What is Film Noir? Art or Entertainment?

Just as the Beatles listened to American folk music forms that nobody took seriously and then played them back to a surprised and ecstatic America, so did French critics recognize an emerging film genre in post-war America, categorize it, name it, and then give it back to Americans with a new moniker: film noir! This distinctive style, emerging in the post-war era, has long captivated audiences and scholars alike, leaving many to ponder: What exactly is film noir?

Is it an art form, a mere source of entertainment, or something more profound? Characterized by its moody aesthetics, complex characters, and morally ambiguous narratives, film noir transcends traditional genre boundaries. It not only reflects the societal anxieties of its time but also offers a unique cinematic experience. In this exploration, we unravel the essence of film noir, examining its roots, influence, and the timeless question of whether it should be considered art, entertainment, or, perhaps, a blend of both.

Film Noir: Beyond Genre and Style

Much research and critical thinking surrounds the phenomenon of film noir. Strictly speaking, however, film noir is not a genre, nor is it a mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. I will call it a “phenomenon” because film noir is a term that lacks an agreed-upon definition. It lacks an evidentiary mass of characteristics that would define either a “genre” or a “style.”

Critic Paul Kerr defines film noir as a genre, but noir does not meet the same system of conventions and expectations as other genre-defined movies, for instance, the Western or the musical. Other critics, like Lise Hordnes in her article, The Problem of Film Noir, avoid this problem by viewing film noir not as a genre but as a style of filmmaking, emphasizing its aesthetic elements and its connection to German filmmaking of the teens. Both of these different views try to capture the essence of noir and thus define it but somehow fall short.

It is said that great art holds up a mirror to the society in which it is created and that a hallmark of great literature is that it defines a time in history. I believe that noir existed as a development in art aesthetic movements like Impressionism, Modernism, or Surrealism, and as such, both reflected the society and defined the era in which it was created.

The noirs were inspired both by literature and previous film history, along with the socio-history of the period they grew from. Film noir is an offshoot of the gangster and detective sagas from the 1930s, like Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy (1931). Noir films, however, are very different in tone and characterization. The artistic stylings of noir are rooted in German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, as exhibited in such films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) or Fritz Lang’s M (1931). These films were noted for their stark camera angles and movements, “chiaroscuro” lighting, and shadowy, high-contrast images, all elements of later film noir.

The thematic cohesiveness in noir literature and film comes from its exploration of a new protagonist, the anti-hero, and the dark post-modern landscape that he inhabits. In his book The Life-Blood of Film Noir, critic Nicholas Christopher contends that “the psychological numbing that resulted from the incessant threat of nuclear war helped create a climate of fear and paranoia, which was the very life’s blood of the film noir genre.” He goes on to state that the Prohibition-era urban warfare between organized crime and the authorities in American cities acted in concert with the onset of the nuclear age to construct an “anxious urban populace” who would become the consumers of noir films.

In post-modern America, there was anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and alienation, while on the other hand, there was excitement, enthusiasm, and joy. Noir films choose to examine the world inhabited by individuals who had the former reaction. In the noirian landscape, industrialization creates a feeling of alienation, and an increasingly mechanized world creates an increasingly dehumanized city. People in the noir city are alienated from each other and feel as if they are simply cogs in something turning. Here, there can be no individuality nor any sense of personal power. All of the characters are in the grip of larger forces and being manipulated by events outside of their control.

This vision of post-war America is a stark contrast to the mainstream Hollywood and Good Housekeeping magazine images of optimism: the nuclear family, economic boom, and urban sprawl.

Contrasting Film Noir with Mainstream Hollywood

Classic film noir takes advantage of the post-war ambiance of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion that was not under the purview of mainstream media. These films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, and paranoia are readily evident in noir, reflecting a Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. The criminal, violent, misogynistic, and greedy perspectives of the anti-heroes in film noir were metaphors for society’s evils and emblematic of the moral conflict that many consumers of noir experienced.

While this schema supports the notion that film and books (Roman noir) possess some of the diaphanous yet real elements of high art, critics state the central limitation of noir film as a social document is its lack of a sense of the larger social order. The power structures that help create the noir political, economic, and military are rarely even mentioned in noir films, and because of this, critics state that film noir should be regarded as a style of entertainment rather than a significant artistic movement.

I put forth that the novelists and filmmakers who used noise palettes to create their art did not yet understand how industrial and technological advances were affecting society in their time and also that they were almost willful in this lack of understanding, as it reflected the corresponding lack of understanding shared by most of society at that time. They were reacting to a societal phenomenon in which the world was becoming increasingly less personal. Only through the lens of time can we begin to understand the societal paradigm shift that gave birth to film noir. Despite what appears to be a lack of intellectual curiosity or understanding, noir films offer an important insight into the psyche of post-war American society, with the archetypal rugged American individual struggling against a nameless and faceless authority.

The primary moods of classic film noir are alienation, disillusionment, ambiguity, moral corruption, desperation, and paranoia. The anti-heroes who populate these novels and films include emotionally conflicted private eyes, police, gangsters, government agents, sociopaths, crooks, petty criminals, and murderers. These protagonists were often morally ambiguous inhabitants of a dark underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, obsessive, and insecure loners struggling to survive.

It is true, as critics state, that the pain that informs the noir film is never completely understood and that the sources of the social disease and corruption that create a noir world are rarely explored in much depth. Nevertheless, noir does not center on intellectual examinations of the world. It is an art form that focuses on powerful, painful, and intense emotions. The political and economic engines that eat up the individual in a noir world are beyond the understanding of most noir filmmakers and beyond the understanding of the average citizen who is the subject of noir art. To ring true, film noir could not offer an explanation for the paradoxes of post-war America, and its lack of understanding and explanation is what makes it reflective of the world in which it was created. Paradox is a part of life in noir’s urban landscape, and so we witness unresolved paradoxes throughout the noir movement. Money is the key focus of much activity in noir films; it is the way to freedom and empowerment. However, the love of money is also given the traditional presentation as the root of all evil. Paradox is right at home in the confused world of post-war America, and this is reflected in the equally confusing world of noir film.

Film noir was also reflective of society by portraying a class structure that typified women’s roles in society and commoditized their existence. The females in film noir are almost always one of two archetypes: dutiful, reliable, trustworthy, and loving Madonnas, or predatory, manipulative, and desperate femme fatales.

The explicit misogyny of many noir films is evidence of a male reaction to the newly confident and assertive American woman of the 1940s–women who had entered the workforce during the Second World War and didn’t want to leave when soldiers returned looking for jobs. As a result, many women became men’s economic competitors. Some had dumped boyfriends or husbands while they were overseas, thus framing the femme fatale as an actual representation of what was happening in society at that time.

Many All-American values, like the sanctity of the nuclear family, traditional notions of heroism, and the work ethic, are shown to be eroding or completely destroyed in noir films. The moral ambiguity of the cynical, world-weary anti-heroes that populate noir makes the phenomenon more complex than one suspects at first glance, but the heroes are usually too damaged emotionally and spiritually to do much about a corrupt and unclean world. Instead, they try to find a way to live outside the systemic downfall that surrounds them. This attitude was a prevailing way of dealing with urban life in post-war America. The films, like their protagonists, may not challenge the status quo, but they certainly question it.

Legacy of Film Noir

Lastly, the artistic techniques that were pioneered in film noir ensure its status as a viable art form and as such, its place in artistic history.

Film noir was marked by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus camera work, disorienting visual schemes, skewed camera angles, cigarette smoke, and foggy, unbalanced scene settings. Settings were often interiors with low-key lighting, Venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and dark, claustrophobic city apartments or hotel rooms. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked streets, flashing neon lights, and low-key lighting. Story locations were often in cities with murky and dark streets, dimly lit apartments and hotel rooms, and abandoned warehouses.

Complex narratives were typically told with foreboding background music, flashbacks, witty dialogue, and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. The most common plot device was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed.

Critic Nicholas Christopher reminds us that the technical and artistic progenitors of film noir were the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties, which gave noir its look and bleak attitude. These expressionist films’ visual emphasis on shadows and fog, combined with their thematic study of man’s darker impulses, exert a strong influence on many future noir directors. Expressionists helped create the signature style of darkened streets and the use of light and dark illumination, synonymous with noir art.

This German-pioneered system of stylistic representation translated well into the noir vision of the modern American city as a region of devastation. The landscapes everybody saw in the newsreels following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were translated into scenes of urban blight in the noir films that followed.

Noir films also echo Greek tragedy in that they show people and things governed by circumstances beyond their control. The individual in the noir city is trapped, and the only escape is death. The noir city itself is also trapped, in a world gone mad, and it too may only find escape through destruction.

So we must ask ourselves: is noir, as critic Paul Schrader argues in his essay Notes on Film Noir, “a passing cinematic fad that enjoyed its heyday between 1941 and 1958, but that has no place in the making of contemporary films?”

Or is cinematographer/writer John Briley closer to the truth when he says, “(Film noir) experiences periodic rebirth and rediscovery. Whenever we have any moment of deep societal rift or disruption in America, one of the ways we can express it is through the ideas and behavior in film noir?” (New York Times, February 6, 1994)

Film Noir in the Modern Era

I side with Briley, who suggests that the time is ripe for a resurgence of noir. “In late twentieth-century America, when several decades can feel like an age, it’s not only that we can look back to the forties and fifties and appreciate the cutting-edge significance and power of the noir vision, but also that we can gaze into our national mirror today and discern all around us the dark tones and shock-waves of noir’s resurgence.”

Would not the intensely impersonal world of Social Media be a perfect foil for a new noir tale? Would not the miracle worlds created by urban sprawl be a perfect setting for the next Double Indemnity? Could technological advances in film be used to create a noiresque aesthetic? Can some testimony regarding the state of man in the early 21st Century be best brought to an audience through a noir-inspired work?

I feel that the answer to these questions is a resounding “yes.” Film noir and Roman noir are distinctly American art forms. They hold a mirror up to the society in which they were created; they define an era and utilize artistic mediums in new and expressive ways. Most importantly, they cause us to look at ourselves and the world around us and ask questions.

Like the questions that all good literature and art leave us with, these questions may have to be left unanswered until time provides us with the wisdom we will need to answer them.

Scroll to Top