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Film Noir: A Cinema of Shadows

Some say that film noir is an independent genre; others consider it to be ‘only’ a visual style of a specific feeling; and yet still according to some other people, it is a historically defined cycle of American movies of the 40s and 50s. But no matter what point of view we take, film noir will always be a phenomenon fascinating spectators, film makers and film historians from all over the world.

Many people believe that film noir has taken roots in a number of national cinemas, particularly in Great Britain, France and Japan. However, no one would argue against the fact that film noir appeared in its purest form in a Hollywood production of the 40s and 50s. At that point of the time, film noir became a fitting way of expressing war anxiety, post-war depression and the pervasive, tense atmosphere of Cold War paranoia.

Film noir has always explored the limits of stylistic and narrative techniques in the mainstream cinema. The films engaged in an examination of the play of light and shadow (Sin City); the use of subjective camera shots (The Naked Kiss); retrospective narration together with the use of a voice over (Death is a Caress); complicated and obscure plots (Girl with Hyacinths); or pessimistic and hopeless conclusions (Shock Corridor). As such, film noir became an alternative to the typical Hollywood escapist films.

A lot of people failed in their attempt to find a link between all film noir (and there are hundreds of such films!). There is no doubt that film noir became a genre uneasy to classify because of the number of different influences it absorbed. Among others it got influenced by the German expressionism of the 20s; French poetic realism of the 30s; Orson Welles’s innovative “Citizen Kane”; hard-boiled detective stories of American authors (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, David Goodis); Photo Journalism; and later even World War newsreels, or Italian neo-realism etc.

But there are few characteristics which can help us to identify or structure a Noir on the screen.

The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting). The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Film noir is also known for its use of low-angle, wide-angle, and skewed, or Dutch angle shots.

Film noirs tend to have unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks and other editing techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. Framing the entire primary narrative as a flashback is also a standard device. Bold experiments in cinematic storytelling were sometimes attempted during the classic era: Lady in the Lake, for example, is shot entirely from the point of view of protagonist Philip Marlowe; the face of star (and director) Robert Montgomery is seen only in mirrors.

Crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all film noirs; in addition to standard-issue greed, jealousy is frequently the criminal motivation. A crime investigation—by a private eye, a police detective (sometimes acting alone), or a concerned amateur—is the most prevalent, but far from dominant, basic plot. In other common plots the protagonists are implicated in heists or con games, or in murderous conspiracies often involving adulterous affairs. False suspicions and accusations of crime are frequent plot elements, as are betrayals and double-crosses.

And at the end, Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The films are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. Film noir is often said to be defined by “moral ambiguity”, and almost all classic noirs were to be seen a steadfast virtue was ultimately rewarded and vice, in the absence of shame and redemption, severely punished (however dramatically incredible the final rendering of mandatory justice might be). A substantial number of latter-day noirs flout such conventions where vice emerges triumphant.

Film noir does not have clear borderlines, but that is part of its charms. Upon hearing the term one can imagine nearly anything. That is why it got so popular and widely known – because although film noir provokes a number of different meanings and opinions, no compromise, satisfactory for all, will be ever found.

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