Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Defining Film Noir

Yesterday, I found myself cringing at an article by an entertainment writer who kept using the term "film noir" as if it was the latest hip word needed to validate that writer's knowledge of the film industry. The phrase was abused, mis-used, and over-used. So, I looked up some definitions of film noir and found a couple of links that were interesting. I welcome more links or better definitions.

film noir - a movie characterized by low-key lighting, a bleak urban setting, and corrupt, cynical characters.

film noir - Originally a French term (literally "black film"), now in common usage, to indicate a film with a gritty, urban setting that deals mainly with dark or violent passions in a downbeat way. Especially common in American cinema during the late forties and early fifties, its themes of existential alienation and paranoia have often been read as signs of postwar malaise and Cold War anxiety. James Monaco's Film Glossary

film noir - shadowy, pessimistic movie: a cinematic genre popular in the 1940s and 1950s, often filmed in urban settings with extensive use of shadows, cynical in outlook, and featuring antiheroes.

film noir - a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music; also : a film of this type. Merriam Webster Online

The Development of Post-war Literary and Cinematic Noir

High Heels on Wet Pavement


Fun Joel said...

I'll assume that it was not me, in my review of Brick that made you cringe! It is rooted in film noir!

I'd say the best way of looking at it is a genre that builds on a certain number of conventions, both of story and of style. Rather than being a specific setting or subject, it includes a number of the following (for example, and in no particular order):

-- urban setting
-- femme fatale (female character who is utterly appealing to the hero, but who also is the cause of his downfall)
-- voiceover narration
-- rapid and clipped dialogue and banter between characters
-- a relatively pessimisitic (in comparison to typical American films) outlook and ending, e.g. the main character might die at the end, and typically ends up without "the girl"
-- atmospheric lighting, often in black and white cinematography with sharp shadows
-- private eye and/or crime stories
-- the use of various visual framing devices to increase the claustrophobic feel
-- a voyeuristic use of camera shots, often viewing people through windows, etc.
-- fracturing and duplicity of character echoed by mirrors and other reflections/shadows
-- style often taking precedence over substance of story

and many others. In reference to that last point, a famous (though perhaps apocryphal) story:

During the filming of The Big Sleep, I believe, star Humphrey Bogart asked director Howard Hawks who actually killed one of the characters in the famously convoluted story. Hawks was unsure and contacted Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, and asked the same question. Chandler replied that he too had no idea! The idea being, it didn't really matter.

I may be mixing up the film, or the actor who initially asked, but I think the story is illustrative nonetheless.

(By the way, like the new picture. Though I have always been an Underdog fan!)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Nope. Not you, Joel. It was a local publication. Thanks for the film noir input. I hadn't thought of the claustrophobic feel as a characteristic.

And, the pic is temporary (irrational fear of stalkers) but had to put it up for awhile because (1) I was accused of being a man in an email today and (2) the other day, I did this "what celeb do you look like thing" (link on Billy Mernit's site) and it said I looked like Viggo Mortenson.

I am WOMAN, hear me whimper ...

Fun Joel said...

The first short film I made was a spoof of film noir private eye movies, so in prepping for that, I watched a TON of them, and also picked upa large format paperback at the bookstore that pointed out the various visual and story characteristics. I believe it was just called "Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen." But there are plenty of good ones out there.

And don't think I was suggesting you should change the pic back! As I said, I like it. You've probably noticed that I recently changed my pic to a more recognizable one. No fears of stalkers. :-)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Had a bad experience many moons (eight years) ago. A guy thought my pic on my employer's website was singing Cindy Lauper songs to him. Now, I'm overly careful -- no, no, no, that's a lie. I'm paranoid. So, yeah, the pic has to come down in a day or so.

Konrad West said...

So is that really you? -- Stalker

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Dear Stalker,
Yeah, it's me on a cruise last year, but with no makeup, hair in a pony, and horned glasses, I'm not reccognizable. Also, they assure me that this odd scaly stuff and odor control problem are nothing to worry about.

William said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
William said...

Cool links. Thanks MaryAn.

I just put some film noir related material on this savage art... for all of your viewing pleasure. Speaking of, I have my short film, The Face of the Earth on the blog for Quicktime download. It's free and it comes in at 18:45. Download and view if you are interested, it's on the sidebar.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

How cool is that! Will check it out when I get home today. Thanks. I really need to learn to use flash so I can put some stuff online. I once had a trailer up but it was so large, nobody wanted to wait twenty minutes for it to load!

William said...

You will need to give it some time to download. I'm working on getting a new version up. It's black magic trying to compress at the right size and have it still look good. One day distributing our work will be easier.


William said...

That Monaco book is great. I've had it for probably 20 years. I think the current edition is a multimedia version with a DVD-ROM. Nice!