As my last post stated, true film noir has become so difficult to define that for those who would like to see one from the classic period it has become harder to tell what is and what is not. So, to make it easier, this post will discuss the 5 key defining factors of a true film noir-in other words, how to clearly identify it among the various films that have the ‘noir’ label attached to them. Does this mean that a film can’t be noir unless it has these defining factors? Not necessarily. And, like I said in my previous post, this is not meant to be a be-all end-all definition. The point is that these factors make it unmistakable noir, giving you a true basic understanding of what separates it in type from other movies made at the time and a greater appreciation of its value and influence even now. Here, then, are five key defining factors in descending order:
1. Solitary, isolated protagonist (usually male)- The isolation can be of the physical or emotional kind. Though others are around, he usually is alone or works alone, perhaps even suffering the loss of a friend, partner, or someone he loved. With this being said, he epitomizes the entire dark attitude of a true noir. Mostly sardonic and resentful of someone else’s authority, he can be quick-tempered at times but heroic when necessary, winning the audience’s sympathy. He can be on either side of the law and there is usually a crime involved, either committed or about to be committed by him or someone else. When a crime is involved, if not on the side of the law, in most cases he’s not a career criminal but a first-timer getting in over his head or even set up by others to take a fall. Tough on the outside but soft at the core, and thus able to be taken advantage of at times, he is the true definition of antihero.
2. Femme fatale-Though some may argue that this element is not essential, it is essential to a true film noir. She is, in essence, what drives the plot, what motivates the other character’s actions, particularly the protagonist, what sets the tone. Her duplicitous nature, violent streak, along with her, what is known as ‘fatal beauty’, sets the wheels in motion which leads to the crime or is the reason for the crime itself. Without her presence, it’s harder to distinguish a true film noir from any other type of crime film. Just to back up her importance, look no further than another film noir parody (or straight film noir, depending on how you look at it)- “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The key character in that movie is not Roger Rabbit, nor the private eye played by Bob Hoskins. It’s Jessica Rabbit, presented as the ultimate femme fatale, summing up the importance of this type of character in this type of film. As she herself says, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” showing the type of woman that is essential to any true film noir.
3. Shadowy, expressionistic cinematography-This is also absolutely essential to any true film noir experience. The thought among some film historians and film noir enthusiasts is that once the 1950’s came, the odd camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting so characteristic of film noir in the 1940’s gave way to a flatter, more straightforward way of shooting with just a few exceptions. The problem with this is that it’s harder to get a true film noir look without it. What helped make film noir distinctive was not just an attitude or certain types of characters, but it was also a well-defined look. Without that defined look, all you’ll have to one who hasn’t seen film noir before is just another crime film. The distinctive visual style sets a mood that, along with the femme fatale and the lonely protagonist, grounds the movie in an unrelenting haze of gloom, doom , and despair-real noir.
So, to be real noir, it can’t be in color! I know at this point some noir purists may scream in protest, using some examples. But we’re talking about noir of the classic kind and it must be in black and white in order to be truly understood and appreciated. To back this up, some of the best cinematographers of the day used film noir as a palette and created some of the most classic images in black and white ever put on screen-men like Nicholas Musuraca, John Seitz, Woody Bredell, Harry Wild, and the great John Alton, with an example of his work being the picture at the beginning of this post from the movie “The Big Combo.” They made it clear: in order to be true noir, it must look like noir.
4. Urban setting-This is a less essential element in true film noir. Nevertheless, it plays an important part in identifying a noir look, because nothing says isolation, danger, and the threat of doom more than the dark lonely streets of an urban landscape at night. The whole movie doesn’t have to take place in a city-it can start there or end there, or certain events can take place there. But the urban setting, though less vital if the other elements are in place, helps in providing the defining look, feel, and attitude of a true film noir.
5. Voice-over narration-The least essential piece of noir iconography. It’s true that a film noir may have the other elements discussed but lack this one and it can still be a real noir. Nevertheless, in classic examples of this type of film, this element is usually present. It also helps set the fatalistic tone of a noir and not only advances the story, but gives you an idea of the motivations of the protagonist (usually the narrator), his thoughts, his desires, his feelings, and adds greatly to the overall dark mood that pervades a real noir.
Well, with these 5 basic factors in mind, the next post will give you ten movies that are examples of what was just discussed-a starting point for anyone interested in seeing true noir or want to be sure what they’ve seen was the real deal. Most are titles you probably have heard of and may have even seen, others may perhaps be less familiar, but all bear the same unmistakable stamp that gives true film noir a style all its own. See you next time.