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June 16, 2023

Solving the Mystery of What Is Film Noir?

Situated in an obscure city, a hard-drinking detective, clad in a fedora and ill-matching suit, broods over an intricate enigma – this quintessential image from Film Noir still permeates modern cinema and TV. 

First popularized in the 1940s and 50s, Film Noir has now significantly evolved, encompassing films as diverse as Chinatown, The Dark Knight, and Fargo. The ambiguous nature of Noir, as a genre, aesthetic, mood, or mindset, remains a source of intrigue.

In this article, we’re going to act like a Noir detective and attempt to solve the mystery of what is film noir together.

The basics of Film Noir

Let’s start with the basics and the first obvious clue. Film Noir sounds French, but it’s used to describe lots of American films. Here’s why.

A classic image from a Film Noir
A classic detective in the Film Noir Genre

After World War 2, film was a booming interest in film culture in France. A new breed of critics enamored with American films noticed patterns in the crime films of the day, particularly those coming out of America. 

These films would typically feature a disillusioned central protagonist, a truth-finder (not always a detective) who gets wrapped up in mysteries of sex, death, and murder. They’d rarely end happily, and were drenched in expressionistic dark lighting.

Hence Film Noir, which in English means “Black Film”. It’s not only a reference to the moody visual aesthetics of these films, but also the kind of stories they’d tell. Some have speculated that Noir genre films expressed a growing disillusionment with notions like the American Dream and American Exceptionalism. Instead of clean-cut heroes, these films tried to show the reality of what living in Urban America was really like. 

The archetypical example of this kind of noir film is The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Sam Spade, a private investigator who gets wrapped up in a sinister conspiracy about the titular falcon. 

The film typifies Noir’s fundamental elements of crime, lust, and a tragic ending. 

What are the tropes of Film Noir?

Like any genre, Noir has its repertoire of tropes that it’s worth knowing to help you identify a Noir film, and also if you plan to write your own. Though, it’s worth bearing in mind that these tropes have evolved massively in modernity which we’ll get into a little later. 

The private investigator

Though a Noir film doesn’t have to have a detective or investigator in a central role, it’s a very common device. This makes a lot of sense considering you may want to have a protagonist who will be motivated to diving deep into the seedy underbelly of the city. A P.I. is the easiest way to cohere protagonist motivation and genre together. 

The Big Sleep is the prime example of this kind of character. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, the king of Noir fiction, Humphrey Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, a P.I. with as many wisecracks in his arsenal as cigarettes in his pocket. 

The dangerous woman

Noir has a complicated relationship with gender. Like a lot of genres conceived of in this era, it is very male-dominated. Instead, women are generally consigned to love interest roles. 

However, these women are rarely straightforward. Like everyone in Noir, they have their own angle. As Roger Ebert says, Noir is full of “women who would just as soon kill you as love you”. 

Rebecca is a really interesting version of this trope that interrogates it very early in Noir’s life-cycle. For a more straightforward depiction of the dangerous woman, you can’t go wrong with Double Indemnity. 

Corrupt cops and criminals

There’s no such thing as a good guy in Noir. The 1940s and 50s was generally an era of cops versus robbers, good guys versus bad guys. Noir dismisses this out of hand. Authorities are corrupt, and criminals have just as much code as the cops. 

Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is a great example of this trope while being a fantastic film in its own right.

The voiceover

Stemming from Noir’s history in pulp novels before it made it to film, the voiceover is usually performed by the leading investigator who makes sly remarks and somewhat convoluted metaphors ripped straight from the sour novel’s prose.


There’s no happy endings in Noir. Every single frame drips with moody glumness or introspection. This is the genre to ponder concepts of morality and purpose, not joyful abandon. There are often many shots of the protagonist mulling over life’s big questions with a stiff drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. 

The Night of the Hunter drips with so much atmosphere and mood that it beggars belief. With lighting so expressionistic that it begins to take on the impression of a vaguely defined nightmare, there’s no better expression of just how much moodiness can be extracted through Noir’s particular way of shooting scenes.

The fatalistic philosophy

The biggest life lesson we can take from a Noir film, it’s that life isn’t fair. Justice is illusive. In the end, all an individual can really do in an unfair system is to look out for themselves, even if that means bending the rules a little. 

Chinatown is the prime example of this. The film’s final scene is so fatalistic that its final piece of dialog has gone down in movie history for summing it up so succinctly. 

How has Noir evolved?

Noir is not a static genre. In fact, in the past decade or two it has experienced a pretty notable upsurge in popularity. There’s not enough time to get really in-depth, so instead here are a films that have evolved the Noir framework in interesting ways. Now let's examine some of Film Noir.


Gaslight came out in 1944, but it has accrued a massive new following in the late 2010s/early 2020s on account of the term “gaslighting” which it inspired. Taking a much more sympathetic look towards a woman’s experience within the Noir genre, this film is a must watch to better understand how gender functions in Noir and the malevolent depths it can reach.


The progenitor of the prestige art-film subgenre that began to flourish in the 2010s, this Nicolas Winding Refn film took the Noir aesthetics and turned the volume up to 11, infusing the color scheme of Drive with lush neons and luxurious dark blues. A story of crime and love, dripping with style with an enigmatic protagonist. Yep. It’s Noir.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The offshoot of Noir stemming from an influx of popular Scandinavian authors who concocted twisted noir thrillers surged in popularity in the 2000s onwards, stemming new household names like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first made in Sweden, then remade by David Fincher in 2011. 

Under the Silver Lake

This strange metamodern opus infuses the coolness of the Noir protagonist into a strange central man who is a loner obsessed with cultural symbols and finding patterns in modern L.A. that may or may not be there. This is Noir when brought into our hyper-modern interconnected world and the results are as messy as they are compelling.

John Wick

Action-noir is definitely an active subgenre, and none more successful than John Wick. He’s an enigmatic protagonist who exudes cool in a world of crime infused with expressionistic lighting and a propensity for fatalistic outcomes. 

The main difference is the sheer tenacity of the action, an element notably missing from early Noir. 

Level up your Film Noir screenwriting skills

If you’re interested in learning more about Film Noir be sure to check out the rest of our blog. Also remember you can download our FREE screenwriting software (no credit card required) today.


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Solving the Mystery of What Is Film Noir?
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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