Character Prototypes and Typical Storylines of Film Noir

Film noir, better known simply as the “hard-boiled detective” films, was an immensely popular style of Hollywood film during the 1940s. Although the phase died out after a decade or so, the themes and characters have persisted into many more modern films, becoming a lasting component of Hollywood movies.

A Quick Overview of Classic Film Noir

Film Noir, which literally means black film, officially began in gray tones in the 30’s with German directors such as Fritz Lang and emerged in the melodramatic, deeply contrasted black and white toned format it is best known for in the 40’s.

The overarching theme of classic film noir is death, and most frequently, it is the hero who dies. Heroes and anti-heroes of film noir are morally ambiguous – whether thieves, murderers, crooked detectives, supportive girlfriends, or the like; they are all caught in the inner recesses of human decrepitude, or, I should say, reality.

The plots, characterized by crime and suspicion, often leap through time with flashbacks, helping the characters understand the past in order to make sense of the world around them. Films of the 40s, such as The Big Sleep, Laura, and Double Indemnity, cemented this film style in history, not only the actors.

Film Noir: The Stories

The movies that comprised the film noir genre of American movies in the 1940s were almost entirely based on novels. These pocket paperbacks by authors such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain were easily adapted to the screen, making for dramatic crime stories that greatly appealed to the American population at that time.

The production code also played a role in film noir stories and how its star characters were perceived.

Sexual desire could not be shown overtly; it had to be done through plot and melodrama. The crime/suspicion-heavy themes built up the unspoken and unseen sexual tension-the girl was an object to be won or saved, no matter what the cost. Even if he were killed in winning her love, even if she would ultimately be his undoing, because she seemed like she couldn’t be had, he had to have her.

It was because the production code was so strict that these plots were as climactic as they were. The passion was in attaining the love, not in the love itself. It can be said that the female roles were anti-feminist in that the woman of film noir had a cool as-ice veneer that would melt at the look or touch of her hero, but at the same time, she chose her hero, one that would be an equal match for her.

Film Noir Characters: The Hard-Boiled Detective Anti-Hero

One main characteristic of film noir is that its main character is often not much of a hero but rather an anti-hero. This detective is often trapped into doing some pretty bad stuff, and he is left to get himself out of trouble and find a life for himself again. He is depressed, spends a lot of time walking through dark cities at night in a fedora, and always seems to lose.

The story was often told from the perspective of the hard-boiled detective, and it was not at all uncommon to begin the film with a scene from the end of the plot and then flashback to the beginning of the whole story for him to tell it as the narrator.

Fandom also played an integral part in classic film noir.

The actors were idealized by audiences due to the social and political climate of the 40’s. Domestic family stories were no longer the order of the day in film because women had entered the workforce in increasing numbers while the men were off at war. Consequently, female roles in film noir were characterized by beauty, independence, indifference, and ambition, while the male roles could be defined in terms of the hero or the anti-hero. The man who was smart, suave, and handsome enough to get the girl – would, and it would either be her saving grace or her downfall.

The anti-hero would be left brokenhearted or vindictive over her unreturned affections. Audiences, male and female, could relate to the stars of film noir, seeing themselves in these screen roles. Stars like Gene Tierney, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall became household names with the rise of this style of filmmaking.

The Female Role in Film Noir

The female star of film noir was known for her feminine sexuality but also her shrewdness; she was a devilish angel living in the male crime world. She was morally indefinable, not entirely good or bad, and perfectly willing to use her sexuality to get what she wanted or even to destroy a man.

Some female roles in film noir were a little less duplicitous- the woman who would stand by her man no matter what, supporting her love’s dangerous or morally bankrupt pursuits. For a view of the classic female film noir role, watch Gene Tierney in Laura.

The other main character who was present in almost every noir film was the femme fatale, a typically blonde woman whose name spelled trouble. These women with guns were empowering, deceptive, and just plain mean. They always seemed to manage to trap the hard-boiled detective into falling in love with them, just to come in at the last second and turn his world upside-down.

The Neo-Noir Films

Traces of film noir have persisted into modern filmmaking, with the occasional direct reference to an element of film noir, but more frequently, the general feeling and style creeping into modern movies.

Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1955) was the first major film after the end of the era to truly and fully reflect the film noir style. A couple decades later, Jack Nicholson starred in Chinatown (1974), another neo-noir film that mimicked the style and content of classic film noir.

Many still try to continue the typical style of film noir, but it cannot be characterized as such, as the classic noir period has ended. The modern color films of the last few decades, while maintaining some of the attributes, are nonetheless not to be classified as classic film noir. The male and female roles have remained the same, though, only now more pronounced and overtly sexual.

Some more recent films, though not classic film noir, have tried to imitate the style.

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