American Film Noir

By Joao T. Corbett

American Film Noir

From “The Maltese Falcon”

What is Film Noir?

In the dark and tight spaces of urban America, a new genre of film was developed. A style reflective of its historical backgrounds of the great depression and the second world war. It is a style characterized by its cynical and existentialist heroes, employing frequent use of flashbacks, and intricate plots. Dubbed “film noir” in 1946 by French-Italian critic Nino Frank, this genre evolved out of the crime dramas of the 1930s, whose romanticized prohibition-era gangsters inspired the detectives of film noir. 


Film Noir is known for its innovative lighting which evolved out of the Weimar-era German expressionist style. The main characterization of the lightning is actually the lack of it. Darkness often disturbed only by a weak street light can create a feeling of mystery, and discomfort. This, matched with their soften depressive settings of early rainy mornings, delpitated apartments and dark streets illuminated only by the shimmering halos of street lights helps reinforce the idea of a mysterious plot, and a cynical society. 

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The use of lightning in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” helps portray the protagonist’s moral decline.

Characters and Themes

The hero of a Noir film is often a lonely man (almost always a detective) who has developed, as a consequence of their environment, a cynic attitude towards life. This leads to them having a fatalistic look on the society around them, and consequently being alienated from it. These characters developed from the many veterans arriving back home from years in the second world war, finding that the society they had left to protect had become totally unrecognizable, leading to them becoming alienated and developing these characteristics. The noir genre also makes avid use of moral ambiguity leading to viewers often sympathizing with their protagonists, and eagerly falling their detective journey through the entirety of the movie. 

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Humphrey Bogart, considered by many to be the face of Film Noir. 


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