When one learns about movies in any official setting, there is nearly always a section of discussion concerning film noir, a sub-genre taught in film schools with such regularity that its influence is seen in the work of many modern directors, despite the fact that most of the noir films were produced long before any of them were born.
Literally meaning "black cinema" in French, film noir was most popular in the thirties and forties, but evolved from the earliest days of motion pictures. Many film historians cite the 1920 German silent masterpiece Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as one of the earliest examples. Clearly influences from this film can be seen in classics like The Naked City (1948) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Not a true genre unto itself, these entries were usually gangster movies with darker overtones, start, bleak camera work, and effective contrasts of light and shadow. Film noir presents very stereotypical characters; men who were "real men" were played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Women were "dames" and often played the role of manipulating and calculating villainesses. The tired plot that opens with a beautiful woman seeking the aid of a hard-boiled private detective has been used countless times, yet seems to work regardless. It appears repeatedly in these movies.
Later Film Noir
As the fifties gave way to the sixties and seventies, movies began to change. The fact that more and more movies were being made in color effectively killed black cinema for several years; Hollywood producers believing that no one would buy the old plots and situations anymore in full color. In 1972 The Godfather was released, changing the gangster movie genre for all time. Film noir might have ended there if not for Roman Polanski's Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson being released in 1974. Here was a movie that contained all the classic elements, but in living color. The sub-genre was indeed alive and well.
Film Noir Today
In the last twenty years or so, there have been few movies which can really be classified as film noir, but a great many movies show noir influences and combine noir elements. Many of these have been sleeper hits with large cult followings, including:
- Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects
- Quentin Tarrantino's Reservoir Dogs
- The Academy Award winning L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson.
Tarrantino's work in particular nearly always includes elements of the sub-genre and the astute observer can find them in plentiful supply in movies like Pulp Fiction and True Romance, as well as in Q's movies inspired by other genres (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill).
Surprisingly, one of the best examples of modern black cinema comes from the comic-book inspired Sin City, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Based on Miller's graphic novels, the visual presentation of Sin City coupled with its subject matter makes for classic noir. Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke play textbook tough guys while Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson appear as perfect noir women; beautiful and deadly at the same time.