Neo-noir is a contemporary translation of film noir (En.wikipedia.org, n.d.). The term film noir, when translated from French to English, means black film indicating a sense of something sinister and shadowy. The film noir genre includes stylish Hollywood crime dramas; however, Neo-noir is the same, but with an “unconventional nature”(Byabortta, 2015), updated themes, ideologies, content, style, visual elements or media that were absent in the films of the film noir period from the 1940s and 1950s.
Neo-noir films in themselves are aware that they are regularly attaching intertextual references back to the classic film noir style, which can be seen from various titled camera angles, experimental lighting to generate dark shadows, paranoia, alienation and other features that are borrowed elements of film-noir. This particular film style in itself is post-modern within the 21st century. “Film-noir, as a genre, is most commonly said to begin with John Huston’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) and end with Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958)”. (Geekcentricity, 2017)
Many film critics believe that ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958) was the final noir film. This was not because the filmmakers stopped creating these noir films, but because it happened to be that as as society and culture, America was gradually stepping towards something that was different as they could not associate themselves with the morals of one genre. This is postmodernism at its finest. “The genre has actually evolved – it has elevated itself – into new, more controversial, more sophisticated realms. Beginning in the uncertain times of post-war America in the 1970’s (‘Chinatown’ 1974), moving towards Reagan’s America in the 1980’s with films like ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) there seemed to be a new kind of noir that was being labeled as Neo-noir.” (Kolson-kevinsblog.blogspot.co.uk, 2009) These films were representations of how the genre was moving outside the boundaries of noir only being films about seedy gangsters, femme fatales, and cops and robbers; these classic elements of the genre were now being replaced by greedy water companies, and corrupt politicians or policemen who were representations of the evil America never thought could exist in the people they trusted.
Neo-noir then began around 1958, however there is questioning debates about which is the first US film that should be classified as such as Neo-noir. If we look at this film style at an international level, the first film-noir film would be Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Bout de Souffle’ (1960), which was actually recreated by Jim McBride in 1983 as Breathless which is actually the translation from the French title and it starred Richard Gere. The reason the first neo-noir film is a French film is at the heart of one of the main reasons the two genres are divided in the first place.
In 1930 the motion pictures producers and distributors of America as it was formerly known, later to become MPPA took a strict and suppressive stance known as the Hays Code which came formally into force in 1934. An example of Hays Code restrictions would be “Crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light. If someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen, resulting in numerous cases of Adaptational Karma.” (TV Tropes, 2017) The beginning of WW1 brought big changes to society and those within it, which then lead to a rise in the popularity of film noir. The desire to take filming outside the studio meant a need for new cinematographic techniques which was another reason for its rise in popularity around this particular time period. As a large number of directors fled the war and went to Hollywood meant that this type of film style was still popular for a considerable amount of time after the war ended. Characteristics such as famous film techniques like chiaroscuro lighting marked this film style to be a memorable time in the film industry, that even in contemporary cinema today, films still use these film-noir tropes and conventions. (Geekcentricity, 2017)
It can prove something of a headache trying to pin point what exactly constitutes ‘Neo-noir’ and what distinguishes it from the classic Film-noir. “The term is thrown around so liberally in pop culture criticism, virtually any stylish modern crime film is liable to be branded as such by someone or other. Part of the problem lies in the fact that, like film noir before it, the label was coined by critics to retroactively describe a cycle of relatively disparate films. As such, the filmmakers we’d now hail as Neo-noir pioneers weren’t aware that they were making Neo-noir films in the first place.” (O’Callaghan, 2016) I am now going to explore the characteristics in which develop the style of Neo-noir, some repeated throughout Film-Noir.
Characteristics of Neo-Noir:
Chiaroscuro Lighting – Within todays contemporary film, we are able to create contrast during post-production with advanced uses of colour. However, to be true to the Neo-noir film style, it is often that films use chiaroscuro lighting to highlight details of a character or even to distort their face through using three point lighting which can connote certain moods and emotions to its target audience. An example of this Neo-noir technique can be found in ‘The Shining’ (1980) as shown in the screen grab below. Another example is ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995), as the chiaroscuro lighting effect is commonly used harshly during the interrogation scenes to generate intensity and enigma for the spectators. (Design & Conquer, 2017)
Bars, diagonals & frames within frames – Looking at the screenshot above from ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995) we can see that Kevin Spacey is framed within a frame. In this instance the character is framed by using bars. Another example of the use of chiaroscuro lighting in Neo-noir can be found throughout Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ (1982). As you can see the characters are behind venetian blinds, which in turn cast a bar-like shadow onto his face to create a dramatic look and feel throughout the scene. (The Elements of Neo-Noir, 2017)
Long tracking shots and deep focus – Alfred Hitchcock, an auteur known for Film-noir, uses deep focus in his film ‘Vertigo’ (1958) which displays the scenic city of San Francisco which is where the narrative takes place. Deep focus is a technique when the front to back range of a shot is all completely in focus. (The Film Spectrum, 2017)
Obscured scenes – Neo-noir film as well as the classic noir films, includes the use of “smoke, steam, fog, or rain which then obscures the background” to draw our attention to the abstract smoke effects which is seen often in ‘Blade Runner’ (1982). (Geekcentricity, 2017)
Urban settings filmed mostly at night – Urban settings filmed at night where used regularly in classic Film-noir films and are now a frequent factor in contemporary Neo-noir films. This type of setting allows directors to create a sense of isolation and liminality. ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) uses this method located in industrial and city scapes to build suspense and create darkness around the joker. Dimly lit urban settings are typical locations for a film noir style film. It is used to emphasise the dangers of an urban area. The visual motifs and mise en scene of film noir revolves around a dark and gloomy setting which heightens the theme of ambiguity that is dominant in the narrative. (mcgarryfqegs10, 2015)
Dutch angles & inverted frames – Canted/Dutch angles are used frequently in film noir style, however, not so often used in Neo-noir films today. Although some high profile films such as ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) frequently used this technique. This was to create a feeling of unbalance to mirror the concept that something within the films narrative is corrupt and dangerous. It is also a great way to connote the instability of characters in a film which correspond to the Neo-noir themes of darkness and crime. (prezi.com, 2014)
Crime & violence – The level of crime and violence is more apparent than ever when looking into contemporary Neo-noir films. These themes have skyrocketed since the demise of ‘Hays Code’ the moral censorship code. Neo-noir being more ‘outgoing’ than Film-noir, violence can take centre stage. A great example of this would be ‘Fight Club’ (1999). These films do not have to subtlety convey these themes, although some Neo-noir films do stick to the classic tropes and conventions of film-noir. “In the best of the Neo-noir films, the violence, while it may be over-the-top, is not gratuitous. It is used to convey something about the character, such as Travis Bickle’s mental state in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976).” (Geekcentricity, 2017)
Voice-over narration – Similar to the dutch and canted angles, voice-over narration is not a common technique to appear in Neo-noir films like it does in film-noir, though one example that does in a Neo-noir film is Frank Miller’s ‘Sin City’ (2005). Another prime example would be ‘Fight Club’ (1999) as we are constantly taken through the narrative with Edward Norton’s character, however, we then find out who he really is. This psychological film is lifted by the voice-over narration and is complementary to its narrative the whole way through. (Go Into The Story, 2017)
Water & reflections – Water and reflections is one trope that is used in Neo-noir films. This can be a very effective technique to show characters reflecting on themselves and can also generate meaning which can help audiences understand the current situation in the narrative. An example of using water and reflection is the film Brick (2005). Also a brilliant use of water in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) is used which generate unnerving scenes, when a magician puts a lady in a tank of water. This technique is a great way to engage the target audience and have them on the edge of their seat. (Geekcentricity, 2017)
Cynical, World-weary protagonists – This type of protagonist archetype convention primarily focuses on their background, their flaws which in turn makes the questionable the whole way through the narrative. However, this technique allows the audience to be actively involved, giving their own opinion of the protagonist who is not completely being authentic. Examples of these typical characters would be Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ (1974) and Somerset in David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ (1995). (Taste of Cinema, 2017)
Femme Fatale – A Femme Fatale is a female film archetype. “She is a character of mysterious and seductive aura whose charms engross her lovers, which often leads them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.” (Collinsdictionary.com, n.d.) This role can often change within a Neo-noir film style and also more emotional female characters have played prominent roles in Neo-noir films. The femme fatale archetype is still a feature within Neo-noir films today. An example of this would be ‘Atomic Blonde’ (2017).
“One interesting development in Neo-noir is the blurring of the lines between the protagonist and the femme fatale. Sometimes one can be substituted for the other. Perhaps the most iconic femme fatale of Neo-noir is Catherine Tramell from Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Basic Instinct’ (1992).” (Geekcentricity, 2017) For me personally, I think ‘Fight Club’ (1999) has a very iconic femme fatale throughout who is an anchor to the narrative. Her name is Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter. This character represents all of the features of a femme fatale. She messes with the male protagonist in a psychologic way, representing themes of Neo-noir.
Complex plots & Analepsis (flashback narrative device) – Plot complexity is another characteristic of Neo-noir film. This includes narratives which include a plot twist. Commonly used in psychological thrillers. One example of a Neo-noir film with a complex plot is ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998). “Joel Coen said that the film was an homage to classic noir, a la Raymond Chandler, “We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” (Indie Wire, 1998) (Geekcentricity, 2017) Some films rely heavily on analepsis (flashbacks) to tell a more complex story to give detailed context through actually visualising every moment. A film that does this is Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994). “Tarantino is actually quite fond of analepsis and relies on heavy use of flashbacks and flash-forwards in most of his films.” (Geekcentricity, 2017) These particular films make it very challenging to apply Todorov’s narrative theory as the film may not be in a linear or chronological order. These complex plots are usually interwind with characters committing accusations and betrayal as a common theme is crime throughout Neo-noir films.
Unreliable narrators – This particular technique in Neo-noir filmmaking is one of the most regular characteristics. One of the best examples for an unreliable character would have to be from Christopher Nolan’s ‘Momento’ (2000). This is because the films narrator, Leonard Shelby suffers from a condition which causes him to forget things that just happened (anterograde amnesia). To help him with his condition he takes polaroid pictures and tattoos of events to remind him what he has been through in his life. This narrative device can reflect and foreshadow themes of the film. Having an unstable narrator or protagonist can give the target audience indications on who to trust throughout the story. However, this can also generate suspense and shock when events take place. (I Like Things That Look Like Mistakes, 2017)
Eroticism & sexuality – Once the Hays Code was demised, cinema became a lot more erotic and sexual than ever before. This evidences why Neo-noir is the new Film-noir. Classic Film-noir would not tolerate any explicit sexual behaviour in that time period. “Neo-noir films like Lawrence Kasdan’s ‘Body Heat’ (1981), Jim McBride’s ‘Breathless’ (1983), Neil Jordan’s ‘The Crying Game’ (1992), the Wachowskis’ ‘Bound’ (1992), and the Neo-noir films of David Lynch pushed the boundaries of eroticism and sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual.” (TV Tropes, 2017) (Geekcentricity, 2017)
Please note that not all neo-noir films exhibit all of these characteristic elements. Far from it. Their are many exceptions. Also, neo-noir crosses over into a number of subgenres that each offer different takes on these elements. However, for all of the exceptions, I feel it safe to say that the vast majority of neo-noir films contain many, if not most of these elements. In addition, many neo-noir films seem to express a pessimistic attitude about the state of American society in contemporary times. If classic film noir provided a social commentary on its period in history, then modern noir has also covered that base by providing that same commentary on the decades since it began.
The neo-noir genre has developed over the years from a simple extension of the classical noir period to a self-sustained genre in its own right. While the classification of what makes a film neo-noir may not be concrete there is no denying that the genre exists and it is simply a matter of concluding whether a film is neo-noir or simply borrowing aspects from neo-noir. The conventions used are unique, and while they may have been drawn from other aspects of film, they are now definitive of the genre. From the early works of Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, through to the contemporary works of Christopher Nolan, the genre has progressed a great deal thanks in part to its ability to co-exist with other genres with political motivation and awareness also at the forefront. As long as there is a need for alternative means of storytelling this adaptability and awareness will see that the neo-noir genre will remain a part of the Hollywood film industry for many more years to come. (Colvin, 2016)
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