Noir was originally used in relation to film. The term was coined in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank but wasn’t generally adopted until the 1970s and then retrospectively applied to Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s. Literally it means Black Film, but a closer meaning is Dark Film. Darkness in this context may be literal, as in the dark and moody cinematography of many 1940s thrillers, with low key lighting and strong shadows as in classics like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. It may also be metaphorical, as in the many films with stories involving femmes fatales, doomed heroes or anti-heroes, and tough, cynical detectives.
Like all such categories there is no clear agreement on what is or isn’t a noir film. Common elements include low-key lighting, stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning, It often uses low-angle, wide-angle, and skewed, or Dutch angle camera shots as well as shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and special effects sequences of a sometimes bizarre nature, all with the aim of creating a sense of disorientation. They often have unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks and other editing techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. Framing the entire primary narrative as a flashback is also a standard device. Voiceover narration, sometimes used as a structuring device, came to be seen as a noir hallmark; while classic noir is generally associated with first-person narration (i.e., by the protagonist). At its most extreme this device is found in Sunset Boulevard, where the narrator is dead.
Crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all films noir; in addition to standard-issue greed, jealousy is frequently the criminal motivation. A crime investigation—by a private eye, a police detective (sometimes acting alone), or a concerned amateur—is the most prevalent, but far from dominant, basic plot. In other common plots the protagonists are implicated in heists or con games, or in murderous conspiracies often involving adulterous affairs.Commonly heroes are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another and confoming to a fairly narrow range of archetypes — hardboiled detectives, femme fatales, corrupt policemen or jealous husbands. False suspicions and accusations of crime are frequent plot elements, as are betrayals and double-crosses. According to J. David Slocum, “protagonists assume the literal identities of dead men in nearly fifteen percent of all noir.” Amnesia is fairly epidemic—”noir’s version of the common cold”, in the words of film historian Lee Server.
Film noir is often associated with an urban setting, and a few cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, in particular—are the location of many of the classic films. In the eyes of many critics, the city is presented in noir as a “labyrinth” or “maze”. In the popular (and, frequently enough, critical) imagination, in noir it is always night and it always rains. Even so, many classic noirs take place in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road. Whatever the setting, the films are typically seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt.
From its use in film, the term has spread and is often used to describe simply a mood or feeling. The best known perhaps is Scandinavian noir also called Scandi or Nordic noir, a genre comprising crime fiction written in Scandinavia with certain common characteristics, typically in a realistic style with a dark, morally complex mood, breaking away from the older “whodunit” influenced by the British country house murder mystery. It has been suggested that this is influenced by Scandinavia’s political system where the apparent equality, social justice, and liberalism of the Nordic model is seen to cover up dark secrets and hidden hatreds.
Now it seems the term implies no more than a certain ‘look and feel’, something we recognise when we see it. It is with that in mnd that I’ve selected a set of pictures from the shop which I have tagged ‘noir’.
Click on the individual pictures to see them larger or follow this Etsy search link to see these and more, plus information on each photograph:
It was the photo of the girl in the bar that led me to write this post. It is a very Hopperish image, although it would fit in happily as a still from a spy movie. See the envelope on the bench beside her – secret documents? And the bulging purse – is there perhaps a gun in there? In practice it seems she was there to pick up a man for the night, which off course fits in well with the noir narrative of troubled, ambiguous protagonists.
There are other items in the shop that could fall into the noir theme. Look at this comic cover from 1948…
Apart from the striking resemblance to the Mad Men characters, Joan Henderson and Don Draper this could be a scene from any of dozens of noir films of the period – and if ever there was a noir hero it is Don. There are several others in similar vein. As before click on an individual picture to enlarge it, or follow the link to the Etsy shop.
Sections of this post use material from Wikipedia articles on Film Noir and Scandinavian Noir.
Hot links may contain Associate Codes for Amazon or other on line vendors. You can avoid these by going to the site directly and searching from there.