10 Film Noir Characteristics

Monday, February 7 by Stephen Lloyd

These 10 film noir characteristics illuminate the unique aspects of the style coined by French film critics after World War II. Film noir represents a darker side of American film that began to replace the cheerier side of Hollywood in the 1940s.

  1. Film noir movies have fatalistic attitudes. A character will often feel like their life is pre-ordained and that free will is an illusion. This film noir characteristic was influenced by the international conflicts of the time and the powerlessness to avoid them many Americans felt.
  2. Fatalism is expressed by one transgression that spirals out of control.  The average citizen character makes a mistake that snowballs into much greater problems. Every attempt at correction just makes everything worse. This is often called a spider web of deceit in film noir. It can suggest hysteria and panic.
  3. Voice-overs are common. This is due to the popularity of Freudian thought at the time. The voice-over narration film noir characteristic represents psychological reflection and introspection by a character.
  4. The femme fatale female archetype originates in film noir. These female characters represent independence, strength and desire, a response to the brief destruction of the demure housewife stereotype. They are often used to emphasize the fatalist attitude in that the male characters feel powerless to resist the women. Often the femme fatale will enter a love triangle with a married man.  
  5. Another female role is the menaced woman. In film noir, if the main character is female she will often be tormented psychologically or physically by a man, usually a love interest.
  6. Male protagonists are often morally ambiguous. They are cynical, brooding and obsessive. They lead a seamy existence as private detectives, gangsters or government agents, among others. In film noir, the struggle these characters undergo often ends in failure.  
  7. The cinematography reinforces the darkness in the plot and theme. Long, sharp shadows are used in film noir as well as inky blackness. Tilted camera angles with a claustrophobic feel emphasize a nocturnal underworld.
  8. Sets have a gloomy feel. Film noir often takes place indoors in spaces with low-key lighting. Blinds often obscure windows. Exterior scenes include streets and alleys, dark and wet. Flashing neon signs were popular to use in film noir. These type of sets were partially due to war time scarcity.
  9. Story locations are urban. The characters will often be seen in murky streets, cheap, big city apartments or hotel rooms. Abandoned warehouses are also seen in this film noir characteristic.
  10. Some film noirs are produced in a semi-documentary style. These movies are based on real events, usually crime or espionage. They are set in urban areas and deliberately have a realistic feel. Many are filmed in locations where the actual event took place in real life.
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