The term "film noir" came from the French film critic Nino Frank. The term refers to movies about crime and detective stories, most of which were dark in nature. He used the term to review films in the mid-1940s such as Murder, The Woman in the Window, and My Sweet. This term will, later on, become a description for movies of the same theme. Some would even argue that it is a genre on its own.
At that time, the popular shows were leaning toward light comedy, examples of which are those made by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Musicals and lighthearted movies left the moviegoers with hope. People felt happy watching these films, and they leave motivated and inspired.
On the other hand, film noir leaves a patron feeling bleak and down. The scenes can make the audience cringe, and some would squirm at the darkness of human character portrayed on the films.
Most film noir movies took the audience to an emotional roller coaster reminiscent of the Second World War. They were pessimistic, cynical, and outright disillusioned. In several movies, there was a tinge of misogynist principles where the leading female character was evil. The movies aggravated the already negative sentiments of men toward women who were at that time already celebrating their independence.
Film noir in itself should not be mistaken for a film genre. Rather, it is an approach to how a movie is made. It is the culmination of a dark story, with dark storytelling techniques, characterization, and cinematography. Several directors like Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Fritz Lang became masters of this style.
In a film noir movie, you will find several types of leading characters, especially the protagonists. There is a hero, and in some films, there is also an anti-hero. Anti-heroes are usually male characters involved in some criminal activity like killing, stealing, or being part of the Mafia. The hero characters are usually war veterans, policemen, and other male characters working to advance or implement law and order.
The protagonist is usually shown with a weakness that he must overcome. Some have strong traits that the audience can relate to, like insecurity and loneliness. This man is usually shown in the film as disillusioned, a dreamer, and generally has a bad perception of humanity.
Most of the movie themes in film noir involved crime and corruption. Many also used passion as a theme, most of which are situations that have no tangible solutions. And then here comes the hero who finds himself in the middle of the chaos. He is usually disinterested and naïve, but he ends up saving the day.
The dark elements of these stories revolve around corrupt and immoral choices that humans make. They were about lies, deceit, and sadism. Most styles used flashback to do the storytelling, and this gives the audience a historical background about the storyline's origins. It is very rare to watch a film noir using a linear form of storytelling.
The cinematography of film noir is dark. It is gloomy, and a shadow is always cast to make the audience feel heavy. They were made in black and white at that time, but they were darker and had the element of moonlight most of the time. Many scenes took place in dark hotel rooms or cheap apartments that reek of human desperation.
Some scenes were shot at a tilted angle, as this helped the filmmakers achieve a dramatic effect. And most of the scenes with a tilted frame showed characters smoking. Some were shown on rainy nights, on sad streets, with light coming only from a lamp post or a neon sign from a club.
The female lead, the femme fatale, had a huge role to make a film noir work. The character was built on the fact that when soldiers came home after the war, women were much more independent because they had the experience to work in war factories. They could make a living, and they challenged society how they were perceived.
Hollywood built a whole genre of cinema around this character stereotype. The woman was turned into a seductress with the intent to manipulate men. She was ruthless and manipulative, often scheming to get the best out of situations in her favor. Often, she was depicted as someone who dragged the male protagonist into a dark and dangerous path.
Femme fatale is a French word that means deadly woman. She is usually shown as a voluptuous lady that flaunts her body through sheer dresses. She is smart and cunning. And there is always an air of mystery about her past. She is a woman who is evil and often had the character of a murderer or one that has low morals.
In some movies, the femme fatale is saved and converted into a likeable character, a reformed one, by the male protagonist. Examples of women in a storyline like this are Clair Trevor in the movie Johnny Angel, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
If you trace film noir, you can find its roots in American literature. There are many authors like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett that served as an inspiration to filmmakers. Most of their stories are dark crimes. But you can also trace it to foreign movies as early as the 1920s and 1930s. Specifically, you will find its origins in German Expressionist cinematography. These masterpieces used dark lighting and tilted angle shots that later influenced American film noir.
Other films in the 1940s such as the Stranger on the Third Floor and They Drive by Night are considered as the grandfathers of American film noir, setting into motion at least 20 years of movies of the same story lines. Another film in the same era that made it big is The Maltese Falcon. It starred Humphrey Bogart, who played Detective Sam Spade. The film was directed by John Huston, and it was released in 1941.
In 1944, Director Billy Wilder released Double Indemnity. It featured one of the most memorable femme fatale characters of all time, Phyllis Dietrichson. The character was played by Barbara Stanwyck, and the film was based on a novel written by James M. Cain.
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