Conventions of Film Noir

Jess Farey
Mind Map by Jess Farey, updated more than 1 year ago
Jess Farey
Created by Jess Farey about 6 years ago


Conventions of Film Noir

Resource summary

Conventions of Film Noir
  1. Narrative
    1. Charecters
      1. The femme fatale is a stock character in film noir. She is seductive and manipulative, often the reason for the "fall guy"'s downward spiral. She achieves her goals using her sexual allure and webs of lies. Sometimes the femme fatale herself is actually a victim and trying to escape from a situation she has landed herself in such as Elsa Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai. Although many are considered villains (Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is ultimately shot by the protagonist), few redeem themselves and become heroines. Woman were beginning to be portrayed as more powerful after the Second World War as they had proved they could be independent of men by taking over many of their jobs while they fought overseas. Sociologists suggest that the revival of femme fatales was driven by the male fears of feminism (Doane), which is why they are often met with a bad ending.
        1. Rita Hayworth's femme fatale in Gilda (1946)
        2. The fall guy is normally the protagonist. He is often smart and cynical, however his past may not be entirely clean, often due to making the wrong decision or placing his trust in the wrong person (typically the femme fatale). The film follows his downwards spiral as a consequence of this. A good example of a fall guy is Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, who is seduced by Phyllis Dietrichson and helps her kill her husband and cheat his insurance company into giving her compensation.
          1. Fred MaCurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1946), shot by Phyllis Dietrichson
          2. Other stock characters may include; the "other" woman (dutiful and trstworthy, a contrast to the menacing femme fatale), corrupt policemen/ officials, detectives, gangsters, criminals and billionaires.
            1. Humphrey Bogart as a private detective in The Big Sleep (1946)
          3. Themes and Ideas
            1. In many film noirs, binary oppositions are used as narrative devices. Certain ideas are shown through certain characters; how they speak, dress and interact with other characters influences the idea of what they represent. Some of these are; Innocence vs Corruption, Male vs Female, Good female vs Bad female, Light vs Dark, Naivety vs Deceit and betrayal and Law abiding vs Law breaking. For example, in The Lady from Shanghai, Michael O'Hara is decieved by Elsa Bannister and George Grisby into faking a murder. He agrees, persuaded he cannot be convicted, however Elsa kills George and frames Michael for the purpose of her own protection. Michael is naive and he and Arthur Bannister are betrayed by George and Elsa.
              1. Elsa Bannister and George Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
              2. Many film noirs use similar themes and ideas as the plot develops. Some of these include; downwards spiral (of the protagonist), breakdown, trusting the wrong people, bad mistake, murder/ whodunnit, punishment, corruption, power, justice, revenge, lust/ love, amnesia, greed, betrayal, pessimism, fatalism, the human weakness.
                1. Sin City (2005) is set in a corrupt city where the characters are driven by a desire for justice and revenge.
              3. Setting
                1. Film noirs are often set in big urban areas, in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. This provides a sense of anonymity and makes the characters seem more mysterious. Many film noirs are actually filmed on location in these cities, and seeing iconic areas on screen brings the film to life and makes it seem more realistic. This is particularly true for films where the emphasis is on crime, given the increased rates in urban areas.
                  1. The Naked City (1948) was shot entirely on location in New York and presented a truthful image of the city. A famous line from the film is "There are eight million stories in the naked city... and this has been one of them".
                  2. The weather in film noir is used to help set the mood of the scene. It is often dark or overcast, rainy (sometimes thunder and lightening is used for effect) and misty, which is effective in concealing the unknown or making silhouettes, creating a sense of mystery.
                    1. Two silhouettes on a foggy night creating the iconic shot from The Big Combo (1955)
                    2. Common settings within film noirs tend to be grim and unsavoury, linking in with the criminal activity and dark themes. This includes sidestreets and alleyways lit by flickering neon lights, cheap apartments with claustrophobic and bare rooms, bars, lounges, clubs, gambling dens, police stations and abandoned buildings. Alternatively, a rich businessman's office or a mansion belonging to a certain character may be used as a contrast to this, such as the Dietrichson's house in Double Indemnity compared to the area Walter lives in and the crime he helps her commit- ironically for money.
                      1. Dark alleyways in the city backstreets in The Third Man (1949)
                  3. Camera
                    1. Camera angles in film noirs are unusual in that they try to disorientate and discomfort the viewer instead of flow smoothly. This is achieved through using high and low angle shots, with high angles making the subject appear smaller and therefore weak and pathetic which is good for portraying a victim. Low angles make the subject appear larger and taller, which has connotations of power and control. Femme fatales are often shown in low angle shots (or dominate the screen in two shots). When they were first introduced, many directors of classic noirs tended to pan up their bodies, an example of the male gaze. Dutch angles are frequently used- this is when the camera is deliberately tilted to one side so that the film looks abstract at an odd angle. This is again an example of a technique used to confuse the viewer.
                      1. Hank Quinlan has clearly triumphed as he is shown as powerful, looming over the other man in Touch of Evil (1958)
                      2. Film noirs also use a camera technique called deep focus, where the foreground, middle ground and background are all clear, as opposed to the focus being on the main character and the background being more blurry and less defined. By taking the focus off the individual, the viewer pays more attention to the scene around them, for example contrasts with the other characters and the set. In film noirs, this could possibly link in with the idea of having to constantly keep an eye on everything because of the feelings of mistrust running high.
                        1. Deep focus in Citizen Kane (1941), every detail in the scene is clearly defined.
                      3. Editing
                        1. In the post production process, film noirs are often not edited in a chronological order. They can be told as flashbacks, so the film begins with the present and flashes back to the main events and how they are linked to what is happening in the current time. For example, Sunset Boulevard is narrated by a dying/ dead man who recounts how he was shot and the killer's motives, eventually leading up to their (implied) arrest.
                          1. Joe Gillis tells his story from the grave in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
                          2. While many films use ontinuity editing for a smooth and polished effect, film noirs often use jump cuts to add to the disorientation and action of a scene. One of the first examples of this is in A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), when the camera would jump from location to location or skip parts of a conversation, leaving the audiene to fill in the gaps for themselves.
                            1. Jump cuts were used in the scenes where Michel and Patricia talked in her bedroom in A Bout de Souffle (1960)
                          3. Sound
                            1. Digetic sounds are used in film noir to enhance what is going on on the screen. Sudden noises are often used after periods of long suspense, such as a gunshot or smashing glass (this is foley sound, recorded in a studio and added in the post production process). There is also normally ambient city sound, especially if the film is set in a major city such as New York. This includes people chatting, cars going past and the weather.
                              1. Non digetic sounds are just as important as the digetic as they help the audience further understand what is going on. A score sets the mood of the scene- in classic noirs it was normally jazzy, using brass instruments and pianos, but downbeat and heavy, with a melancholy tone. One of the most famoust film noir scores is from Sunset Boulevard, with the iconic prelude. Voiceovers are also non-digetic sounds, and in the film noirs which are told through flashbacks, state the links between the scenes and give an insight to how the narrator feels about it. Double Indemnity is narrated by the protagonist, Walter Neff, in the form of a confession as he speaks into a recording machine.
                                1. Walter Neff beginning his confession in Double Indemnity (1944)
                              2. Lighting
                                1. Film noir mainly uses low key lighting, meaning the set was darkly lit. In classic noirs, this was often because of a lack of funding- they were often B-sides and did not have the budget to properly light the set. However, this has become a trademark for noirs; it looks gloomy and creates a sense of claustrophobia as dark shadows give the illusion of the room being smaller.
                                  1. Low key lighting in The Third Man (1949)
                                  2. Film noir is also associated with chiaroscuro lighting, meaning there is a strong contrast between the lights and darks in a scene. This can create dramatic silhouettes and sharp shadows which have become a part of the film noir aesthetic. One form of chiarascuro lighting is "venetian blind" lighting, originally used in Double Indemnity and copied by filmmakers afterwards. The set is lit so that the light and dark contrast is the shadow of a blind over the rest of the room (and the actor). This gives the effect of them being trapped behind prison bars, which is used as a foreshadowing device.
                                    1. Venetian blind lighting in Double Indemnity (1944)
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