What is Film Noir?

The list of film noirs varies substantially. The lowest estimate is that there are actually ZERO films noir. This is based on the argument that there is no such genre, and all the words film noir captures is a less coherent set of trends, with anything based on any of the following (and more): 

  • Lighting technique
  • Writing technique
  • Gender issues
  • Post-War problems
  • Psychoanalytic influence
  • Criminals and crime
  • and a generally ill-fated bunch of guys in hats, usually involved with a dangerous woman.

Wikipedia’s list of what’s noir and what is as a consequence non-noir, lists 52 titles even before 1940 . . .  and film noir isn’t really said to start until about 1943, or as is quite often said Stranger on the Third Flooor (1940).

For the 1940s the same article lists in the region of 260 film noirs — that’s from 1940 – 1949. And that is just the American noir — there is plenty from elsewhere, although noir is an American idea, driven by American trends. 

There are roughly 260 noirs listed for the 1950s as well — again minus the many ‘world’ noirs out there.

On the 1940s list I spotted Key Largo on my way down and I think this inclusion highlights a few of the difficulties.  Key Largo is a film we all know  quite well, but I do not necessarily think of Key Largo as a film noir, and never have — although I suppose applying noir criteria, in a way it obviously is.

So film noir exists where you find it. Take for example a few of these random categories:

The Espionage Thriller

Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Manhunt (1941)
The Fallen Sparrow (1943)
Journey Into Fear (1943)
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
The Ministry of Fear (1944)
Cloak and Dagger (1946)

The Period Crime Thriller

The Lodger (1944)
Hangover Square (1944)
Bedlam (1946)

The Boxing Thriller

The Personality Kid (1934)
Kid Galahad (1937)
Kid Nightingale (1939)
Knockout (1941)
Body and Soul (1947)
Champion (1949)
The Set-up (1949)

The Rogue Cop

The Bribe (1949)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
Detective Story (1951)
Rogue Cop (1954)
Shield for Murder (1954)
Touch of Evil (1958)

Ella Raines in Phantom Lady (1944) - 'Wifelet Seeker Hero'

The Wifelet Seeker Hero

The Stranger on the Third Floor
Phantom Lady
Black Angel

The Paranoid Woman

Rebecca (1940)
Suspicion (1941)
Gaslight (1944)
Experiment Perilous (1944)
Dark Waters (1944)
The Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
Sleep My Love (1948)
Caught (1948)

The Female Lawbreaker

The Letter (1940)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Temptation (1946)
Ivy (1947)
The Velvet Touch (1948)
Too Late for Tears (1949)
Beyond the Forest (1949)
I feel that this list could be added to indefinitely. For all those 500 plus films classed as noir from the 1940s and 1950s, further classification is possible — quite fun actually.

Jean-Luc Godard said all you needed for a film was a girl and a gun, and remember he was brought up on the stuff.  I'd add an ill-fated guy in a hat and a guarantee from the off that the woman is bad, bad news.

This Gun For Hire (1942) - Stills

In looking for a fine example of what one may call The Cinema of the Disenchanted, another name perhaps for the film noir of the 1940s, one will be immensely entertained to discover This Gun For Hire (1942).

Within you'll not only find Veronica Lake singing, spying, loving and doing neat magic tricks, but a fascinating plot (by Graham Greene) which deals spies, lies and big business, all combined in a neat piece of wartime propaganda which thrills more than it lectures.

Although Alan Ladd plays a guy who's set out at the top of the film to be a thoroughly disturbing psychopath, thinsg don't quite pan out that way.  And of course what folks love the best about this emotionless killer, is his fondness for cats.

To top this off, here is a great Tumblr thread which holds a good many stills, bits and pieces and other fine images related to this winner of a film noir.

This Gun For Hire (1942) on Tumblr

Full article on This Gun For Hire (1942) on Classic Film Noir


Detour (1945)

Detour (1945) is high noir, low budget and endlessly fascinating.  Like many of Edgar G. Ulmer’s films Detour was shot in 6 days;  ‘Just visualise it,’ said Ulmer, ‘eighty set-ups a day.’  

It’s hard to visualise, but it sure is heroic.  Normally, this approach would produce a clunky and directionless mess, but occasionally as here, it can still produce a gem.  It's what they used to call a 'poverty row quicky', for the high-speed and low-expense of its production, and there is something about this format that really lets the subversive implications of noir rise to the surface.

Detour is a fatalistic road-movie featuring the broke, the dissatisfied and a spade of bad luck.  At heart it’s a tense anti-buddy relationship, between actors Tom Neal and Ann Savage.  It turns out that Detour is also many people's favourite noir, given how bleak and cheap and evil it is. It's twisted in a way that is hard to achieve these days, and what buffs call a 'low-rent masterpiece.'  

Tom Neal in DETOUR (1945)

Above all Detour concerns losers - one loser in general - and that loser's self deluded narrative, which painfully falls apart over the course. Yep, the story is replete with outrageous coincidence, but that is story-telling for you, and these things happen.  The fatal final words sum it up: 

'Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.'

In Detour, everyone takes a battering, even Tom Neal's piano when at one point he offers up a crazed rendering of a Brahms waltz. There is nothing he or anybody can do, and in fact the lead character's struggle against fate is what makes him so hopeless, and what drives the movie to its final destination, the electric chair.  You know this coming, you can hear it in that incessant and confessional voiceover, you can see it in the pessimism and doom that he and Ann Savage share, in the claustrophobic surroundings of their car and in their hotel room.  

The car, incidentally, because of the cheap back projection, looks just as like a prison cell as the hotel room, and Detour actually benefits from being cheap.  It suits these bums and their shoddy ways, and reinforces the metaphorical aspect of their journey, their own endless detouring as they try and put off the inevitable.  In this respect, Detour is nothing less than an image from hell itself.
Tom Neal in DETOUR - his real life was also fairly noirish
Tom Neal himself had a kind of noir career, injuring actor Franchot Tone so 

badly in a fight that he was ostracised in Hollywood, turning instead to landscape gardening, until he was sentenced to jail for shooting his wife in the head, and killing her.  Tom Neal served 6 years for this crime and died within a year of his release.  Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jnr made one film, reprising his dad’s role, in a 1992 remake of Detour, which is a must-see for the avid noir collector. Franchot Tone had two sons with Jean Wallace (star of The Big Combo) and she had one with Cornel Wilde.  Everything they say about incestuous Hollywood is therefore proved true, just by these guys alone. Read about Tom Neal on Wikipedia, if you dare.


In his time, Edward G. Ulmer directed about every type of cheap movie there is — including the noirs Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusions (1945), Ruthless (1948) and Murder is My Beat (1955).  But he also made sci-fi (The Amazing Transparent Man, 1960), horror, low-budget epic and nudist films. 

What are the noir elements at work and play in Detour?  First there is the (anti)hero, who is on edge and in something of as nervous panic in every scene.  Tom Neal excels at this, and is terrified of his shadow and always seconds away from a cold, unshaven sweat in every scene, even when he doesn’t need to be.  Next, the dame.  She is attractive, cold, and more ruthless than Lady Macbeth.  

Tom Neal - super nervous indecision in DETOUR (1945)

Combined with the hero’s indecision and fateful lack of confidence, a classic marriage-from-hell evolves.  Tight on rum she strumpets herself around the apartment.  He paces up and down at the window, trousers unfeasibly high above his waistline. Cinematic joy, all round.

Then there are the supporting characters; cops who always turn up at the most inopportune moment, but suspect nothing.  And members of the public, who in classic film noir mode, suspect everything, and seem to be about to blow the whole thing wide open.

That’s key to true film noir.  Central to every film noir is a crime, whether it be one of passion, or even an almost accidental or subconsciously committed crime, as in this case.  Your weakness and indecision are going to plunge you into an anti-social hell from which there is no escape, and it’s this separation from the world at large that gives the general public their lethal quality in noir.  Think of the witness, the ‘Medford man’ in Double Indemnity, a fool in one respect, but the world-shatteringly loose pin in the wheel in another.

One of noir’s other greatest capabilities is the fatally unlucky coincidence, and this is perfectly captured in Detour, and twice.  I say perfectly, because coincidence is a difficult thing to pull off, given that while audiences in general don’t mind a crazy coincidence if it keeps the plot rolling, you can never be sure how far you can stretch these things.

On The Road with the Process Screen in DETOUR (1945)

As an early road movie, Detour doesn’t depict the road as a place of freedom, but rather as a trap.  There are none of the landscape shots normal to road movies in it, probably due to its budget, and the cast is too small for any incidental characters of note.  The detours are endless and the journey is interminable, and the low production values create a meaning all of their own.  Tom Neal’s voiceover adds a weird unreliable aspect but also covers up gaping plot holes, and the constant use of the process screen and the film loop of the passing desert creates an even deeper feeling of being trapped.  Ulmer was in fact a low-budget master.  Often, instead of using a clapperboard he would shoot quickly orchestrated master shots and reaction shots of actors, putting his hand over quickly over the lens to save time and precious film stock.

I’ve been calling Detour film noir, but in terms of classification, it has a few other things going for it.  Detour may even be known as one of the first classics of post-war cinema, being released in November 1945.  It is however Ann Savage who raises Detour from the genres of noir and thriller into that of horror.  Possibly the reason why the film still holds its head up high today, 70 years later, standing proud alongside every cinematic achievement since 1945, is her performance, which is ugly-wicked and horrific. 

Ann Savage in DETOUR (1945)

There is one striking moment in Detour when the film swings from thriller/road-movie mode, into the inextricable mess that leads to everybody’s downfall, and it’s when Ann Savage turns to accuse Tom Neal in the car.  It’s because of Ann Savage that Detour was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".  The look she gives Tom Neal is as memorable and fatal as anything else on screen, as she announces herself as one of the great screen psychos.

The Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968, meant that the ending of the film isn’t quite what you may like or expect.  But one of the code’s key tenets was that murderers were not to be seen to get away with their crimes.  There was actually a heap of hokey BS in the code but as with everything else in Detour, the end is over quickly, and so you can’t be too bothered that it isn’t the conclusion you’d like.

There are countless ways to see Detour for free on the internet, including at archive.org/details/detour where you can download it straight to your computer, and because it's public domain it's also all over YouTube, and other video sites.  Another bonus is that Detour is only an hour and seven minutes long which is such a relief, given that the trend today is for producing three hour ass-crunchers which are often not worth the effort.

How to Title Your Film Noir

Some of these pictures I'm watching might be film noirs, simply by dint of their title. 

Can a film's title be noir?  Certainly there are thematic areas that are undubitably gloomy, paranoiac and criminal.  And I think that yes, there are some pictures out there that you can tell are going to be film noir, just because of how the title sounds.

Breaking it down, I'm going to start by looking at a few themes.  

For example, in film noir titles we often find the recurrence of one of several key words, such as street, dark and night.  Often such titles feature a referernce to roads, or travel, or simply to the dead-end and paranoiac suburban streets where they are set.

The Dark Corner
The Night Has 1000 Eyes
So Dark The Night
Street of Chance
Man in the Dark
Night Without Sleep
The Night of the Hunter
Crime in the Streets
Clash by Night
A Cry in the Night
The Midnight Story
Drive a Crooked Road
Side Street
Scarlet Street
Sometimes, in the titles of film noirs, we find an expression from the lingo familiar from hard-boiled school of fiction writing of the day.  Examples might be:

Raw Deal
The Set-up

At other times, film noir titles are constructed from a general combination of death, sexuality and violence.

Murder, My Sweet
Kiss of Death
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

There are also film noir thrillers with titles suggestive of fatalism, or somehow containing a mood of anguish or despair. These titles sum up in a couple of words some of the great themes of noir, which are hopelessness, paranoia, and fate grabbing you by the scruff of your suit and calling you a heel.  Examples of this type of title would include:

They Won’t Believe Me
I Walk Alone
Blind Alley
Sudden Fear
No Questions Asked
Without Warning

Good film noir titles are suggestive, and not always explicit.  There has to be something in the title alone that is going to pull you in, something that would have alerted the subconscious minds of the cinema-goers of the 1940s and 1950s.  This was a time before television, when an American might go to the cinema three or four times a week, and in most cases, the title and a couple of images on the poster would have been enough to demonstrate what was going to be on offer.  And some of the film noir titles I've seen, seem to repeat certain keywords, which definitely alert a viewer, albeit at a very basic level, what was up.  Regard these titles which riff on the word 'strange', which are all from 1946:

Strange Impersonation
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Strange Triangle
The Strange Woman
The Stranger

Love from a Stranger 

Finally, there is a paradigm in film noir titles which uses the confessional first person, promising much degradation of morality, and the plumbing of certain criminal depths.  This is probably my favorite title combination as it attempts in one pithy phrase, to capture the whole dangerous shebang in one lurid image:

I Love Trouble
I Walk Alone
I Was a Communist for the FBI
I Wouldn't be in Your Shoes
I Married a Communist
The Man with My Face
I Confess
One Girl's Confession
I, the Jury
Please Murder Me
I Want to Live!

Possibly one of the bluntest of all film noir titles is that of the 1952 Warner Brothers film noir THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS.  

I've not seen it, but I think I get the picture . . .some guy is going to fall for the wrong person, and end up neck deep in a murder rap.  That's usually the story in film noir.

IMAGE ATTRIBUTION: "Posterthiswomanx". Via Wikipedia.