Film Noir Tropes (Laurie Dix)
HOW TO WRITE A CONVINCING NOIR:
There are no hard and fast rules about writing hardboiled or noir fiction, however there are some elements which, when combined, represent an approximation of noir. Here is my analysis of what makes a noir, in terms of writing at least:
(N.B. these are by no means the rules to writing noir, but if the public consciousness, what is commonly associated with noir. This is merely an analysis of what I understand to be common tropes or stereotypes of noir.)
Typically, your lead role in the Noir will be a detective (in fact, of the 25 recognised film noirs, only 4 revolve around a main character who is a private eye). He is the sort of detective who has not has a case in a while, due to a tragedy or some sort of issue. He encounters a lot of violence, leading to his ‘Hardboiled’ exterior. He is gruff, to-the-point and has broken the law on a few occasions. He cannot be considered the hero, as he himself is just as corrupt as the people he is tracking down. He is a maverick, and although he may have friends in the police, does not work directly for them. He will take most cases as long as they pay well enough. He likes a drink, even through prohibition, and likes an attractive woman even more. He does not play by the rules, but he will get results. A lot of the time, when he tells his story, he is already dead. He is alienated, distant and morally bankrupt. He smokes, he breaks the rules, he is misunderstood.
THE SUPPORT CHARACTERS
Often, a femme fatale. She is the one who hires the detective in the first place, only to kill him off later. Either that, or he bumps into her on his case, she identifies something in him worth having, or works out that she can use him for her ill gotten gains, and kills him. She is the other Bond girl, beautiful and deadly. She is the kind of woman who has laced her food with arsenic for years in order to build up an immunity to it, plotting to kill her husband. She carries a gun in her purse and knows how to use it. She knows how to control men using her feminine wiles, and she makes sure she gets her own way. In the first instance she seems pathetic, a woman troubled, needing a detective to help her in some way or another, but usually she is setting him up as a fall guy. She is the main player in the complicated game of murder she has coordinated.
The antagonist in the classical sense is quite rare. This part is often played by the Woman or the main character himself. In the event that there is an antagonist, he will usually be played by one of three types of people:
– The Police Chief/Detective: He has known the main character for years, they were even friends at one point, but now the protagonist has gone too far, and he can’t let him get away with it any more. He has given the protagonist fair warning, and if he slips up one more time, he’s going to have to treat him like he would any other mug; taking him down the station or putting a bullet in between his eyes. He doesn’t want to, but he’s warned him enough times.
– The Mob Boss: A less common one, usually the mob boss begins on the side of the protagonist. They are both wary of each other, knowing that they both lack moral fibre, however they might help each other out if they both need something. The protagonist might then double cross the mob boss, thus making an enemy of him. The Mob Boss will rarely be out for the protagonist for no reason, although they might make enemies of each other through the course of the story.
– The Husband: This one does not really count as an antagonist, more of an inconvenience. The femme fatale and the protagonist have plotted to kill the husband off for their own ill gotten gains. He may not be any more corrupt or evil than any other character in the story, but the protagonist has made an enemy of him simply by being put up against him. More often than not, he will not be at fault, but will simply be someone to kill off when things get a little too hot.
As the main character is a detective, there needs to be a crime. And if there is a crime, there needs to be people who might have committed it. The suspects come in all shapes and sizes, all with their own motives and weapon of choice. Often the Femme Fatale will also fall into this category. These can all be treated with suspicion, as, even if they are not guilty of the case that is being looked into, chances are they will be guilty of something else.
ALL OF THE ABOVE CHARACTERS SMOKE.
There is always a body. In many cases, this will be the main character himself, but other times it will be the source of the investigation. A Noir without a body count is not a true noir. There has to be an element of danger, and this is usually suggested by the presence of a body. Even if the main case does not involve murder, at some point a body will appear, leading to a murder case.
The protagonist is down and out. He is drinking too much and sleeping in his office. He has lost his family, or they simply won’t see him any more. He has no one. He is a loner, and he desperately needs a case to stop him from going completely bust. He has a few favours still left up his sleeve, but favours don’t pay the rent. This case comes out of nowhere, and the only reason he landed it is because no one else would help, or he is the last one left who can crack it.
It is America, somewhere between the 20’s and the 50’s. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks even though they shouldn’t, no one looks at the road when they are driving. It is dark, always, and often it is raining. The night air is quiet except for the distant sound of jazz and dogs barking, and the occasional gunshot which people will ignore. Steam comes up from the gutters and everyone over the age of twenty five wears a suit or is in the armed forces. The women all wear heels and their hair will always be tied up until they need to appear beautiful.
THE UNDERLYING COMMENTARY
Although not a staple, in many noir stories there will be hints here and there at the state of the country, a comment on prohibition or the war. Mostly, however, it is a comment on the corruption of the police, of the government and the general populace. The American dream has become a nightmare, and darkness envelopes everything and people live in the shadows.
Given that noir typically covers about 30 years, beginning right after the end of one world war and ending right after the next (1920-1950) there is a massive issue with morale. During the later years, prohibition had come in and even the most honest citizens were breaking the law in order to sneak away to a criminally funded speakeasy just to get away from the misery of it all. The law was corrupt, the government was corrupt, organised crime was growing due to the mass immigration from Italy to New York. Jobs were scarce, money was even more so and everyone was paranoid after the war(s). Not only was there a massive rise in Italian immigrants, but immigrants from all over the world were coming to America: Germans and Austrians (especially the filmmakers) came to escape from the Nazis.
America felt paranoid and alienated, and didn’t know who to turn to, and so anyone who was willing to lend a hand immediately became the saviour. Corruption had its grip on America.
Raymond Durgnat ‘Paint it black: The Family Tree of Film Noir’