Film Noir and the Femme Fatale Supplemental Reading


In preparation for Part 5 of our “75 Years of Film Noir”, here at the Brattle we’ve gathered a small collection of articles discussing the key elements of film noir as a genre and movement. Also included are discussions of the legacy of not only film noir itself, but the classic noir character of the femme fatale.

New to the genre? Want to learn how film noir is more than just any black and white film? No Film School’s Robert Hardy declares film noir to be “one of the most misunderstood genres of film out there”, and with his article and infographic from the BFI, he’s here to set you straight. Covering classic noir characters, plot points, taglines, and even what is considered the “most noir film” of all time, this beginner’s guide also compares film noir to the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking. Hardy is perhaps correct in thinking that “these days, it seems like anything that is even vaguely dark and moody gets labeled as noir” – even if that’s not 100% the case. Here’s your crash course on the true noirs- the films that started it all.

There’s a reason the literal meaning of film noir is “black/dark film”. Criminal Element’s Jake Hinkson reminds his readers that noir is so named because of deep blacks, bright whites, and dark shadows. Referencing the term chiaroscuro and giving the credit of the genre back to where he believes it belongs—with the cinematographers—this article reveals some of the best in the business, and the techniques they used in films like THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, and SUNSET BOULEVARD.

UC Berkeley’s John Blaser introduces his readers to the genre’s classic femme fatale—women who reject their traditional role as declared by society, and instead use their sexuality as a weapon against the men in the genre’s films- the men who seek to possess them and treat them as objects. Blaser’s in-depth article follows the arc of the femme fatale, and covers her ultimate fate- why the large majority perish in the quest for their often “unsavory” pursuits, and why their death is not what lingers in the viewer’s mind, but instead their legacy as a defining element of the genre.

From “How It All Began” to “(Noir’s) Post Modernism” writer Ega Simbolon and others break film noir down by time period, classic characters and endings, and more, in Cargo Collective’s “A Guide to Film Noir”. The article included in the guide on the femme fatale dares to address this classic noir character as both liberating for actresses of the day, and going beyond the classic role of a woman as a secondary, submissive character to men, yet uses Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” to show how these anti-heroines of noir are subject to the male gaze in cinema- thus “the characters themselves are still trapped within a society’s patriarchal view regardless of the narrative of the film”. Veronica Calabrese also notes Raymond Chandler’s impact on the era, as well as the restrictions put in place by the Production Code and the Hollywood Studio System.

Foster Hirsch delves into Alfred Hitchcock’s role in film noir, and discusses why the filmmaker can be considered a “noir stylist”, while also being separate from the genre (and being “seldom labeled as a noir director”). Hirsch’s “Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen” looks at some of Hitchcock’s most famous works, including REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Hirsch provides evidence for why these films are distinctly Hitchcockian noir, and cites the master’s camera angles, film locations, and moving cameras.

Criterion contributor Paul Arthur writes about the 1950 film noir classic NIGHT AND THE CITY in his essay “In the Labyrinth”, outlining why the film stands out from other film noirs, and how the characters of the film embody the 1950’s noir ideal. Arthur discusses director Jules Dassin’s decision to film on location in London, and how this setting with its war-torn streets and bombed out cafes sets the mood for a film noir without needing to “subtly evoke the lingering effects” of WWII. “In the Labyrinth” also states that Dassin used NIGHT AND THE CITY as an expression of his personal struggles with blacklisting and “anti-communist hysteria”, making the film all that more rich in noir’s rebellion against and rejection of society’s wishes.

Playing at the Brattle on June 8th and 11th, Billy Wilder’s film noir SUNSET BOULEVARD is discussed by Jason Fraley on The Film Spectrum website. Fraley discusses the casting choice for the three protagonists of the film, and what they not only brought to the roles they played, but the film’s impact on Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim’s personal lives and careers as well. Interiors of the film sets are compared with exteriors, and the author speaks of set and prop usage to highlight the film noir themes of desolation, loss of faith, and revenge. An in-depth analysis, this article shows its reader why SUNSET BOULEVARD’s film noir legacy lives on still today.

Lauren Backus Written by: