What is this thing called film noir, anyway?

Roger Westcombe


The ‘dark film’

The word ‘noir’ is literally French for ‘black’, giving us the concept of ‘dark film’. French film critics coined the term soon after the end of WWII. In the early part of the 1940s France was occupied by Nazis, making it enemy territory forbidden to receive Hollywood product. By war’s end there was a half-decade backlog of American movies which hit French viewers suddenly in one rush, rather than gradually over the years as usual. From a Hollywood point of view, they’d been an audience asleep for half a decade.

The French noticed with surprise after the war how a gloomy, pessimistic worldview had replaced much of the formerly sunny optimism of can-do U.S.A.  America’s movies were growing darker in the 1940s - not just visually, but also in terms of theme and content. There were numerous reasons for this, springing from changes both in consciousness and practicalities. The world had become a darker place and the more word seeped out of atrocities of war, the deeper the shadows grew over human nature.

America at that time felt powerless to avoid enigmatic conflicts in foreign climes. This was mirrored in movies with doomed heroes whose fate seemed pre-ordained, and immune to free will. Also the popularity of Freudianism brought psychological concerns into common discourse as the world turned inward. Films reflected this introspection through the use of voice-over to describe interior states. Thrillers of the 1940s (and horror flicks of the time like Val Lewton’s RKO series) often took on the ‘otherworldly’ feel of a waking dream. These and other elements (described below) came together in a fortuitous accident of cinematic history to express the mood: film noir .

Late 1940s – the ‘postwar malaise’

For Americans victory abroad, perhaps surprisingly, was followed at home by an aftermath of social frustration and disappointment called the ‘postwar malaise’. There were widespread industrial disputes (strike action being unpatriotic in wartime), continued rationing of many consumer durables, race riots (from Detroit in the midwest, to the ‘zoot suit’ battles on the west coast), sickening photographic evidence of the Holocaust and a frightening future revealed by the A-bomb. The ‘dark film’, appropriately, would enter its heyday in the postwar years.

Noir’s ‘spiderweb’ of fate

A defining film noir characteristic (notably absent from many pseudo-noirs of modern times) is fatalism. One small misstep, such as a petty crime, minor evasion - even a ‘white lie’ - sends our doomed protagonist, typically an ‘ordinary Joe’ American male, into a quicksand of obliteration made only more intractable by his futile attempts to escape. A ‘spiderweb of deceit’ is how it’s often described. This is what happens in the noir underworld, but it tells us something of ordinary peoples’ attitudes and expectations. That such minor transgressions could lead to such out-of-control punishments suggests an air of hysteria, even moral panic.

The ‘look’ of noir

Being fundamentally an action genre, and often low budget thrillers, noir used a strong, punchy filmmaking style for maximum impact. Besides its thematic elements which could include fatalism, alienation and transgression, its look was the other half of the noir equation. These films’ long, sharply-defined shadows, frames bathed in inky blackness, tilted camera angles and claustrophobic compositions created an overall aesthetic of nocturnal, subterranean unreality that is easily recognised (and imitated).

Film noir linked this look to its dark plotlines to express themes of shadowy motivations and bleak prospects. Using visual elements in this way to express the story is the basis of Expressionism, an extreme visual style of heightened perceptions. Its sense of drama is at the opposite pole from the style of ‘realism’. Expressionist visual techniques were pioneered in Germany during the 1920s and redeployed in 1940s Hollywood by refugee filmmakers fleeing Hitler like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Edward Dmytryk and Fred Zinnemann, all of whom are strongly associated with the noir style.

 (There is no easy formula to what constitutes film noir. One of the greatest noirs of the 1940s drew on neither Expressionism nor even Hollywood for its strength [though it did draw on the American hardboiled fiction common to film noir]. This is Visconti’s version of James M.Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, renamed Ossessione (1942), which used realism to link the pulp novel to topical local concerns, so beginning the Italian ‘neo-realist’ movement.)

The ‘femme fatale’

The 1940s also brought a major challenge in the area of gender and family roles. The male draft combined with the industrial mobilisation for the war effort (the entire U.S. auto industry ceased making cars from 1942-46 to concentrate on armaments) made women the primary source of factory workers for the huge number of vacancies. The previous female stereotype of the housewife financially dependent on the male was blown away. This was called the ‘Rosie-the-Riveter’ syndrome.

Soldiers returning from the stresses of war came home to newly independent women unlike those they’d left behind. Arising from this new male anxiety and eternal male fantasies of women was the ‘femme fatale’, a siren-like figure of desire whose distinctive characteristics, compared to previous female archetypes, were her independence, strength and ruthless desire.

A key element of this strength is her sexual forthrightness. The femme fatale is not passive when it comes to desire. She takes action to get what - and whom - she wants with a directness and aggression previously reserved for male players. As a result she is sometimes labelled a ‘predator’, despite acting no differently from accepted male norms.

It’s vital to understand this gender development as just one part of the overall noir context. Stereotypes of dangerous women, such as ‘the vamp’ from the 1920s, were not new, and without the other elements such as uncertainty, destabilisation and transgression which coalesced into film noir, the femme fatale wouldn’t have existed. Nor must every film noir include a femme fatale; many don’t. She reinforces film noir’s fatalism. The Ordinary Joe American is helpless to resist the lure of the ‘spiderwoman’ at the heart of these movies, just as America felt helpless to resist being drawn in to a European conflict as dark and shadowy as those darn Europeans’ movie-making style!

 A particularly essential feature of this archetype is structural. The true femme fatale forms a triangle with a married couple. She’s a ‘stray electron’, threatening the stability of their nuclear family. More than just attracting the easily duped noir protagonist, she lures him into eliminating the ‘passive spouse’. This spouse may be either his wife or her husband, but either way they are portrayed as inadequately fulfilling the marriage’s needs – for excitement, mainly. The femme fatale thus occupies a space of transgression, of crossing over into illicit desires and actions.

The femme fatale is a key element in noir’s crossing over to the dark side of human nature. She arose as a response to threatened male authority but the needs of the thriller to excite audiences made her so exotic and intriguing (if not necessarily attractive) that she’s still compelling today.

 Decline and fall

Nothing stands still however, and as returned GIs abandoned urban life for the new invention ‘the suburb’, working women were tamed and the Baby Boom began its 10-15 year surge. The new-fangled television forced film noir out to suburbia to compete with ‘pulp’ crime on TV where, in all the bright sunshine and open spaces, noir was effectively dead as a film genre by 1955.


The femme fatale disappeared too, until a new era of social unease, the 1970s, with the much greater gender challenge of feminism, saw film noir’s first true revival. Like the 1940s, this era’s uncertainty in the areas of changed social roles, questionable government morality and foreign involvement (not to mention drugs, the Generation Gap, etc) showed a society in crisis. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) explicitly revived film noir visual motifs (rain soaked streets reflecting harsh neon, etc), voice-over narration, urban claustrophobia - even a melancholy Bernard Hermann score! - but portrayed a level of social breakdown as foreign to the 1940s as Vietnam and Watergate were to Harry Truman’s administration. Other thrillers in this period like W.U.S.A. (1970), Badge 373 and The Outfit (both 1973) instinctively turned back to film noir for style and/or content. This 70s revival is often termed ‘neo-noir’.

 Aussie noir?

America’s ‘classic’ film noir phase of the 1940s had some parallels in English and French cinematic output of the time, but no Australian equivalents.

After decades of very sporadic production, Australia experienced a filmmaking renaissance in the 1970s. In the seventies Australian film’s drivers were quite different from Hollywood’s, and even ‘neo-noir’ had few (if any) antipodean variants. Peter Weir’s vision (The Cars That Ate Paris [1974], The Last Wave [1977], Fearless [1993], etc) came closest to noir’s mix of fatalism and dark visuals, while occasional darkish Aussie dramas like Wake In Fright (1971) emerged in isolation. Interestingly, low budget Aussie TV cop series like Homicide and Matlock Police unselfconsciously portrayed throwbacks to the crude black-and-white law enforcement clichés of Hollywood in the 1940s, making them unexpectedly reminiscent of film noir, though hardly a direct Australian equivalent.

Here and now

Every few years Hollywood thrillers reinvent themselves. The 1930s ‘Gangster flick’ was followed by film noir until that genre petered out in the 1950s. In the late 60s and early 70s streetwise thrillers like Madigan (1968) and Mean Streets (1973) breathed new life into the crime film just as Tarantino would in the 1990s with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and especially Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino’s mix of cool, ironic detachment, plus knowing references to older films mixed with graphic violence was repeated by young filmmakers from many countries, including Australia.

The ironic contrast between bright sunshine and entrenched corruption in both L.A. and Sydney reinforced the universal language of the new contemporary thrillers, many of which have only emerged from Australia around the turn of the millennia. Notable examples include: Kiss or Kill (1997), Two Hands (1999), Monkey’s Mask (2000), The Hard Word (2002), Dirty Deeds (2002), etc. (Fitting the ‘post-Tarantino’ mold is one thing, but it still begs the question of whether these qualify as a film noir, and each title needs to be considered on an individual basis.) Urban crime also underpins grittier Australian films like Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988), The Nirvana Street Murders (1990), Romper Stomper (1992), The Boys (1999) – even ‘comedies’ like Death in Brunswick (1990).


Whether you think past breakthroughs like film noir can be dusted off and revived, or (as I do) that each cinematic development feeds the next, film noir’s influence has long outlasted its originating purpose. Every film noir is a vicarious ride into the underworld, an exotic, dreamlike passage through forbidden worlds. Is it any wonder it’s never really gone away?

Roger Westcombe (copyright 2003)

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