Film noir indicates a darker perspective upon life than was standard in classical Hollywood films and concentrates upon human depravity, failure, and despair. The term also implies a cinematic style: a way of lighting, of positioning and moving the camera, of using retrospective voice-over narration. Its narrative often relies heavily on flashbacks and choice of setting—usually a seedy, urban landscape, a world gone wrong. Film noir has stylistic and thematic antecedents in American hard-boiled fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, German expressionist films of the 1920s, American horror films and radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s, and French cinema of the 1930s. Its first cycle ran from the 1940s to the late 1950s. After 1960, neo-noir films have included a component antithetical to the earlier films: a conflicted nostalgia for the post-World War II era evoked in references to the period's sociocultural atmosphere as well as to its filmmaking practices.
Film noir emerged during World War II with films like Double Indemnity (1944); Laura (1944); Murder, My Sweet (1944); Phantom Lady (1944); Mildred Pierce (1945); Scarlet Street (1945); and The Woman in the Window (1945). Its foundations had been laid in the early 1940s, in films such as Stranger on the Third Floor, with its sinister look, nightmare sequence, and atmosphere of perverse and unstable masculinity, The Maltese Falcon, with its themes of widespread evil and deviant as well as manipulative sexuality, and Citizen Kane (1941), with its dark, expressionist look and fragmented narration.
Although reviews at the time commented on the depravity, sexual degradation, and violence in many of these films, they linked them only insofar as they manifested a gritty "realism." Other common elements among many of the films are retrospectively apparent, such as the large number of Germanic emigre directors, including Fritz Lang (1890-1976), Otto Preminger (1906-1986), Robert Siodmak (1900-1973), and Billy Wilder (1906-2002); their dark "studio" look, often employing expressionistic "mystery" lighting; their use of retrospective, voice-over narration; their engagement with potentially censorable material; their themes of unstable identity, often involving amnesia or identity alteration, and of gender instability, concentrating in particular upon femmes fatales and weak men; their
deterministic view of human behavior; their narratives of failed enterprises; the influence of psychoanalytic concepts (such as fetishism, masochism, repression, and various compulsions) upon their characters' construction; and their atmosphere of disorientation and anxiety.
Not surprisingly, neo-noir films display a self-consciousness alien to earlier ones. Many creative participants in the earlier films were not being disingenuous when they claimed that they never knew they were making films noirs when they were making films noirs. The films initially appeared under many guises, only to be categorized as film noir at a great distance, first by the French in 1946 and then by English-speaking critics after 1960. But lack of intentionality does not mean that the filmmakers did not draw on a common sensibility and gravitate toward similar filmmaking practices. Over time, those commonalities have conferred a powerful generic status on the films that is much stronger than earlier, more diverse perceptions of them.
The first films noirs were made as detective films, mysteries, melodramas, social problem films, crime films, and thrillers. They were produced as A films by major studios, as products of B-movie divisions of major and minor studios, and as low-budget, independent films. Some studios, like RKO, developed divisions for the production of inexpensive genre films, many of which have subsequently been called films noirs. While these films were products of Hollywood's ''Golden Age,'' they collectively deviate from popular notions of Hollywood entertainment.
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