The 5 Essential Rules of Film Noir

“That’s life. Whichev­er way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” – Al Robert (Tom Neal), Detour

Film Noir. When you think that phrase, the mind is imme­di­ate­ly drawn to images of leg­gy ice queens, rum­bled losers in fedo­ras, guns, neon and cer­tain dead­pan cyn­i­cism. Film Noir wasn’t a self con­scious move­ment in the way the French New Wave was. It wasn’t a brand name like a Mar­vel super­hero epic. But it did tap into some­thing dark in the Amer­i­can post­war zeit­geist and became for a spell huge­ly pop­u­lar. It also cre­at­ed some of the most unfor­get­table images in film his­to­ry.

Film Noir hit its zenith in the late ‘40s, a time when vet­er­ans were return­ing home in droves after hav­ing wit­nessed unimag­in­able hor­rors. Under the weight of war trau­ma, men felt the brit­tle veneer of tra­di­tion­al mas­culin­i­ty – strong, sto­ic and dom­i­nant — crack and crum­ble. Film Noir tapped into this anx­i­ety. It’s no acci­dent that film schol­ars have called Film Noir the male weepy.

Above is a BBC doc­u­men­tary about the genre that lays out its rules. The movie fea­tures inter­views with direc­tor Paul Schrad­er, cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Roger Deakins and George Pele­canos who both wrote and pro­duced The Wire. Check it out.

Rule #1: Choose a Dame with a Past and a Hero with No Future

The noir pro­tag­o­nist is inevitably some hap­less schmuck who is doomed, suck­ered to death or ignominy by lust, greed or some dark­er sub­ter­ranean self-destruc­tive urge. And inevitably the cat­a­lyst for this fall is a dame. Usu­al­ly blonde. Always gor­geous. The femme fatale is inevitably the cen­ter of the movie and fre­quent­ly its antag­o­nist. Film Noir blunt­ly lays bare what wasn’t dis­cussed in polite soci­ety; that the way for a woman to get pow­er in Amer­i­can soci­ety was through sex. The gen­der dynam­ics in this genre are the stuff that has launched hun­dreds of PhD dis­ser­ta­tions.

Rule #2: Use No Fic­tion But Pulp Fic­tion

Stu­dios rushed to adapt the pulp works of Ray­mond Chan­dler, James M. Cain and par­tic­u­lar­ly Dashiell Ham­mett, the first true hard­boiled writer. Hammett’s nov­els like Red Har­vest and The Mal­tese Fal­con are terse, vio­lent and cyn­i­cal; they con­tain the DNA of the Film Noir.

Rule #3: See Amer­i­ca Through a Stranger’s Eyes

The rise of Nazism in Ger­many forced hun­dreds of writ­ers, film­mak­ers and com­posers like Fritz Lang, Robert Siod­mak and Bil­ly Wilder to the sun-dap­pled shores of Los Ange­les. With them, they brought the aes­thet­ics of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism — cant­ed cam­era angles, stark light­ing and grotesque shad­ows. It was a look that merged seam­less­ly with the bleak, ele­men­tal sto­ries of Noir. They also brought with them a war-weary foreigner’s sense of the coun­try, one that saw the bru­tal­i­ty and cor­rup­tion of Amer­i­ca beneath the patri­ot­ic bunting.

Rule #4: Make It Any Col­or As Long As It’s Black

They wouldn’t call it Film Noir if the movies didn’t use a lot of black.

Rule #5: It Ain’t What You say It’s the Way That you Say it

The Hayes code lim­it­ed how bawdy and vio­lent Film Noir could get. So film­mak­ers got cre­ative, using off-screen space and lots and lots of euphemisms. Check out what Lau­ren Bacall says to Humphrey Bog­a­rt in The Big Sleep.

Speak­ing of hors­es, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a lit­tle first, see if they’re front run­ners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.

It’s pret­ty obvi­ous she isn’t talk­ing about hors­es. And if you want to see just how las­civ­i­ous her deliv­ery is, watch the film above.

And if you want to watch more Film Noirs, don’t miss our col­lec­tion of 36 Free Film Noir Movies, which fea­tures clas­sic movies by John Hus­ton, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Ida Lupino and many oth­ers. It’s part of our big­ger col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Fritz Lang’s Cen­sored Noir Film, Scar­let Street, Star­ring the Great Edward G. Robin­son (1945)

Detour: The Cheap, Rushed Piece of 1940s Film Noir Nobody Ever For­gets

Watch D.O.A., Rudolph Maté’s “Inno­v­a­tive and Down­right Twist­ed” Noir Film (1950)

The Third Man: Film Noir Clas­sic on YouTube

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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  • Patrick Clark says:

    Real­ly good piece, though I was dis­ap­point­ed Cor­nell Wool­rich was­n’t men­tioned. His excel­lent ear­ly pulp sto­ries inspired a whole French move­ment which, in turn, inspired Hol­ly­wood Noir. His “I Mar­ried A Dead Man”, “The Bride Wore Black”, “The Black Angel”, “Rear Win­dow” and oth­ers were ground-break­ing in their time.

  • hippiefilmmaker says:

    Essen­tials for a film noir? Here they are: must open with a pan up a skyscraper…dinner club with floor show…constant cig­a­rettes and drinks…ladies dressed to the hilt even at home alone…men for­ev­er tip­ping their hats…paperboys…old school police sirens…unlocked apart­ment doors…knock-outs with a sin­gle blow…jumping out of tall windows…wildly thrown, sin­gle-hand­ed gunshots…young female stars actu­al­ly going for old men… dri­vers exit­ing on the pas­sen­ger side…& not a sin­gle curse word or nip­ple!

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