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Elements of classic film noir

Writing Tips — Favorite Movies: Film Noir

grainw1-3026099_1280For over a year now, I’ve been faithfully tuning in each week to Noir Alley, a franchise on Turner Classic Movies where the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller introduces a movie from the classic period this genre, 1940-1960. Since almost all the movies deal with crime, it’s small wonder I like film noir. It’s sort of the tough, blue-collar cousin of classic murder mysteries. If you aren’t familiar with this kind of movie, here’s a crash course in it’s basic elements that I discussed last August.

Along with a distinct visual style which often included  low-key lighting and deep shadows, classic film noir contained at least one or more of the following elements:

  • A weak, male character
  • A femme fatale — she manipulates the weak male
  • A private eye — who may be either weak or strong
  • A determined, good woman — usually, she is trying to rescue the weak male.  (These weak, male characters are a a lot of trouble.)
  • Corrupt authorities — including the police
  • An innocent man or woman convicted of a crime — see weak, male character
  • Characters doomed by fate or their pasts
  • Greed and opportunities to make huge scores
  •  Caper film — from Film Noir by Alain Silver, The audience sees a crime from the criminals POV. And during or after the execution of the crime, Something Goes Wrong.
  • Couple on the Run — from Film Noir. The couple can be innocent, fleeing from a trumped up charge, or guilty and trying to escape the police.

The setting for most of these is the gritty, corrupt city. A few movies from this time period can be labeled country noir, movies with noir themes set in a rural location — On Dangerous Ground, They Drive By Nightand one of my favorites InfernoMovies with film noir themes were made after 1960, and still are, but the two decades during and after WWII was when the genre was being created and when it was most popular.

The main reason I love film noir is that it deals with epic emotions, like trust, betrayal, greed, self-sacrifice, and more, in a realistic setting. Producers and directors today seem to think you can only explore these themes in fantasy stories, like with superheroes. Our civilized, technology-crazed society doesn’t seem to leave plausible reasons for a main character to follow an epic course of events.

For example, a story set in America today could have the best friend of the main character (MC) murdered. MC helps the police by answering their questions. As the police conduct their investigation, MC turns to friends, family, and professional counselor to deal with the loss. Some writers could make that story compelling. I’m not one of them.

I would take the film noir route. Because the local authorities are corrupt, my MC would begin her own investigation. When she got too close to the truth, she would have to rely on her own wits because she can’t trust the authorities. Or if MC is a criminal, he battles on his own because the police would do him no good. This isolation of the MC helps generate dramatic story arcs.

That’s why my YA novel and the short story being published in November are both country noir. I love showing readers that dramas with high emotions and higher stakes can take place in contemporary settings. And the rural locations of my stories help isolate my good guys.

Do you like film noir? Or what other crime or mystery movies do you like?

Writing Tip — What is Country Noir?

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According to an article on Wikipedia about author Daniel Woodrell, “country noir” is a phrase he invented to characterize his crime fiction set in rural Missouri.

After doing some online research, I have discovered country noir goes by several names like “rural noir” and “southern noir”. Besides Mr. Woodrell’s novels, another example is the series Justified. The themes of poverty and violence described in the nonfiction book Hillbilly Elegy are common in country noir. Many country songs, like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, would qualify.

Opinions differ over what should be included in country noir, but I think stories should echo themes originating in film noir, the classification that started all the noir subgenres. That’s why I categorize my short story which will published in September as country noir.

Classic Film Noir

In Film Noir, eds. Paul Duncan and Jurgen Muller, the classic period for film noir is listed as 1940-1960, but other experts say it ends in 1958 or 1959. Along with a distinct visual style which often included  low-key lighting and deep shadows, classic film noir contained at least one or more of the following elements:

  • A weak, male character
  • A femme fatale — she manipulates the weak male
  • A private eye — who may be either weak or strong
  • A determined, good woman — usually, she is trying to rescue the weak male.  (These weak, male characters are a a lot of trouble.)
  • Corrupt authorities — including the police
  • An innocent man or woman convicted of a crime — see weak, male character
  • Characters doomed by fate or their pasts
  • Greed and opportunities to make huge scores
  •  Caper film — from Film Noir by Alain Silver, The audience sees a crime from the criminals POV. And during or after the execution of the crime, Something Goes Wrong.
  • Couple on the Run — from Film Noir. The couple can be innocent, fleeing from a trumped up charge, or guilty and trying to escape the police.

The setting for most of these is the gritty, corrupt city. A few movies from this time period can be labeled country noir — On Dangerous Ground, They Drive By Nightand one of my favorites Inferno.

What draws me to country noir  is the combination of noir elements in a rural setting. The country landscape gives noir themes a fresh twist.

If you are interested in learning more about film noir from the classic period, check out Noir Alley on TCM ( Turner Classic Movies). In September, the series will begin again on Saturdays at midnight and Sundays at 10 a.m. The introductions by the hose Eddie Mueller, the Czar of Noir, have taught me so much about this style.

Another aspect of country noir I like is that it limits technology. Next time, I will write about the problems I’ve encountered with technology dissolving tension.

Have you read or watched anything that can be called “country noir”?

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