Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

My Ten Rules of Film Noir

Recently I was up late watching a film noir movie—or should I say, a crime drama labeled as film noir—and I was dismayed to find that it contained hardly any of the elements, narrative devices, or visual attributes that I commonly associated with the noir movies I’ve enjoyed in the past. Afterwards, I began thinking about what it takes to be a film noir movie, and for several days I assembled a list which contained not only what I liked about noir films, but what I tend to expect from them as well: the tone, the look, and the overall necessary ingredients that make film noir what it is.

Some of my rules can be considered necessary for the style, and some not so much, but I narrowed the list down to what I considered the ten most important — my requirements for the ultimate film noir movie. And please understand, I’m not saying a noir film must include all ten of these rules to be truly considered one (a lot of great examples of the style don’t even meet half of my criteria), but for me, the more of these rules the film follows, the better. Someday, I’ll do a little research—maybe create a checklist to use whenever I watch one of these—and find out if one or more satisfy all ten needs from my list, and earn the right to be known as a perfect film noir experience.

Dana Andrews in Fallen Angel

1. The Classic Noir Period

Never mind the proto-noir of the 1930s, or the neo-noir of the 1960s and beyond…for most the true era of film noir began with the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 (though many will contend that 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor was the official launching point of the style), and ended in 1958 with Orson Welles’ classic Touch of Evil. I’d have to agree, and I offer no leeway here: if a film is to be considered noir, it must have been released between 1941 and 1958. Sorry, Chinatown.

2. Black-and-White

This one should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by the number of crime dramas, filmed in glorious Technicolor, that are labeled as noir in film guides, encyclopedias, and reference manuals: Leave Her to Heaven, House of Bamboo, and Niagara, just to name a few cinematic poseurs. The term ‘film noir’ translates to ‘black film’, which defines not only the themes and attitudes, but the look as well, and you’re not going to get that with a screen filled with the bright, cheerful hues of the rainbow. Just ask yourself this: How many iconic noir photographs and stills have you seen that are in color?

3. Short and Square

And by short I mean a short running time of under 100 minutes, and by square I mean the box-like aspect ratio of films projected on movie screens before 1953. And since the bulk of film noir movies were released before that time, when I see one presented in widescreen, it’s a little jarring, and in my opinion automatically gives the film a too-polished look, representative of the higher production values of an A-picture, which a true film noir is not. As for running time, noir films were mostly B-pictures, the movies that followed the main feature on a double bill, and thus were shorter, and told their stories quickly and efficiently. Just take a look at such titles as Follow Me Quietly and Armored Car Robbery, which both clocked in at under 70 minutes! And though I’ll cut some slack for the widescreen Touch of Evil, I will cut no such slack for House of Bamboo, which was widescreen and ran for 102 minutes.

William Talman in Armored Car Robbery

4. Made (and Set) in the USA

And that would be the continental USA, so yes, I’m excluding Alaska and Hawaii, and anywhere else that doesn’t exist within the confines of the forty-eight United States. The bulk of noir stories took place in the bustling, crime-happy locales of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as the multitudes of small towns and burgs scattered from coast to coast, which offered just as many dangerous nooks and crannies as their more metropolitan counterparts. A lot of Out of the Past was set in the bright daylight of Mexico, but the filmmakers were thoughtful enough to include some exquisitely noir-like nighttime scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well, so we’ll call that one a draw. Not so much with House of Bamboo, which took place entirely in Tokyo; three strikes and you’re out, Bamboo!

5. Crime, Murder, Guns…You Know, the Usual

This one is kind of obvious, but I thought I’d better make it clear: there had better be some sort of crime in the movie, whether it be a murder, a heist, shoplifting, jaywalking, whatever…just as long as someone’s doing something that could land them in jail (or if you’re a decent schmo trapped by circumstance, into some serious trouble with the bad guys). And of course, if that’s a gat, sap, or stiletto you’re holding in your hand, and you happen to use it, guess what: you’ve just crossed over into noir territory.

6. Double-Crosses, Flashbacks, and Voice-Over Narration

These are three story elements that seem to be staples of noir, and can usually be found littered all across a noir film’s landscape: for example, the multitudes of double-crosses in Criss Cross, the flashback upon flashback in Sorry, Wrong Number, and the world-weary tones of the lead actors in any number of detective films. Bonus points if a film contains all three, and double that if the cinematography includes close-ups, Dutch angles, and location filming.

7. Dangerous Babes

Not a necessity, but having a femme fatale in your film—ruining an innocent schmuck’s day or leading some poor slob to his maker—is the mark of a good noir offering…and the sexier the babe, the more deadly. Usually it takes the entire film for the likes of Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, or Ava Gardner to drag a man to his doom, but sometimes it can be done in a matter of seconds. Take The Asphalt Jungle, where Sam Jaffe makes a quick stop at a roadside diner during his getaway; inside, a young girl is dancing energetically to jukebox music, and Jaffe sits down to watch, entranced by her smiling face and gyrating hips. Soon, the cops are closing in, sealing his fate, and another example of the femme fatale mystique is demonstrated.

The ultumate femme fatale, Jane Greer, in Out of the Past

8. Riding the Rails

Can you imagine The Narrow Margin playing out airborne on a DC-3? No, I can’t either, and since traveling by passenger train was the way to go back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it makes sense that noir films would be packed to the gills with characters taking trains, or meeting others at train stations, or stopping for trains at railroad crossings. Any variation of passenger or freight train usage in a film scores points in my book. I’ll also accept the subway in New York, the El in Chicago, and the old trolley lines of Los Angeles (best seen in The Set-Up)…and I’ll even go as far as to allow the cable cars of San Francisco and the Angels Flight funicular railway in LA, since both offer some nice visuals and, technically, travel on rails.

9. From Dusk ‘til Dawn

What better way to exploit darkness, shadows, high-contrast lighting, and a general feel of danger than to have your film play out under the cover of night? For me, bright afternoon daylight feels too warm and safe to be considered noir-like, while any activity taking place between nightfall and sunrise seems to be the perfect setting for planning a heist, trailing a suspect, robbing a guy at gunpoint, or sitting in a local bar putting the moves on a no-good dame. I’m not saying there can be no daylight scenes…just make sure your noir’s not loaded with them. Unless, of course, your daytime moments are making a point, setting up the impending darkness that’s headed our hero’s way.

10. And Please, Let’s End on a Sour Note

Okay, let’s say you’re watching what’s been classified as film noir—a hard-boiled, cynical, gritty, pessimistic movie, filled with bad guys and double-crossing women—and by film’s end you’re staring in slack-jawed disbelief when you see everyone is alive, happy, and safely tucked away in their warm beds. Hold on a minute! By the time a noir film concludes, there should be no reason whatsoever for anyone to be smiling, on either side of the screen; the wrap-up shouldn’t be anything but depressing, tragic, and hopelessly bleak. An ambiguous ending works just as well—the situation at the end of Side Street, where it was unclear whether Farley Granger lived or died, is a good example—but if the lead character and his gal wind up driving away from the hell they’ve endured for the previous ninety minutes, ending the picture all grins and romantic bantering, then a true film noir this is not. Close, perhaps, but as any chump with a gun in his neck will tell you, not quite.

Farley Granger in Side Street

6 comments on “My Ten Rules of Film Noir

  1. spreth1
    1/28/13

    I’d like to make a case for Rule 11, that the wardrobe universe is generally VERY narrow. Joes in suits and Dames in dresses, always solid colors in high contrast. Neckties and Fedoras everywhere. Perhaps this fits in under another of the many rules – I’m just suggesting. Thanks for opening my mind to the genre; I’ve never regretted it!

  2. Todd Benefiel
    1/28/13

    Hey Steve, thanks for the input! How about we officially make that one Rule 11, and save it for when I do a ‘Twenty Rules of Film Noir’ update! And I’m glad to hear I’m responsible for dragging you into the dark underbelly of the cinematic world…and you’re still glad to be there!

    I don’t remember ever asking you this: do you have a favorite noir film?

  3. spreth1
    1/28/13

    I will always be partial to The Maltese Falcon for the great cast and there’s so much introspection and cynical wit packed into the dialog!

  4. Todd Benefiel
    1/28/13

    A great choice! I especially love the acting, and the constant needling Spade throws at Wilmer. Check out my review (whenever I write it!) and let me know if you agree with what I have to say!

  5. butterboy44
    1/29/13

    To me I always think a chain-smoking ape makes for classic noir, but maybe that’s just me. And by ape I mean ham-fisted goon. In fact now that I think about it, any film would be enhanced by an actual smoking ape. It just makes good cinematic sense.

    Really enjoyed this post. Now I have a checklist to use anytime I watch noir from this point forward. It also has the makings of a great drinking game. A leggy mol leads a guy to his doom? Take a drink. Film ends on a sour note? Take a drink.

  6. Todd Benefiel
    1/29/13

    A chain-smoking ape crushes Humphrey Bogart’s head in his hands? Take a drink.

    I asked Steve, so I’ll ask you: what’s your favorite noir film? And please, one that doesn’t involve primates (which I guess excludes Planet of the Maltese Apes, Touch of Silverback, and Scream, Howler Monkey, Scream…oops, wrong genre!).

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