Film Noir Storytelling



photo by: dustinj


Certainly, one of the highlights of lighting as storytelling is the era of film noir: American films of the forties and fifties, primarily in the mystery, suspense and detective genres, nearly all of them in black-and-white. The noir genre is best known for its low-key lighting style: side light, chiaroscuro, shadowy.  This was, of course, only one of the various elements of visual style: they were also expressive in new ways. Many factors came together to influence this style: technical innovations such as faster, finer grained black-and-white negative, faster lenses, smaller, more mobile camera dollies, cameras light enough to hand-hold and portable power supplies, all perfected during World War II, alleviated many of the logistical problems previously connected with location filming. 

This enabled filmmakers to get out to the dark, mean streets of the city with its shadowy alleys fraught with unknown dangers, blinking neon lights reflected on rain-soaked pavement and all of the mystery and menace of the city after dark. Beyond just the gritty reality and groundedness that come with actual locations, the challenges and various difficulties of lighting in and around real structures tend to force cinematographers to experiment and be bolder with their lighting — there is less of a tendency to just do it the same old way it’s always been done back in the studio. 

But all of this is more that just visual style: it is inherently a part of the storytelling, an integral narrative device. “A side-lit close-up may reveal a face, half in shadow, half in light, at the precise moment of indecision.” (Silver and Ward). Beyond narrative, it becomes part of character as well — noir was the birth of the protagonist who is not so clearly defined as purely good or evil. As with Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Johnny Clay (the Sterling Hayden character) in The Killing and so many others, they are characters full of contradiction and alienation. In their very being they may be pulled between good and evil, light and dark, illumination and shadow. This reflects the confusion and sense of lost ideals that returned with the veterans and survivors of the war. It also reflects the “zeitgeist” of the times: the growing undercurrent that not all things can be known, “…the impossibility of a single, stable point of view, and thus the limits to all seeing and knowing.” (J.P. Tellotte, Voices In the Dark) — that what is unseen in the shadows may be as significant as what is seen in the light. 

Excerpted from Cinematography: Theory and Practice by Blain Brown © 2002 Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved

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   Jean Lawrence said on April 22, 2011 at 4:19 am

Loved the old black and white movies They seemed much more dramatic and exciting.

   Faronbi said on April 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm

If you are thinking you might want to be a cinematographer, you should read this book. Cinematography: Image Making for Cinematographers, Directors, and Videographers
I so read mine all the time!

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