Film noir

Double Indemnity  (1944, Billy Wilder)

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

A Hard-Boiled History of Film Noir

          While the menacing male protagonists and femmes fatale cemented Film Noir into the foundation of post-WWII cinema, the origins of these cynical crime dramas lead back to the earliest days of cinema itself. Combining the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting and bold black-and-white cinematography from German Expressionism with the seedy pulp novels of The Great Depression and early "policier" films from France's Poetic Realism movement, Film Noir provided an aesthetic response to post-war pessimism and the anxieties of a post-war world. However, the Film Noir movement was not the first influx of American crime films; from the late 1920s throughout the 1930s, the Hollywood studio system produced an abundance of grimy gangster films, including Little Caesar (1930, Mervyn LeRoy) and The Public Enemy (1931, William Wellman), which cemented Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney as the go-to gangsters throughout their careers. However, Howard Hawks's visceral Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932) proved too violent for the public, provoking outrage from parents, politicians, and the Catholic Church.  As a response to films like Scarface, which seemed to glorify violence and vulgarity, the highly-religious Hays Office instituted The Hays Production Code. The Hays Code outlined a detailed moral code for Hollywood studios to follow, which nearly eradicated the portrayal of violence, sexuality, criminality, debauchery, and any form of obscenity on-screen. While this strict system pervaded American cinema for nearly two decades, Hollywood still found a way to explore the crime genre without overstepping its bounds. Films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, Michael Curtiz) and The Roaring Twenties (1939, Raoul Walsh) criticized the gangster lifestyle, all the while portraying violence similar to the pre-code gangster films. While Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces provided a heavy-handed religious perspective by juxtaposing the miserable life of a gangster with the joyful life of a priest, Walsh's The Roaring Twenties showcased the nuanced narrative of a disillusioned criminal mastermind that the films noir of the 1940s and 1950s would explore in greater detail.

Mildred Pierce  (1945, Michael Curtiz)

Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz)

          Alongside films like Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties, foreign directors Fritz Lang and Julien Duvivier presented prototypical noirs, featuring richly expressive lighting and hard-boiled heroes, with You Only Live Once (1937) and Pépé le Moko (1937). As American auteurs began to examine these foreign products alongside the films of French Poetic Realism such as The Lower Depths (1936, Jean Renoir) and Port of Shadows (1938, Marcel Carné), the Hollywood system began to experiment with early noir narratives. While Raoul Walsh's They Drive By Night (1940) and H. Bruce Humberstone's I Wake Up Screaming (1941) revised the stereotypical gangster film, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) directly confronted the cynicism of wartime anxieties of annihilation, creating a textbook template for the film noir genre to follow into a post-war world. Billy Wilder's masterpiece Double Indemnity (1944) solidified the tropes and traits of the film noir genre. Adapted from James M. Cain's pulp novel by acclaimed crime author Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder himself, Double Indemnity introduced us to anxious masculinity in Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff, a misguided and easily manipulated insurance agent, and nuanced feminism in Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson, the quintessential femme fatale who uses her sexual power to play Walter Neff like a pawn throughout the film. The success of Wilder's foundational film noir catapulted the genre into popularity, leading some of the Hollywood's best auteurs to craft their own films noir. In a matter of months, Otto Preminger released Laura (1944), which adopted elements of the mystery genre to explore female empowerment through an investigation of a woman's legacy after her unexpected murder. Fritz Lang followed his aforementioned early noir, You Only Live Once (1937), with The Woman in the Window (1944), a nuanced examination of murder and guilt with some of the genre's best twists and turns. Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945) not only provided film history with one of its most complex and feisty femme fatales, it also created a current of female empowerment that remains in modern cinema through its exploration of single-motherhood and mother-daughter relationship dynamics. Using Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as his dynamic duo, director Howard Hawks crafted two of the most influential and aesthetically-unified films noir — To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Adapting an Ernest Hemingway novel and a Raymond Chandler classic, respectively, Hawks continued to solidify the film noir genre as an area for auteur-driven artistic expression and some of the most complex and important American films of the 1940s. Robert Siodmak followed Hawks's adaptation of Hemingway with The Killers (1946), an expansion of Hemingway's short story written for Scribner's Magazine in 1927. The non-linear structure and fast-paced narrative of The Killers, as well as excellent performances by Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, set this film apart as one of the most inventive straight noirs of all time. Although Ava Gardner's Kitty Collins in The Killers is one of the most complex female performances of the decade, there are few more iconic femme fatales than Rita Hayworth's turn as the titular character in Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946). In only a matter of months, Hayworth would continue to cement herself as the face of the femme fatale the next year in her then-husband Orson Welles's sensual yet confounding The Lady From Shanghai, which features a shoot-out in a hall of mirrors adorned with zany chiaroscuro lighting and incredible performances by both Hayworth and Welles himself. 1947 also brought some of the most inventive and expressive films noir to the silver screen: Jacques Tourneur's brooding Out of the Past, Robert Montgomery's underrated, PTSD-fueled Ride the Pink Horse, and British auteur Carol Reed's first pure noir Odd Man Out. Reed's British noirs, particularly Odd Man Out and his beautifully expressionistic thriller The Third Man (1949), inspired several British directors to craft their own films noir both on-location and in small studios across the United Kingdom, including John Boulting's bone-chilling Brighton Rock (1948), which is equal parts Fritz Lang's M (1931) and Siodmak's The Killers (1946). 

The Killing  (1956, Stanley Kubrick)

The Killing (1956, Stanley Kubrick)

            Although the first cycle of the film noir movement proved to be successful with critics and audiences around the world, The Paramount Decrees' upheaval of the Hollywood Studio System and rise of Cold War anxieties would see a change in the production and reception of films noir from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. Alongside the production and distribution changes in Hollywood, the Hays Code began to slowly fade away, which allowed for more creative freedom, thematic exploration, and metacinematic experimentation throughout the 1950s. Many directors even began to experiment with mixing other genres with film noir, from teen dramas and sports films to horror and science fiction. Nicholas Ray's debut feature, They Live By Night (1948), fused the film noir genre with elements of youthful angst that would pervade the rest of his filmography, especially Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Both Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949) and Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) placed the criminal world of their films noir in underground sporting circuits, as The Set-Up focuses on a corrupt boxing manager and Night and the City centers its narrative on a corrupt wrestling promoter. Two of the most potent and brilliantly crafted films noir of the 1950s — Sunset Boulevard (1950) and In a Lonely Place (1950) — parallel the twisting plots and complex characters of film noir with cinema itself. Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard explores the downfall of Norma Desmond, an unstable aging silent film star brilliantly portrayed by Gloria Swanson, from the perspective of William Holden's anxious screenwriter Joe Gillis. While this film is one of the most cerebral and intricately designed films noir, it also offers a complex perspective of the dark side of Hollywood. Similarly, Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place subverts Humphrey Bogart's typical tough guy persona to detail a disturbed screenwriter's descent into alcoholism and depression. Following the success of both of these films, Hollywood began to infuse film noir with nuanced social messages. Billy Wilder's disturbing Ace in a Hole (1951) focuses on media corruption and dishonesty through Kirk Douglas's portrayal of Chuck Tatum, a psychopathic journalist who could be the grandfather to Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom in the neo-noir masterpiece Nightcrawler (2014). Similarly, Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) delved into the underbelly of sensationalist journalism to critique the idolization of celebrities and public perspective of fame. Fritz Lang's near-perfect The Big Heat (1953) focused on political corruption and the problematic presence of organized crime within the United States government. Above all other social topics, the films noir of the 1950s focused on the Cold War, providing critiques and commentaries concerning the United States on-going tension with the Soviet Union and Communism. Both Samuel Fuller's visceral Pickup on South Street (1953) and Robert Aldrich's sci-fi and horror infused Kiss Me Deadly (1955) wrestled with collective fears of nuclear annihilation and the anxieties of the American public concerning the spread of Communism. Even Charles Laughton's sole directing effort, the expressionistic horror noir Night of the Hunter (1955), used the sadistic Harry Powell, sinisterly portrayed by Robert Mitchum, to address the nature of truth in a world riddled with fallacy. Many other important auteurs used the film noir genre as a vehicle to explore Cold War fears. Stanley Kubrick's third film, The Killing (1956), used untrustworthy accomplices to a race-track heist to critique the Red Scare across the United States, while Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) mirrored the McCarthy Trials through the wrongful accusations against Manny Balestrero in order to critique the unfair punishments carried out by the US government. Even the final true noir of the film noir movement, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), addressed anxieties of annihilation and anxious masculinity in the face of Cold War crises.

           As the 1950s came to a close, both Hollywood and the American public began to favor big budget spectacles, including epics like William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) and musicals like Vincente Minnelli's Gigi (1958), over smaller budget dramas and films noir, powered by the innovations of Technicolor and widescreen. Nevertheless, foreign auteurs and critics, particularly the filmmakers of the French New Wave, championed, examined, and preserved smaller American films, gleaning inspiration from the film noir cycle to fuel their revolutionary movement. In fact, the critics at Cahiers du Cinèma coined the term film noir to describe this movement. French auteurs like Jules Dassin and Louis Malle kickstarted the New Wave with their own experimental films noir, including Rififi (1955) and Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Beyond the New Wave, the film noir movement has inspired various neo-noir films, which place elements of film noir within various genres and themes. Some of the most famous neo-noir films include Roman Polanski's New Hollywood opus Chinatown (1974), Ridley Scott's cyber noir Blade Runner (1982), and Christopher Nolan's mind-bending Memento (2000). Even today, elements of film noir linger in a variety of films and television productions, illustrating the integration of cinema history with film itself.


The Essential Films Noir


Film Scenes

Double Indemnity (1944):"How Fast" Scene

This scene encompasses nearly every aspect of the noir genre. From the sexual tension between MacMurray and Stanwyck to the chiaroscuro lighting and tight dialogue, this scene can provide hours of close reading and analysis for students and teachers in the classroom as well as cinephiles looking to further their knowledge of film noir.

Sunset Boulevard (1950): Opening Scene

This scene is an excellent example of a typical noir frame narrative. Oftentimes, films noir will introduce the final outcome at the beginning and play the story through a series of flashbacks or using non-linear storytelling. Sunset Boulevard is one of the most complete examples of this narrative style.

The Third Man (1949): Harry's Introduction Scene

In one of the most famous character introductions in film history, director Carol Reed provides some of the most expressive chiaroscuro lighting in the film noir genre. Accompanied with a playfully haunting score and unnerving dutch angles, Reed plays with the cinematic form along to express the narrative's constant manipulation of truth and reality.

Touch of Evil (1958): Opening Long Take

In this iconic opening sequence of the final true noir, auteur Orson Welles introduces us to most of the major characters while constantly building tension concerning the impending explosion of a homemade bomb through a masterful long take, which cranes around an entire square in a small Mexican town. 


Video Essays

Defining Film Noir

This engaging video essay provides a detailed definition of film noir, while examining both the historical context and cinematic influence of the genre.

Kiss Me Deadly  (1955, Robert Aldrich)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)

Is The Big Lebowski a Film Noir?

This Cinefix video explores the history and characteristics of the film noir genre, while uncovering elements of noir in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998).


  • The Rough Guide to Film Noir (2007, Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon) Buy on Amazon
  • 100 Film Noirs (2009, Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips) Buy on Amazon
  • The Dark Side of the Screen (2008, Foster Hirsch) Buy on Amazon
  • Women in Film Noir (1998, E. Ann Kaplan) Buy on Amazon
  • More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (2008, James Naremore) Buy on Amazon
  • The Film Noir Encyclopedia (2010, Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Elizabeth Ward) Buy on Amazon



  • A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995, Martin Scorsese) IMDb, Buy on Amazon

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