During the 1940s, American cinema took a shadowy and cynical turn. Classic film noir was a style that showcased a dark, hidden landscape with morally ambiguous characters that battled corruption and crime. Cinema had up until that time largely been a form of escapism, and most films were made to keep peoples’ spirits up, especially during the era of the Great Depression. But classic film noir shifted towards a pessimistic view of the world and mirrored and explored the growing range of anxieties that plagued American society following World War II and into the nuclear age.
Film noir as a genre is commonly said to begin with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and end with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), though there are precursors throughout the 1930’s. Neo-noir then begins some time after 1958, reflecting a deeper, darker, more dystopian view on contemporary American life and culture. If classic film noir provided a social commentary on the post-WW2 period, Neo-noir examines more complex neuroses, and more contemptuous contemporary times.
As the nuclear arms race, assassinations of leading figures, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal unfold across televised media, a broad distrust of institutions becomes more ingrained. Many cultural perspectives became emotionally extreme and scathing. Soon a new era of more dangerous cinema emerged during the 1960s and 1970s known as Neo-noir. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is an example, a film that builds on the conventions of classic film noir but incorporates murkier, violent twists.
During its time, film noir emerged as a style rather than a genre, for exploring underlying emotional landscapes. Film noirs were often composed of varied elements within gangster films, melodramas, crime dramas, and horror/ suspense stories. The style was influenced by German Expressionism, emerging from European cinema during the 1930s, and is known for its dark aesthetics and sinister subject matter. Noir characteristics include low-key lighting, inverted framing, and gloomy landscapes, often fogged. Thus film noir employed dimmer visual elements to create a sense of mystery and a specific sense of malaise. Essentially, film noir was about establishing a distinctive emotional tone and atmosphere. And for American cinema, film noir is linked to a much wider social context. The depiction of criminal and desperate elements derives from post-war realities of “life in these United States”. In a sense, film noir brings a harsher depiction of American culture to the fore, looking at a society changed emotionally by the horrors of World War II. A powerful new America carries lingering anxieties and fears, linked to the millions of returning servicemen and citizens disillusioned by war and unrest. Noir and Neo-noir serve as a kind of public conscience, exposing darker elements beneath shinier public relations views of American society.
Neo-noir films contain many of the signature elements that define the classic film noir, but, in the case of films like Taxi Driver, Neo-noir also mocks the conventions of such film noir predecessors as The Maltese Falcon. And if cynical, world-weary protagonists were a staple of classic film noir, the protagonist’s background and flaws are even more questionable and extreme. Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Ed Tom Bell in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) are all pointed examples.
The use of emotional complexity and ‘unreliable narrators’, common characteristics of noir, are even more prominent (or at least used to greater effect) in Neo-noir films than in classic film noir. The most remarkable example of these convolutions is found in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). This film’s narrator, Leonard Shelby, is suffering from anterograde amnesia. He cannot remember anything that has just happened, so he takes Polaroid photographs and gets tattoos to remind himself of the events of his recent past, making particular notes on whom he should and should not trust. He is easily led astray, and nothing is as it seems. This use of disruptive time sequencing and severe agitation serve to further disorient the viewer. Many Neo-noir characters’ psyches are portrayed as heavily distorted.
Noir and Neo-noir films therefore focus on a morally-uncertain character, a loner, who gets lured into a neglected urban landscape, one plagued by violence, failed attempts at romance, pessimism and crime. The settings are intended as reflections of society’s underlying attributes, symbolizing a damaged world that’s become emotionally – and actually — anarchistic.
For an amusing info-graphic guide to classic noir, check out the British Film Institute (BFI):