Comparison and Contrast between Film Noir and British New Wave

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The early years of the 20th century to 1970’s saw a variety of important advancements in the world of cinemas, with different movements being formed, that consisted of films with similar characteristics. These movements began as a trigger by something, or as an observation by film critics which later grew to influence the making of subsequent films. The formation of film movements in the early years continue to play a great role even in contemporary films because it set a trend for the cinema industry while at the same time, depicting the artistic element of films. Additionally, there are a number of film directors and actors as well, who played a significant role in shaping these film movements. This essay provides an extensive comparison and contrasting summary between the Film Noir and the British New Wave film movements, and how they have shaped the crafting of contemporary cinema.

History and Characteristics of Film Noir and The British New Wave

Film Noir, which is French for dark film, is a filmmaking style characterized by elements such as frequent flashbacks, distrustful heroes, sharp lighting effects, complicated plots, and various hidden human philosophical theories that was prevalent after the Second World War in American film industry. Its name was coined in 1946 by Nino Frank, who was a writer and, most importantly, a French film critic (Ricci, 2008). Nino observed an increasingly growing trend among films that combined various components such as dauntless visual designs, anti-heroic characters, among others. However, there are still heated debates upon the mention of Film Noir as a movement, with some saying that it only served as a mood or style of film, not large enough to become a genre. Additionally, some critics believe that these kind of films began after the second world war to late 1950s, which necessitated the names for before and after films of the Noir.

Nevertheless, Film noir started appearing in cinemas during the second world war when immigrants such as Fritz introduced the experimental aspects of the German Expressionist to the United States movie theaters. From this, directors began to utilize the direct and featured bright light with cascading shadows along with high cinematography, asymmetrical components off-balance camera angles, with the aim of emphasizing sleazy film plots for both intrigue and thrill. With lurid writers of fiction such as Chandler of The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett of The Maltese Falcon emerging, cynical detective novels were having their glory. It was, therefore, not a surprise when Film Noir creators began to focus their lenses on the suitable merging of psychological thrill and crime fiction storylines that carefully incorporated some aesthetic aspects that had only began to gain popularity among cinematics.

The period within which classic noir was at its peak also marked a time when media was trying to regulate films and other forms of entertainment to befit conventional societal morals. Afraid of the possible impacts of media on society such as following a particular trend without full comprehension, prominent leaders in Hollywood established the 1930’s Motion Picture Production Code that regulated what films endorsed. Therefore, during this time, adhering to the stipulated guidelines of the code was bound to either raise or lower a film’s popularity through limited distribution. Consequently, films produced around this period, including Film Noir, mostly depicted the sordid kind of life without the inclusion of elements such as sexual content or violence that is too graphical (Skoble, 2006). A close observation reveals that even when most of the films featured adult content such as adultery, suggestive and ‘immoral’ acts such as kissing are quick, without any portrayal of enjoyment among the adulterers. Additionally, committed murders are more of suggestive than explicit, such as in Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder where the director only depicts pain endurance without showing feelings as her husband dies. However, with the pressure from successful films that did not impose such strict standards and the growing television culture, the moral grip on cinematography became more and more loose, as the Film Noir movement continued to expand.

Some of the notable moods of Film Noir were pessimism, paranoia, desperation, bleakness, alienation, melancholy, among others (Dirks, n.d.). Heroes and antiheroes thereof, had traits such as cynicism, conflicted, and often from gloomy backgrounds filled with violence and corruption, who struggled to survive in a different world, but eventually lost. The Film Noir movement also comprised of complex storylines which were twisting and elliptical in nature. Another major characteristic included its constant emphasis on the inhumane and dark side of human experience.

The British New Wave film movement, on the other hand, refers to films mostly produced and released between the years 1959 and 1963 in Great Britain (Aldgate, 2005). This New Wave of films started emerging during a period when Britain’s prime minister, Macmillan had introduced the notion that the people of this country were yet to witness a good life, and this had stuck with many of them as a feature. Additionally, the successful economic growth which had accelerated in the 1950s, together with the states’ developments and the rise of social democratic power discourse had fueled the rise of a social structure that emphasized on smart, assertive, educated, but frustrated young generation, focused on witnessing a change to meritocracy (Warwick, 2007). While it might be hard to explain explicitly on how Britain’s war experience and the desire for meritocratic freedom in the US influenced the New Wave, some observation from a variety of similar works reveal that the working class women of Britain who were interested in the meritocracy found in Hollywood played a key role in the overall social shifts. 

The preference of the term ‘New Wave’ is an imperative comparison which, on a deeper comprehension, implies that during this period, there were currents and factors that led to the development of the British New Wave movement. Around this period too, the books, cinema, and theatre publishing industry were starting to challenge the conventional societal customs, influenced by an integration of socially democratic and liberal sentiments from the youth. Additionally, this can be attributed to the economic growth that enabled the youth to experience financial security as they crafted their dreams and futures. Therefore, this rapid change of the social-cultural and economic aspects of society can be tied to the realization there was fast social change and thus, the rise of the British New Wave.

The British New Wave had stylistic characteristics that were more or less similar to those of the French New Wave. This included the unconstrained quality, monochrome colors, more often than less, shot on locations that encompassed people in their real life rather than including extras, which helped with showing life in its natural happening. As discussed above, most of the works that fall in this category created attention by depicting the real life of the social working class, mostly from the northern parts of England. Even today, Britain is still characterized by social classes, but this classification was more evident in the 1950s. Therefore, the British New Wave films, for a moment, gave the impression that the working class was about to obtain economic power, shifting Britain’s social structure. Initially, most films used characters depicted as in the working-class group to provide a comic effect, but the New Wave introduced a new sense of importance, with most of them revolving around their real lives (Seino, 2010).

The Film Noir and the British New Wave movements serves as great examples for discussion because they are almost subsequent, meaning they happened almost after each other, therefore, depicting the transition from one to the other. However, even with this, there are still notable similarities as well as differences between the two. For instance, the Film Noir movement is often associated with cynical characters that were used to portray the dark side of human nature, while the British New Wave is mostly associated with the empowerment of the working-class in Britain. Films from both movements were often shot in black and white for distinct reasons, which increases the importance of these choices.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Film Movements

The most apparent benefit of the Film Noir movement is that it had key features that had deeper implications that went beyond a surface meaning, to reveal an aspect of the overall films. The shooting of these films in black and white color was not only to imply that they were produced in early years, but also to affirm the aspect of shadows. Additionally, they brought out the dearth of happiness just like the majority of their primary themes. Most of the films that fell in this category were also shot with settings of an urban nature, such as alleys and apartment blocks, filled with poor lighting and numerous shadows. This helped affirm to the audience that there could be deeper implications of a scene or the overall film. Lighting, which forms a large part of films in this category is the most significant because it helps bring out other equally important aspects namely darkness and shadows. The lighting helps evoke certain desired feelings from the audience ranging from fear to uncertainty. However, even with minimal lighting, films from this movement always manage to focus on the characters in a particular scene (Ricci, 2008).

Another key feature employed in a majority of Film Noir films, and is equally advantageous to the overall understanding by the audience is smoke. More often than less, characters depicted as smoking are mysterious in nature, and this heightens the suspicion as well as curiosity. The prevalent application of shadows also helps develop a sense of mystery such as there could be more than one character in a scene, or others watching the on-screen character without obvious knowledge. Additionally, shadows depict evilness and darkness, signifying the nature of the film, from which the characters cannot escape.

The depiction of women in these films is debatable, regarding whether it is advantageous because they are portrayed both in a positive and negative way. Most of them portray women as double-sided, beautiful, seductive, among others. More often than less, they eventually become the downfall of the primary characters who are always cynical detectives.  This can be interpreted in both ways, but while considering the advantages, the Film Noir posed women as powerful and clever than their male counterparts (Tasker, 2013). Additionally, these depiction of women in specific costumes developed a trend in the early years, as women strived to liken themselves with those on the screens. However, there are evident disadvantages of these films, with the most evident being that they only focused on the dark side of human nature. Additionally, the Noirs did not attempt to blend features that might have helped lessen the gloomy features of their films.

The British New Wave also had its advantages, primarily the focus on the working-class social group. As previously stated, the previous inclusion of this group was in comics, which seemed as a way of making fun, without recognizing their struggles. The British New Wave provided an avenue to portray the true life of the working-class, in the real context excluding extras, which helped in their economic empowerment (Seino, 2010). Additionally, this film movement not only contributed to the cinematography industry, but was more holistic by influencing the social-economic aspects of human life. However, this movement did last long enough like the Film Noir.

Directors and Actors

One of the famous director and actor of the Film Noir movement is John Huston, who was of an American and Irish descent. Huston had an eye for visuals in cinematography, seeing that he was previously a painter. Most of the films that Huston wrote directed were primarily adapted from novels that depicted heroic nature of main characters, just as discussed in the features of Film Noir. Additionally, his films encompassed different characters or people struggling to achieve a common objective, but would fail in the end. This gave his films a visual and dramatic tension that are always evident in this genre of films. Some of his works include The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, among others (Brill, 1997).

Alfred Hitchcock is also another producer and director that was influential in the Film Noir category. His style which was popularly known as Hitchcockain primarily consisted of mimicking a character’s gaze through different or specific camera movements. This also helped in heightening fear and anxiety among the viewers, which is a basic characteristic of Film Noir.    In a critic report, Robin Wood (2002) wrote that to find the meaning of any film by Hitchcock, one had to consider the method as well as the progress from one shot to the next. He continued to write that his films were a larger part of something, with each relating to one another, as well as, each detail relating to the whole film.

For the British New Wave, Jack Clayton was a prominent creative seemingly film director, seeing that all the films he directed were adapted from famous novels. Most people considered him as a literary British filmmaker, but he continued to incorporate literature into films. Clayton often came up with films that had an aspect of rawness and spontaneity. He was, however, conflicting, seeing that his 1959 famous film Room at the Top initiated a cycle of films based on realism which were later called the British New Wave (ScreenOnline, n.d.). The film told the story of a male working-class character trying to find a good life in a town in the North.

Tarantino is one of the directors that has an impact on the crafting of modern movies, through his Film Noir. Through his film, he manages to revive the movement, while at the same time, disobeying the conventional ways of Hollywood to complete a film without any character surviving. With this, he has helped craft contemporary movies by providing an alternative ending or template to films. The British New Wave, on the other hand, helped the Hollywood scene incorporate all aspects of human lives including the social economic.


Conclusively, the film movements Noir and the British New Wave marked significant times in the history of cinematography. The movements were made up of distinct characters, storylines, plots, objectives, and characteristics as a whole. Film Noir mainly focused on depicting primary characters as cynical and selfish, with dark and gloomy lighting and mood. The British New Wave, on the other hand, is a film movement that began the non-comic incorporation of the working-class in the world of cinematography, integrating the social-economic aspect. These movements have grown to provide a variety of aspects to the contemporary films such as new templates and inclusion of more groups of people in cinematography.


Dirks, T. (n.d.). Film Noir: Part 1. Filmsite. Retrieved on 2018, March 4th, from

Aldgate, T. (2005). British New Wave Cinema. OpenLearn Education. Retrieved on 2018, March 4th, from

Warwick. (2007). The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s. Retrieved on 2018, March 4th from

Wood, R. (2002). Hitchcock's Films Revisited

(2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Ricci, J. (2008). Attractions and negotiations of film noir in American cinema and culture. Scholar Commons: University of South Florida.

Skoble, A. J. (2006). Moral clarity and practical reason in film noir. The Philosophy of Film Noir. 41-48.

Tasker, Y. (2013) Women in Film Noir, in A Companion to Film Noir (eds A. Spicer and H. Hanson), Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Seino, T. (2010). Realism and representations of the working class in contemporary British cinema. Film Studies: DeMontfort University.

ScreenOnline. (n.d.). Clayton, Jack (1921-1995): Director, Actor, Producer. Retrieved on 2018, March 4th, from

Brill, L. (1997). John Huston's filmmaking. Cambridge University Press. 1-5.

September 25, 2023




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