FILM NOIR-Stylish Hollywood

Film noir 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.


Nino Frank - Alchetron, The Free Social EncyclopediaThe term film noir, French for ‘black film’ (literal) or ‘dark film’ (closer meaning), was first applied to Hollywood films by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, but was unrecognized by most American film industry professionals of that era. Frank is believed to have been inspired by the French literary publishing imprint Série noire, founded in 1945.

Frank is often given credit for coining the term “film noir” to describe a group of American drama films that were shown in French theaters in the summer of 1946: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Otto Preminger’s Laura, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. During the Nazi occupation of France, US films were not allowed in France, and so the summer of 1946 was the first opportunity for French audiences to see these US World War II-era movies.

What makes film noir so very cool?

It’s the lighting of course! Film noir is the coolest of all movie genres, and the coolest film noir is the 1946 version of The Big SleepIt’s got every box ticked: Humphrey Bogart as a private detective, Lauren Bacall as a femme fatale, near-constant smoking and drinking, and the most ridiculously complicated plot of all time.

(In fact, the plot is so complicated that even the story’s author Raymond Chandler didn’t know what on earth was going on.  During filming, director Howard Hawks asked Chandler whether one of the key characters had been murdered. Chandler revealed: “They sent me a wire asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either!“). But film noir isn’t about the plots. It’s about style, and attitude, and mood


The Big Sleep has all that in spades. But the most important element of film noir mood is light. Mostly, the use of low-key lighting to create extreme silhouettes and dark shadows. Film noir directors use vivid light-and-shade contrasts to reveal more about a character’s true intentions than their words.

See the source image

In The Big Sleep this is almost entirely done with lamps. There are lamps absolutely everywhere, and in virtually every scene: table lamps, floor lamps, desk lamps. They are used practically, stylistically and symbolically…

There are three basic types of lighting in film: 

  • key light (lights placed above the actors’ heads to create strong shadow), 
  • fill light (a light used to fill in and soften the shadows produced by the key light) and 
  • backlight (placed behind the actors, creating a sort of glow around them so that they stand out in a scene).

Film noir relies heavily on ‘low-key lighting’ to create an uncanny atmosphere. This is when there is a high ratio of key light to fill light, resulting in vivid contrasts and strong black shadows.


big sleep 5

Whenever Philip Marlowe enters a room it’s dark – because, obviously, he is investigating a shady criminal underworld. So the first thing he does is to turn on a lamp, shining his investigative light onto the scene – and when he exits the room he turns it off again, plunging us back into the black The idea is that only Marlowe, coming and going, can illuminate this secretive world and glimpse the truth.

big sleep3 bacall

In other scenes, the turning off and on of a lamp indicates a character’s switch of mood or change of mind. Lauren Bacall is a complex, manipulative character, who alternates between lying and telling the truth. Mid-talking, she pauses and turns on a lamp – and you can almost see her brain’s cogs turning as she decides to change her tactics…

The use of a lamp occurs when Bogart is in a bar.

He’s pondering what to do next, and just as he has an idea – aha! – the barmaid in the background turns on the light above his head. PING! A lightbulb moment!

Watch the Video I have included and see for yourself.



One of the major contributors to film noir is the classic jazz content. Here is anAscenseur echafaud.jpg audio from the track “Générique” (title theme) from the score to the film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, as heard in the film and on its accompanying soundtrack album. The music, originally titled “Nuit sur les Champs-Élysées”, was improvised by Miles Davis and the rest of his quintet in Paris on December 4–5, 1957.

  • Copyright: Phonogram S.A./Polygram Jazz



This is an audio from a commercial motion picture’s musical score and accompanying soundtrack film. Its inclusion here is claimed as fair use because:

  • It illustrates an educational article that discusses the excerpted score and its status as “the most significant” of film noir jazz scores, which is often “cited as an example of the relationship between the idioms of jazz and film noir” (Source: Butler, David (2002), Jazz Noir: Listening to Music from Phantom Lady to The Last Seduction, p. 12. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood. ISBN 0275973018).
50+ top "Film Noir" films.
  • A Life at Stake – Watch Now – Directed by Paul Guilfoyle, this American noir film stars Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes. (1954)
  • Beat the Devil – Watch Now – Directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, the film is something of a comic and dramatic spoof of the film noir tradition. (1953)
  • Behind Green Lights – Watch Now – Stars Carole Landis, John Ireland. Police lieutenant Sam Carson investigates a political murder after the victim is dumped at the door of police headquarters. (1946)
  • Big Bluff – Watch Now – Directed by W. Lee Wilder. When a scheming fortune hunter finds his rich wife is not going to die as expected, he and his lover make other plans to get her millions. (1950)
  • Blonde Ice – Watch Now – A society reporter keeps herself in the headlines by marrying a series of wealthy men. They all die mysteriously afterwards though. (1948)
  • Borderline – Watch Now – Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor are caught in Mexican dope-smuggling ring, fearing each other is involved, but both undercover agents. (1950)
  • Cause for Alarm! – Watch Now – Ellen (Loretta Young) narrates the tale of “the most terrifying day of my life”, how she was taking care of her bedridden husband George Z. Jones (Barry Sullivan) when he suddenly dropped dead. (1951)
  • Club Paradise – Watch Now – The film, also known as Sensation Hunters, was directed by Christy Cabanne. The story: a touching story of girl who like many others makes the wrong choice in life – and pays for it. (1945)
  • Convict’s Code – Watch Now – An ex-con is employed by the man who framed him for bank robbery. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Starring Robert Kent and Anne Nage. (1939)
  • Dementia – Watch Now – Also called Daughter of Horror, this film by John Parker incorporated elements of horror film, film noir and expressionist film. About the film, Cahiers du cinema wrote “To what degree this film is a work of art, we are not certain but, in any case, it is strong stuff.” (1955)
  • Detour – Watch Now – Edgar Ulmer’s cult classic noir film shot in 6 days. (1945)
  • D.O.A. – Watch Now – Rudolph Maté’s classic noir film. Called “one of the most accomplished, innovative, and downright twisted entrants to the film noir genre.”  (1950)
  • Fear in the Night – Watch Now – Low budget noir film directed by Maxwell Shane & starring Paul Kelly and DeForest Kelley. It is based on the Cornell Woolrich story “And So to Death”. (1947)
  • Five Minutes to Live – Watch Now – Amazing bank heist movie stars Johnny Cash, Vic Tayback, Ron Howard, and country music great, Merle Travis. (1961)
  • Guest in the House – Watch Now – Directed by John Brahm, the noir film stars Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Aline MacMahon. (1946)
  • He Walked by Night – Watch Now – Film-noir drama, told in semi-documentary style, follows police on the hunt for a resourceful criminal. This move became the basis for “Dragnet,” and stars Jack Webb. version here. (1948)
  • Impact – Watch Now – Arthur Lubin’s well reviewed noir flic. Considered a little known classic you need to watch. (1940)
  • Inner Sanctum – Watch Now –  A gripping noir film about “a murderer who is on the lam and hiding out in a small town. Unbeknownst to him, he is not only hiding in the same boarding house as the only witness to his crime, he is sharing the same room.” (1948)
  • Jigsaw – Watch Now – Directed by Fletcher Markle, and starring Franchot Tone, Jean Wallace and Marc Lawrence, the film features cameo appearances by Marlene Dietrich and Henry Fonda. (1949)
  • Johnny O’Clock – Watch Now – Directed by Robert Rossen, based on a story by Milton Holmes. The drama features Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes, and Lee J. Cobb, with Jeff Chandler making his film debut in a small role. (1947)
  • Kansas City Confidential – Watch Now – A film noir gem that inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” (1953)
  • Key Lime Pie – Watch Now – A zany animated film in the noir tradition. (2007)
  • Lady Gangster – Watch Now – Warner Bros. B picture directed by Robert Florey based on the play Gangstress, or Women in Prison, by Dorothy Mackaye, Stars: Faye Emerson, Julie Bishop, Frank Wilcox, Roland Drew, and Jackie C. Gleason. (1942)
  • Man in the Attic – Watch Now – Jack Palance as Jack the Ripper! (1954)
  • Parole, Inc. – Watch Now – Parole officers fight against gangsters trying to infiltrate the parole system. (1948)
  • Please Murder Me – Watch Now – Lawyer Raymond Burr  brilliantly defends Angela Lansbury in 1950s noir film. (1956)
  • Port of New York – Watch Now – Two narcotics agents go after a gang of murderous drug dealers who use ships docking at the New York harbor to smuggle in their contraband. First film in which Yul Brynner appeared. (1949)
  • Quicksand – Watch Now – Peter Lorre and Mickey Rooney star in a story about a garage mechanic’s descent into crime. (1950)
  • Scarlet Street – Watch Now – Directed by Fritz Lang with Edward G. Robinson. A film noir great. (1945)
  • Shock – Watch Now –This film noir tells the story of psychiatrist Dr. Cross (Vincent Price), who is treating Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw), a young woman who is in a catatonic state. The coma was brought on when she heard loud arguing, went to her window, and saw a man strike his wife with a candlestick and kill her. Alternate version found here. (1946)
  • Shoot to Kill – Watch Now – Gangster framed by crooked DA. Wife and newspaper reporter team up. (1947)
  • Strange Illusion – Watch Now – B-movie update of “Hamlet” has troubled teen Jimmy Lydon doubting smooth-talker Warren Williams who is wooing his mother. (1945)
  • Suddenly – Watch Now – Noir film with Frank Sinatra and James Gleason. The story line influenced The Manchurian Candidate, which again starred Sinatra. (1954)
  • The Amazing Mr. X – Watch Now – Noir film directed by Bernard Vorhaus with cinematography by John Alton. The film tells the story of a phony spiritualist racket. (1948).
  • The Basketball Fix – Watch Now – A college basketball star collaborates with organized crime and becomes involved in ‘point shaving.’ A sportswriter tries to get him back on the right track. (1951)
  • The Big Combo – Watch Now – Directed by Joseph Lewis, this film is today considered a noir classic. Critics like to focus on cinematography of John Alton, a noir icon. (1955)
  • The Capture – Watch Now – Lew Ayres is an oil man who guns down a thief who may have been innocent. (1950)
  • The Chase – Watch Now – An American noir film directed by Arthur Ripley, based on the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear.
  • The File on Thelma Jordan – Watch Now – This noir directed by Robert Siodmak features Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey.  At the time Variety said, “Thelma Jordon unfolds as an interesting, femme-slanted melodrama, told with a lot of restrained excitement.” (1950)
  • The Great Flamarion – Watch Now – Vaudeville star Erich von Stroheim entangled with married assistant. Directed by Anthony Mann. (1945)
  • The Green Glove – Watch Now – A World War II veteran in France, played by Glen Ford, gets mixed up in murder while investigating a stolen treasure. Directed by Rudolph Maté. (1952)
  • The Hitch-Hiker – Watch Now – The first noir film made by a woman noir director, Ida Lupino. (1953)
  • The Hoodlum – Watch Now – Lawrence Tierney (“Reservoir Dogs”) plays an unreformed, hardened criminal who has just been released from prison. While working at his brother’s gas station, he becomes very interested in the armored car that makes regular stops at the bank across the street. (1951)
  • The Limping Man – Watch Now – Stars Lloyd Bridges and Moira Lister. A WWII veteran goes back to England after the war only to discover that his wartime sweetheart has got mixed up with a dangerous spy ring. (1953)
  • The Man Who Cheated Himself – Watch Now – Some call it “an under-appreciated and little known gem.”  Stars Lee J. Cobb, John Dall, Jane Wyatt, and Lisa Howard.  (1951)
  • The Naked Kiss – Watch Now – Constance Towers is a prostitute trying to start a new life in a small town. Directed by Sam Fuller. (1964)
  • The Red House – Watch Now – A noir psychological thriller starring Edward G. Robinson. Here’s the gist of the plot: “An old man and his sister are concealing a terrible secret from their adopted teen daughter, concerning a hidden abandon farmhouse, located deep in the woods.” (1947)
  • The Saint Louis Bank Robbery – Watch Now – Steve McQueen stars in a “gritty, downbeat, and sometimes savage heist movie.” (1959)
  • The Scar (aka Hollow Triumph) – Watch Now – Just released from prison, John Muller (Paul Henreid) masterminds a holdup at an illegal casino run by Rocky Stansyck. The robbery goes bad, and the mobsters captured some of Muller’s men and force them to identify the rest before killing them.
  • The Second Woman – Watch Now – Directed by James Kern and starring Betsy Drake, this lesser known noir film gets some good reviews. (1951)
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – Watch Now – Noir film starting Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas. Entered into 1947 Cannes Film Festival. (1946)
  • The Strange Woman – Watch Now – Edgar G. Ulmer’s femme fatale film starring Hedy Lamarr. (1946)
  • They Made Me a Criminal – Watch Now – Boxer John Garfield flees believing he has committed a murder while he was drunk. Pursued by Claude Rains, he meets up with the Dead End Kids. (1939)
  • They Made Me a Killer – Watch Now – A fugitive receives help from a victim’s sister (Barbara Britton) as he tries to clear his name of robbery and murder charges. (1946)
  • Three Steps North – Watch Now – After a prison sentence an American GI stationed in Italy (Lloyd Bridges) discovers that his hidden loot has disappeared and goes searching for it. Directed by W. Lee Wilder. (1951)
  • Time Table – Watch Now – After the theft of $500,000 in a carefully executed train robbery, an insurance investigator (Mark Stevens, who also doubled as director and producer) is forced to cancel a planned vacation with his wife to assist a railroad detective in identifying the culprits and recovering the money. (1956)
  • Too Late for Tears – Watch Now – Directed by Byron Haskin and based on a novel by Roy Huggins, Too Late for Tears is pure noir. (1949)
  • Trapped – Watch Now – Starring Lloyd Bridges and Barbara Payton, the plot of this B noir film turns around a counterfeiting ring. (1949)
  • Walk The Dark Street – Watch Now – An Army officer and a hunter engage in a simulated manhunt with one using real bullets in Los Angeles. (1956)
  • Whispering City – Watch Now – A Canadian noir, directed by Fyodor Otsep, starring Paul Lukas and Mary Anderson. (1947)
  • Whistle Stop – Watch Now – A noir flic with Ava Gardner. Love triangle leads to murder. (1946)
  • Woman on the Run – Watch Now – After Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) is the sole witness to a gangland murder, he goes into hiding and is trailed by Police Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith), his wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), and newspaperman, Danny Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe). (1950)

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