What Is Film Noir? A Definition, History, and Impact

Find out more about Old Hollywood’s most complex and creative body of work: the dark thrillers of Film Noir.

Nov 7, 2023By Kat Bello, BA in Visual Arts & Art History

what is film noir meaning


Film Noir is 1940s cinema filled with femme fatales, doomed anti-heroes, gray morality, and dangerous, dark streets. It is born from the cracks of war and recession and cloaked in slick visuals, deep shadows, and experimental style. Film Noir expanded the possibilities of Hollywood filmmaking and left an indelible mark on global cinema. Read on to learn more about Film Noir and its importance in the history of cinema.


Film Noir: Meaning

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Burt Lancaster and Sam Levene in The Killers, dir. Robert Siodmak, 1946, via IMDb


Film Noir is a type of thriller film that focuses on psychological dimensions of crime and uses heightened, stylized mise-en-scène. That is the simple definition, but things are not so straightforward. Too broad a catalog to have a genre’s constraints, but too narrative-focused to simply be a style, Film Noir is a famously debated category.


Critics, historians, and fans of Film Noir diverge on almost everything: which elements constitute the noir style, what is its exact time period, where was it restricted to, which movies classify as noir or proto-noir, and which are quasi-noir, or post-noir, or neo-noir, and actually did Film Noir ever really end at all? Is it a genre, a style, a movement, or just a set of very stylish coincidences?


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Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, dir. Howard Hawks, 1946, via IMDb


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The term Film Noir was coined by French critics in 1946. It translates to dark film. With the ban on American movies lifted after the end of the Second World War, French audiences were at last introduced to Hollywood films of the decade. Between screwball comedies and sweeping epics, came a new, intriguing wave of crime thrillers. Films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) are rough detective mysteries depicting the seedy urban underbelly.  Double Indemnity, The Woman In The Window, and Laura (all 1944), follow ordinary citizens who get caught on a web of desire, adultery, and murder.


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Dick Powell and Mike Mazurki in Murder, My Sweet, dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1944, via IMDb


In contrast to the usual optimism of Hollywood, these new crime films seemed uncharacteristically bleak and fatalistic. French critics, before anyone else, picked up on this rupture from the norm. These new characters were morally ambiguous, even cruel. They were corruptible men and fatal women spinning towards darker and darker fates. The hopeless, unflinchingly pessimistic worldview of these films seemed almost to indicate an inevitable exhaustion of the American dream. The cinematography, reflecting the somber mood of the films, utilized unbalanced composition, low-key lighting, and stark shadows, in a rare experimental style.


The directors and filmmakers of the time didn’t know they were making Film Noir; they were simply making crime mysteries, psychological thrillers, and violent melodramas. But in the dark shadows of this creative period, we can notice a shared sensibility: morbid, fresh, and intriguing.


The Noir Background: War-time Cinema

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Kiss Me Deadly, dir. Robert Aldrich, 1955, via IMDb


Film Noir was a product of the turbulent early era of the 20th century and an heir of many art movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Born in the 1940s, during the height and aftermath of the Second World War, Film Noir carried the cruelty and disquietude of the conflict, as well as the inherited traumas of the First World War and the Great Depression.


In just two decades, people experienced disillusion with the promises of the American Dream, rapid social changes, the weight of two violent conflicts on the scale of the World Wars, the neuroses of the Cold War witch hunts, and the fear of nuclear war. All of it hangs heavily on Film Noir, even if it’s mostly the psychological aftershocks that are shown.


Depression Inheritances

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Poster for the second film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 hardboiled classic The Maltese Falcon, via IMDb


The hardboiled school of crime fiction seems closest to Film Noir. Popular during the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, these stories were usually printed in pulp magazines. They criticized the system, explored mounting crime, and looked closely at the social underbelly of American cities. They had an immense influence on the noir tone and environment.


Authors like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain had many of their works adapted to the screen into Film Noir—Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Maltese Falcon just to name a few.


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Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, dir. Mervyn Leroy, 1931, via IMDb


In cinema, Film Noir was something of a successor to the gangster flicks of the 1930s. As popular during the prohibition as the real-life news stories they were based on, these films were, though violent, exhilarating, and upbeat. On the other hand, Film Noir is concerned with private stories, psychological disturbances, and criminals that do not seem heroic at any point.


European Connections

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Orlac’s Hände (The Hands of Orlac), dir. Robert Wiene, Germany, 1924, via Film-Grab


Noir represents a fascinating meeting point of American and European styles and sensibilities. Many of Film Noir’s most prolific filmmakers were European expats, fleeing nazism and the war. Talents like Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, and many others brought with them different visions of cinema from their experiences with the European cinema d’art movements.


The urban fatalism of Film Noir finds a precursor in the short-lived French Poetic Realist cinema of the late 1930s. Though altogether more romantic and nostalgic than Film Noir, Poetic Realism explores the themes of disillusionment, crime, and sordid characters. The beauty and dangers of the city streets and the poetic aestheticization of reality are reflected in Film Noir. There were even a few remakes of Poetic Realism films.


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Line Noro in Pépé le Moko, dir. Julien Duvivier, 1937, France, via IMDb


There is, however, no cinematic movement as blatantly influential on Film Noir as German Expressionism. A product of the exuberant Weimar cinema of the 1920s, German Expressionism was the first cinema of shadows. In turbulent post-war Germany, it sought to explore violent sensibilities and dark narratives in a highly psychological and stylized cinema.


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Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang, 1927, via Film Grab


German Expressionism influenced not only Film Noir but the thriller genre as a whole, including the horror and gangster movies of the 1930s. From German Expressionism, Film Noir inherited the chiaroscuro techniques, nightmarish affection, oblique angles, and spaces cut and splintered by oppressive, unrealistic shadows.


The Noir Narrative 

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Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1947, via IMDb


Films noir leads, to borrow Paul Schrader’s definition, can fall into three families: the investigators—detectives, private eyes, journalists—whose films can have a more sedate rhythm due to their outsider point of view; The citizens turned criminals, framed or corrupted, whose lives are in freefall; And the psychopaths, unhinged characters driven to the end of their rope.


Across most of these films, we find the archetype of the femme fatale, the fatal woman. These women were shown as duplicitous, seductive, resourceful, and ruthless; those who tempt men into destruction. The archetype of the femme fatale is, however, contradictory. On one hand, it demonizes women, while on the other it gives them power, importance, and complexity that wasn’t so common for women in 1940s cinema.


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Fred MacMurray as the citizen turned criminal and Barbara Stanwyck as the quintessential femme fatale in Double Indemnity, dir. Billy Wilder, 1944, via Film Grab


These characters all have a sense of mystery to them. They are disturbed, morally ambiguous, and hard to understand. In this sense, the archetypical noir characters reflect the narrative they are inserted into. Oblique, disordered, and unbalanced, the noir narrative is constructed in deliberately confusing ways.


Often utilizing framing techniques like flashback and first-person narration, Film Noir shows a sense of impending doom. The characters often seem to know where their story will lead, and it is hardly ever a happy ending. Stories are told out of chronological order, from multiple points of view. The constant twists, betrayals, red herrings, and double and triple crosses aim to constantly disorient the viewer. Film Noir is never as concerned with the reveal of the mystery as it is with the psychological dimensions of crime.


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Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane in The Lady from Shanghai, dir. Orson Welles, 1947, via IMDb


Despite its largely gloomy world, Film Noir has a dynamic and even humorous streak. Visual gags and self-referential humor are less acknowledged but constant features of noir. Humor is also injected through dialogue. Film Noir favors snappy, fast-paced, and witty dialogue, less concerned with sounding realistic than with achieving the right kind of atmosphere.


The Noir Visuals 

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The Naked City, dir. Jules Dassin, 1948, via Film Grab


The world of noir is a dark place, crawling with danger and corruption. The city—noir’s most common backdrop—is empty and alienating. It looks more like an Edward Hopper painting than a real city. Even in the movies that were filmed on location, the urbanscape looks like one from a nightmare, enshrouded in darkness. On the streets or in interiors, the environments are designed to be menacing and entrapping, always somewhere just off of reality.


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Stills showing Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) baroque prison-mansion in Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder, 1950, via Film Grab


The neurotic noir world is filled with things: space in Film Noir is never free, but rather baroquely decorated. Objects like clocks, stairs, windows, mirrors, paintings, furniture, Venetian blinds, beams, and nets cut the frame. These objects are used as symbols that indicate character traits or the narrative. They could refer to time running out, duplicitousness, fractured spirits, or trapped fates.


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Stills from The Lady From Shanghai, dir. Orson Welles, 1947, via Film Grab


In Film Noir, the visual composition is another device through which the director communicates with the audience. Odd set pieces like the maze-like house of mirrors from The Lady from Shanghai (1947), or the greenhouse in The Big Sleep (1946) populate noir, adding even more visual strangeness to these worlds that seem half real and half nightmarish.


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Touch of Evil, dir. Orson Welles, 1958, via Film Grab


Chiaroscuro has an important place in Noir. Light and shadow borrowed from German expressionism shatter the space in prison-like lines, cut stark silhouettes overtake the frame whenever danger comes to a head. The camera follows the obliqueness of the narrative. Off-center, exaggerated angles throw the world out of balance and maintain the sense of entrapment that pervades every level of Film Noir.


The Impact of Film Noir

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Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott, 1982, via Film Grab


Film Noir was one of the most artistically rich, complex, and experimental periods of Hollywood history. Called post-noir, neo-noir, neon noir, teen noir, and a myriad of other names, Film Noir’s sensibilities have proven to be flexible and endlessly influential. Echoes of Film Noir live on. Works like Breathless, L.A. Confidential, Batman, Veronica Mars, and Blade Runner were all influenced by Noir. Even 80 years after its golden age, it seems like there is no limit to the dark possibilities of Film Noir.

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By Kat BelloBA in Visual Arts & Art HistoryKat is a visual artist, writer, and juggler of too many passions. She holds a BA in Visual Arts and Art History from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). Her research and art production focuses on cityscape painting and historiography of landscapes. Art, cinema, traveling, history, and writing about art, cinema, film noir, traveling, and history are some of her favorite things in the world.