Since the phasing out of film noir and the mainstreaming of color television of the late 50’s, it can be said that it left cinema, but there have been lots of films that have replicated the characteristics that tie noir films together, which they are unofficially classified as “neo-noir.” The problem that occurs with a film being classified as a film genre is that it is French for “black film,” which has to do with the format of the films being made at the time.
Even Billy Wilder, the director of the well-known film noir “Double Indemnity,” never classified his films as film noir.
To provide historical context, films noir have been taking advantage of the limitations imposed upon the directors and producers, either due to a low budget or because of the Hayes Code. Finding more creative freedom within restrictions, or “the cracks in the system” as director Martin Scorcese described, may sound paradoxical, but this allowed the creation of subtleties and unique cinematographic techniques, such as the extensive use of shadows, that can draw the viewer in.
Film critic Paul Schrader, although arguing that film noir was not a genre, did state that its important quality was its tone and mood. An example of this type of subtlety is from the film “Detour” during the part when Tom Neal begins to lose his mind, and the scene represents this deteriorating state with the camera zooming in- and out-of-focus.
Noir can also seep into other genres, such as science fiction, with an example being “Blade Runner,” starring Harrison Ford. But the film genre that film noir most closely related to was the gangster film genre.
A way that film noir can be specified is when their characterization typically involves anti-heroes plagued with paranoia and insecurity. This is what makes the corrupt lawyer Joe Morse in Abraham Polonsky’s “Force of Evil” become more entrenched in the gambling racket, and even acknowledging that he might go to jail for his actions and always thinks the police are coming for him when he tells Doris:
“Don’t be afraid. You don’t know what it is to have real fear in you. You don’t know what it is to wake up in the morning, go to sleep at night, eat your lunch, and read the papers and hear the horns blowing in the streets and the horns blowing in the clubs. And all the time, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever you see, and WHEREVER YOU ARE, you’re afraid in your heart. Is that what life is?”
A major theme that defines film noir as a separate genre comes from Martin Scorcese when commenting on the plot of “Force of Evil”:
“It’s not just the individual who’s corrupted, but the entire system.”
It is a film genre that finds its roots in the disillusioned view of the world in post-World War II America. Since there were pulp writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Jack Cain whose works were adapted into this new genre, there were also directors who migrated from Germany, such as Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder, who were direct witnesses of tyranny and systemic brutality that became major themes in their work.
The controversy in pinpointing a film as “film noir” lies when not all of the films include the typical tropes found within them. Although some of the more well-known films noir like Billy Wilders’ “Double Indemnity” have a femme fatale, there is also “Scarlet Street” where it is the man who manipulates his woman to manipulate another man. Not every protagonist has to be the detective, which is a common stereotype of film noir. Although there is no definite location for any film noir setting, the films usually take place in a big city, like New York City or Los Angeles.
I would say that it can be a quasi-genre. If there were to be any neologism, that would be the best one I can accurately pinpoint. I know there are film scholars who say that film noir is a feeling. Well, there’s obviously something deeper than some favorable mixture of cells in the brain. It’s clear that film noir does more than just stimulate introspection at the dark side of humanity.