Hollywood JargonHollywood SlangHollywood Speak

noir, film noir, neo-noir .

Definitions: Noir is a genre that consists of two sub-genres, detective and crime, whose plots are characterized by pessimism, foreboding and fatalism, and which feature noir’s signature character—the femme fatale. Cinematographically, the genre has two variations. Film noir consists of black-and-white films that complement the darkness of their plots with the visual techniques of German Expressionism. Neo-noir consists of more modern films made in color that rely on locations to evoke noir moods.

.The above definitions are consistent with the practice, dating back to categorizing literature, to base genre on plot. Many commentators maintain that noir is an exception that requires cinematographic style to be an additional factor. In this instance, noir would consist of four sub-genres: detective film noir, crime film noir, detective neo-noir and crime neo-noir.

History: The noir genre originated with film noir, a term coined by French critics to refer to black-and-white detective and crime films released by Hollywood between 1941 and 1955. The detective and crime sub-genres shared a cinematographic style that employed shadows and diagonal composition, including Dutch angles (“Dutch” being the anglicized version of Deutsch) pioneered decades earlier mainly by German Expressionist filmmakers. Like Expressionist painters, Expressionist filmmakers focused on depicting states of mind more than storytelling, which was the forte of Hollywood. The two schools of cinema evolved separately during World War I because of trade embargos.

Before World War 2, Hollywood storytelling largely portrayed idealized protagonists and co-protagonists whose character arcs led to happy endings. Film noir’s cinematographic style complemented a new genre of storytelling that resonated with the dark mindset of World War2/Korean War America. However, this cinematographic style was employed by Hollywood filmmakers in other genres, such as by James Whale's “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and Orson Wells' "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942). In sum, all film noir films share a cinematographic style, but not all films with that cinematographic style are film noir. The latter includes numerous contemporaneous black-and-white detective and crime films often mislabeled film noir that do not follow one of the two film noir plot structures.

These structures are the mystery plot, in which the protagonist is a detective or at least detects; and the crime plot, in which the central character resorts to murder. It is the femme fatale that defines both plots as film noir and, with the advent of neo-noir, the noir genre.

In detective film noir, the femme fatale is a woman seductively attractive if not drop-dead gorgeous who intrigues the protagonist as he investigates a murder or suspicious death. The protagonist comes to suspect the lady is somehow connected either as a villain or as a victim to the mystery he is trying to solve. In discovering which, he also solves the mystery. If a villain, the femme fatale dies or is arrested for murder. If a victim, she and the protagonist are romantically joined.

Leading examples of femme fatales in detective film noir films include:

  • Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
  • Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in “Laura” (1944)
  • Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) in “Murder My Sweet” (1944)
  • Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Becall) in “The Big Sleep” (1946)
  • Anna (Alida Valli) in “The Third Man” (1949)
  • Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

In crime film noir, the femme fatale uses her charms to induce the male protagonist to commit a crime. She is married or attached to an affluent man whom the protagonist consciously or subconsciously aspires to replace despite his being a man of lesser means. His misguided objective is to get the girl, get the means to support her, and get away with it. This causes him to become hopelessly entangled in the femme fatale’s intrigue to escape if not murder her husband/boyfriend. The protagonist’s character arc ends with the realization that he has been trapped by the femme fatale in a situation likely fatal. The femme fatale dies violently and the protagonist, if a knowing accomplice, dies or faces prison.

Leading examples of femme fatales in crime film noir films include:

  • Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in “Double Indemnity” (1944)
  • Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) in “The Woman in the Window”(1944)
  • Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)
  • Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in “Out of the Past” (1947)
  • Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)
  • Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) in "Criss Cross" (1947)

It follows that the latter half of the 1950s saw the end of the film noir movement. The color process became increasingly affordable to makers of feature films circa 1956. Moreover, this was a time when motion picture profits were imperiled by competition from television. Providing moviegoers an experience television could not—casts of thousands, memorable musical scores, foreign locations, special effects and, most of all, color—made “production value” the order of the day.

"The fusion of beauty and evil, seductiveness and danger, produced a character elemental to the noir genre."

Enter neo-noir. Greek for new, neo stands for color in neo-noir; French for black, noir stands for the two plot structures introduced by film noir. The use of shadows and diagonal composition that characterized film noir’s cinematographic style did not translate well into color. For instance, rather than strive for contrasts of light and shadow in the neo-noir film “Chinatown” (1974), director Roman Polanski reportedly aspired to capture the distinctive golden tint of Southern California sunlight. It would be the setting of Los Angeles’ Chinatown that would visually elicit a sense of foreboding and fatalism.. Other evocative neo-noir settings include the mission steeple in "Vertigo" (1957), Mount Rushmore in "North by Northwest" (1959), the dark house on a cliff in "Still of the Night" (1982), the lighthouse in "Final Analysis," (1992), the high rise rooftop in "The Game" (1997), the deserted motel in "L.A. Confidential" (1997), etc.

However, the detective and crime plot structures of film noir and neo-noir are identical. Leading examples of femme fatales in detective neo-noir films include:

  • Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in “Vertigo” (1958)
  • Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in "North by Northwest" (1959)
  • Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in “Chinatown” (1974)
  • Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep) in "Still of the Night" (1982)
  • Helen Kruger (Ellen Barkin) in “Sea of Love” (1989)
  • Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in “Basic Instinct” (1992)
  • Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) in “L.A. Confidential” (1997)
  • Anne-Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) in "Out of Time" (2003)                 

Leading examples of femme fatales in crime neo-noir films include:

  • Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) in “Body Heat” (1981)
  • Heather Evans (Kim Basinger) in “Final Analysis” (1992)
  • Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) in "The Last Seduction" (1993)
  • Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) in “The Game” (1997)
  • Laurie Ash (Rebecca Romijn) in “Femme Fatale” (2002)

The fusion of beauty and evil, seductiveness and danger, produced a character elemental to the noir genre. And yet the essentiality of the femme fatale is often overshadowed by the importance commentators attach to the “hard-boiled” protagonist.  This character type did seem essential when noir originated as film noir, or at least essential to the detective subgenre. The school-of-hard knocks, Lucky Strike-puffing leading man of film noir—e.g., Bogart, Andrews, Meeker, Mitchum—contrasts with the educated and polished protagonists of many neo-noir films—e.g., Stewart, Grant, Gere, Douglas. “Let me explain to you, Walsh,” private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) tells a subordinate in the neo-noir “Chinatown.” “This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”

Related Terms:     Production Value       Dutch Angle    Three-Act Structure       

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