiety, post-war depression and the pervasive, tense atmosphere of Cold War paranoia.

Film noir has always explored the limits of stylistic and narrative techniques in the mainstream cinema. The films engaged in an examination of the play of light and shadow (from this years program it is Phantom Lady); the use of subjective camera shots (Rear Window); retrospective narration together with the use of a voice over (Secret Beyond the Door); complicated and obscure plots (The Killers); or pessimistic and hopeless conclusions (Scarlet Street). As such, film noir became an alternative to the typical Hollywood escapist films.

A lot of people failed in their attempt to find a link between all film noir (and there are hundreds of such films!). There is no doubt that film noir became a genre uneasy to classify because of the number of different influences it absorbed. Among others it got influenced by the German expressionism of the 20s; French poetic realism of the 30s; Orson Welles’s innovative Citizen Kane; hard-boiled detective stories of American authors (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, David Goodis); photojournalism; and later even world war newsreels, or Italian neorealism, etc.

Film noir does not have clear borderlines, but that is part of its charms. Upon hearing the term one can imagine nearly anything. That is why it got so popular and widely known – because although film noir provokes a number of different meanings and opinions, no compromise, satisfactory for all, will be ever found.

Jana Bébarová & Milan Hain
Film Noir Blog