The term Noir comes from the expression “black novel” which emerged in France during the nineteenth-century to describe the work of writers of mystery stories. These novels usually portrayed dark climates and made references to dreams or its representations. The term film noir, by its turn, was attributed by the French critics to refer to certain American thrillers from 1940s until the 1960s. But there has always been disagreement about in which category film noir really fits in. Among the different classifications film noir appears as a genre, a style, a cycle, a movement, an aesthetic, and so on. Due to this concept, the critics generally understood by neo-noir the remakes that emerged after this time, which also served to update the genre. Film noir is, according O’Caolain, “appealed to audiences because it addressed that particular mood of disenchantment of the late 1940’s to the mid 1950’s”. (O’Caolain, 2012)
Some authors point out the French critic Nino Frank as the first to use the term film noir (French, black film). In an article called Un nouveau genre “policier”: l’aventure criminelle, published in October 1946 in the weekly magazine Écran Français. When discussing the movies ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941), ‘Laura’ (Otto Preminger, 1944), ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944) and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ (Edward Dmytryk, 1944), the critic realized that they were part of the police stories genre and should at that time be called adventures criminal or psychological crime stories.
About the rise of film noir, there isn’t a consensus that allows one to define without controversy a specific date for its beginning. The same also applies for its ending. What is usually accepted is that film noir may still have originated in the 1930s, reflecting the recession in the United States, due to the 1929 crisis. But better characterizations of the genre appeared in the 1940s. However, it can be stated that the noir reflects the American situation that began in the 1930s or even a little before that, with the economic crisis of 1929. To Paul Schrader, the film noir genre as defined began in the early 1940s with films that dealt with the darker side of the psychology identical between persecutors and criminals. According to the author, the first true film noir may have been ‘Wake up screaming’, 1941, Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, based on a novel by Steve Fisher and starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable and Laird Cregar. The actual noir elements reside in the heavy sadism Cregar’s character, an obsessive and murderous harassing the two suspects (Mature and Grable) for the murder of an actress. This film was considered film noir standard, since the characters seem lost or psychologically wounded and surrounded by traps that are more imaginary than real, with the law and justice always exceeding their limits in order to destroy them. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is more often cited as one of the pioneers of film noir. (FG, 2010) The last notable example of the period was Orson Wells.
Some directors of the noir genre, such as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Robert Wiene migrated from Europe to the United States, being responsible for influences of German expressionist cinema. These influences of the German Expressionism over movies that belong to the ‘cycle noir’ can be noticed in many different aspects.
Visually speaking they are more abstract then other Hollywood films and darker as well. The noir films were shot in black and white, emphasizing the contrast of colours. This element also has a strong connection with the cinematography of German Expressionism, as many of those German movies presented a distortion of the scenic area. Other elements in common are the performance and the makeup -often overstated, if related to the standards normally considered today. There is been also a fantastic technique of lighting, which undeniably has its roots in German Expressionism. The low-key lighting is often present in noir films as well as in the German expressionist movies. Low-key lighting creates an air of threat and apprehension. Such lighting casts more shadow than light on the board, usually associated with the shadow of the threat. One may choose, for example, by using a low light, which cast a shadow high. As the sun illuminates the top down, the reversal of this effect is necessarily perceived as unnatural, hence the fantastic lighting or idea that has the supernatural. This is visible in the first noir films such ‘The Maltese Falcon’. Other iconographic themes in film noir are also mirrors, windows, stairs and watches. Noir films have as a central element a crime.
Many of the movies of the noir cycle take place primarily at night and the big, industrial city is the favourite scenario. In ‘Double Indemnity’ many scenes are the scenes are shot on the streets of Los Angeles instead of studios. Other American cities that also were stages for film noir are New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The presence of the urban element is notable when one looks at some of the titles for noir films such as, ‘Cry of the City’, ‘Night and the City, ‘The Sleeping City’ or ‘Side Street’. The city in film noir with its dark, rainy streets can be considered a reflex of the social and psychological condition of the individual in the capitalist world, marked by alienation and defeat. (O’Caolain, 2012) The city and its representations in film noir, arouse the question of the individual corrupted by the capitalist system of the time. At the same time, film noir also denounces the corruption of ethical values that are foundations of the social body, highlighting the brutality and hypocrisy of the relations between individuals, class and institutions.
Film noir soundtracks form a perfect blend with the images of the city. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones. According to David Butler for many years there was a belief that Jazz and film noir ‘were entwined’. But in fact, most of film noir used orchestral music in the symphonic tradition. (Butler, 2002, p. 3) The music in film noir also adds an element of tension and anxiety in the most violent moments.
In film noir good and the evil are confused, the killers are generally friendly and the police corrupt. Thieves are good mates and fathers of families, and often their only defect is not complying with the law. The victim also appears as suspicious and often is also criminal. Protagonists are drunkards, murderers or thieves. The hero is not honest and suffers as much as the villain. Finally, there is the composition of all the characters a sort of subversion to the normal ideas that the audience are used to. Thus, the public shares with the noir film the same atmosphere of anguish and insecurity that so well characterizes this type of film.
Another specific characteristic of film noir is the gender conflict and gender violence. The figure of the femme fatale it is always present in this genre. The context of the war is very important to explain the figure of mythical noir femme fatale. According to Krutinik, the femme fatale is a metaphor, from a male perspective, for the independence achieved by women in the historical moment of the post-war period. During this period, women were trained to replace men at work, since they were in the front. Thus, when film noir turns this woman into a seductive and malevolent figure, it seeks to reinforce the masculinity threatened and tries to achieve that lost balance. (Krutnik, 1999)
The classic film noir presents very often two main male characters. One is often a detective, or a company worker and the other corrupted and selfish version. In fact, in noir films the mythical figure of the hero is turned into the idea of a male character ambiguous, unreliable, and that in itself becomes vulnerable, who has his bad luck attributed only to the femme fatale. (Kaplan, 2007)
Regarding to women in film noir, it is true that even though there are many women protagonists in noir productions, most is paired with a man. The femme fatale only exists from the moment that there is a man to destroy. Hence the women characters always depend on the prominence of the male figure. These women are responsible for punishing men who are interested in them, but at the same time they are victims of a society that gives them such power without exempting them from punishment for being sexually powerful. In fact, the femme fatale is very often punished for her greed, aggression and sexual desires.
The femme fatale usually defines the actions of most of the characters and she is also liable in the mysteries to be investigated by the detective, usually the victim of her assaults. There is an element of perversion that takes in noir films, defined by an bold eroticism. This feature, in particular, was way beyond what was in the cinemas then. (Kaplan, 2007) Noir films recognize and present the intense rivalry between masculine and feminine, emphasizing the crises of the masculinity.
According to Silver & Ursini archetypes such as the femme fatale, the detectives and even the victims allows film makers of the noir cycle to work with a more complex structure of each character outlining their features. The way these characters act, the relationships established between them and the undoubted influence of the current system also assist in the characterization of noir as a genre, with its boundaries more consistent and secure. (Silver, A., Ursini, J., 2003)
Considering the social changes on morality and values during the post-war time regarding gender roles and sexual identity, it is possible to see that film noir promotes a relevant comment on those changes. an accurate portrayal of how unease the society was feeling regarding the economic crisis and all the social rearrangements. The role of film noir went beyond its impacts on Hollywood and the move industry as a whole, but it promoted a deep look into social and psychological issues at the time. Bringing up innovations from Europe and adding them to the challenges of a country in constant changing. These films became a major influence to the next two generations of filmmakers, including names like Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Claude Chabrol, Lawrence Kasdan, Luc Besson, Quentin Tarantino, Takeshi Kitano, David Fincher, Bertrand Tavernier, Stephen Frears, Spike Lee, Bryan Singer and Neil Jordan. As based on authors like these, the so called neo noir remained intact for more than three decades.