‘Film Noir’ is a French phrase literally meaning "black film" that developed in the early 1940s; refers to a genre of mostly black-and-white films that blossomed in the post-war era in American cinema, with:
Early examples of the noir style include dark, stylized detective films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Banned in occupied countries during the war, these films became available throughout Europe beginning in 1946. French cinemapholes admired them for their cold, cynical characters and dark, brooding style, and they afforded the films effusive praise in French journals such as Cahiers du cinéma. French critics coined the term film noir in reference to the low-keyed lighting used to enhance these dramas stylistically—although the term would not become commonplace in international critical circles until the publication of the book Panorama du film noir americain (1955) by Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton.
The darkness of these films reflected the disenchantment of the times. Pessimism and disillusionment became increasingly present in the American psyche during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the world war that followed. After the war, factors such as an unstable peacetime economy, McCarthyism, and the looming threat of atomic warfare manifested themselves in a collective sense of uncertainty. The corrupt and claustrophobic world of film noir embodied these fears.
Several examples of film noir, such as Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946), and John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), share the common storyline of a war veteran who returns home to find that the way of life for which he has been fighting no longer exists. In its place is the America of film noir: modernized, heartless, coldly efficient, and blasé about matters such as political corruption and organized crime.
Many of the major directors of film noir—such as Huston, Dmytryk, Cromwell, Orson Welles, and others—were American. However, other Hollywood directors renowned for a film noir style hailed from Europe, including Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. It is said that the themes of noir attracted European directors, who often felt like outsiders within the Hollywood studio system. Such directors had been trained to emphasize cinematic style as much as acting and narrative in order to convey thought and emotion.
Controversy exists as to whether film noir can be classified as a genre or subgenre, or if the term merely refers to stylistic elements common to various genres. Film noir does not have a thematic coherence: the term is most often applied to crime dramas, but certain westerns and comedies have been cited as examples of film noir by some critics.
Other critics argue that film noir is but an arbitrary designation for a multitude of dissimilar black-and-white dramas of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Film scholar Chris Fujiwara contends that the makers of such films “didn’t think of them as ‘films noir’; they thought they were making crime films, thrillers, mysteries, and romantic melodramas. The nonexistence of ‘noir’ as a production category during the supposed heyday of noir obviously problematizes the history of the genre.” Yet it cannot be questioned that film noir connotes specific visual images and an aura of postwar cynicism in the minds of most film buffs. Indeed, several common characteristics connect most films defined as “noir”:
During the 1950s film noir continued to deal with the disillusionment of the outsider, often presenting him as a confused member of a repressive society. Nunnally Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) examined a businessman’s attempt to find meaning in his work and home life. Pickup on South Street (1953), directed by Samuel Fuller, attacked postwar American capitalism; its central character is a man who accidentally acquires a top-secret microfilm but will only part with it for a price, no matter how that may jeopardize the safety of his country. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) went so far as to examine the brooding outsider’s attempt to change his own environment through a murder contract with another outsider. More often, however, the outsider is an inherently noble figure in a futile battle with corruption, as in Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), cited by a plurality of film critics as the final film of the golden age of film noir.
The golden era of film noir—the late 1940s through the early ’50s—is regarded as a benchmark period in American filmmaking, as well as a strong cultural checkpoint for the values of postwar America.
Film Noir Doco - a PBS doc on the rules of Film Noir.
Film Site - for a really detailed, informative discussion of Film Noir.
Film Noir Studies - a great source for critical essays on aspects of Film Noir.
Film Noir on Wikipedia - a detailed, well sourced account of Film Noir.
Filmmaker IQ - on the origins and techniques of Film Noir.
Film Noir Timeline - an interactive timeline of Film Noir
Film Noir & Contemporary Society - a well-researched, inform