noir1Genres come and go, but 70 years after its birth, the "rules" of film noir have become part and parcel of the conventions of modern cinema. Why do filmmakers come back again and again to this bleak landscape? And why are these films still popular (if they weren't, well, there wouldn't be nearly as many. QED.) And just what, precisely, are its rules -- rules so skilfully subverted by modern directors? A documentary from the BBC, originally aired in 2009, seeks to answer just that, shining a light on the dark corners of film noir. Plus, check out tips that will help you achieve your own film-noir-style lighting effects.

The conventions of film noir (literally, black film, referring both to the lighting schema and the general weltanshauung of the pictures themselves) are inextricably tied in with American cinema to this day. In recent film history, one only has to look to two high-profile examples that toyed with the architecture of the genre: Memento, which inverted chronology and in doing so made a more noir-ish noir than almost any original, highlighting as it did the paranoia and uncertainty that are a staple of these films, and the Coen Bros.' Fargo, which toyed with film noir's pallette for ironic effect (N.b.: the Coen Bros. have returned again and again to the genre, in everything from their very first film, Blood Simple, to the recent, instant classic, No Country for Old Men). And, of course, the Roman Polanski directed, Robert Evans produced (seriously, for a walking suntan that says crazy things, that guy made some pretty good movies), Chinatown, often cited as a "perfect film," is an example of the early "self-aware" noir, and probably its apotheosis:

Film noir, in its classical sense, existed in Hollywood from the 1940s to the late 50s; at the time, though, film noir wasn't a term, and when these movies were referred to as a genre, per se, at all, it was as melodrama. Influenced by the novels of the "hard-boiled" crime fiction authors who gained popularity during the Great Depression, film noir is a profoundly modern genre, in that it is rooted, at its base, in existentialism. Hence, the term film noir is, not surprisingly, of French origin, and was indeed applied after the fact by the Gallic film critic Nino Frank.

The term was used to classify films which, in the main, used low-key lighting (rather than the evenly exposed 3-point lighting of classical Hollywood cinematography, film noir used harsh shadows and contrasts of black and white, an influence taken, in large part, from the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and early 30s, e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's M) and which featured deeply cynical views of human nature.

In a film noir, you never know who your friends are, and there is a dreamlike quality (or rather a nightmarish hue) to the situations in which the protagonists find themselves. Many feature archetypal situations and characters, e.g., the bored housewife who lures a dupe into a crime, a drifter, a con man, or a private detective. The characters are drawn into the web of the story, leaving the well-lit world of Busby Berkeley for shadows thrown by a swinging light bulb. Even Stanley Kubrick started out in noir (his second and third feature films, Killer's Kiss and The Killing, are both noir of the highest order. (Yes, I will find a way to work Kubrick into everything.)

The main character in a film noir is sometimes clearly pointed out as such, but is, always, a victim of circumstance in some form, the caprice of cruel fate, a random, uncaring universe, &c. The Great Depression spawned crime novels for a country that cheered the exploits of Bonny and Clyde and John Dillinger, real life noir characters who played out their parts admirably, exiting stage left via bullet hole. Kubrick even remarked, “I've got a peculiar weakness for criminals and artists -- neither takes life as it is." In this documentary from the BBC, hosted by Matthew Sweet (no, not the underrated 90s power pop exponent, but a British dude, who seems totally affable), more dictates of the genre are laid out than I could list here, plus there's clips from classic noirs. And everyone knows a picture is worth a thousand bloggers.

Film noir is existential because, like the (in its modern form primarily, and probably not coincidentally, French) philosophical movement, it denies absolute meaning, hinges existence on contingency, and in doing so seeks to answer a question that has been asked since antiquity: is the world random and absurd, or am I (not me, I'm fine, thank you) crazy? What was once a philosophical concern became, in industrialization, a pretty serious issue, as technology (motion picture technology itself was disruptive to previous aesthetic movements, to put it mildly) unmoored Western Civilization from millennia of relative stasis. The 20th century brought chaos, two world wars, mechanized death (and with the atom bomb, the prospect of total annihilation of the species), and, also, close ties with "friendly" European states. In the post-war period, Hollywood would import Continental cinematic proclivities and directors in record numbers.

If all this bleak, bleak talk has got you looking to shoot a little film noir yourself, then you'll want to check out this post from photographer Mark Anthony Grady, where he lays out a lighting schema for a film noir look. Check it out, and check out his site, too:


Even though the plans are for a photograph, it's easy to discern the familiar aesthetic, achieved here by two lights, with the back one metered on the model's face. Everything except the man (and, actually, most of him) is in shadow, and that is how it should be, in a good film noir, where there's a sucker born every minute, every two-bit chump on the make is just a wrong turn away from a long goodnight, and every dame is a no good schemer out for a fast buck. Trust no one! Except me, when I tell you that film noir is cool. Because it is. Go to your local library, or google, or global online merchant, and read (and watch) all about it! K, good talk.

Link: Mark Anthony Grady Photography

[via Filmmaker IQ]