Researching Film Noir: A Discussion

David Main and Sandy Hobbs

DM: “Noir” novels – what were the commonalities of these books? Note that books cannot really have cinematographic light/shadows style, so books are more likely to be “dark” in general content than in any visual characteristics.

SH: Yes, but that doesn’t preclude the visual characteristics being crucial to the films.

DM: Agreed – but my points would remain in that what did the inspiring novels have in common that made them “noir”? I think it likely that that perhaps the “dark material” within the detective/crime novels of Hammett, Chandler, Ross McDonald, Cain, McBain, etc was transcribed onto film by emphasizing the “moral darkness” of the characters by the creative use of light and shadow on the sets – a style and effects borrowed from stage theatre productions and silent films?.

SH: Note that the novelists cited are of different generations. Their influence on films is likely to have been exerted at different times. I doubt if McBain can be regarded as an influence on the films of the 1940s and 1950s.

DM: In 1946, when the term “film noir” was coined in Paris, it was the first opportunity to look at American/British films since the start of World War II. Reviewers might be comparing their memories of pre-1939 American films with those made during or just after WWII. This may be a “contrast” effect in terms of the tone and content of the pre-WWII films or it might be a more personal change in the reviewer’s views, after having been in an occupied country, are themselves more “noir” post-WWII. In that case, films are thus viewed in a different “dark” context.

SH: This second possibility is a suggestion I don’t recall coming across before. It is worth taking seriously. However, my main interest is not on why French critics of the 1940s reacted in this way but in why their concept “took off” later.

DM: Yes, this is a good point. My guess would be that the film critics and indeed the studio publicists were always on the lookout for shorthand terms that could be used to lasso a range of differing individual films into a cluster or grouping. This functions as a type of “branding” for the public so that provision of a generic cluster label to a released film will provide someone thinking of going to see the film with enough information to decide if they want to go and see that sort of film. – We can see this in today’s Film and TV industry with terms such as RomCom, SitCom, SciFi, Emo, etc being used to classify individual films or TV programs within a a broad term grouping. That label then provides enough information for someone to act upon in going to the cinema, or more likely in the IT age of selecting a film via an online “store” such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, Sky films, etc.

SH: Yes, another point which interests me is whether academics have any firm basis for the different “genre” names they employ. Some writers call FN a “genre” and others say it is not.

DM: Are there any pre-1939 films noirs?

SH: Some writers give examples of earlier films they consider noir, but I don’t see much sign of a consensus. I suspect that they are simply noting some “noirish” features in earlier films. However, I am particularly interested n the couple of years before the CH period. Arthur Lyons, in his book about “Lost B movies” of film noir, Death on the Cheap, starts in 1939. He gives three films for that year. Blind Alley was remade later as The Dark Past, which has a high CH score. The other two are Rio and Let Us Live, both directed by John Brahm, a director from Europe who may be more important that his accumulated CH score suggests.

Incidentally, there is a problem with the phrase “B-movie”. It seems to be used quite loosely. Columbia apparently planned Let Us Live as a big movie but for legal reasons cut back on it, but does that make it necessarily a “B” movie?

DM: Yes, I think this is another classification problem! My interpretation was always that the “B” movie films were a disparate grouping of films.

a) many were simply cheap “filler” material for an age when the cinema had a program which would involve both a main feature and a second film, which acted much like music concerts where a support act proceeds the headline artist. People go to see the headline act but may watch the support act in the hope that they may see an act that might become a headline act themselves sometime in the future. In the 1940’s and 50’s the lack of TV access for most of the public still made going to the Cinema a key entertainment area.

b) Some B films were as you note above were initially intended as major films but were “downgraded” at some point in terms of budget, access to top actors, or producers, locations, allocated filming time etc. The result is a cut down version of what would have been a major film.

c) It is likely that B films were also used to keep actors and directors busy. Most studios tried to tie down their top (or potentially big) actors and directors on long term contracts to stop them working for other studios. Logistics would make it impossible to have all a film studio’s stars working on large projects, so to keep the retained actors and directors busy they were put to work on low budget and quick turnaround films, probably with the verbal inducement of “jam tomorrow” in terms of better roles or bigger budgets in the future.

d) Copycatting: A successful film by another studio tends to spawn cheap mimics by other studios who try to get on the perceived genre bandwagon. So a slew of low budget “B films” from a range of film studios all focusing on a particular genre or topic is the likely result of a surprise “hit” film, thus perpetrating both the genre itself (e.g. Film noir) and an association of that genre with the innumerable cheap “B” movie versions.

SH: All of these points are significant. Note too that more cheaply made films will tend to have less well known actors in lead roles and cheaper sets.

DM: Cornwell and Hobbs (1999) focus on those who use the term “film noir” rather than on the properties of the films which may be “noir”.

SH: Yes, this correct. However, that is intended as a first step towards studying the films. Using the analysis of lists (how the term is used) provided the basis for decisions about which films to study as examples of FN.

DM: I agree with Cornwell and Hobbs when they oppose Miller when he suggested consensus be a criterion of film noir. However, consensus can be used as a starting point with the intention to create a valid film noir sample.

SH: David Cornwell and I tried to make that point, but perhaps not clearly enough.

DM: Does a “film noir” have to be American? This seems overly restrictive, as I would say that any film director could make a film noir without having to be in the USA.

SH: A film noir doesn’t have to be American, but I think in studying them, we need to start with American films. The fact is that the phrase “film noir” seems to have gained currency by people discussing American films, and more specifically films of the 1940s and 1950s. Obviously the phrase is used more widely now, but I think it is appropriate to start by looking at early usage before considering later developments such as phrases like “neo-noir”, “Nordic noir” or “tartan noir”.

DM: Yes, I think this area is worth pursuing. I was originally thinking about films such as “High and Low” (1963) directed by Akira Kurosawa, a black and white film based in “contemporary” Japan, although the story is adapted from a 1959 Ed McBain crime novel (King’s Ransom). It is a crime/ partly police procedural story which has a noirish feel to it and is quite dark and morally questioning. What I feel makes it even more interesting is that the link between Japanese and Hollywood films was/is quite noticeable in the work of Kurosawa, as many of his films were influential in the West and there are the obvious remade Hollywood films such as his Seven Samurai filmed as The Magnificent 7, or his Yojimbo remade as a Fist Full of Dollars and later again as Last Man Standing. Even his Hidden Fortress is cited as influential in films such as Star Wars. While in the opposite direction Kurosawa used Western influences (notably Shakespeare) in his films and American Crime films/books seem to be important here. So my question is partly about the “bounding” of FN into an American only club and in part about the influence of American films on film makers in other countries and whether they are deserving of being included in the “noir” oeuvre.

SH: Studying lines of influence is obviously an attractive area and Kurosawa is a particularly interesting case. However, given the rather sloppy standards to be found is film criticism, I think such questions need to await the development of more rigorous research techniques.

DM: Cornwell and Hobbs refer to the omission of some “obvious” candidates for inclusion in a film noir list. Should these not be addressed as “authors’ additions”?

SH: I think this is worth following up. Rather than simply relying on “authors’ additions”, we could create a third sample between “noir” and “non-noir” drawing on films with CH scores of less than 10.

DM: Cinematography (light, dark, shadows) is a mood enhancer or force multiplier within a film noir. In itself, it is not the definition of a film noir, nor is it a necessary aspect of a film noir, e. g. the bright light in Chinatown does not stop it being a film noir.

SH: I think it is clear that SOME writers on film noir regarded the visual style as important. This comes through in the exclusion of colour films from a list of noirs, with a possible secondary category of “FN in colour”? As long as we are studying “film noir” as a piece of verbal behavior we have to accept this as evidence of usage. Since I am focusing on 1941-1958, the economic and technical circumstances need to be taken into account. In the 1930s and early 1940s, black and white was the norm. As colour became possible and affordable, decisions would be made about when to use it. It seems likely that someone making a film with ”dark” themes would have been unlikely at that period to look to colour. This would presumably contrast with when people were making westerns or musicals.

DM: Yes, this makes sense. However it raises the interesting question about “modern” film noir given that colour film is the norm for any film nowadays, it would take a very deliberate choice by a modern film maker to shoot in B&W – So if you wanted to make a film noir today do you choose to shoot in B&W– as that is how film noir might be partially defined, or do you shoot your film with the addition of colour as it is simply the most available medium to shoot in and make the assumption that film noir films would have been shot in colour if the film had been available at the time? It might be interesting to consider Noir ratings on all films without any score or requirements being needed for inclusion based on colour/B&W film stock used – this would obviously have a strong correlation with any restrictions of “noir” being made within certain years in the 20th century.

As an interesting aside I am including a paragraph from a Wiki page on a 2011 PC computer game called L.A. Noir which makes the colour/B&W viewing a players choice!

“The game draws heavily from both the plot and aesthetic elements of film noir – stylistic films made popular in the 1940s and 1950s that share similar visual styles and themes, including crime and moral ambiguity – along with drawing inspiration from real-life crimes for its in-game cases, based upon what was reported by the Los Angeles media in 1947.[] The game uses a distinctive colour palette, but in homage to film noir it includes the option to play the game in black and white. Various plot elements reference the major themes of detective and mobster stories such as The Naked City, Chinatown, The Untouchables, The Black Dahlia, and L.A. Confidential.”

SH: It is interesting that creators of a 2011 game should show his respect for the notion that “noir” films are characteristically in black and white. However, that list is not exclusively comprised of “colour-free” films. The writer of this description may have had a different perspective from that of the game’s creators.

DM: One aspect of FN classification I am pondering is if there were commonalities in the plots of FN that were reused from film to film and that over time became essential to the Noir-ness of a film?

I was starting to contemplate this by going back to the book sources or influences in film noir plots. Starting with how crime/detective novel plots started to change towards the end of the “golden age” in the 1930’s.

At that time virtually all UK and many American crime novels were of the “whodunit” variety; featuring a hero character usually portrayed as a non- professional policeman, such as an amateur sleuth, a private detective or member of the public who investigate and solve a crime or crimes within a puzzle story. A key aspect of the book being that the reader could try to spot the clues and solve the murder(s) by the end of the book. However, both crime authors and the reading public became increasingly aware that these types of puzzle books or “cozies”, as Americans called them were rather formulaic and did little to consider crimes in a more realistic way. In America, this was when the “pulp” novels and “hard-boiled” crime stories in magazines started to become popular and the work and style of Hammett and Chandler became increasingly influential with (American) film makers. However, in the UK the hard-boiled novel was an American import rather than a home grown crime book, but change was needed to give new life to the crime novel and one of the most influential novels that lead to a new style and plot for crime novels was Malice Aforethought (1931) Wiki summary – “is a murder mystery novel written by Anthony Berkeley Cox, using the pen name Francis Iles. It is an early and prominent example of the “inverted detective story“, invented by R. Austin Freeman some years earlier. The murderer’s identity is revealed in the first line of the novel, which gives the reader insight into the workings of his mind as his plans progress. It also contains elements of black comedy, and of serious treatment of underlying tensions in a superficially respectable community. It is loosely based on the real-life case of Herbert Armstrong, with elements of Doctor Crippen”.

The move away from a novel that is focused on “who” the murderer was onto the “why” or in some cases “how” of the murder gives a potential different slant for a film maker to use that downplays the puzzle of who the killer is and instead considers the psychological makeup of the killer and how they ended up becoming a criminal. With the murderer/criminal/suspect shown identified at the start of the film and the rest of the film can use flashback(s) to show how the protagonist got into this situation. The ease with which film can be used to cut scenes from present to the past is well suited to this type of plot. Indeed I had a look on the internet and found this article on the role of Flashback in Film Noir:

“Flashbacks in Film Noir” by Gilles Menegaldo (2004) Sillages Critiques (6): Crime Fictions Partie IV. Filming the Crime Novel p. 157-175

See article at:

The somewhat lengthy text above is at present just a general idea that there may be some linkage between particular book plots and FN and it may be worth considering if there are a set of typical plots within the FN samples.

I was going to go on to consider that although “crime” is often central to a FN, I wondered if a more important psychological/moral key construct might be the central role of “betrayal” within FN, perhaps with sub types of betrayal by family, friends, sexual partner, co-worker or just whether it was a same or opposite sex person who did the betraying – I think that the in-film betrayal of a character might be the nub of a lot of FN stories, with the perhaps more obvious “femme fatale” being only one possible type of betrayer of a key character in the film.

SH: I have recently been looking closely at two films with high CH scores which were not included in the noir/non-noir study David Cornwell and I undertook. They are relevant here partly because neither fits neatly into the plot types David Main has in mind. On Dangerous Ground is presented as starring Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, but in my view Robert Ryan is the protagonist . He is rarely off the screen. Early scenes depict him as a psychologically troubled big city cop. He is sent to a rural area to deal with a murder case, but there is little consideration of :whodunit”. The chief suspect turns out to have indeed been the murderer and confesses as much. Ida Lupino appears roughly half way through the film and her character functions mainly as a contrast to Ryan’s and as a catalyst to changes in his approach to life. The Mask of Dimitrios has four principal actors listed as Sidney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Fay Emerson and Peter Lorre. Does the film have an identifiable protagonist? My argument is that Lorre’s character, a Dutch novelist, has that role, despite being listed fourth and despite Scott being the “Dimitrios” of the title. Lorre appears first of these four actors on the screen and much of the film is told from his point of view. He and Greenstreet spend the film exploring the life of the international criminal, Dimitrios. Scott as that character, initially appears only in flashbacks about him, showing his crimes. In the later scenes, Scott appears, since Dimitrios is not dead as has been believed by Lorre. Greenstreet shoots Scott and is led off by the police, but despite their playing the key roles in the climax, I argue that Lorre remains the main protagonist, since the scenes are shot from his point of view. Here again there is no substantial “whodunit” aspect to the narrative. These films may be exceptions but we should not make a priori assumptions about what is typical in the FN corpus.