Modern Art in Film Noir

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The term ‘Film Noir’ is often used to describe films that reflect cynicism towards certain aspects of the society. The definition of the term is predicated on the cinematic belief that style provides the major feature of films. Thus, film noir is an “invention of movie critics who hold the opinion that style is the sole vicinity in which meaning can be found in the cinema” (Ewing Jr. 61). Film noirs employ several elements of modern art to convey relevant messages. The majority of film noirs borrow their scripts from existing novels. The application of dark settings in the film provide reflections of the importance of art in the subject film.

            To reflect on the concept of modern art in the film setting, this study will examine films that were produced after World War II. The two main films that will examined include Kiss Me Deadly by Robert Aldrich and Scarlet Street, which was directed by Fritz Lang. The film Kiss Me Deadly provides an efficient reflection of modern art. The use of modern art in the film facilitates the reflection of criminality and other dark themes (Silver 67), which form critical parts of the film.  Equally, Scarlet Street inquires on criminal tendencies in the 50s. Produced by Walter Wanger and Fritz Lang, the film documents the story of two criminals who dupe a middle-aged painter with the intention of depriving him of his artistic work.

Modern Art

Modern art is a form of art that rejects traditional forms of representing and understanding. Mainly, the artistic creations that conformed to the premises of modern art were inclined towards abstraction. The development of modern art in the post-World War II era were inspired by the mushrooming of new artistic movements. Some of the art movements that formed a part of modern art included Abstract Expressionism, Minimal Art, Post-minimalism, lyrical abstraction and photorealism. Mainly, modern art was inclined towards experimentation. Artists who subscribed to the form of art sought to examine and integrate new ideas in the creation of art. Forming visual images, rather than inclination towards the narrative forms a critical part of modern art (Gombrich 418). Modern artists intended to reflect the nature of objects in their true form. Such perception was a culmination of increased insistence on the employ of light in the artistic creation process.  Film Noirs are visual motion extensions of modern art.

Modern Art in Kiss Me Deadly and Scarlet Street

The development, and subsequent success of film noirs, was inspired by the directors’ ability to portray elements of life in their true forms. Essentially, film noirs make use of several components to facilitate the reflection of factors that encourage the representation of objects in abstraction.

Kiss Me Deadly  

Art is a favored position of villains and female characters in Kiss Me Deadly. Notably, the understanding and integration of art is shown to be a consequence of different perspectives. Essentially, each artist seeks to use art to reflect their own interest and promote individual goals. Individuals tend to infer meaning of art based on their interpretations rather than the intent of the artist. Overall, the analysis of Kiss Me Deadly suggests that complete understanding of the modern society can only be achieved through the ability to engage a different perspective.

The first element of modern art in film noirs is provided by the element of black and white in motion pictures. Both Kiss Me Deadly and Scarlet Street were black and white movies. The use of these hues of the color were an artistic intervention. Black and white represent the gloom and hopelessness in the film. They prevent the audience from having high expectations on the ending of the film. Additionally, emphasis on black and white lighting facilitates the reflection of the main characters in films (Arnheim 150). The little lighting that is applied in the development of film noirs is often concentrated on the main character. The goal of such an intervention is to ensure that elements are captured in their basic states.

Emphasis placed on the main character through the use of lighting is a culmination of the dictates of expressionism. Expressionism demands the distortion of real life objects to reflect the inner feelings and emotions of the artist. The reinforcement of white and black hues reflects the lifelessness and abstractness of relationships that are forged between men and women in the film. Like expressionism, Hammer’s interpretation of events is subjective. When he meets Gabrielle, he is duped into believing that she ‘Lily’, who falsely claims to have been Christina’s friend. Such manipulation forms a subject matter of modern art. The projection of different perspectives on the same subject is a derivative of modern art. Inclination towards surrealism in the film provides a conspicuous incorporation of modern art in the delivery of the theme of conflict and delusion. Thus, “surrealism provided an organizing metaphor and a kind of aesthetic rationale for the film noir. Perhaps it also fostered the tendency of later critics to read individual pictures against the narrative grain, emphasizing tone or mood-a technique frequently used to bestow cult value on mass art” (Naremore 20). Surrealism and expressionism are all constructs of modern art. They play a critical part in the reflection of true character emotions and feelings. From the initiative, the audience is able to relate with the concepts that are being emphasized in the films.

The element of multiple perspectives in the Kiss Me Deadly reflects a component of modern art. The 20th century form of art did not limit facilitated a myriad interpretation on the same artistic creations. Thus, each individual is allowed the freedom to interpret elements of a given art based on their experiences. At the beginning of the film, Hammer has a different theory regarding the events that led to the death of Christina. In the quest to discover the truth, Hammer is involved in several illegalities. The interpretation of his actions is subject to an individual’s or audience’s perspective. While one group may dictate that his actions were similar to those of the antagonists, which explains the tragic end to both parties, the next group of audience may contend that Hammer’s actions were a means to an end Therefore, since his actions were inspired by the need to deliver justice, then they should not be regarded to be criminal activities. Modern art in Kiss Me Deadly is intended to promote the diversity in thought and perspective. The viewpoints of protagonists such as Hammer may inspire loath or inspire admiration within the audience. Such elements mirror the pervasive application of modern art in film noirs.

Scarlett Street

The movie Scarlett Street follows the life of Christopher “Chris” Cross and a series of misfortunes that lead to a weighty anti-climax. In the film, Chris myopia with regards to the determination of people’s characters provides one of the major weaknesses of the protagonist. Essentially, through Chris’ mistakes, the audience is allowed the opportunity to infer elements of modern art in film. The protagonist’s inability to interact with the environment and see through the lies of the other actors provides a major source of concern in the film. Overall, there are several elements of modern art that could be deduced from the events that took place Scarlet Street.

            The mise-en-scene in the film is a component of modern art. Essentially, the use of unusual frames in the film is intended to reflect Chris’s inability to decipher the multiple characterization that is pervasive in the film. Such an approach reflects modern art since it is inclined towards the distortion of visual cues to enhance the audience’s ability to understand or relate with the feelings or emotion of the characters in a film noir. The decision by Fritz Lang to employ limiting frames facilitates the reinforcement of the importance of the character in the scene. As a result of influences of modern period, Scarlet Street producers were keen on ensuring that the object of interest was accorded significance while the objects around them were allowed limited importance. According to Place and Peterson, “objects in the frame take on an assumed importance simply because they act to determine a stable composition. Framed portraits and mirror reflections, beyond their symbolic representation of fragmented ego or idealized image, sometimes assume ominous and foreboding qualities” (31). Chris’s limited perspectives, captured in frame when he is interacting with Kitty for the first time, inspires the anti-climax that takes place at the conclusion of the movie.

            Chris’s paintings makes use of some of the components that are reinforced in in modern art. The absence of color in the paintings and emphasis on the main object within the film reflects the mood and emotion of the objects in painting. Ideally, Chris’s portraits make use of shadows. Such approach to the development of characters is synonymous with the fueling of mystery and a sense of the unknown. The reinforcement of mystery and allusion to evil provides an immense part of the modern art. In one of Chris’s painting, he develops an image of a snake. The image is a reflection of the evil that is pervasive throughout the film.

            One of the most significant scenes in the film noir is provided by the concluding interaction between Chris and Kitty’s portrait. In the scene, Chris notices the picture and is shown to be in pain. The response is a negation of the emotion that the protagonist had during the development of the art. The scene offers insight on the paradoxical nature of modern interpretation of art. Self-portraits in film noirs are confrontations. They remind the main character of events that led to their downfall and provide superior control to the object in the painting. Chris’ view of the portrait is not merely inspired by curiosity. The two elements interact during the few minutes. While Chris realizes that he might never be with the woman, in the portrait, Kitty’s image assumes a jubilant mien. In examining a portrait of the Spanish King and queen, Telotte declares that quality in the portraits is defined by the unseen rather than the seen (3). Likewise, Kitty’s portrait reflects “what is invisible both because of the picture’s structure and because of its existence as a painting” (3). Therefore, a portrait has a life of its own. It reflects certain fears and inspires multiple perspectives in the audience. While the art buyer in the end scene of Scarlet Street scene is willing to purchase the portrait at an exaggerated price, Chris is in fear of the image that is represented within the portrait. Where the former sees beauty, Chris sees disillusionment and regret. Modern art should be able to inspire different opinion regarding art. The inspiration of multiple perspectives is largely inspired by the subtle references of individual experiences that are reflected in the portraits.


Kiss me Deadly and Scarlet Street provide some of the celebrated film noirs of all time. To convey their message, and reflect modern setting, the directors in the film applied several artistic inclinations which are synonymous with modern art. Some of the features of modern art that can be inferred from the two films include expressionism and abstracts. Ideally, the use of dark lighting in the films was intended to inspire a sense of mystery in the films. Portraits in Scarlet Street are shown to be subject to different interpretations. Film noirs, as extensions of modern art, fuel the development of multiple ideas regarding specific elements in the society. For instance, Hammer’s actions are not very different from the antagonists in the story. However, he is projected to be an embodiment of grace and initiative since his intentions are noble. While a segment of the audience may understand his inclination towards violence, another segment may be equally repelled by the same.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. University of California Press, 2015, pp. 150-152.

Ewing Jr., Dale E. "Film Noir: Style and Content". Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 16, no. 2, 1988, pp. 61-69. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/01956051.1988.9943384.

Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. 4th ed., Phaidon Press, pp. 418-420.

Naremore, James. “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.” Film Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, 1995, pp. 12–28. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Place, Janey, and Lowell Peterson. "Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir." Film Comment 10.1 (January/ February 1974): 30-35.

Silver, Alain. Film Noir. Limelight Ed., 2006.

Telotte, Jay. “Self-Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 3, no. 1, 1989, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, JSTOR

August 01, 2023


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