Simply put, noir is a french word meaning, black. Why do American's recognize or hear this French word so often? When you hear someone mention noir, they are likely talking about film noir. And they are likely referring to one of the following; a genre, a style, a feeling, or a period of time in American film.
Why did the French get to name something relating to American films?
For a time, American films were not seen or more accurately, not allowed in France. During World War II, the Nazi armies had taken control of France and had banned American films in the theaters. Hollywood continued making films, but France was cut off during this period. It was during this time of war that American films went through a change. This change was something later called Film Noir.
Film noir, french for "Black film," was used to describe a huge backlog of American films that reached a French audience for the first time after World War II.
After the occupation and later liberation in 1945, these films made their way into French theaters. The American movies that Hollywood had been making during the war were different, disturbing, and darker. Uncomfortably different from what France had remembered the classic Hollywood film to be.
What happened to American film during this time?
American life was changing, films were trying to imitate or express the feelings of the time. It was a darker time. Some will argue that wartime and postwar America seemed to have become disoriented and disconnected. Others will argue that this disconnection was already happening before the war. Either way, these changes were evident in the films in various ways. Narratives had changed, lead characters were less heroic, (sometimes called antiheroes), plots had become darker, riddled with crime, violence, corruption, and sometimes erotic tones.
This was in stark contrast to what had become the typical Hollywood film, the prewar film. French audiences were surprised at what American films were doing. They were shocked and often made to feel uncomfortable by these new films. To describe these darker films, French critics called them, "film noir."
Noir or film noir, is more than just a French term. Noir is used to describe a period of American films. Some will argue that noir is and only is, a period in American film. Therefore, nothing after this period can be considered noir. It was an artistic movement, a historical era in American film. This era varies slightly, but most will agree it was roughly from the early 1940's to the late 1950's. With this description, noir is and only ever was, a body of artistic work that happened, that had a birth and death.
This definition of noir as an era, is quite accurate. After all, the word first appeared during a specific time and for the sole purpose of defining the American films during that time. You can't really argue with someone who uses the word noir in this manner, however the word is often used, improperly perhaps, to describe other things such as a genre, a style, or a feeling. These other uses for the word, have been applied to works both outside of film as well as outside of a specific era.
The definition according to the New Oxford American Dictionary is as follows;“a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.”
This dictionary definition is not complete though. Noir is more than simply a genre, and it is certainly not just a part of the crime genre. Noir is considered also to be a style as well as a feeling. This dictionary definition does however sum up the general misuse of the term. Often this is how the term is used, or rather misused, today. Commonly, describing noir as a much more general term, shying away from using the word in a more specific way, such as the era argument.
As a genre, noir would be described by its subject matter, typical scenery, and characters. For example, the setting may take place in a dark city drenched in rain, where city lights are harsh like prison spotlights, characters may appear as shadowy silhouettes.
A main character may be an antihero, that is a main character lacking heroic attributes. The subject matter, is generally predictable, it may be a police investigation into a murder, or a private investigator is hired to find evidence of a love affair. Often, the downfall of our antihero. You may root for them, but deep down you know that they are against the odds. They may not make it out alive.
Dark stories, tales of desperation, greed, helplessness, things that lead the audience to uncomfortable places. Which brings to light the reason some prefer to describe noir as a feeling in film. We can see the New Oxford definition in this, crime and fatalism. The problem with the dictionary definition is that it is so general that it allows for other works that are better described with other terms to fall neatly into it.
Not everything is noir. Just because a movie has things such as murder, investigations, bribery, or other elements of a criminal plot does not mean that it should be defined as noir. Perhaps it has noir like qualities. There are a number of works in film, television, photography, even video games that are noir-like. These would fall into a genre known as neo-noir or pseudo-noir.
When the French first coined the term, 'film noir' to describe the American films after the war, they were describing among other things, a dark feeling they were getting from the films. Because film noir took on such different and new themes to what had become the norm to the French at this time, they were often led to uncomfortable places. The feeling was dark, uncomfortable, and even shocking.
In this way, noir is sometimes described as a feeling. However, noir is not just a feeling. Should any movie or artwork that leads the viewer to dark places be considered noir? No. What if it makes the viewer uncomfortable, is this enough to call something noir? Again, no. Shock value alone is not enough to justify calling something noir. Nor does the presence of an uncomfortable feeling or a dark feeling.
To sum up, noir sometimes contains feelings. Noir may give a kind of dark, uncomfortable feeling, and it may not. Either way, the feeling alone is not the complete definition of what makes something noir. Noir is many things, noir is a genre, an era, a style, and a feeling. Noir is all of these things, and yet it doesn't need to be all of them at once to be noir.
New work that is sometimes described as noir would fall into a sub-category of noir. Such a category exists and is sometimes referred to as New Noir, Pseudo Noir, or Neo-Noir. New Noir exists in many forms. It is present in movies, television, fiction, graphic novels, video games, and even photography (at least in terms of style.)
There are many modern day examples of new-noir or neo-noir. Newer movies such as Drive starring Ryan Gosling from 2011. This movie follows an anti-hero that falls in love with a woman living next door. He is a quiet soft-spoken type, and generally keeps to himself. He is morally ambiguous in that he moonlights as a driver for criminals. The uncomfortable feeling is present throughout the film as we are driven through the story with a sense of fatalism and despair.
There are many modern examples and the purpose of this site is not to list them all, but to give a general idea, below are a few examples.
Noir is even present in video games such as Max Payne, Max Payne 2, or Heavy Rain.
Like with new noir movies, there are other examples of neo-noir in video games, but we are not here to list them all.