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The Elements of Neo-Noir

I’ve mentioned the term “neo-noir” quite a bit lately in my “Next Game” series of posts, but I’ve never given a concrete definition of what elements or characteristics constitute the genre. Also, what differentiates between “film noir” and “neo-noir” in the first place? Film noir, as a genre, is most commonly said to begin with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and end with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), though there are precursors to film noir throughout the 1930’s. Neo-noir must then begin some time after 1958, but there is much debate about which is the first American film that should be classified as such. Internationally, the first neo-noir film would have to be Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), which was remade by Jim McBride in 1983 as Breathless (which is a translation of the French title), starring Richard Gere. The reason the first neo-noir film is a French film is at the heart of one of the main reasons the two genres are divided in the first place. In 1930, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, later known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted a strict code of moral censorship known as the Hays Code, which it began enforcing in 1934. With the beginning of World War II and changes to the social fabric of American life that the war brought with it, the time was ripe for the rise in popularity of film noir. Other things that facilitated the rise of film noir were the introduction of high-speed film stock and new cinematographic techniques that made shooting outside of film studios more practical, and the large number of French and German film directors who fled the war and ended up in Hollywood. This type of film remained popular throughout the post-war period and was marked by a number of characteristic elements:

Hot Spot/I Wake Up Screaming - 20th Century Fox (1941)

Hot Spot/I Wake Up Screaming – 20th Century Fox (1941)

  • Chiaroscuro lighting - On the black & white film stock, this high-contrast lighting produced brilliant focus points and deep shadows.
  • Bars, Diagonals & Frames within frames - The chiaroscuro lighting techniques were often used with objects such as railings, banisters, blinds, doorways, or other objects to present the illusion of bars, like those of a jail cell, across the characters, or frame the characters within a scene to create a sense of confinement or entrapment.
  • Long tracking shots & Deep Focus - Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland perfected some techniques that became characteristic of film noir, including deep focus (closed aperture shots that allowed floors and ceilings to be in the frame) and long tracking shots, such as the opening scene from Touch of Evil (1958). These techniques often required modifications to camera, lenses, and other equipment.
  • The Big Combo - Allied Artists (1955)

    The Big Combo – Allied Artists (1955)

    Obscured scenes - Film noir often used scenes obscured by smoke, steam, fog, rain, or just darkness to highlight the confused emotions of the characters.

  • Urban settings filmed mostly at night - Most films noir were set in the big city and many scenes were filmed at night. The setting enhances the feeling of entrapment and contributes to the angular imagery borrowed from German expressionism. It is very common for the film’s climactic scenes to be set in a heavily industrialized environment, such as a factory or warehouse district.
  • Dutch angles & inverted frames - Many films noir also used strange camera angles, such as the so-called Dutch angle, which tilts the scene at a drastic angle. This technique was used so heavily in the British noir The Third Man (1949) that after filming, the crew gifted director Carol Reed with a level. Other related techniques include distorting or inverting frames, or turning the camera horizontally.
  • Crime & violence - Film noir was most heavily associated with being films about or dealing with crime or violence. Due to the Hays Code, the violence had to often be hinted at or take place off-screen, but it was there. Frequently, the protagonist was a police officer or detective who was hired to solve a crime, or a person who was, either knowingly or unwittingly, drawn into a crime, either as the victim or the perpetrator.
  • First-person voice-over narration - Many films noir include voice-over narration that guides the viewer using the first-person perspective.
  • Water & reflections - Films noir often included shots of water or convoluted reflections, either in water, using mirrors, or even on rain-slicked streets or walls.
  • Cynical, world-weary male protagonists - Many of the protagonists of film noir were cynical, world-weary men with shady pasts. They either possessed crippling character flaws or sordid criminal pasts, both of which often came back to haunt them at inopportune moments. Even the most heroic of film noir protagonists are often reluctant heroes who are wrapped up in their own issues, but become the hero because there is nobody else to take up the crusade.
  • Femme fatale - The femme fatale was a standard character of film noir. She was present to seduce the hero and lead him astray, though sometimes the femme fatale could be sympathetic to the hero’s plight. Often, the sympathetic femme fatale was plagued by character flaws or a sordid past that served to cause harm to the protagonist even if she herself did not intend to cause him harm.
  • Complex plots & analepsis - Film noir often features an incredibly complex plot that can be difficult to follow on first viewing. This is often compounded by analepsis, which is a technique wherein a film flashes backward or forward in-time, forming an achronological narrative. An excellent example of these techniques is found in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).
  • False accusations & betrayal - The characters in film noir, including the protagonist, are often suspected or falsely accused of crimes they did not commit. Just as often, they are betrayed or double-crossed by other characters.
  • Unreliable narrators - Many film noir protagonists are unreliable narrators due to skewed perspectives or medical/psychological conditions like amnesia.
  • Protagonist’s personal code - As broken and downtrodden as the protagonist can be, most film noir protagonists possess a nearly unyielding personal moral code of behavior. Many of them are similar to chivalric codes.
  • Eroticism & sexuality - Though the Hays Code greatly restricted the things these films could show onscreen, and sometimes what they could even hint at taking place offscreen, directors still found ways to include a great deal of sexuality and eroticism in films noir. Included in this were scenes that depicted not just heterosexual eroticism, but also homosexual eroticism.
    The Third Man - Lion Films (1949)

    The Third Man – Lion Films (1949)

With advances in cinematography and film-making technology, along with the weakening of the Hays Code, film noir gave way to neo-noir in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. With noir no longer restricted to black & white film and techniques, film makers began to adapt to the new technology. The advent of CinemaScope and Panavision’s anamorphic lenses changed the aspect ratios of filming. Color techniques meant that the film makers had to adapt their chiaroscuro lighting techniques to the new medium. The development of television as a threat to Hollywood films and advances of foreign films were also challenges that changed the way films were made. Both of these challenges led to the weakening of the Hays Code, which meant that many things which previously could not be shown onscreen could now be included in films. This led to an increase in violence and eroticism as the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s and gave film makers new weapons in their arsenal. Additionally, the end of the post-war era and the beginning of the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s and other societal conditions changed the paradigm for many of the social issues featured in film noir. Those changes would certainly be reflected in the new films.

So, what are the characteristic elements of neo-noir?

Well, many of them remain the same as those above, though some change or adapt to new social conditions and technological advances. Some new elements are added as well. Let’s take a look at each one individually:

  • Chiaroscuro lighting - With the widespread use of color film and advanced cinematographic techniques, chiaroscuro lighting is no longer necessary to add contrast to a scene. Contrast can be added through the use of color instead of just shadow and light. However, true to its antecedent genre, neo-noir often utilizes chiaroscuro lighting to emphasize characters or details in a scene. An example of this technique in neo-noir is found in Watchmen (2009). Though you could argue this is a superhero film, it actually shares more characteristics with neo-noir than the superhero genre. Another example is The Usual Suspects (1995). Chiaroscuro lighting effects are used extensively during Verbal’s interrogation scenes.
    Watchmen - Warner Bros. (2009)

    Watchmen – Warner Bros. (2009)

    The Usual Suspects - PolyGram (1995)

    The Usual Suspects – PolyGram (1995)

  • Bars, diagonals & frames within frames - The still above from Watchmen (2009) is also an example of a character framed within a frame. In this instance, the character is framed by a doorway within the frame. Also, see the still from Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), above.  Another example of the use of chiaroscuro lighting in neo noir can be found throughout Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). In this scene, the characters are behind venetian blinds, which cast bar-like shadows across their faces. Is the “good guy” really a good guy?
    Blade Runner - Warner Bros. (1982)

    Blade Runner – Warner Bros. (1982)

  • Long tracking shots and deep focus - Continuing the cinematographic legacy of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland is the HBO series True Detective. This neo-noir crime anthology series contains some stunning cinematography, including one of the most incredible long tracking shots ever filmed. This shot is over 6 minutes long and was filmed in a single take. Absolutely incredible.
  • Obscured scenes - Neo-noir film continues the use of smoke, steam, fog, or rain to obscure the background of scenes, or in the case of Blade Runner (1982), even foreground characters. Another example of this element is contained in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).
    Heat - Warner Bros. (1995)

    Heat – Warner Bros. (1995)

    Blade Runner - Warner Bros. (1982)

    Blade Runner – Warner Bros. (1982)

  • Urban settings filmed mostly at night - Neo-noir has taken these elements in two different directions. While many films continue the use of darkness to convey isolation, some, such as Brick (2005), use bright sunlight, or even white snow (1998’s Sam Raimi directed A Simple Plan and 1996’s Fargo, made by the Coen Bros.) to the same effect. In the same vein, while many neo-noir films continue to use cityscapes and industrial backdrops, some films, such as the Coen Bros. No Country For Old Men (2007) and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), have been set in the wilderness, small towns, or the peaceful-looking countryside. This often provides excellent counterpoint to the violence on-screen. Two examples of films that follow in the footsteps of their classic film noir predecessors by using industrialized urban settings and night shots extensively are David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).
    The Dark Knight - Warner Bros. (2008)

    The Dark Knight – Warner Bros. (2008)

    Fargo - Gramercy Pictures (1996)

    Fargo – Gramercy Pictures (1996)

  • Dutch angles & inverted frames - Though the dutch angle doesn’t get nearly as much use as it did in the days of classic film noir, those odd looking angles and frames still see some use in some high profile neo-noir films such as The Dark Knight (2008).
    The Dark Knight - Warner Bros. (2008)

    The Dark Knight – Warner Bros. (2008)

  • Crime & violence - If anything, the level of crime and violence in neo-noir films has skyrocketed since the demise of the Hays Code. Neo-noir can let the violence take center stage. They don’t have to use subtlety to convey crime. Though some films do stick to the conventions of classic film noir and use suggestive offscreen violence. In the best of the neo-noir films, the violence, while it may be over-the-top, is not gratuitous. It is used to convey something about the character, such as Travis Bickle’s mental state in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).
    Taxi Driver - Columbia Pictures (1976)

    Taxi Driver – Columbia Pictures (1976)

  • First-person voice-over narration - Like the dutch angle, voice-over narration doesn’t factor into neo-noir nearly as much as it does in classic film noir, though some neo-noir films do include voice-over narration as an homage to the classic films. A prime example is Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005).
  • Water & reflections - Shots of water and reflections are not quite as prominent in neo-noir films as they were in classic film noir, though they still feature in some films. Once such example is Brick (2005). A brilliant figurative use of reflections occurs in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.
    Brick - Focus Features (2005)

    Brick – Focus Features (2005)

  • Cynical, world-weary protagonists - This type of protagonist was a staple of classic film noir, and remains as such in neo-noir films. If anything, the protagonist’s background and flaws are even more questionable. Examples such as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Ed Tom Bell in the Coen Bros. No Country for Old Men (2007), and Somerset in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) are abundant.
    Seven - New Line Cinema (1995)

    Seven – New Line Cinema (1995)

    No Country for Old Men - Miramax (2007)

    No Country for Old Men – Miramax (2007)

  • Femme fatale - Though the role of the femme fatale sometimes changes in neo-noir, and more sympathetic female characters have played prominent roles in neo-noir films, the femme fatale is still a characteristic element in neo-noir, much as it was in classic film noir. One interesting development in neo-noir is the blurring of the lines between the protagonist and the femme fatale. Sometimes one can be substituted for the other. Perhaps the most iconic femme fatale of neo-noir is Catherine Tramell from Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
    Basic Instinct - TriStar Pictures (1992)

    Basic Instinct – TriStar Pictures (1992)

  • Complex plots & analepsis - Plot complexity is definitely a characteristic element of neo-noir film. One example of a neo-noir film with a complex plot is The Big Lebowski (1998). Joel Coen said that the film was an homage to classic noir, a la Raymond Chandler, “We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” (Indie Wire, 1998) A neo-noir film that relies on heavy use of analepsis, or achronological narrative, to great effect is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino is actually quite fond of analepsis and relies on heavy use of flashbacks and flash-forwards in most of his films.
  • False accusations & betrayal - Neo-noir films are rife with false accusations, betrayals, and double-crosses.  Re-watch the clip above from Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005). Hartigan, played by Bruce Willis, is betrayed by his partner Bob, played by Michael Madsen. He is also accused, convicted, and imprisoned for a number of crimes he didn’t commit. A twist on this element that is sometimes found in neo-noir films is when the protagonist is accused of a crime or misdeed, the audience is led to believe the accusation is false, and the accusation turns out to be true.
    Sin City - Dimension Films (2005)

    Sin City – Dimension Films (2005)

  • Unreliable narrators - If anything, this characteristic element is even more prominent, or at least used to greater effect, in neo-noir films, than it was in classic film noir. By far the most outstanding example of this is found in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000).  This film’s narrator, Leonard Shelby, is suffering from anterograde amnesia. He cannot remember anything that has happened, so he takes Polaroid photographs and gets tattoos to remind himself of the events of his past. He is easily led astray, and nothing is as it seems. This film also features heavy use of analepsis to further disorient the viewer. Another fine example of both this element and analepsis is The Machinist (2004).
    Memento - Newmarket Films (2000)

    Memento – Newmarket Films (2000)

  • Protagonist’s personal code - Many neo-noir protagonists, like their classic film noir predecessors, have personal codes they strive to uphold at all costs. Like those of classic film noir, many of them are chivalric in nature, or involve a criminal code. An excellent example of a protagonist with a personal code is Bill from Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998). Bill sets strict rules for himself when he starts following strangers on the streets of London. He also commits several crimes, including burglary and murder, to protect a woman’s honor. This code, twisted as it is, is an excellent example of the types of personal codes held by neo-noir protagonists. Another fine example is the chivalric code of Marv from Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005).
    Following - Momentum Pictures (1998)

    Following – Momentum Pictures (1998)

Eroticism & sexuality - After the demise of the Hays Code, the screen became the home to much more lurid depictions of eroticism and sexuality than it ever was during the era of Classic Film Noir. Neo-noir films like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983), Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992), the Wachowskis’ Bound (1992), and the neo-noir films of David Lynch pushed the boundaries of eroticism and sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual. Even films such as David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) contained lurid and unexpected scenes of almost violent sexuality.

Bound - Gramercy Pictures (1996)

Bound – Gramercy Pictures (1996)

Please note that not all neo-noir films exhibit all of these characteristic elements. Far from it. Their are many exceptions. Also, neo-noir crosses over into a number of subgenres that each offer different takes on these elements. However, for all of the exceptions, I feel it safe to say that the vast majority of neo-noir films contain many, if not most of these elements. In addition, many neo-noir films seem to express a pessimistic attitude about the state of American society in contemporary times. If classic film noir provided a social commentary on its period in history, then modern noir has also covered that base by providing that same commentary on the decades since it began.

To tie things together, watch this scene from David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). This brief scene contains 8 of the above elements in just a few minutes’ of screen time.

Note: Take a look at the stills from the neo-noir films above. Which ones also contain other elements from the list that aren’t the one for which they appear? There are quite a few.

Wikipedia’s Film Noir page
The Philosophy of Neo-Noir by Mark T. Conrad (The University Press of Kentucky, 2009)
Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir by Foster Hirsch (Limelight Editions, 1999)
Neo-Noir: Contemporary Film Noir from Chinatown to The Dark Knight by Douglas Keesey (Kamera Books, 2010)
Neo-Noir: The New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral by Ronald Schwartz (Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2005)

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The Elements of Neo-Noir


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