Defining Film Noir

David Cornwell & Sandy Hobbs

First published: Reflections, 1999, vol. 1 no. 3, pp. 96–106.

Abstract: Noting that there is disagreement amongst critics both as to the definition of “film noir” and over which films may be regarded as examples of the genre, the authors propose a strategy for increasing precision in critical discussion of this topic. As a first step, twelve published lists of American film noir during the period 1941-1958 were compared. The lack of consensus is such that, although some films appeared on all twelve lists, others appear on only one. It is proposed that a content analysis of the films on which there is most agreement provides the most hopeful basis for establishing which features of a film are likely to give rise to the label, “noir”.

Keywords: Film Noir, genre, content analysis

Defining Film Noir

Over the last forty years, Behaviour Analysis has successfully made a transition from the psychological laboratory, where its basic principles were first established, to the fields of educational and clinical psychology, where it has been employed to solve real life problems. The Behaviour Analysis approach emphasises the value of searching for relationships between people’s observable behaviour and observable events in their environments. It seeks to minimize reference to hypothetical inner states and processes. Although Behaviour Analysis was originally used to help understand relatively simple phenomena, one of the greatest challenges the approach faces is to show that it may be applied successfully to more complex cultural phenomena. The present writers, for example, have employed the concepts of Behaviour Analysis in discussing such topics as the content of comic strips (Hobbs, 1989), contemporary legends (Hobbs and Cornwell, 1991), verbal humour (Cornwell and Hobbs, 1991), and scientific creativity (Cornwell and Hobbs, 1984). In this paper, we extend the application of Behaviour Analysis to a film genre.

Films noirs are said to be characterised by their bleak vision of modem cities, anguished heroes, femmes fatales, violence and death. (We shall adopt the convention of italicising the phrase film noir, even in quotations where the phrase was not italicised in the original.) In this paper we examine some problems arising in attempts to define film noir, and offer a provisional list of films noirs as a starting point for systematic analysis. We suggest that such an analysis might best begin with a search for fairly prosaic features.

The phrase film noir appears to have begun as a metaphor in French film criticism. The term noir was already available as a label for certain kinds of novels, and was later applied to five American films (shown in Paris in 1946) which appeared to share some of the characteristics of those romans noirs. The five films were The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Double Indemnity, The Woman in the Window and Murder, My Sweet (Frank, 1946). In time the phrase film noir itself was applied to an increasing number of films which are only incidentally similar to the original five films. So movies sharing just one or other (perhaps relatively minor) characteristic with. those films noirs have been included in the category. As the phrase was stretched to include more and more films, it became less useful, losing whatever precision it may originally have had. It became acceptable to speak of a “sort” of film noir, without being clear as to what a film noir itself might be.

Scholars disagree about which films to include in the category of film noir and about the distinctive features of the category. Do they include, for example, a particular visual style, a distinctive mood or atmosphere, certain types of characters, or a specific type of narrative structure? It has been suggested that the phrase refers not to a category of film at all, but rather to a “generic field of elements” (Walker, 1992). Thus, although such characteristics as oneirism, eeriness, eroticism, ambivalence and cruelty might all be found in film noir, they need not all be predominant in a particular film, and might be limited to a single character or even a single scene. Por example, Borde and Chaumeton (1955) claimed that The Set-Up is a documentary-style film about boxing, but it becomes film noir in one sequence where a boxer is beaten up in an alley. However, Borde and Chaumeton did not include The Setup in their list of 22 films noirs, leaving open the question of how much “noirisme” was required for a film to be included in their list.

With regard to classification, the phrase film noir seems to be applied rather loosely to different films by different writers. The films identified as film noir by Borde and Chaumeton (1955), for example, are not always included in the lists produced by subsequent writers, while a wide variety of additional films are included in these later lists. Different writers appear to pay attention to different properties of films when they consider whether or not to describe them as film noir.

It seems to us that problems of definition and classification exist, but do they matter? For many everyday purposes it is possible to get along without defining terms precisely. However, if a more systematic analysis is sought, then it becomes worthwhile to try to construct a more precise definition, which would more clearly delineate the field of film noir. It is our contention that most supposed definitions do not give enough help in doing this.

There are at least two possible starting points for a systematic approach to defining film noir. We could begin by examining the films which people have called film noir in an attempt to identify what properties, if any, they have in common, properties not shared with films outwith the category. There are many hundreds of such films, particularly if we include those which have been called film noir by just one person. Alternatively we could begin by studying the people who use the phrase “film noir”. These, too, are numerous, and some seem to use the term in what appears to be a rather casual way, while others apply it with apparently greater deliberation.

In this paper we focus on those who use the term. We shall consider the work of a number of writers who have produced lists of films noirs. Listing is a kind of definition, ostensive definition, which serves what we consider to be a key function: delineation of the subject-matter.

We are not suggesting that listing films is a substitute for identifying the characteristics of film noir. We see both kinds of activity as complementary. But our emphasis here is upon attempts to delineate the field of film noir by pointing to examples.

We are not the first psychologists to look at film noir lists. Miller (1989) compared “seven attempts to derive comprehensive lists of film noir”, and found considerable variability in the number of films included (ranging from 108 to 499). He identified 51 films which appeared on all the lists, but noted that this figure was problematic because the lists were not strictly speaking comparable. He proposed that a group of knowledgeable scholars should view the same set of films, and independently judge their status as film noir. In his view, this would empirically establish consensus about which films comprise film noir.

Miller assumed not only that the question “How many films noirs are there?” is itself a meaningful one, but also that it can be answered by consensus. He considered film noir to be a genre with clear defining criteria, and saw majority agreement as a valid means of identifying unequivocally which films fall into that category. While we can see some value in tentatively considering film noir to be a genre, we are less confident about relying upon the notion of consensus on its own as the criterion. In our view, consensus may be helpful in identifying a body of films which can then be examined for particular characteristics. In other words, consensus might serve as a starting point, a methodological tool for establishing a provisional sample of so-called films noirs, a sample which could be subjected to closer study.

Table 1: Sources of Lists

Author and Year

List Heading and Authors’ Comments

Number of Films from 1941 – 1958

Kaminsky (1974)

“Key Films Noir”


Karimi (1976)

“Appendix… crime films… significant for the study of film noir.”


Whitney (1976)

“A Filmography of Film Noir… not… definitive catalog…” (Includes sub-categories)


Guerif (1979)

“Les Realisateurs de Films Noirs… cette list n’a pas la pretention d’ētre exhaustive”


Katz (1979)

“…list of illustrative titles”


Silver & Ward (1980)



Hirsch (1981)

“Selected Filmography”


Ottoson (1981)

“Annotated Filmography… representative group of films, whether these films are incontestably noir or marginal.” Films noirs of “relative obscurity” listed in Appendix.


Selby (1984)

“Annotated Filmography… attempt at comprehensive listing… of all films noirs.” (Lists sub-categories in appendix)


Tuska (1984)

“Filmography of Films Noirs… films influenced by the visual style and/or narrative structure of film noir, includes sub-categories”



“A Noir Filmography…should be taken as broadly representative… not as an exhaustive catalogue.”


Milne (1991)

“Film Noir”


With this tentative acceptance of consensus in mind, we examined 12 lists of films noirs to discover which titles, if any, were common to all of them. Table 1 (above) shows the sources of the lists. We did not include the lists provided by Borde and Chaumeton (1955), as that would have limited our sample to films made before 1955, and markedly reduced its size. We also excluded the essay by Raymond Durgnat (1970), which Miller (1989) treated as a list of films noirs. In our view Durgnat’s discussion of numerous films does not constitute such a list. A subsequent attempt (Durgnat, 1974) to systematically arrange the films (in the form of a chart) retains many of the ambiguities of the original essay, and was also excluded from our sample.

Figure 1: Temporal Distribution of 145 films noirs


The 12 lists were not straightforward. They covered different time periods, and a number included films other than American ones. Some were clearly selective and did not aim to be definitive or comprehensive. For the purposes of this analysis we focused on American films released between 1941 and 1958 (a period covered by each of the lists).

We ignored, provisionally, the subdivisions of films noirs which appeared in some lists. The results are shown in the Appendix. The arbitrary year limits selected by us were 1941 to 1958, but the films listed in the Appendix are not evenly spread throughout that period, suggesting a clear historical trend (see Figure 1, above).

The 145 films listed in the Appendix represent a kind of consensus. More than half of the writers in our sample considered these to be examples of film noir. However, we do not wish to claim that this list is definitive. Among those excluded, perhaps surprisingly, are Spellbound, Sweet Smell of Success, and The Lost Weekend. Such films may have been omitted from lists for a variety of reasons which have nothing to do with the film’s qualities. For example, the writer may have had no access to some films, and would thus be unable to judge them, or the writer may have accidentally overlooked one or more films.

TABLE 2: Films appearing on all 12 lists


* Double Indemnity

Murder, My Sweet


* Scarlet Street

The Woman in the Window


The Big Sleep

The Dark Mirror



* Brute Force

Dark Passage

Kiss of Death

*Out of the Past


* The Big Clock

Call Northside 777

Key Largo

The Naked City

* They Live By Night


* In A Lonely Place

* Night and the City

Panic in the Streets


*Touch Of Evil

* Films which appear in Tuska’s shorter list

TABLE 3. “Consensus” films appearing in Borde and Chaumeton’s lists

Short List

Long List

The Big Sleep

The Big Clock

Dark Passage


Murder, My Sweet

*Out of the Past

*Double Indemnity

Kiss of Death

The Naked City

*Night and the City

Panic in the Streets

The Woman in the Window

* Films which appear in Tuska’s shorter list.

There is another reason for treating the appended list with caution, and it has to do with a lack of clarity we detected in some of the sources. Attempting to compile a list may seem a relatively precise activity; either a film is listed or it is not. But in some cases problems arise from vagueness or ambiguity. For example, Tuska (1984) distinguished between films noirs, films gris, and melodramas. However, he also used the phrase film noir for his whole list. So we had to decide which of his two implicit “definitions” of film noir to employ: the one producing his longer list or the shorter sub-list also called film noir. In preparing the Appendix we took account of all the films Tuska listed. Table 2 (above) contains the titles of the 20 films which appeared on all the lists we consulted. Of these 20 “consensus” films, only 8 appeared in Tuska’s short list, suggesting perhaps that these might be unequivocally noir.

We did not include Borde and Chaumeton’s (1955) list in our sample because that would have meant excluding from consideration all films made after 1955. But, as 19 of the 20 “consensus” films were made before that date, it is appropriate to ask which, if any, of these films were included in Borde and Chaumeton’s list.

Like Tuska, these authors had a long list (84 titles) and a short list (22 titles) of films noirs. Table 3  shows the “consensus” films which appeared in each list. Of the 7 “unequivocally noir” films released before 1955, only 2 (Double Indemnity; Night and the City) appear in their long list, and only ONE appears in their short list (Out of the Past, 1947)

The appendix does not present the definitive set of films noirs. It lists films which have at least one feature in common: they occasion the verbal response film noir (at least as far as our sample of list-makers is concerned). This property serves to’ define a class of films which may or may not share other characteristics. The hypothesis which now needs to be put to the test is this: these films will share at least some of the properties (whatever they may be) which are critical features for evoking the verbal response film noir.

Table 4. Checklist for Possible Distinctive Features of Film Noir



Location shooting


Low-key lighting




Unusual angles


Night scenes






Femmes Fatales

First person

Private Eyes






To US society

Night Clubs

To brutality


To police


The Appendix might serve as a sampling device for comparative studies aimed at testing this hypothesis. Suppose we consider a sample of our “consensus” films noirs (high-frequency citation), a sample of films which appear in no more than 7 of the 12 lists (low-frequency citation), and a sample of American films not included on any lists of film noir. The latter would serve as a kind of control sample, perhaps matched with the others for release date, production company, and director. Such a study might help to identify any features which discriminate between the films in the three samples.

But what kind of properties should we look for? We can be guided by existing definitions and the other more casual statements about what is supposedly characteristic of film noir, but again there are difficulties due to lack of precision. Table 4 summarises just some of dimensions which have been proposed as critical for film noir.

Perhaps a start could be made by considering some of the more prosaic properties which appear relatively easy to specify, such as black-and-white versus color (though even that may present problems), or low-key lighting. Questions would arise of how low-key the lighting has to be, and how many shots with low-key lighting are required to qualify? But such questions are not unanswerable. The problems would become progressively more difficult to resolve as we moved from flashbacks through femmes fatales to fatalism. However, some indicators might emerge as reliable.

We regard the issues we have discussed here as empirical problems. The goal is not to establish a category called film noir, but rather to discover if there is such a category, and to identify in what ways it is distinct from other categories. This could lead to changes in the provisional list of films noirs. Some films might drop out of it, or others became added to it, as it became clearer which properties were crucial, and which merely incidental. At the same time, the description of the category might be modified as this or that feature was discovered to be more critical than others.

We happen to be enthusiastic about film noir, but that does not mean we are committed to it as a category. it may turn out to be a category containing more than one type of film. That should not be a cause for dismay. After all, would an ornithologist be disappointed to discover that what was once taken to be a single species of birds turned out to contain several distinct species?

In our view, the problems of defining film noir have to be addressed if the phrase is to retain any value for scholarship. We do not accept that it is good enough just to say (with apologies to Orson Welles): “It was some kind of a film noir. What does it matter what you say about movies?” At a more general level, the question may be posed of how well other genres in film and literary studies would stand up to an analytical approach such as the one we have adopted for film noir. It may be that “western”, for example, would fare better under critical scrutiny than “film noir” appears to do. However, only by extending the use of the approach we have described can such an issue be settled.


Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton (1955) Panorama du Film Noir Americain. Paris: Editions de Minuit

Cornwell, David and Hobbs, Sandy (1984) Behavioral Analysis of Metaphor Pychological Record, 34, 325-332

Cornwell, David and Hobbs, Sandy (1991) ‘Defining the pun’ in Gillian Bennett, (Ed.), Spoken in Jest Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 199-214

Durgnat, Raymond (1970) Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir, Cinema, 6/7 (August) 48-56

Durgnat, Raymond (1974) The Family Tree of Film Noir, Film Comment, 10, 6-7

Frank, Nino (1946) Un Nouveau Genre Policier: L’Aventure Criminelle L’Ecran Francais 61 (August), 8-9, 14

Guerif, Francois (1979) Le Film Noir Americain Paris: Henri Veyrier

Hirsch, Foster (1981) The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir London: Tantivy Press

Hobbs, Sandy (1989) Oor Wullie goes to School Media Education Journal, 8,20-23

Hobbs, Sandy, and Cornwell, David (1991) A Behaviour Analysis Model of Contemporary Legend Contemporary Legend, 1, 103-116

Kaminsky, Stuart (1985) American Film Genres 2nd ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall

Karim, Amir Massoud (1976) Toward a Definition of the American Film Noir (1941-1949) New York: Arno Press

Katz, Ephraim (1980) The International Film Encyclopedia London: Macmillan

Miller, Laurence (1989) How many films noirs are there?: How statistics can help answer this question Empirical Studies of the Arts, 71, 51-55

Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth (1979) Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style 2nd ed. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press

Telotte, J.P (1989) Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir Urbana, IL: U of Illinois Press

Tuska, Jon (1984) Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

Walker, Michael (1992) ‘Film noir: An Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed.), The Movie Book of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista

Whitney, J.S. (1976) A filmography of film noir Journal of Popular Film, 5, 321-371.

Appendix: Films included in more than half of the lists

The number of lists in which the film appeared is shown after the date of release.

Ace in the Hole (1951) 10

Act of Violence (1949) 8

Angel Face (1952) 10

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) 11

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) 7

Beyond The Forest (1949) 8

The Big Clock (1948) 12

The Big Combo (1955) 9

The Big Heat (1953) 11

The Big Sleep (1946) 12

Black Angel (1946) 7

The Blue Dahlia (1946) 11

The Blue Gardenia (1953) 7

Body And Soul (1947) 11

Boomerang (1947) 10

Border Incident (1949) 8

Born To Kill (1947) 7

The Brasher Doubloon (1947) 9

The Breaking Point (1950) 9

Brute Force (1947) 12

Caged (1950) 7

Call Northside 777 (1948) 12

Champion (1949) 8

The Chase (1946) 7

Christmas Holiday (1944) 8

The City That Never Sleeps (1953) 7

Clash by Night (1952) 9

Conflict (1945) 10

Cornered (1945) 8

Criss Cross (1949) 10

Crossfire (1947) 7

Cry Danger (1950) 8

Cry of the City (1948) 9

DOA (1949) 11

Dark City (1950) 7

The Dark Corner (1946) 10

The Dark Mirror (1946) 12

Dark Passage (1947) 12

The Dark Past (1948) 8

Dead Reckoning (1947) 11

The Desperate Hours (1955) 7

Detective Story (1951) 9

Detour (1945) 8

Double Indemnity (1944) 12

Edge Of Doom (1950) 7

The Enforcer (1951) 10 7

Fallen Angel (1945) 10

Fear In The Night (1947) 7

The File on Thelma Jordon (1949) 11

Force of Evil (1948) 9

Gilda (1946) 12

The Glass Key (1942) 9

Gun Crazy (1950) 11

Hangover Square (1945) 7

He Walked by Night (1949) 9

High Sierra (1941) 7

The High Wall (1947) 7

House of Strangers (1948) 9

The House on 92nd Street (1945) 9

Human Desire (1954) 7

I Walk Alone (1948) 9

In a Lonely Place (1950) 12

Johnny O’Clock (1946) 10

Journey Into Fear (1943) 7

Key Largo (1948) 12

The Killers (1946) 11

Killers Kiss (1955) 7

The Killing (1956) 9

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) 11

Kiss of Death (1947) 12

Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948) 9

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) 8

Lady in the Lake (1947) 11

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) 11

Laura (1944) 11

The Lawless (1950) 7

The Locket (1947) 7

The Lodger (1944) 7

M (1951) 7

The Maltese Falcon (1941) 11

The Mask of Dimitrious (1944) 10

Mildred Pierce (1945) 10

Ministry Of Fear (1945) 10

Murder, My Sweet (1944) 12

Mystery Street (1950) 7

The Naked City (1948) 12

The Narrow Margin (1952) 9

Niagara (1953) 8

Night and the City (1950) 12

The Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948)

8 Nightmare Alley (1947) 10

Nightmare (1956) 8

99 River Street (1953) 7

Nocturne (1946) 7

Notorious (1946) 9

On Dangerous Ground (1951) 11

Out of the Past (1947) 12

Panic in the Streets (1950) 12

The Paradine Case (1947) 7

Phantom Lady (1944) 11

Pickup on South Street (1953) 10

The Pitfall (1948) 9

Possessed (1947) 7

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) 11

The Prowler (1951) 9

The Racket (1951) 7

Raw Deal (1948) 9

The Reckless Moment (1949) 7

Ride The Pink Horse (1947) 10

Road House (1948) 9

Ruthless (1948) 7

Scarlet Street (1945) 12

The Set-Up (1949) 11

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 8

Side Street (1950) 9

Sleep, My Love (1948) 7

The Sleeping City (1950) 7

The Sniper (1952) 7

So Dark the Night (1946) 9

Somewhere in the Night (1946) 8

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) 10

The Spiral Staircase (1946) 7

The Strange Affair Of Uncle Harry (1945) 7

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) 11

The Stranger (1946) 9

Strangers on a Train (1951) 10

The Street With No Name (1948) 7

The Suspect (1944) 7

Sudden Fear (1952) 8

Suddenly (1954) 7

Sunset Boulevard (1950) 10

T-Men (1947) 11

They Live By Night (1948) 12

Thieves’ Highway (1949) 10

This Gun for Hire (1942) 11

Touch of Evil (1958) 12

The Undercover Man (1949) 8

Union Station (1950) 9

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) 11

While The City Sleeps (1956) 7

Whirlpool (1949) 7

White Heat (1949) 10

The Window (1949) 10

The Woman in the Window (1945) 12

The Wrong Man (1956) 8