The Essential Elements of Film Noir Explained in One Grand Infographic


What makes film noir film noir? Like Supreme Court jus­tice Pot­ter Stew­art mak­ing his famous pro­nounce­ment on obscen­i­ty, we can hon­est­ly claim to know it when we see it. But what ele­ments, exact­ly, do we only see con­verge in the high, undis­put­ed lev­els of the film noir canon? Design­er Melanie Patrick and writer Adam Frost have, at the behest of the British Film Insti­tute, come up with a handy info­graph­ic (click here to view it in a larg­er for­mat) that explains and visu­al­izes the par­tic­u­lars of the “shad­owy world of one of clas­sic Hollywood’s most beloved sub­gen­res.”

First, film noir needs the right cast of char­ac­ters, includ­ing an inves­ti­ga­tor with “rel­a­tive integri­ty” like Sam Spade or Philip Mar­lowe, a crim­i­nal (“usu­al­ly a mur­der­er”), one “bad, beau­ti­ful” woman, and anoth­er “good, bland” woman. These char­ac­ters should come from a script based on a piece of Amer­i­can pulp fic­tion such as The Mal­tese Fal­con or Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty, ide­al­ly adapt­ed by a Euro­pean émi­gré direc­tor like Fritz Lang or Bil­ly Wilder and replete with heavy drink­ing and smok­ing, “stolen mon­ey or valu­ables,” and obses­sions with the past, all wrapped up in a bleak, con­vo­lut­ed sto­ry that plays out in an urban set­ting by night.

The hey­day of film noir last­ed from the ear­ly 1940s to the late 1950s, right in the mid­dle of the tyran­ny of the Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code, bet­ter known as the Hays Code, which, in lim­it­ing “the amount of sex and vio­lence that could be shown on screen,” forced film­mak­ers to get cre­ative and con­vey dra­mat­ic ten­sion pri­mar­i­ly with light­ing and com­po­si­tion. It also meant that the finest film noir made max­i­mal­ly effec­tive use of its dia­logue, pro­duc­ing such immor­tal­ly snap­py exchanges as the one in Mur­der My Sweet when Philip Mar­lowe shoots back to a woman who announces she finds men very attrac­tive, “I imag­ine they meet you halfway.” The info­graph­ic above also high­lights the impor­tance of a styl­ish poster and a star­tling tagline, ulti­mate­ly arriv­ing at the name of the sole film that pos­sess­es every ele­ment of film noir — and hence “the noiri­est film ever.”

All this comes as the fruit of research into “around 100 of the most high­ly regard­ed film noirs,” and the info­graph­ic’s cre­ators have made some of their data avail­able to view on a Google spread­sheet. Should you now feel like con­duct­ing a film-noir inves­ti­ga­tion of your own, we can offer you a few leads, includ­ing the five essen­tial rules of film noir, Roger Ebert’s ten essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics of film noir, “noir­chae­ol­o­gist” Eddie Muller’s list of 25 noir films that will stand the test of time, a col­lec­tion of film noir’s 100 great­est posters, and of course, our col­lec­tion of 60 film noir movies free to watch online. But stay alert; if we’ve learned one thing from watch­ing film noir, it’s that inves­ti­ga­tions, no mat­ter the rel­a­tive integri­ty with which you con­duct them, don’t always go as planned.

Thanks to Melanie for let­ting us fea­ture her work!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

60 Free Film Noir Movies

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

25 Noir Films That Will Stand the Test of Time: A List by “Noir­chael­o­gist” Eddie Muller

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

Roger Ebert Lists the 10 Essen­tial Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Noir Films

100 Great­est Posters of Film Noir

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Sandy Hobbs says:

    It is com­mend­able to attempt to look at film noir sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. How­ev­er, this has some seri­ous flaws.
    Run­ning togeth­er dif­fer­ent sorts of fea­ture to pro­duce a “score“seems a mis­take. Should aspects of the film itself be treat­ed as of equal val­ue to con­tex­tu­al points such as the direc­tor’s back­ground or adver­tis­ing?
    Is there real­ly a clear dis­tinc­tion between ful­ly noir films and films with noir “ele­ments”? Since only Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty achieved the max­i­mum score, sure­ly you should treat all oth­er films as hav­ing just “ele­ments” OR decide how many ele­ments are need­ed for a full noir sta­tus?
    Why make unsub­stan­ti­at­ed pri­or judge­ments, such as “Hitch­cock did not make noir films?”
    An alter­na­tive approach to sys­tem­at­ic study of noir is my “Dark Cor­ners” web site: cor­ners

  • Sandy Hobbs says:

    OOPS, 2 typos!!
    The cor­rect address for Dark Cor­ners is:

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