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Film noir, a term first coined by Nino Frank in 1946, has become a cult…

If you type it into Amazon, hundreds of thousands of items pop up, from DVDs over books to paraphernalia such as jewellery. Most of these items however, have nothing to do with actual Film Noir.

Ranging from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, critics describe it as a style, or phenomenon, rather than a genre. It was closely linked to the cultural and social context of the time. 

It is rather difficult to define it in the first place. It seems easy to tell by the dark lighting derived from German expressionism, but it is more than just the visual style that defines noir. The language, the themes and the settings are also crucial. Let’s explore some of the best original films noirs made.

Double Indemnity is one of the canonical films from this era. Made in 1944 by Billy Wilder after a story by Raymond Chandler, it represents everything that is noir. The film starts with the protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurrey) driving down an LA street. He is agitated, hurrying into his office; he cannot lose time. He sits down at his desk to tape a confession and we are taken back to the start of the film.

Walter, an insurance salesman, met Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck) on a house call. She is the incarnation of a femme fatale, walking down the stairs with an anklet that immediately suggests that it is she who will change Walter’s life. Even though he is the narrator, she dominates visually. They plot the murder of her husband for insurance money but, as is common in film noir, their plan goes wrong.

With the play of light and dark, the femme fatale and the complex identities of the characters, the film is not only a prime example of noir but also a masterpiece full of metaphors and suspense. The honest, standup Walter is sucked into chaos by the fatal Phyllis.

Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) tells the story of the beautiful and confident Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) who is murdered before the film begins. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) leads the investigation, interviewing all the people she knew and slowly falls in love with her. laura_shelby

The film’s flashbacks and its convoluted plot turn the murder mystery into a psychological tale of obsession. The femme fatale is glorified in her painting and comes to life as if to tighten her grip on the men she enchants. Even though it is highly stylised, Laura manages to cast a spell.

Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur and based on a novel by James M. Cain, stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. It is a private eye film about a fallen man whose past catches up with him. He tells his girl what had happened in a series of flashbacks.

Once again, the flashbacks and their voice-over coupled with the chiaroscuro lighting are classic film noir features. The detective has to navigate through a labyrinth that takes him all the way to Mexico, a place of desire where he has no control. Even though he tries to escape by leaving the city, he was always going to be found. Kathie, the femme fatale controls and deceives the men in her life, but the denouement takes care of her because the film cannot end by letting the double-crossing murderer live.

Two films that represent the zeitgeist of the time are The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Dead Reckoning (1947). They deal with the theme of the returning soldier, who, after fighting in WWII, needs to readjust to life back home.

In The Blue Dahlia, Navy pilot Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) returns home from the war to find that the social order is disturbed. Material wealth, cultural alienation and the new place of women in society force the returning men to re-orientate after the war. Johnny finds a new love (Veronica Lake), but faces a number of turns before he can find his way out with her.


In Dead Reckoning, a fantastic Humphrey Bogart finds himself solving the mystery around his army buddy Martinelli. As in many of these films, his male companion had become a partner, almost with a homosexual undercurrent, and he needs to defend his honour in a strange new world. He thinks he has found comfort in Coral (Lizabeth Scott) but she turns out to be another femme fatale who has to perish in the end. 

When Strangers Marry (1944) is a B-Noir, a shorter film made with a tighter budget. These became quite common at a time when the studios had less money to spend, and needed cheaper films to fill the double bills. When Strangers Marry was produced for less than $50,000, but is said to be the best B-Film ever made.

With a slightly less intricate plot, the story evolves around an innocent girl from the country who travels to the big city where money rules, only to find out that her husband may be a murderer. It turns into a psychological thriller with the couple being chased through New York.


Posted on Jun 6, 2014

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