Elements of Film Noir

Film Noir, derived from the French term meaning ‘black film,’ is a style and approach to the production of many classic black and white Hollywood crime movies. While opinions differ on its definition, there are a foundation of elements that are common to film noir.

Hollywood movies of the film noir genre are typically dark, suspense-filled, thrilling mystery films. Here are some additional elements that help identify true film noir.

A film noir can usually be identified by a distinct visual style. Since almost all of these films are from the black and white era of Hollywood, using dark colors to create contrast on screen was a common practice. Low-angle shots and Dutch camera angles are also very common. A Dutch camera angle is shot with a ’tilted’ camera angle, and is most commonly used to portray tension or psychological uneasiness. Film noir quite often does not show a person directly. Instead, using disorientation by showing people reflected in a mirror, or with the use of unusual special effects. This visual style is used to add to the dark and gloomy nature of a film’s plot.

When telling their story, film noir will use a variety of sequences that disrupt the usual narrative sequence. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are often used to provide background to a current scene or setting. In some instances, voice over narration may also be used. This narration was usually provided by the lead actor or protagonist in the film.


Film noir is also known for the creativity shown by its directors, story writers and cinematographers when adding a darker shade to the overall theme of a film.

Another quality that separates film noir from other genres of film is the storyline. A film noir storyline almost always has a murder or other crime as its central theme. The tone is dark, sometimes harrowing, and features an uneasy feeling. There is the crime investigation which is usually conducted by a private detective or a ‘hard-boiled’ police detective. Suspicions, accusations, betrayals and a healthy dose of the double-cross help provide the requisite twists and turns in noir films.

One of the most important elements of film noir is the ‘femme fatale,’ a dangerous woman who knows what she wants and just how to get it. The actresses who played these roles gained fame in their own right and many times deserved and received equal billing with the films star. There is a special appeal for their characters and they are indispensable to great film noir. 

Film noirs almost always take place in an urban setting, usually large cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, with the action taking place in bars, nightclubs, lounges, dimly-lit alleyways and streets in and around these cities. It is safe to assume that in a film noir, it will always be night and there will always be rain.

Owing to the dark themed plots that they feature, film noirs are fundamentally pessimistic. They portray the underbelly of society telling the stories of people who are ill-fated, although not usually as a result of their own wrongdoing.

While these elements may, to some, make the film noir genre seemingly undesirable, in the right hands they provide the ingrediants for some great movies.

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