What is a Film Noir?


Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasise cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.


The 1940’s and 1950’s are generally regarded as the ‘classic period’ of American film noir. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography.

Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the US during the Great Depression.

Brief History

The term film noir, French for ‘black film’ (literal) or ‘dark film’ (closer meaning), was first applied to Hollywood films by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, but was unrecognised by most American film industry professionals of that era.

Cinema historians and critics defined the category retrospectively. Before the notion was widely adopted in the 1970’s, many of the classic film noir were referred to as ‘melodramas’.

Whether film noir qualifies as a distinct genre is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars.

Diversity of Film Noir

Film noir encompasses a range of plots:

  • The central figure may be a private investigator (The Big Sleep);
  • A plainclothes policeman (The Big Heat);
  • An ageing boxer (The Set-Up);
  • A hapless grifter (Night and the City);
  • A law-abiding citizen lured into a life of crime (Gun Crazy); or
  • Simply a victim of circumstance (D.O.A.).

Although film noir was originally associated with American productions, the term has been used to describe films from around the world.

Many films released from the 1960’s onward share attributes with film noirs of the classical period, and often treat its conventions self-referentially. Some refer to such latter-day works as neo-noir.

The clichés of film noir have inspired parody since the mid-1940s.

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