introduction to Noir: Fiction & Film (2023)

  • The primary focus of the Seminar is on the Film Noir Tradition, which began in the early 1940's and is still going strong today. From John Huston's The Maltese Falcon of 1941 to the Coen Brother's The Man Who Wasn't There.
  • But we'll also examine the pulp fiction of the 20's & 30's that underlies Film Noir.
  • In this introduction, I want to briefly discuss three issues:
    1. Answer the question: What is Film Noir?
    2. Give a brief overview of the Film Noir Tradition from the Classic Period to the Present.
    3. Discuss the Seminar's methodology and requirements.

What is Film Noir?

  • Consider the Seminar epigraph from Stokley Carmichael: Those who can define are the masters. As a concept Film Noir is contestable and controversial. Is Film Noir a genre, a cycle of films, a movement? How do we decide which films belong to the classification and which do not? What is Film Noir?
  • I am going to answer the question by:
    • giving a genealogy of the concept of Film Noir;
    • then discussing the birth of Noir in the pulp fiction of the 1920's & 30's;
    • and finally by giving my definition and Noir list.

Genealogy of the Concept of Film Noir.

  • Film Noir is a number of 1940's and 50's Hollywood Studio films. Not independent productions, but all produced by the Studios governed by the procedures of the system and all subjected to the Motion Picture Code.
  • FN is the creation of French film critics writing about a certain group of Hollywood Studio films they viewed in 1946 shortly after the end of WWII. They hadn't seen American films during the war and they thought they saw a different kind of film emerging within the Genres of Studio film making. Nino Frank coined (or used ) the term Film Noir to characterize 4 films he saw for the first time in 1946: The Maltese Falcon (41); Laura (44); Double Indemnity (44 ); Murder, My Sweet (44).

    This felicitious phrase caught on and thus the Film Noir Tradition was born. Key point: Film Noir is the creation of critics, not the filmmakers themselves. Film Noir is thus an ex post facto reality.

  • The first stage, then, in the creation of Film Noir was the activity of the 40's and 50's French Critics and the New Wave Directors (who were also Critics) like Godard and Truffaut. The early French Critics created the concept and defined the characteristics of such films that made them Film Noirs. So Film Noir was a category of difference. A category that provided a way of differentiating a certain group of films from other 40's and 50's Studio films.

    By the late 50's and early 60's Godard and Truffaut and others began making films like Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player that are self-consciously made out of the Noir films of the 40's & 50's.

  • The second stage in the creation of FN was the 70's when English and American Critics and filmmakers embraced the Noir Tradition created by the French. Paul Schrader who worked on the script of Taxi Driver wrote an influential article, "Notes on Film Noir" in 1972. Then there were a spate of articles in Film Comment in 1974. Thus the Film Noir critical industry was born. Since that time, the industry has churned out many articles and several books a year and shows no signs of reaching the end of the line.

Relation of Film Noir to the Hard-boiled fiction tradition.

  • A large number of Classic Noir films are adaptations of hard-boiled novels and short stories. But even the films that were not direct adaptations were shaped by the literary tradition.
  • What elements did Noir films appropriate from the hard-boiled tradition? I want to suggest that there are four major identifying traits of Film Noir--Four Marks or Signs of Noir--and that three of the elements reflect the influence of pulp fiction.
    1. Types of Stories.

      Film Noir appropriates two major types of crime stories from pulp fiction: the Detective story and the Sympathetic Criminal story.

      1. The Detective Story.

        The two key writers who created and shaped the hard-boiled detective fiction tradition were Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. We'll read two seminal works: The Maltese Falcon (1929), The Big Sleep (1939)--works that created the American Private Eye.

        All Noir Detective Films from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown, Blade Runner and Devil in a Blue Dress have been shaped by these two pulp fiction writers.

      2. The Sympathetic Criminal Story.

        The key figure in creating this kind of story was James Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934 ) and Double Indemnity (1936 ) are the seminal texts in creating the line of stories told from the criminal's point of view. Mostly ordinary people, sometimes from the lower class but more often middle-class respectable men who get caught up in crime and are ultimately destroyed. Listen to Walter Neff in Double Indemnity: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money--and a woman--and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman.

        Noir films from Double Indemnity to Body Heat, Mulholland Drive and Following explore the dark side of human desires. The Coen brothers acknowledge the influence of Cain on The Man Who Wasn't There:

          This film is heavily influenced by Cain's work. It's his kind of story. Except that it's got a guy who you'd call a schlub as the main hero. But when you think about it Cain's stories nearly always have as their heroes schlubs--losers, guys who were involved in rather dreary and banal existences--as the protagonists. Cain was interested in people's workaday lives and what they did for a living: he wrote about guys who worked as insurance salesmen, or in banks, or building bridges. We took that as a cue. (DVD jacket)
    2. Narrative Experimentation.

      Noir films appropriated many of their most distinctive story-telling techniques from literature. Extensive use of first-person narrators with voice-overs and flashbacks. Creating internal states of consciousness--dreams, fantasies and memories. Non-linear story-telling by means of mutiple narrators and memory sequences. All techniques employed by Hammett, Chandler and Cain.

    3. The Noir Vision.

      Both types of pulp crime fiction present a Dark vision of the world. Disillusioned detectives walking the mean streets of a corrupt urban world. Ordinary decent guys destroyed by their desires and dreams. Not the American Dream, but the American Nightmare.

      Noir film for the most part captures this alienated sensibility. As Coral, the femme fatale in Dead Reckoning says to Bogie: "It's a blue, sick world."

    4. Visual Style.

      The "Noir Look"-- Low-key lighting, deep-focus, wide-angle lenses, unbalanced composition, night-for-night exteriors and extreme camera angles and 'choker' close-ups. Comes from the film tradition of German Expressionism, but probably primarily from the impact of Citizen Kane. The cinematographer John Alton becomes the poet of Noir Visual Style in T-Men (47); Raw Deal (48); He Walked by Night (48); The Big Combo (55).

What is Film Noir? My Definition.

  • A number of films made between 1941 and 1958 that exhibit one or more of the Four Marks of Noir. I have identified thirty-five films as the Noir Core based primarily on the Noir Marks they bear, but also on their aesthetic qualities as works of art. Here's my Classic Noir List.

Classic Film Noir to Neo-Noir: 1941 to the Present.

  • The consensus of critical opinion is that the Classic period of Film Noir is 1941-1958--from The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil. But we are not only interested in the Classical Period. This isn't a seminar in history. The more interesting question to investigate is the power of those original Noir films to inspire subsequent filmmakers. Film Noir is of significance to contemporary filmmakers because it has inspired and continues to inspire creative, imaginative and powerful filmmaking. Witness Kubrick, Scorsese, Lynch, the Coen brothers and Christopher Nolan.

  • So we're also going to study what is loosely called Neo-Noir--The films by filmmakers who were inspired by those Classic Noirs and who appropriated elements from those films into their own work.
  • The earliest filmmakers who were captured by those films were the French New Wave Directors--especially Godard and Truffaut. So we'll study two of the best: Breathless & Shoot the Piano Player.
  • Then we'll move into the 70's. The 70's saw the emergence of a number of American filmmakers who were influenced by European Art Cinema and aspired to be serious artists and not mere Hollywood hacks (most of them had gone to film school). Since Noir films had been defined as serious ART by the French, it was only natural that these Americans should embrace their own indigenous art films. Any real art has to be dark--so it makes sense that the 70's saw an explosion of American films influenced by the Noir tradition. The best: Klute (71); The Long Goodbye (73); Chinatown (74); Taxi Driver (76).
  • The Noir Tradition flourished in the 80's with Body Heat (81); Blood Simple (84); Blue Velvet (86).
  • The 90's exploded with a large number of very good films which clearly drew their creative juice from Noir. The best: Reservoir Dogs (92); Pulp Fiction (94); The Usual Suspects (95); Lost Highway (97); Following. (98).
  • The Next Century has only just begun. But we already have several films that take their place in the Noir line-up: Memento (2001); Mulholland Drive (2001); The Man Who Wasn't There (2002).
  • The Noir Tradition continues to be a powerful influence and topic of interest for critics. Why? Because Dark visions of American life are always attractive to any intellectual who aspires to be an intellectual. No one since at least the 60's can take the idea of the American Dream straight--unless you're a Forest Gump. The American Nightmare is infinitely more engaging. Crime, poverty, alienation and disillusionment continue to be the material of critical comment on American society--the stuff Noir is made of.
  • Noir also continues to be a powerful influence on filmmakers as well as critics. Why? Listen to Stanley Kubrick : I've got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists--neither takes life as it is. Any tragic story has to be in conflict with things as they are. But filmmakers who want to be serious artists are attracted to Noir not simply because of the content--the Dark Vision--but because of visual style and narrative experimentation. Noir is attractive because it encourages makers to be self-conscious manipulators of the medium.

Seminar Methodology

  • View lots of films.

    In order to develop your own definition of Film Noir, you need to view lots of films that are considered Noir. Perhaps the best way to get a handle on Noir is to view the films on a variety of lists. Check the Internet Movie Database List. Or any of the sites I've link to in NetNoir. My "Best of Noir" is deliberately exclusive, not inclusive like most lists. The list is, however, always Under Construction--open to revision based on further research, discussion and new insight. I give you my definition and Noir List only as a means for you to test out and develop your own definition and your own list.

    I am requiring you to view most of the films on the Classic Noir list. Most are available on DVD. I suggest subscribing to Netflix for the duration of the Seminar. There are 5 absolutely key Noir films that are not yet on DVD--Murder, My Sweet; Laura; Out of the Past; Criss Cross; Gun Crazy. I will circulate videos of these 5 in the Seminar.

  • Study some films in depth.

    We want to couple breadth of study of Noir, with a careful analysis of the key films in the Noir corpus, so we understand in detail just what constitutes the major elements of Noir. Look at the Syllabus.

  • Study the seminal pulp fiction texts..

    We'll study The Maltese Falcon; Chandler's The Big Sleep; Hemingway's "The Killers"; and Cain's Double Indemnity.

  • Out-of-Class Assignments.
    • A primary means of understanding the novels and films will be to write about each of them. The writing will be done in Web-based discussion forums, using the software program, Web Crossing.
    • On the Noir Website the title of each film is a link to Discussion Forums for that film.
    • Writing in a Web Discussion Forum makes our thinking and discussion public and accessible to all of us anytime and from anywhere in the world.
      • We can learn from each other outside the time/space confines of the Seminar meeting because we can read what everyone is thinking about the texts and films and engage in discussion during the week before the Seminar meets.
      • This kind of public discussion before Seminar, makes the Seminar meeting a richer learning experience. It allows me to know what your thinking about before we meet, which means I can focus the Seminar on issues of clarification and emphasize some issues rather than others, based on our ongoing discussions.
      • We can use the Discussion Forum to post new questions, share relevant materials, extend the discussion in as many directions as we wish.
  • Class Procedure.
    • We'll use a combination of small group and whole seminar discussion to elucidate the novels and films. Students will lead the discussion and will make presentations on various issues relevant to understanding the material.
    • We'll also employ the DVD player for a close analysis of key sequences in each film. Students will make weekly presentations on various aspects of the films.


  • Weekly comments on the texts & films posted in the Seminar's Web-based Discussion Forums.
  • Final Project. The Final Project will be a short paper on some issue related to Film Noir. The requirement is open-ended and flexible. Each student will propose her specific project, according to her interests. Here are some suggestions:
    • Adapt a pulp fiction Noir short story.
    • The development of the Noir Visual Style in the Classic Noir period.
    • Narrative Experimentation in selected Classic Noirs.
    • The evolution of the Detective from Spade to Jake Gites.
    • The character of the Femme Fatale in selected Classic and/or Neo-Noir films.
    • The appropriation of the Noir tradition in the films of David Lynch, or the Coen brothers, or Christopher Nolan.

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