Noir and Neo-Noir

Guillermo Del Toro is finally releasing his next movie. After “The Shape of Water” in 2017, Del Toro began work on a film called “Nightmare Alley.” Production was delayed by the Pandemic and it is set to release December 17th. This is the second adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name. This film is a strange pick for Del Toro because it deviates from the director’s favored genre. He is very well known for supernatural films such as “Devil’s Backbone”, and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “Nightmare Alley” is exactly the opposite as it has nothing to do with the supernatural whatsoever. It’s a Neo-Noir film about a con man working at a carnival that is trying to manipulate a wealthy man. Neo-Noir itself is very interesting, but the history of classic noir makes it even better.
In the 40’s and 50’s Noir was at its peak. It is debated what the first true noir was, but the first major film -and arguably the best- was “The Maltese Falcon” by John Huston. It follows a detective named Sam Spade as he tries to solve the murder of his partner. The film is the pinnacle of crime drama. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Spade became the blueprint for thousands of films and characters. The budget for the film was fairly low, and because of this they used lighting and visual storytelling to make up for lackluster effects. The end result was the birth of a new style of film.
In 1958 the last classic noir film was released, “The Touch of Evil” by Orson Welles. The classic noir style was laid to rest with this film, but not because it was boring or bad. The death of noir was really just an evolution. Alfred Hitchcock tweaked the classic formula in 1960 with the release of “Psycho.” It was made with the same low-key lighting and had many of the other important features of noir, but this was a psychological thriller instead of the usual crime drama or detective film. This drastic change of tone created Neo-Noir.
The classic elements of noir are mostly style and tone based. Using lighting tricks and darker story elements to give the movie a more gritty feel. The black and white movies of the era played in with this really well, allowing them to use the natural contrast to their advantage. In a lot of films they took out one or more lights from the traditional set up to get some very dark shadows. They use very hard light to get very clear highlights, often having light shine through blinds. Neo-noir is much harder to explain as it isn’t very defined in nature. It is, simply put, just classic noir film makers messed with a little. It’s very broad and strange, so much so that there is no set style anymore. It’s very confusing to describe a style that has no style, but it makes sense if you look at shots from different films.

The shot above shows Ryan Gosling’s character in “Bladerunner 2049” while the shot below shows Farley Granger’s character in “Strangers on a Train.” The color schemes are vastly different but both are used to make you focus on the actor’s face. By using bright neon lights they were able to get the same level of contrast used in previous black and white films.

This shot from “No Country for Old Men” uses another technique to focus your attention. The background has just about nothing interesting in it. The only points of interest are the car and the characters in the scene. The shot below was taken from “The Big Combo.” It uses a similar minimalistic sort of background that really makes the characters stand out. “No Country for Old Men” also uses tropes from both classic noir and western films as inspiration for the story. There are shootouts, killers, blood money, and a lack of a satisfying ending. It keeps you on your toes.

In conclusion, noir laid the groundwork for modern cinema. Modern directors still use elements from the “good ol’ days” of black and white film. Neo-noir is one of the most diverse and interesting subgenres ever created. It allows people creativity and has brought many striving directors like Rian Johnson and Cristopher Nolan into the limelight. The influence of Noir continues to be used to this day in very unique and cool ways.