Film noir has been considered a genre, but it has more in common with previous film movements (e.g., German Expressionism, Soviet Socialist Realism, Italian Neo-Realism) and, in fact, touches every genre.
Film movements occur in specific historical periods - at times of national stress and focus of energy. They express a consistency of both thematic and formal elements which makes them particularly expressive of those times, and are uniquely able to express the homogeneous hopes (Soviet Socialist Realism and Italian Neo-Realism) and fears (German Expressionism and film noir) brought to the fore by, for example, the upheaval of war. Genres, on the other hand, exist through time: we have had westerns from the early 1900s and in spite of rises and falls in their popularity, westerns are with us today.
The detective/thriller genre whose subjects are generally the lawless under-world, the fringes of society, crimes of passion and of greed, is particularly well-suited to the expression of film noir themes. The movement affected other genres: melodrama particularly, but there are westerns and even musicals that have distinctly noir elements.
The dominant world view expressed in film noir is paranoid, claustrophobic, hopeless, doomed, predetermined by the past, without clear moral or personal identity. Man has been inexplicably uprooted from those values, beliefs and endeavours that offer him meaning and stability, and in the almost exclusively urban landscape of film noir (in pointed contrast to the pastoral, idealised, remembered past) he is struggling for a foothold in a maze of right and wrong. He has no reference points, no moral base from which to confidently operate. Any previous framework is cut loose and morality becomes relative, both externally (the world) and internally (the character and his relations to his work, his friends, his sexuality). Values, like identities, are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn. Nothing - especially woman - is stable, nothing is dependable. The visual style conveys this mood through expressive use of darkness: both real, in predominantly underlit and night-time scenes, and psychologically through shadows and claustrophobic compositions which overwhelm the character in exterior as well as interior settings. Characters (and we in the audience) are given little opportunity to orient themselves to the threatening and shifting shadowy environment. Silhouettes, shadows, mirrors and reflections (generally darker than the reflected person) indicate his lack of both unity and control. They suggest a doppelganger, a dark ghost, alter ego or distorted side of man's personality which will emerge in the dark street at night to destroy him. The sexual, dangerous woman lives in this darkness, and is the psychological expression of his own internal fears of sexuality, and his need to control and repress it. The characters and themes of the detective genre are ideal for film noir.
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