Film noir is term coined by French critics to describe a type of film that is characterized by its dark, somber tone and cynical, pessimistic mood. Literally meaning dark (or black) film, the term alludes to the hard-boiled detective novels and thrillers published during the 1930s in a series entitled the roman noir. Specifically, film noir was coined to describe those Hollywood films of the '40s and early 50s which portrayed the dark and gloomy underworld of crime and corruption, films whose heroes as well as villains are cynical, disillusioned, and often insecure loners, unable to escape the past and unsure or apathetic about the future. In terms of style and technique, the film noir favors night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism and entrapment. The dark tones and the tense nervousness are complemented by the oblique choreography of the action and the doom-laden compositions and camera angles.
Hollywood productions of the film noir style include: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Howard Hawks's To Have And Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep ( 1946), Michael Curtiz' s Casablanca (1942), Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953), Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951); Rudolph Maté's D.O.A. (1950), Henry Hathaway's Kiss Of Death (1947), Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night (1949), Sam Fuller's Pickup On South Street (1953), and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
The film noir trend, which had been influenced by a combination of factors, including an influx of immigrant directors from central Europe and the sobering effects of WWII and its aftermath, had all but run itself out by the mid-50s. But isolated films in the style continued to be made in Hollywood for some years, among them Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), Welles's Touch Of Evil (1958), Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971), Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974).
A revival of interest in film noir in the '80s brought a spate of films attempting to recapture the style Some good examples of this renewed interest can be seen in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981), Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991), Joel Coen's Blood Simple (1984), John Dahl's Kill Me Again (1989), Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot (1990), Steven Frears's The Grifters (1990), and Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again (1991), Brian Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995), and David Fincher's Se7en (1995).
During the same period a number of film noir classics were remade, among them Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Taylor Hackford's Against All Odds (1984), Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel's D.O.A. (1988), Irwin Winkler's Night And The City (1992), and Barbet Schroder's Kiss of Death (1995).
The term film noir was also applied to certain French films of WWII and the postwar years and later to films of the New Wave which were influenced by the Hollywood crime movies. In its broader sense, the term has been used retroactively to describe expressionist German films of the '20s and Hollywood's gangster picture cycle of the '30s.
Today the film noir is one of the most influential and admired film genres. Its conventions have been widely used by contemporary filmmakers, and the films we will see in this course testify to that influence. Moreover, the genre has been both popular and highly regarded by film critics and historians. To learn more about the film noir, try browsing these internet sites: the many titles listed together at the Internet Movie Database and the collections of criticism and images at The Raymond Chandler Library, Martin's Film Noir Page, and the Film Noir Web Links.