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What is Film Noir?

written by: Kristina Dems•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 2/24/2011

What is film noir, exactly? Is it a genre or a style? Different people may have different views on this, but most of them agree that a comprehensive definition of film noir can include it being both a style and a genre.

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    Detour Poster - Example of Film Noir When most people see films in black and white where characters are always sad and most of the time are smoking, they usually say it is noir film. But what is film noir exactly? Some people consider it as a film genre while others look at it and say it is a style of shooting films. Both views are correct, depending on your point of view.

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    Most noir films involve murder, depressed people and seduction. However, these elements are not the only reasons why a film is considered noir. For people who categorize films by looking at the content and the story, the noir genre is composed of films that involved people with questionable morals in dilemmas that lead them to doing things that are not socially acceptable and usually illegal.

    Any film can involve murder and the investigation to solve the crime. In order for it to be categorized in the noir genre, there must be more to the murder that pushes characters in the film to question their morals and doubt everyone else's judgment. The investigation will also have to involve plot twists and shocking reveals. In short, a mere murder mystery cannot be considered noir until characters show their flaws as human beings, leading to interesting morality issues and character-driven plot twists.

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    For people who categorize films by the way they look and how they are executed, noir is a style. Noir films feature stark black and white colors, plenty of shadows, gloomy scenes, rainy nights, men wearing fedora hats and women in elegant dresses that adhere to all their curves. It is a depressing and seductive look that complement the usual stories of crime and forbidden passion. Of course, this kind of style can also be applied to simple crime stories and murder mysteries, which leads us to the conclusion that noir is both a visual style and a genre of films based on their stories.

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    Origin and Prime

    Around the time of the Great Depression and the second World War, American pulp literature writers leaned towards stories that reflected the dire feelings of the time which included fear and anxiety brought upon by the proliferation of crime and the rapid expansion of urban areas in America. These fictional stories were littered with crime and gloomy characters, and it is this style of storytelling that Hollywood took inspiration from. Hollywood in the 1940s started to produce films that were similar in tone with the hardboiled crime stories of American pulp fiction writers, and it is during that time when film noir was born.

    Film noir flourished in the 40s and the 50s when most theaters in America showed mostly noir films. These films featured social commentary and the darkest thoughts from the deepest recessed of the human mind, which actually frightened people away from big cities and urban environments. Film noir's reign at the top ended when TV started to invade homes all over America, which prompted movie studios to produce movies in color. That did not end film noir itself, though. The style and the genre moved to television, but eventually experienced a decline in audiences as well when color TV started to become popular.

    So, what is film noir, exactly? It is a combination of a specific dark style and stories featuring flawed human beings placed in questionable circumstances. It may be depressing, but there is a lot that it says about humans and their ability to do good and bad.

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    Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Supplied by DCGeist