Shooting a Movie Genre: Film Noir

In the 1940s, a popular movie genre emerged out of the ashes of war, and that was film noir. "Film noir," means literally "black (or dark) film," and the implication is that it deals with the darker side of humanity. There are certain elements to bear in mind as you plan out and execute your film noir project, such as:

  • Origins
  • Characters
  • Style Creating Substance
  • Lighting

Where Did It Come From?

Before film noir, there were horror films, dramas and detective stories, and the film noir genre brought all of these together. In the 40s, there was obvious tension due to the war, and that spilled over into life. In Europe and Asia, many lives were being lost. It was a dark time, and film noir explored the deceitful, the treacherous, the selfish and the prideful. If you'd like to shoot a film noir, think in terms of what is worst in mankind. What is that sinful nature? What happens when people are at their worst? What are the ramifications to others? What are the consequences to themselves?

One thing to think about is, what is the socio-economic climate right now and how does that feed on your audience's fears? A classic example of film noir is "Double Indemnity," but the genre was made popular again, 30-40 years later with "Body Heat."

Cast of Characters

Some of the most distinctive and memorable characters in film come from the film noir genre. If you're plotting out a film noir, there will almost certainly be a femme fatale, a woman who lures men to their death-or at least somewhere awful they wouldn't have normally wanted to go. She's seductive, cunning and self-serving. Much of the time, the men have the same set of bad characteristics, but a lot of the time they end up falling prey to the femme fatale.

Sometimes, there will be a hard-boiled detective, but that can cross over into another genre. The characters to develop for a film noir should trust no one. Similarly, they should not be trustworthy, either.

Style and Substance

In film noir, the substance of the story and the character are important, but another key element is the style. Film noir usually has a heightened style. Everything is heightened. If the characters are rich, they're very rich. If they're treacherous, they're very treacherous. If they're slimey, they're very slimey. You can see this in their belongings, in their living arrangements, in the way they act, and by the way they talk. Oftentimes, there will be a voice-over narration to help fill in the blanks of not only what is going on, but the motivation-the "why."

What Goes on in the Dark?

One of the most distinctive traits of film noir is the lighting. Much goes on in the shadows, and the shadows in film noir are black and massive. What do people do in the dark? Usually, things they wouldn't want others to see them do in the light. Deceit, murder and treachery all fall into this area. As you develop your style, think in terms of these dark areas of story and character.