Film Noir Review

Film Noir

The mood of film noir is melancholy, bleak, ambiguous, pessimism and paranoia. The films reflected the tensions and insecurities of the time. We are often presented with a cynical male character, as an anti-hero who is running away from something or someone in his past that makes him vulnerable and a glamorous femme fatale who plays on his vulnerability. There is also the tension of moral ambiguity.

The mise-en-scene of film noir.

In ‘Out of the Past ‘ as the female character enters although the interior is low key lighting it is like she is coming out of the light. The room looks gloomy and dimly-lit until she enters. She is in soft focus with swirling cigarette smoke around her. The light projects lots of distorted angles and shadows. She wears glamorous and body conscious clothes, hats, long gloves and high heels. She is beautiful, mysterious and appears cool and tough-sweet. The exterior set looks stark and at times shadowy. In film noir we still have all the chiaroscuro and  high contrast lighting  with dark shadowing  of prior films of German expressionism. Both characters appear moody, her more so and it gives the film a menacing edge. She has power of him because of her aloof beauty and sex appeal. He is irresistibly drawn to her, and yet we know this is going to present a dilemma to him, whether it’s her fault or his  playing out some kind of internal drama in the often confusing external world. Her power of him must frighten him some-how and it is played out in a desperate and forsaken way. It cant be that this powerful and sexy woman can come to a good end, somehow it must be reduced to her being the villain for it to be palatable, reflecting the times of confusing roles for both sexes. The dialogue between them is punchy and smart, they connect through it.

The set has exotic and spiky plants that cast great shadows on the light gray walls. The music plays in the background to set the ambiance. There is a spiral staircase suggests things may twist and turn.

There are lots of doorways in the frame and archways. We often see the characters from these archways like we are almost spying on them. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’ we hear him talking through the window and we are moved in closer, through the billowing curtains right into his bedroom.

Illustrate the distinctive characteristics of film noir.

Film noir is dark with an undercurrent of moral conflict. The story lines are gloomy. There were rarely happy endings.

Film noir often uses narrative that might be complex,  set against background music or used with flashbacks. It is usually first person voice-over. This is a great story-telling technique, as we feel we are on the inside of the story as it is being told to us. The heroes are often men who don’t know where they are going like in “The Wanderer’.  They can be like the down on their luck insurance salesman in ‘Double |Indemnity’ or a man who has conflicting feelings about his masculinity and his identity. The narrative in ‘Sunset Boulevard’  and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ are also in first person and it draws us in from the beginning, like we a being told a dark secret.

There were femme fatales who were like ‘stray electrons’, capable of causing destruction and chaos. As in ‘The postman Always rings Twice’ they were sexualised, we often we see their legs first. In this film the woman poses provocatively, she appears disinterested in the man. She stares at him bravely and then stares at herself in the mirror, putting on her lipstick. Could there be two sides to her we ask? She is aware of how she looks to him and poses for effect.

We often see the use of  symbols, patterns and effects in film noir. Blinds are used effectively in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ for the lines and shadows they cast to great effect. The winding staircase is used in the same film and is suggestive of the complex plots within the film. A staircase is also used in ‘Out of the Past’. Ceiling fans are used to create a break of light or to show you  temperature is rising.  Objects are often used to suggest to the viewer how to see things, the spider for instance in ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear plaid’ has a secret compartment and the spider suggest the spinning of the web. Mirrors are used to suggest other sides to a character or there is more going on behind the scenes. The rooms are often dark and bare like in ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear plaid’ or there is dark and shadowy alleyways like in ‘Out of the Past’.

We have great use of lighting to create shadows. Effects of lights on faces and things add to the atmosphere. There is lots of low key and soft focus lighting.

Double Indemnity

The narrative is in first person, he speaks quickly but clearly and his repertoire is sharp and snappy.  When he meets the female character she too is snappy. “ I wonder if you know what I mean” she says, he replies “ I wonder what you wonder” or “See what I mean “?, reply “ I’ve got good eyesight”. There is great dialogue in this film. The language is brilliant in its description , the narrator describes from the shadows to the smell of honeysuckle. When he is making his confession he is sweating and we can hear the fear in his voice.“ I couldn’t hear my own footsteps, it was the walk of a deadman” or “My nerves are pulling me to pieces”. When he asks her name, then he says he would “drive it round the block a few times”. The male and female character keep saying to each other “straight down the line”, yet of course as we see that is not the case. We most certainly have here in this film the most typical case of the femme fatale of film noir. She is deceiving and calculating, she uses her sexuality to manipulate him to get what she wants then tries to destroy him.

The music creates great tension in the film. The plot is complex and there is lots going on. The clothes are slick, glamorous and stylish. There is great use of light coming through the windows and blinds, like a myriad of confusing angles. Soft lighting is used on her. Cigars and arches are used within the camera frame. Cigarettes and drinks are significant objects. The male anti-hero character always light his boss’s cigar with a match in a cool way, yet at the end as he lays gasping for life, it is the boss who lights his cigarette.


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