Film noir (/fɪlm nwɑːr/; French pronunciation: [film nwaʁ]) is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood’s classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.
The term film noir, French for “black film” (literal) or “dark film” (closer meaning), first applied to Hollywood films by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, was unrecognized by most American film industry professionals of that era. Cinema historians and critics defined the category retrospectively. Before the notion was widely adopted in the 1970s, many of the classic films noir[a] were referred to as “melodramas“. Whether film noir qualifies as a distinct genre is a matter of ongoing debate among scholars.
Film noir encompasses a range of plots: the central figure may be a private investigator (The Big Sleep), a plainclothes policeman (The Big Heat), an aging boxer (The Set-Up), a hapless grifter (Night and the City), a law-abiding citizen lured into a life of crime (Gun Crazy), or simply a victim of circumstance (D.O.A.). Although film noir was originally associated with American productions, films now so described have been made around the world. Many pictures released from the 1960s onward share attributes with film noir of the classical period, and often treat its conventions self-referentially. Some refer to such latter-day works as neo-noir. The clichés of film noir have inspired parody since the mid-1940s.
In the post-classic era, a significant trend in noir crossovers has involved science fiction. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Lemmy Caution is the name of the old-school private eye in the city of tomorrow. The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972) centers on another implacable investigator and an amnesiac named Welles. Soylent Green (1973), the first major American example, portrays a dystopian, near-future world via a self-evidently noir detection plot; starring Charlton Heston (the lead in Touch of Evil), it also features classic noir standbys Joseph Cotten, Edward G. Robinson, and Whit Bissell. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, who two decades before had directed several strong B noirs, including Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952).
The cynical and stylish perspective of classic film noir had a formative effect on the cyberpunk genre of science fiction that emerged in the early 1980s; the film most directly influential on cyberpunk was Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, which pays evocative homage to the classic noir mode (Scott subsequently directed the poignant noir crime melodrama Someone to Watch Over Me ). Scholar Jamaluddin Bin Aziz has observed how “the shadow of Philip Marlowe lingers on” in such other “future noir” films as 12 Monkeys (1995), Dark City (1998) and Minority Report (2002). Fincher’s feature debut was Alien 3 (1992), which evoked the classic noir jail film Brute Force.
David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), an adaptation of the speculative novel by J. G. Ballard, has been described as a “film noir in bruise tones”. The hero is the target of investigation in Gattaca (1997), which fuses film noir motifs with a scenario indebted to Brave New World. The Thirteenth Floor (1999), like Blade Runner, is an explicit homage to classic noir, in this case involving speculations about virtual reality. The Animatrix (2003), based on The Matrix trilogy, contains an anime short film in classic noir style titled “A Detective Story” which takes place within the story of the trilogy. Anime television series with science fiction noir themes include Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop (1998), The Big O (1999), and Noir (2001).