What exactly does "noir" mean in film?
HI, well this won’t be the textbook definition of “film noir,” but for me it’s a style of film, usually Hollywood movies, popular in the United States from approximately the end of WWII until around the mid-1950s (some consider Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly the last “true” film noir), which contain certain similarities in style and substance (and forgive the brevity and reductiveness of this list, film noir is a large and complex genre):
––A grim, often nihilistic tone and philosophical bent. Usually a crime story with a tragic or bittersweet ending.
––A story about a protagonist who faces an unsolvable mystery or otherwise is made to feel small and helpless in a confusing and hostile world/environment, overwhelmed by forces he (or more rarely, she) cannot control.
––Black and white photography with high contrast images and often oblique and severe angles reminiscent of German expressionism in the silent film era. (Many German directors actually fled Nazi Germany to Hollywood and directed a lot of the best films noir.)
––Iconic “femmes fatale,” women characters who often seduced male protagonists to their doom, Siren-style, who used their sexuality to get what they wanted, and were usually pitted against contrasting “good girls” vying for the protagonist’s affection. (Direct descendants of the “mols” in gangster films, the precursors to films noir.)
There are some films noir which don’t fit the prototype to a “T,” and these are actually some of my favorites, for example Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, which is about a screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) trying to overcome his violent tendencies to find love (with Gloria Grahame).
I am particularly intrigued by femmes fatale, because at first blush it would appear to be a rather misogynistic trope, demonizing women’s sexuality, but upon deeper study seems to be a moment of empowerment for women in film. Men coming home from fighting in WWII returned to find that out of necessity, women in America had broken many of the bonds of gender rolls to enter the workplace outside the home, and many of these women, married and otherwise, had taken lovers while their beaus were off fighting. So this confused and frightened men’s (already fragile lol) egos, and they didn’t know where they fit in society anymore. This is a popular theory about films noir and femmes fatale anyway, but I buy into it to some extent. I think men were as … aroused as they were frightened by women’s newfound independence, and this was reflected in these films. In a way, the femmes fatale in these movies were the first women to be operating on equal footing with the male protagonists of American cinema and men and women viewers alike were intoxicated by this. It’s true that in these films the women were often punished for their independence, but at the same time the movies hardly made this seem like a just outcome, and in fact the moral grayness of films noir is one of the most modern and attractive things about the genre then and now. There was an old-world sensibility to many of these films (not in small part due to what I mentioned before about European directors and writers migrating to America during this time), and American’s fascination with this “otherness” was also a result of WWII and the economic boon that proved to be for the US. It reflected the angst and anxiety and terrible cost of the newfound freedoms afforded the new middle class in this country.
Anyway, a few of my favorites are:
In a Lonely Place
Kiss Me Deadly
Act of Violence
The Third Man
The Narrow Margin
On Dangerous Ground
Out of the Past
Clash By Night
Born to Kill
Okay, and I haven’t touched on neo-noir films, but we’ll save that for another day, lol. (Needless to say I love the genre, and many of my favorite modern directors were/are heavily inspired by film noir, from David Lynch to Michael Mann.) Thanks for asking, hope that was helpful!
Out of the Past, 1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur.