Loyola University Maryland

Emerging Scholars

Jonathon Richmond, Randall P. Donaldson, Ph.D.

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Defining Film Noir – The Dark Side of Human Nature

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Film noir is often characterized by its expressionistic filmmaking techniques (lights and shadows, oblique camera angles), narrative elements (voice-overs, flashbacks, convoluted plots), characters (hard-boiled detectives, femme fatales, criminals), settings (the city, dark streets, claustrophobic spaces), themes (murder, greed, sexual obsession), and mood (alienation, despair, fatalism).  However, this taxonomy fails to define what makes a film a film noir.  Furthermore, all of these elements need not be present or of the same magnitude for a film to qualify as noir.  They are secondary to the mood and worldview they communicate.  Noir articulates the darker side of human nature.  Its visual style signifies to the viewer a metaphysical system in flux, where no objective truth exists, moral responsibility becomes ambiguous, and crime is a reasonable response.  Yet, no solutions are offered to the worldview noir purposes.

Defining film noir is no easy task, and what makes a film a film noir is a contentious topic.  Throughout the semester our class attempted, and often struggled, to define what film noir is.  My methodology for developing the definition of film noir was to start with my initial taxonomy, finding contradictions or necessary additions, and accommodating these corollaries.  The results – what makes a film a film noir -- were a combination of visual style, the theme of crime, and frustrated resolutions which articulate pessimistic worldview of film noir. 

The objective of my poster is to provide screenshots from some of the most famous film noirs to highlight the worldview of the genre.  The urban wasteland of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the seedy Mexican border town of Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil, and the parched California valleys of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) are a few examples that highlight the art of film noir – the dark side of human nature.  Using screenshots and a brief explanation of the scenes, a poster presentation is ideal to capture the essence of noir’s art.