The beauty of Film Noir

The beauty of film noir

Mention the phrase ‘Film Noir’ and you’re likely to conjure up images of stylishly-silhouetted figures in smokey alley ways, or the late Lauren Bacall in typical smouldering mode: with a cigarette delicately positioned in the corner of her mouth. It’s a genre that encapsulates mystery and suspense, from a time when Hollywood shifted away from its traditional tales of love and romance, Technicolour musicals and shoot ‘em up Westerns, as pioneered by studios like Warner Brothers and MGM.

‘Film Noir’, which came into its own during the early 1940s, gave cinemagoers a taste of Continental European restraint, with movies that explored the crime fiction genre that became popular during the Great Depression, rendering on screen enigmatic and often sexually-charged stories, which kept audiences in a state of wonder. It’s roots lay in German Expressionism and Poetic Realism, with many German, Hungarian, and Czech émigrés catapulting the genre to greater attention, it would eventually find a place at the heart of Hollywood.

Films like ‘Brute Force’ (1947) dir. Jules Dassin, ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ (1947) dir. Orson Welles and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) dir. Billy Wilder quickly caught the imagination of post-war American youth, who were hungry for something different, something which could experiment with a different set of emotions than films had done before, especially angst. With the first half of the 20th century giving people more than their fair share of destruction, it was time for cinema to reflect that in its own way.

The impact of ‘Film Noir’ has lasted well beyond its shelf life, cementing itself in popular culture and a genre which to this day continues to be a source of inspiration, from Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1994) and ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ (2001), to ‘The Machinist’ (2004) and ‘The Killer Inside Me’ (2010). Filmmaker IQ has a comprehensive guide to ‘Film Noir’, its history, and its influence on cinema.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer

We’ve long been fans of ‘Film Noir’ here at Perspective Pictures and we’ve got a couple of tips on incorporating those unique elements of the genre, specifically moody lighting, into your own films. Lighting, or the lack there of, is what makes ‘Film Noir’ so distinctive. Using one, or two lights to focus on your actors, with a dark and muted backdrop will transform the very foundation of a scene. Filmmaker IQ breaks down the basics of lighting: “Film Noir generally uses “hard lights” – the hardness or softness of a light is the type of shadows it creates. Hard lights leave sharp edged shadows – this is created by a single point source of light where the light rays are running more or less from a single point in space. Think of a bare halogen bulb. Soft lights leave fuzzy shadows and are created by a larger area of light where the light rays is being scattered in different directions the illumination is coming from many points. Think of this like a frosted bulb or Compact fluorescent.”

By understanding light, you can create a ‘Film Noir’ style which really stands out. There are many photographic tips that can be incorporated into filmmaking, borrowing from the world of photography, particularly when aiming to create effective shadows, will give your film an added degree of suspense and drama.