Film Noir Defined

Since the main character in my Reed Ferguson Mystery Series loves film noir, I thought I would do some posts that focus on this wonderful topic (and for you writers, I’ll delve into some of the structure of these movies and why they can improve your writing).

My editor wondered if those in a younger generation even know any of the old films of this era…I sometimes wonder if anyone does.  If you don’t know about film noir, you’re missing out.  If you do, then you know how cool these movies (and the books that were the inspiration for these movies) really are.  So, without further ado…

What Is Film Noir?

The term film noir originally came from French film critics, who coined the phrase (it literally means black film).  After World War II, many of the detective and crime films from the U.S. had very dark and gloomy themes, as well as a low-key black-and-white visual style.  These films were in stark contrast to many other films of the time that portrayed a sense of optimism.  However, this was the time of the Cold War.  Fear, despair, paranoia, mistrust, the loss of innocence and more played into film noir movies.

It is interesting to note that film purists would say that film noir is not a genre, but a style or tone of a film.  Also, the term film noir did not come into existence until the 1970s…before that, these films were thought of as melodramas.

The Anti-Hero

The so-heroes of these films were really more of an anti-hero, a hard-boiled, brooding, violent, possibly criminal and misogynistic being who seemed to have been formed out of society’s evil.  These were usually men, and they struggled with moral conflicts and purposelessness.  However, these anti-heroes also had a strong sense of injustice.  They were usually loners, trying to survive, but ultimately, losing.

The Femme Fatale

The women in film noir typically came in two types – the dutiful, trustworthy, reliable woman, or the femme fatale.  The film noir femme fatale was mysterious, gorgeous, untrustworthy, duplicitous and so on.  The femme fatale also served to bring down the anti-hero.


Storylines were often non-linear (hmm, remember Pulp Fiction), elliptical and twisting.  The narratives can be hard to follow as they tend to be very complex and convoluted.  And the dialogue…oh how I miss great dialogue (our movies today just can’t match the dialogue of old movies).  These old classics tend to have razor-sharp narration that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Great Examples of Film Noir

The film considered the first of the genre is Stranger on the Third Floor, from 1940.  Some classics are This Gun For Hire, Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Maltese Falcon, Laura, and Reed’s favorite, The Big Sleep (read This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies to find out how Reed uses this film to help solve a crime).  The last of the genre is Touch of Evil (a great film and a great story about it being made, too).  If you like drama and suspense, these are film noir classics that you should check out.

Character From Novels

So many movies have been made from novels, and film noir movies are no exception.  Some of the best movies came from hard-boiled pulp writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Cornell Woolrich (for my take on the current writing scene resembling the days of pulp fiction writing, read this post).  This is why so many movies of the genre are detective stories (and why many seem to think that film noir is analogous to a detective story).  Film noir movies can also derive from gangster and other crime stories.  Examples of this are They Drive By Night, Key Largo, and White Heat.

There is a wealth of plot lines, character studies, story development in these films.  Any writer should give them some serious study.  I could go on and on.  But I’ll save that for future posts.

I hope you enjoyed this post.  I think I’ll go watch a good movie 🙂


About Renee Pawlish

Author of mystery novels, thriller novels, and horror books. Check out Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, the Noah Winter adventure series for young adults, Take Five, a short story collection, and The Sallie House: Exposing the Beast Within. Renee also offers writing lessons and writing strategies in the Writers Workshop. Twitter: Facebook: Blog: Goodreads:
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4 Responses to Film Noir Defined

  1. I think you hit all the marks on this definition. The only element I would add is morality. The noir hero does not subscribe to conventional moral codes. Sam Spade doesn’t mind that much that Bridget O’Shaughnessy is a murderer so much as the fact that she murdered his partner.

    There is a foreboding sense of doom best seen in DOA where the slow-poisoned detective investigates his own murder. Or the doomed Burt Lancaster in The Killers.

    • Renee Pawlish says:

      Yes, good point – I could’ve gone on and on, but I didn’t want to make a huge post. So much fodder for the future. Thanks for your insightful comments!

  2. zencherry says:

    Oh. My. Gosh.
    This is one of my favorite genres of films to watch. To see the villain with his own sense of good and bad with the femme fatale on his arm, smart-talkin’ and being all sultry? Oh yeah.
    Love this stuff. Love it and your books. 😉

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