Film Noir (literally, 'black film'), despite being harder to define than it might appear at first, is one of the most profoundly important genres / styles / aesthetics (see? It's difficult to say what it even is!) in cinema. Although its influence is discernible all over the world (particularly in these globalised times), it is probably best known in its American incarnation (especially in the 'golden age' of the 1940s and 1950s) and that's where we'll be focusing.
Aesthetically, it depends heavily on chiaroscuro lighting, unusual camera angles and wide-angle lenses. Much of this is derived from German Expressionism. The most obvious reason for that is that many of the German Expressionist directors and cinematographers fled Germany as the Nazis were on the rise and settled in America. Probably the most famous of these was Fritz Lang, director of Metropolis. Josef Goebbels, the Minster of Propaganda for the Nazi Party, was so impressed by Metropolis that he asked Lang to make films for the Nazis. Lang fled to America instead and had a long career applying his expressionist style to American stories - and thus film noir was ceated. See here, for example - the trailer for Lang's classic 1955 noir The Big Heat gives a good introduction to the aesthetic and 'feel' of noir.
Plots, originally, were often taken from the hardboiled detective stories of writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Stock characters - the hard-drinking gumshoe detective, the treacherous femme fatale, the cops and criminals who are often hard to tell apart - are borrowed from those same books and given life by many of the most famous actors of the era. The location, as is typical of the Crime matrix genre, is urban and tends to focus on seedy office, alleys, clubs and so on. Narratives often depend upon first-person voice-over, flashbacks and (of course) more-or-less Todorovian, 'classic Hollywood' three-act structures. Dialogue is often very stylised, overly metaphorical and 'poetic.' As such, it seems to have all the things demanded to qualify as a 'proper' genre - Buscombe's iconographic categories (location, tools, appearance and miscellaneous(!)) are all well satisfied - and there are recogniseable conventions which allow for the establishment and satisfaction of foreknowledge and expectation in the audience.
Less specifically, critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (1955, A Panorama of American Film Noir) offered a definition of noir as '...oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel...' ('Oneiric' means 'dreamlike'.) They admit themselves that this is unsatisfactorily simplistic and reductive, but it is a useful and interesting starting point. A 'typical' noir will have a sexual charge (usually between the detective and the femme fatale), a lot of unthinking and often apparently motiveless cruelty, and, often, nothing resembling a 'happy' ending. They aren't cheery films. See, for example, the opening of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me, Deadly from 1955:
So why the argument about whether noir is actually a genre or not? Well, though we've identified a lot of conventions, a huge number of these films irritatingly refuse to follow them. For example, probably the most recognisably 'noir' characters are the detective and the femme fatale, but most noir movies feature neither. Equally, though the genre (or whatever it is) is strongly associated with an urban setting, many of these films have small-town or semi-rural settings. What is perhaps more consistent, however, is the aesthetic of the movies. Monochrome, low-key lighting, creative use of shadows, claustrophobic, low-ceilinged sets, Dutch or canted angle shots, lots of crane shots and low-angle shots, highly technical pans and tracks - all are strongly associated with noir, and are perhaps what makes it a recogniseable style and, indeed, so influential today. It may be that we love these movies not so much for their character, plots or narratives, but for their appearance.
There are far too many 'great' noirs to offer a comprehensive list, but classic examples are Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and, seen above, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me, Deadly (1955). The opening of Double Indemnity offers an excellent example of the noir style:
Reflection theory tells us, simply, that film (or any cultural form) mirrors the world in which it is made.It's a common starting point for the analysis of film - an example might be here where Sarah Hughes suggests that The Hunger Games resonates particularly with a young audience who feel socially and economically betrayed by social systems and older generations, and that this abuse of a younger generation by an older one is symbolically played out in those particular films. There are some fairly obvious ways in which the dark, fractured narratives of film noir reflect America in the 1940s and 1950s. This, of course, was the period spanning World War 2 and the beginning of the Cold War. The threat of Nuclear War became an ever-present factor in life, and the edgy nervousness and fear of the future engendered by this finds expression in these films.
We might also look at gender representations from a reflection theory point of view. The men - the hardboiled detectives, or the criminals - all tend to embody the dominant masculine characterisitics of toughness, independence, competence. Probably the most interesting archetype in noir, though, is the femme fatale - a woman who is often motivated by sex, money, power - all the things we commonly associate with men.
As we can see from the shot of Ava Gardner here, the femme fatale is a represntation constructed primarily from signifiers of sexuality. In narrative terms, this sexuality becomes the weapon by which she attracts, and usually betrays, the male lead. She is a powerful, independent figure. It has been suggested that the femme fatale in part reflects the fact that women achieved a great deal of independence in World War 2, primarily becasue they entered the workforce in huge numbers to cover for the men who were fighting. It is also important to note, however, that the femme fatale is usually destroyed by her own desire for power or independence; that same link goes on to point out that the dominant gender ideologies of the time demanded that women be returned to their 'proper place' after the war. Film noir supports this by showing how independence and sexuality are traits associated with 'bad' women.
Finally, we might look at the philosophical underpinnings of much noir and what this reveals about the world at the time it was made. The plots are generally violent. The narratives are often twisted and warped, with much flashing back and forward. It is common to start the story by having something utterly inexplicable happening to the central character. In representational terms, the police, clergy, politicians - all the representatives of society who are supposed to protect us - are often either absent or completely corrupt. All in all, noir offers a diegesis - a representation of the world, of life - which is corrupt and in which nearly everyone is motivated by base things - sex, money power. There are no heroes - only antiheroes. Where does this NIHILISTIC view of life come from?
The pulp literature from which much original noir derives is often very nihilistic in that the supposed arbiters of order and justice are absent or corrupt. It's often EXISTENTIALIST in that this then leaves the individual (usually the detective or hard-boiled male protagonist) to make sense of a strange, non-compassionate, non-logical universe. This may link to Borde and Chaumenton's idea that noir is often 'oneiric' - dream or nightmare like. Critic Mark T. Conard, writing in 2006, actually sees noir and neo-noir as an acting out of this 'death of God'- the removal of any conception of a logical, benign, moral order in the universe. Given that the classic noir period (1940 - 1958) comes at the same time as America's involvement in WW2 and the Cold War which succeeded it, it is not surprising that dark, nihilistic attitudes prevail.
That lack of order and structure expresses itself in many ways in noir. Obviously, as we have seen, the 'Gods' of the diegetic worlds of these films - the police, politicians, bosses or whatever - are often absent or 'dead'. The narratives are often non-classical or non-Todorovian - lots of flashbacks, voiceovers, red herrings and so on. They strive to be difficult to understand. Narrative causation often breaks down - characters do things or things happen for no particular reason. We can see this as a reaction to the increasing difficulty of seeing the world as a benign place managed by a kindly God. Remove God, and the Universe is suddently chaotic, hostile and scary - just like the noir diegesis.
Time Cover, April 1966
Contemporary noir is called neo-noir. The aesthetic and tone are extraordinarily influential. The most obviously influence films of recent years are things like Robert Rodriquez's Sin City (2005) which appropriates the entire noir diegesis - setting, characters, plots - and makes it all a lot more slick, violent and modern (and empty, many critics have said, although others were much more positive.) The representations become hypermasculine and hypersexual, but this is still clearly the same world as that shown in the golden era noir films.
More common, however, is a more general influence. A highly contrasted aesthetic; a narrative which starts with a strange or inexplicable occurrence; an urban setting which appears unfriendly or corrupt; a central character who has to rely on his (almost never her) own resources to get to the bottom of some bewildering siuation. Characters motivated by money or sex and occasionally by something more noble, like love - this sounds like about 70% of films. Look to directors like Christopher Nolan or Wong Kar Wai (see the trailer for his wonderful Fallen Angels from 1995.
Bright Lights - various articles and reviews
Film Studies for Free - noir bibliography
Crimeculture - some context for various phases of neo-noir
Village Voice - 20 Neo-noir films you must see
The Guardian - Top Ten noir films