Coinciding with our new column The Noirvember Files and timed for the month of Noirvember, this list digs even deeper into the film noir genre to explain five film noir subgenres and highlight examples of each.
Before we can venture into the wider subgenre sandbox, we need to define what “film noir” is, exactly.
The term was coined by French film critics in the late 1940s to describe a trend in the American films they missed during Nazi occupation. French critics noted an encroaching darkness and hardened pessimism most prominent in routine Hollywood crime thrillers.
Indeed, in the wake of World War II, America (like much of the world) was disillusioned, and the resulting cynicism crept on-screen. Cruel, sleazy city streets replaced fantastical, flamboyant sets. Tough, morally ambiguous private eyes replaced heroic cowboys. And harsh, expressionistic shadows replaced the glossy haze of Technicolor.
Ultimately, you can’t define what makes a noir film by any singular checklist. Although bolder folks like director Paul Schrader have tried. Grumpy gumshoes and treacherous femmes fatale certainly abound but are by no means a requirement. If there is any certainty in how to spot a noir, it is that they are reliably dark. Both in tone and in their striking chiaroscuro.
In the end, noir films conjure varying degrees of a specific kind of mood. And it’s this gradient-like quality that renders film noir so mutable. So, in that spirit, what better way to understand noir than to chart the course of its sub-sects? Film noir has its bloody fingers in a lot of pies, and this is by no means a complete picture. So consider this a drive-by introduction to film noir’s long, murky, and often ambiguous shadow.
The easiest way to define neo-noir is it describes films that use elements of film noir with techniques, settings, themes, etc. that were absent from the classic noir period. It is, in other words, a matter of timing and fresh eyes. The start of neo-noir is 1959-ish, post Touch of Evil. One reason for the emergence of neo-noirs was the atrophy of the Hays Code and the studio system, which cracked the window open for a return to darker subject matter. Many of the films below fall within the auspices of the neo-noir.