Noir meets reality

Paul Schrader – ‘Note on Film Noir’ (Laurie Dix)

In reading Paul Schraders ‘Note on Film Noir’, it is interesting (and comforting) to note that even he cannot identify truly what creates a film noir. Indeed, he stipulates quite clearly that film noir cannot be described entirely in conventions.

He does, however, go quite some ways to identify certain things that might count towards making a film noir.
I will identify some of his key points, but to get the full benefit of the text, I recommend reading ‘Paul Schrader – Note on Film Noir’.


“Film noir is not a genre (as Raymond Durgnat has helpfully pointed out over the objections

of Higham and Greenberg’s Hollywood in the Forties). It is not defined, as are the western and

gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of

tone and mood. It is a film “noir”, as opposed to the possible variants of film grey or film off white.”


Film noir cannot be attributed solely to certain tropes, it cannot be described as a genre, but in order to approximate what people think of when they think of noir, you can consider or attempt to recreate some of these ideas:


Post War Disillusionments

After WWII, America began to lose its spirit, the morale of the country went into decline. People were moving into a depression, and becoming depressed themselves. The crimes films began to get darker, dealing with more ‘Gritty’ subject matter, and Allied Propaganda lost its shine. After the war, films became much more sardonic, and less optimistic. Rather than choosing to demonise the Germans, the fracas came closer to home. American turned against American, and paranoia and fear were rife.


Post War Realism

Once post-war America realised what the real world was like, the nations mood sank. They didn’t want to be lied to anymore, instead choosing to watch films which reflected their dim and miserable understanding of the world. Rather than the films focusing on the higher classes and melodramatic high society, the focus shifted to the ‘Real’ people, people who knew pain and suffering, people with problems, people with whom the public could relate.


The German Influence

Due to a number of Germans fleeing Germany during the war, many arrived in Hollywood. The Germans and Eastern Europeans understood expressionism, and their influence in Chiaroscuro lighting and harsh camera work had a profound effect on Hollywood at the time, and found its way into the films. The Germans just did Dark better than the Americans.


The Hard-Boiled Tradition

A shift in character also arose around this time. Rather than wanting to watch films about people who could dance and act and sing, there became a trend for the kind of lead character who had been hurt in his life, who smoked and who was a good deal tougher than anything American cinema had seen up until this point. Hard-Boiled writers had their roots in pulp fiction and detective novels, and so their writing was starkly different to that which American audiences were used to. A huge surge of Hardboiled authors came in the 30’s and 40’s, and found their way onto the screens. Raymond Chandlers ‘Double Indemnity’ is hailed as one of the first to portray Noir how it really was:


“Small time, unredeemed and unheroic.”



Although this area is huge, and even Paul Schrader dares not attempt to tackle it, he does highlight a few ideas which are recurrent in many films which are labeled as ‘Noir’:

– Many scenes are lit for night, and use a lot of darkness.

– Oblique and Vertical angles are preferable to horizontal, reminiscent of German expressionism.

– The actors and set are often given equal lighting emphasis, suggesting hopelessness.

– Compositional tension is preferable to action.

– Water plays a massive role in many scenes and sets.

– Romantic narration is common, especially one which describes hopeless or doomed actions.

– Complex chronology is used to emphasise lost time.



(See: Raymond Durgant – ‘The Family Tree of Film Noir’)

American morale and adventurousness have been exchanged for claustrophobia and fear, and stories dwell on the past but fear the future. Chandler described the Noir world thus:


“It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting patterns out of it.”


Film noir tends to gravitate around paranoia, fear, claustrophobia and darkness. The world is a frightening place, where bad people get away with things and no one will stop them. The world is corrupt, the country is afraid and the future can only bring bad things.These ideas, however, lend themselves wonderfully to the artistic talents of the imaginative and the creative.


One response

  1. Pingback: Why Batman is Noir (Laurie Dix) | Johnny Noir Film

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