How a Depression-era genre’s influence goes beyond the 1950s.
It existed not only as a new genre, but also as a movement in the history of the movies, one whose influence is still being felt among films today.
Film noir began unofficially with the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941, which starred Humphrey Bogart. Though based off a novel, Falcon set the stage for noirs to follow with its powerful use of shadows, the inclusion of the femme fatale, and with the cynicism evident in both the attitudes of its characters as well as its atmosphere. Carrying the most influence, though, was Bogart’s timeless portrayal of the hard-boiled anti-hero.
Film historians often attribute noir’s existence to the Depression and the cynicism that grew out of it. Noir’s golden age had nearly a twenty-year run that ended with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Its legacy includes Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, and The Big Heat, to name just a few of my favourites.
Noir’s beauty lies in its particular archetypes, in the way its photography evokes a certain nightmarish mood, and in the frequent inclusion of insidious plot twists that keep audiences surprised and entertained.
Consider the ‘femme fatale’, a woman who would be as likely to kill you as to sleep with you. Or the aforementioned ‘anti-hero,’ almost always the protagonist, who could be anyone from the ‘innocent man wrongly accused’, to an average citizen who finds himself resorting to bending or breaking the law—often for debatable and very circumstantial reasons. Something about films noir that really struck a chord in audiences was that most of them led viewers to identify with the protagonist initially, but would later surprise them by introducing some plot twist which would cause said protagonist to act villainously.
Oblique camera angles and ominous use of shadows were common techniques among cinematographers working on noirs. German expressionism was the most evident inspiration of noir’s overarching visual style. A film noir is either shot in black and white, or it feels like it is.
Though ‘traditional’ films noir fizzled out of production after Touch of Evil, they represented a mindset of the American public so clearly and powerfully that many filmmakers continued forging new works bearing rich resemblance to films noir. The years that define eras of artistic work, as any student of history knows, are separated by very fuzzy lines. However, a movie can typically be referred to as a ‘neo-noir’ if it was released in the 1960s or later and contains one or more of the above-mentioned aspects of the classic noir. It was most likely the advent of the French New Wave, which began in 1959 with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as well as the popularization of filming in colour, that caused the end of the classic noir. Filmmakers began experimenting with colour in the late 1930s, but colour cameras were generally reserved only for films with top-dollar budgets until the 1950s. By the 1960s, it was more common to film in colour than in black and white.
Still, film noir lives on today through the neo-noir subgenre. Key examples include Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Mulholland Drive. Knowing just how many different ways film noir has influenced neo-noirs is refreshing, because filmmakers are now integrating key aspects of noir into films of different genres, some very seamlessly.
You have probably seen more neo-noir films than you think, and it is worth it to check out their original film noir influences.