Is film noir a genre?

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The phrase "film noir" refers to a cinematic term used to denote American crime dramas. It was coined by a couple of French film critics who pointed out the tendency of how grim the themes and appearances of many detectives and American crime films were, particularly during WWII. The German expressionism of the 1920s and the French poetic realism of the 1930s had a big influence on these films. German expressionism was distinguished by a film style that incorporated exaggeration and distortion (Covey, 2006).This aspect had a global effect, and many filmmakers incorporated it into their productions to come up with film noir.

French Poetic Realism and American Gangster Movies

The French poetic realism included poetic realism included poetic conventionalization with practical topics and milieus. Furthermore, the famous American gangster movies were an inspiration for the formation of film noirs. These two genres have a dangerous ambiance which reflects a fatalistic picture of the world (Prince, 1995). These aspects are the core of film noir. Also, a wide range of these films showed the tension, insecurities, mistrust, fear, and paranoia hence reflecting what was going on in the world during that period. The crime dominated, strong and greedy perspectives of these films were a metaphoric reflection of society's evil with a rather large undercurrent of moral conflict which was also wired up with a sense of social injustice. As such, there were rarely happy endings for these movies.

Classic Film Noir Movies

Classic film noir movies emerged after the second world war, maximizing on the post-war ambiance of anxiety, suspicion, along with the pessimism experienced by people. The type of film was black and white and evolved in the 1940s (Covey, 2006). However, they became quite popular in post-war. They lasted for a short while and came to an end in 1960. Often, the plot of these films revolved around cynical, disillusioned male personalities who came along a beautiful yet promiscuous and double-dealing femme fatale or reliable, loving and genuine female characters. Usually, the male characters sought to avoid their unfortunate lives thus opted to pursue the femme fatales who appeared more mysterious. They surpassed all societal norms and were primarily independent ladies who were most admired. She would utilize her womanlike charms to take advantage of the man into being the fall guy which resulted in murder. After this betrayal, the female character would later face destruction, and this was often at the expense of the hero's life. Significant characters would be entrapped in complex situations which were fatal thus they were supposed to unravel the case. The characters made choices would make dangerous, yet self-destructive. During the war, women possessed a new-found independence that bestowed them with good earning jobs in the war thus they would suffer in this films.

Distinct Characteristics of Film Noir

Film noir possessed specific distinct characteristics which include an ambiance of melancholy, paranoia, moral corruption, alienation, and desolation among others. Heroes and villains included detectives, gangsters, crooks, sociopaths and politicians etcetera (Covey, 2006). These characters were often morally ambiguous and had a history of a rather dark life characterized by violent crime and corruption. They were usually obsessive, tarnished and appeared to struggle with their lives unsuccessfully. Moreover, the storylines of film noir were quite elliptical and had a somewhat twisted plot. The narratives were complicated and convoluted with menacing background music. Typically, the ambiance was set to show the miserable yet dangerous lifestyle of the characters.

Impact of Film Noir

Film noir had quite an impact on the history of the film industry and cannot be forgotten. Not only does it have a place in the Hollywood arena but also in the European cinemas. Some aspects of this genre are visible in modern-day productions. However, they may be had hard to spot due to the updated technologies and themes which did not exist in the 1940s and the 1950s. As a result, some contemporary films cannot be honestly seen as a representation of film noir. Many modern film directors, for instance, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino among others ensure they leave traces of film noir in most of their productions. In this paper, I intend to inquire whether film noir qualifies to be a genre or not.

Film Noir Genre or Not?

Most critics are of the perspective that film noir is a genre while others reject this idea. Those claiming that it's a category suggest that it has the same narrative structure, addresses the same type of issues and the same characters and visual features which are fundamental characteristics of a genre. According to James Damco, a film reviewer, film noirs have a particular narrative template thus fit the genre definition. He further states that in this type of films the protagonist is often fooled by a femme fatale, a recurring theme. One of the movies that concur with his definition is the Postman Ring Always twice. Cora manipulates the protagonist named Frank, and he murders her husband (Spicer, 2016).

Counterarguments against Film Noir as a Genre

Another film that is in line with this definition is the Manchurian Candidate of 1962. It was directed by John Frankenheimer. However, it is quite hard to place the movie in a specific genre as its plot revolves around many themes. The film presents a story of a Korean war hero, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who was brainwashed and encoded to be a Soviet spy given the mission to assassinate a presidential candidate. The film could be characterized as a horror movie, a science fiction, thriller, war movie among others. It is vital to note that the original film noir did not possess these aspects. However, the director of this film kept within the frameworks of film noir yet with a touch of other genres making it rather scintillating. His characterization follows the same pattern of the genre despite the fact that the fabric of the film's plot contains more than one theme. Also, the storyline of the hero and the villain more or less ends up as what transpired in the original film noir.

In the scene where the actual brainwashing incident took place, the director juxtaposed an image of the American pows under the influence of their communist captors. In its own distorted and twisted manner, the movie plays the role of a mirror of a world gone wrong. This goes to show that film noir can go beyond the typical storylines and take a turn to include other genres. It also shows that the genre still plays a significant role in the movie industry today.

Andrew Spicer disagrees that film noir is a genre. He feels that these type of films are expressive with a discursive description that continues to evolve. In other terms, it is not a fixed category but a concept that has been employed retroactively. Spicer disagrees with Damico's definition as he claims that the plots in these films are dissimilar thus. They cannot collectively form the same narrative template. Some examples of film noirs that Spicer uses to support his claim include High Sierra and Pick up on South Street (Prince, 1995). These films do not star protagonists who are influenced by femme fatales, yet they are examples of classic film noirs. For instance, in Pick up on South Street, the storyline revolves around a young man, Skip McCoy, who is a pickpocket. Skip robs a woman of a microfilm at the subway. The lady is carrying the gadget for her boyfriend, who unbeknown to her, is a communist spy trading the secrets of the government (Spicer, 2016). The plot primarily revolves around the police trying to retrieve the microfilm. The communists too are willing to do anything to get the microfilm back. They have the intention of going through any possible means including killing Skip's friends and involving a local information dealer named Moe. This film noir is a good illustration of a movie that does not fall in line with Damico's narrative definition.

Further, Spicer claims that any attempt to define film noir by solely depending on formal components is quite reductive and unsatisfactory. According to him, the French critics had affirmed from the beginning that these type of film involves a particular way of looking at the world. This means that this category is more than just a plot line or visual style achieved through camera angles and unusual lighting. It is an outlook on life and other human experience. In spite of its characterization, film noir can be spotted through a particular tone. Raymond Durgnat, a film critic, feels that film noir cannot be categorized as a genre like the western gangster movies as it is not defined along certain conventions of conflict and setting. The fact that it is mostly translated along certain subtle qualities of a particular mood disqualifies it as a genre (Spicer, 2016).

In his notes about film noir, Paul Schrader, he is of the opinion that it is not a genre. As per Paul, it is hard to categorize film noir as it encompasses so many other features present in different genres. He claims that these type of movies were just a representation of a particular period. In other words, film noir only refers to films made in the 1940s and the 1950s and reflected how the world was that specific time; A world full of crime, darkness, and corruption. Paul believes that these movies were a psychological and visual reflection of the directors.

Those who feel that it is not a genre have their definitions which primarily revolve around emotion and tone. Personal descriptions are quite tricky and maybe biased thus it is hard to categorize anything using them as the basis as they do not cover all aspects. A movie whose theme revolves around the urban nightlife is not necessarily a film noir, and all videos with crime and corruption are not film noir.


Film noir is more of a tone than a genre, and it is hard to pit one critic's definition against the other. A kind includes a particular setting, costumes, and specific musical cues. When looking at it intensely, a genre is a manner in which a story is told, the feeling it arouses and the atmosphere presented. Film noir does not include a specific method as it is a combination of almost all genres thus it is hard to categorize it on its own. A genre is a notion that which draws an audience to a particular movie. As in the Manchurian Candidate, film noir contains horror, thriller and other aspects (Prince, 1995).

Movements in the art have led to certain types of literature and painting, and then different kinds of cinema. Filmmakers ought to produce movies with similar features to form a movement. Film noir is an American movement although it is present in France, Italy, and Japan. The language in these films was a result of social and artistic factors. However, it is also more of a style than a genre. Also, it is characterized by sophisticated features thus it is hard to classify it. Therefore, it is clear that the debate on whether it is a genre or a style will continue for a long while.

Work cited


Covey, W. (2006). The Philosophy of Film Noir. Genre, 39(2), 352-357.

Prince, S. (1995). : The Book of Film Noir. Ian Cameron. ; Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. R. Barton Palmer. Film Quarterly, 49(1), 63-63.

Spicer, A. (2016). Film noir. [Place of publication not identified]: Routledge.

April 06, 2023

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