Film Noir - What You Must Know About The Most Exciting Genre Of All!

By Sayantan Mondal. Posted on May 16, 2015

Cinephiles all over the world have a certain fascination with Film NoirWith the release of Anurag Kashyap's noir Bombay Velvet, it's a good time to look back at the genre that has given us some of the biggest classics and inspired filmmakers from different schools of filmmaking.

Film Noir has certain persistent, recurring characteristics that help define it. But over the years, film noir has undergone changes and has assimilated various other styles in to it as well. Neo-noir is an offshoot, with different directors applying their own ideas to this form. Let us see what film noir has to teach us and why budding filmmakers learning the craft of filmmaking, must study this powerful genre of cinema.

1. A Distinctive Setting

The most important thing about noir is the setting as it takes the audience to some of the less uncharted territories of a city where the crux of the story is formed. The gas-lit streets, the buildings, the office of the private eye, the dark alley, rain-soaked nights, the spots frequented by the protagonist and the femme fatales, the bars, the nightclubs, and everyone associated with these places, each of these provide a distinct identity to the setting. These settings were mainly used in early noir films to signify the underbelly of the city where crime and mayhem reign supreme. .

Here’s a scene from Breaking Point that drives the point home. Watch it to understand how important a setting is for noir to work. In this scene, the characters give away a lot as they speak in this bar.

2. Creating Alluring Visuals

The biggest challenge of any noir film is to get the visuals right. Most of the time, the film focuses on a variety of visuals to get the atmosphere of the film correct. Lighting is used intelligently to reflect the mood of the characters. There is always an interesting inter-play between light and darkness. While the genre grew up in the black & white era, this use of light & shadows has remained its most defining element even in the modern noir films.

Here’s a montage of scenes from The KillingStanley Kubrick’s classic 1956 heist noir, that tells a lot about cinematography and how visuals are handled in film noir.

3. Recurring Yet Unique Themes

Film Noir is mostly focussed on one consistent theme- the anti-hero and his struggle against a force that is far superior while trying to protect his romantic interest. Another recurring theme is that of the femme fatale, a beautiful woman who invariably turns out to be someone who cannot be trusted. Often the protagonist himself get's involved in someone else’s affair or is dragged into it but almost invariably things get out of hand. The endings are never happy, for the world-view in noir is bleak and pessimistic.

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This is partly because of the roots of film noir. The genre gained traction in the depression-era America of 1920's & 30's leading upto the Second World War. The genre captures the cynical mood of those days when all the optimism about modern human civilization had run dry in the western hemisphere. War & strife marked these two decades between the World wars. No wonder then that darkness pervades and almost always wins in the end (in some way or the other) in most noir films.

1940's & 50's were the high point of classical Hollywood noir and the political, social and cultural markers of this period found a place in these films along side the recurring themes of film noir.

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A Still From Double Indemnity

4. Distinct Narrative Techniques

The narrative techniques of film noir depend on the setting as well as the themes involved. The first strategy was to place the protagonist in a scenario from which it was difficult to get out. It was either created by him or certain circumstances that were beyond his control.

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Another strategy has been to involve two other characters- that of the female and the primary antagonist and weave them all to construct a plot that was designed with voice-over narration, flashbacks, dream-like situations and endings that were left to the interpretation of the audience. These narrative strategies are often repeated in noir films. Here’s a scene from Maltese Falcon that sets the narrative in motion.

5. Complex Characters

Film Noir usually has characters who are moody, pessimist and prodded by a sense of disillusionment. A large number of noir films have a private eye trying hard to save a damsel in distress. However that is not always the case. However in the early era of film noir, the stock characters of were almost always a private detective with a policeman, a grafter, a war veteran and other out-of-luck characters finding their place in the narrative.

What was important, however, was the problem of the character and not his social position. The women were mostly stereotyped. They were either the hapless, lovable kind or the bloodthirsty femme-fatale types. Sometimes both, at the same time. Over the years, filmmakers have played adeptly with these tropes and yet made their own little variations that make the characters interesting and stand out in our memories..

maltesefalcon3 (1)A Still From 'Maltese Falcon'

6. Neo-Noir Cinema

Neo-noir cinema has been one of the most important off shoots of film noir. Noir would often get limited by its own set-up, but neo-noir managed to break this formulaic disadvantage and tie-up with other forms and styles, filling it with intertextuality and pastiche. Neo-noir thus, has all the advantages of its predecessor but without its limitations. Filmmakers across the world have made the genre their own, by adapting it to their locales.

Here’s a scene from the recent Chinese neo-noir film Black Coal, Thin Ice that shows how the genre has been used by filmmakers to interpret the world around them.

Every genre has something to teach us about the craft of filmmaking. Sadly Indian cinema hasn't explored this genre enough. Except for stray films here and there, the potential of film noir, to tell stories about our times & our cities, is still unexploited. We hope Bombay Velvet makes our filmmakers & audiences sit up and take note and we get to see more noir'ish stories in the future.


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