Film & TV

Behind The Lens: Film Noir

Image credit: Amelia Field/@daisyfieldsdesign

by Alex Daud Briggs

The cold wind howls through the night, passing its way through the few sad dregs of the living that remain prowling through the streets at this solemn hour. I take one final shot of whisky to bring myself to my feet and bring a start to this late evening.

Film noir is a genre of crime film visually signified by its dark tone and metropolitan setting with detectives, forbidden romance and lots of lovely cynical inner monologues about just how dark and gritty everything is. The genre first got its start in the USA in the 1940s-50s. At the time America had just gone through the Great Depression, the Prohibition period and World War II, which left many citizens, particularly those in the country’s large cities like New York having experienced poverty, violence, and organized crime first-hand.

Filmmakers took inspiration from the settings around them when making film noir, tapping into the hidden underbelly of American society. The early film making technology meant that everything was in black and white with a greater reliance on the contrast between light and darkness to create striking imagery and mood to tell the story. Ideas like this were first used in German expressionism in the 1920s. With opportunity shouting from Hollywood and the threat of Nazism, many of these early filmmakers emigrated to America and brought their style with them, adapting them to the local troubles. These include people like Fritz Lang (Metropolis (1927), The Big Heat (1953)) and Josef Von Sternberg (Shanghai Express (1932). 

While not considered a noir film itself, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) had a major influence on the genre with its innovative use of non-linear narratives and use of voice-over to better get into the character’s head, both now commonly used in film noir. This is considered the genre’s classic era , where its murky settings and character archetypes like the femme fatale and hard-boiled detective first took centre stage, but like all good genres it evolved with time. 

Film noir evolved to reflect the struggles in society at the time. Midway through the Cold War in the 60s and 70s, new cynicism came to filmmaking: the paranoia of the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunt, particularly in the film industry with the ‘Hollywood Blacklist’, and the anti-war anxiety that came about with the Vietnam War. 

Film noir became more experimental with the established tropes and attempted to subvert, reject or stylize them, creating what we now call neo-noir. There was also more emphasis on the psychological and existential aspects of noir. The genre increasingly started to highlight how the aftershock of the war or oppressive struggles of the lower class affect the people forced to live within the cities and how it can lead to run-ins with crime. Attempts in this genre can be seen in films like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is about a depressed war veteran in New York who decides to take up vigilantism. The film explores the concept of the traditionally masculine working-class noir hero but showing him to be a mentally damaged individual, whose actions are more self-destructive than they are noble.

The neo-noir genre has continued its way into the modern day with further experimentation in other genres like sci-fi and horror- with films like Blade Runner (1982) and Angel Heart (1987). The 80s and 90s also saw the rise of the term “neon noir”. As people grew tired of the traditional black and white art deco style of noir, the colour palette was often switched out for a  dark tone, highlighted with flashing pinks and purples of neon signs lighting up the streets of a modern noir city. Other than the aforementioned Blade Runner, international noir stories, such as the Japanese film  Tokyo Drifter (1966) and South Korean film OldBoy (2003) would make great use of neon to bring their congested back alleys to life. 

The most significant reason noir continues to sell at the box office to this day is  its exploration of the hidden areas of modern society. Film noir analyses the darkest struggles of the modern person, the crimes they could commit, the corruption they can be tempted into and how society may wear them down to the point where they are willing to be tempted. Even modern films like Joker (2019), a controversial fusion of neo-noir with the superhero genre was able to tap into the feelings of isolation and  poor treatment of those with mental health disorders in a way that resonated with audiences globally, across many cities. Equally mysterious, disturbing, and in some ways uncomfortably intriguing, this is the mark of good film noir.