I have not posted here in a while, but I’ve been busy developing ideas for our next big game. One of the concepts I like the best for our next game is this Film Noir styled game set in the 1930s that I worked up. After working on it for a bit I can say that it’s a real opportunity, and it’s also that adapting any kind of niche film is going to be a real pain in the neck.
So what is Noir? Noir isn’t just a kind of film, it gets wrapped up in a whole slew of people’s perceptions of what the genre is, or if it’s a genre at all and not just a period in film history, and it all makes it very hard for me to make a proper Noir game that actually has some firm roots in real Film Noir film theory. That may not seem like a big deal to you, but it is to me, so it sticks with me. Good art needs a few good problems anyway, and digging through Noir critical thought has been an interesting journey as well. I did my best to find the shared thoughts from about twelve of the top Noir critics, writers, and films. My conclusion is that while nobody really has a firm definition of what Noir is, there are a small number of identifiable themes central to Noir, and that the more of these are present the stronger the identification becomes. The most important elements are story, then character, then visuals, and lastly the date of creation. Let’s break it down.
Date of Creation is important because Noir was not just a kind of film or a look, but it was a period. This is a controversial idea, but all films reflect the time they’re made, and the societal influences on the impact of classic Noir were specific to that time. You can make a piece that does the same thing, but you gotta understand the society that created it before you can do that. Film Noir was influenced by the thoughts and feelings arising from the end of the first World War, not just the second, and the societal trauma, as well as the emasculating effect the war had on the heroic male identity as a whole, set the stage for darker, more realistic films where characters had inner demons and society was at odds with good men. This took a while to really take off in the states, but a lot of the experimental literature and cinematography that the 20s and 30s saw were crucial to the eventual creation of Noir in the 1940s of America.
Once it did all come together, between the 1940s and the 1960s we saw a huge amount of Noir films, often B-movies shot with B-movie talent and using an inexpensive plot purchased from a pulp magazine, that reflected the moods of the time and clearly contrasted the other up-beat films of the war years and the 50s Americana wave. Psychology was a new science, helping us to understand that there were forces in our mind beyond our direct control, and the second World War spawned a whole new generation of chewed-up psyches, and a society that wanted to forget and pretend nothing was wrong, when clearly a lot was. That’s why time is important—Noir reflected a certain period in time, and modern adaptations either have to reflect the same fears, with hit or miss resonance on the part of the audience, or reflect modern ones and possibly just confuse everyone.
Strong Visual Language is important too, but not incredibly so, as they’re merely the artifice on top of the rest. Even when the story is the same, a Film Noir is distinguished from hardboiled crime novels by the language of film. You convey different things in different ways with a camera, and unless you cheat and use narration you need to evoke moods and narrative themes with film techniques rather than author-to-audience exposition. The film itself needs to break from a realistic camera style to an artistic one at specific moments to help communicate the mood of the characters or of the film, especially when those moods overwhelm the characters. It is a visual trigger to us, the audience, that something screwy is going on in the character’s head or the situation on screen. Documentary-style filming or strict realism is no good for that, and the filming also cannot be too loose or too free; that’ll translate that free feeling to the characters and the plot, which is also no good. Film Noir usually grounds most moments in realistic, believable cinematography before veering off into high art moments where the film feels feel oppressive, closed in, dark, and restricted. You notice the importance of the shift primarily because you can tell how different it is from most of the work being done.
This speaks to you subconsciously, another link to psychology, and is necessary for the film to adequately translate some concepts and feelings that the script doesn’t come out and say. Film language can also tell certain things better than saying it. It also helps visually set up the contrasts that are so important to the themes in the film. Film Noirs often open with a shot of a pretty city and happy people, maybe in the daylight, with some cheerful music and rarely any kind of gritty narration to sour it. This kind of gentle opening lets the audience identify with the nice world of nice people, where the story begins, before night falls and things go bad. If there’s no nice place or nice people then the grittiness and desperation of the people the Noir features are not interesting or unique. Showing those contrasts, good and bad, light and dark, helps make the movie have more weight and it does so through the language of film alone.
Character is very important, because the right kind of Film Noir protagonist and antagonist make it much easier to evoke the kind of world, and tell the kind of story, that Noir depends upon. Characters are usually damaged goods and rough around the edges, though they should not be bad guys. The best examples of these characters will offend the audience early on, and make the viewers think that maybe the world would be better off if the criminals won this one, only to end the movie with a revelation of their own innate goodness. Where lots of stories begin with clearly defined heroes that have indistinct personalities that allow the reader to identify with them, the ideal Noir character rejects audience identification and remains a bit of a mystery. The character arc for the Noir hero if flipped compared to a normal hero. I’ll talk about that more in a second, but just trust me for now.
In most films, we are the character and we see two poles (bravery vs cowardice, fear vs love, etc) pulling on the character, which is us. We can feel that tension. In a Noir, the audience is usually the good pole and movie only shows the bad pole pulling the character farther and farther away from us, and the light, as time goes on. That’s where the tension comes from in a Noir, and in the best examples it’ll snap back right at the end when the Hero reveals that they’re doing the right thing afterall. We like to see them slide, but we also want to see them choose to be good people. They have to stat straddling the line before going over and then coming back. Characters that go from good to bad, and stay bad, are very different—as are characters that go from bad to good and stay good. Both can make for compelling stories, but they rarely give the story the kind of emotional hook they need to tell that Noir kind of plot.
Story and Narrative are, of course, the last things. Everything so far has been about telling the right kind of story. Dates, visuals and characters all conspire to help make the situation right for a Film Noir to take place. So what’s the story? It can be anything, but there are a few big points: It should involve a crime that draws decent people into dangerous intrigue, personal danger for the protagonist, lots of corruptive temptation, moments where the protagonist can choose to end the madness, and enough of a confusing plot that it takes them a lot of effort to put the pieces together. That’s basically it, but we can break down the story elements too. The details are less important than the structure they create.
Crime is important because it shows people at odds with society. If society is corrupt or out of touch or incompetent in the face of a modern world, then a crime opposes that, and it gives our character a chance to either side against society, or work to fix it despite it being so lousy. Crimes also offer a window into the strange reality of desperate individuals and mean streets, and the threat of prosecution can push good people to do bad things. It doesn’t have to be about a crime, but it helps.
Personal danger helps keep the protagonist hooked without making them look obsessive. They have to be given something motivating to get them on the case. Often times the protagonist in a Noir is a masculine archetype, a tough guy who doesn’t back down from a challenge, in a world where tough guys got mowed down unheroically by machineguns in two world wars, and came home to a country that didn’t know what to do with them. Noir worlds are often emasculating, but danger is a good hook to entice a Noir protagonist (often male) into taking things personally, and threat of lingering violence is a good reason to get someone off your back. If the protagonist is accused of a crime by the cops, and accused of it by an angry gang of gun-toting thugs as well, even better.
Temptation and corruption are huge elements in a Noir, and the bribes and sexual innuendo should be there to give us doubt in the protagonist. If they look like they’re tempted by one, or both, then there’s more tension. Corruption that looks reasonable under the circumstances is even better, because the audience themselves might start to be tempted by a reasonable offer, only to find themselves less virtuous than the gritty protagonist at the end. We want to be able to believe the main character is capable of being a good person, but isn’t. The best way to make it seem like they’re straying from the path, rather than losing it entirely, is to give them some real strong temptations. Bonus points for only playing along, and making the audience ashamed of themselves for considering it.
Opportunities for Escape from the plot help show that, despite the fact that the character is not an obsessive, they have decided to follow this through. This allows for us, at least in retrospect, to see the protagonist as someone taking a principled stand rather than a purely self-interested one. If the character is simply at the mercy of a lousy situation, with no chance to get off, then it is not an ideal Film Noir. If the movie is fatalistic then the character isn’t really at fault, or there never really was much tension. It ends up feeling empty, and that’s the opposite of what you want to happen. If a character screws up badly, they should screw up because they did something wrong, not because they just drew the short stick. Plot off-ramps with clearly marked signs give our story the structure it needs to keep the focus on the protagonist’s motivations.
Confusing Plots help with the need to obfuscate motivations as well. Having a confusing plot, or at least one with a lot of double-crosses, means that we cannot guess the next plot twist nor can we guess (or even accurately judge) what the protagonist might do at any given moment. This heightens the tension, and makes it believable to us that they could be a good man going bad, or a guy just going along with it at the moment. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t know themselves. Motivations are at the heart of the story. If we knew the Sam’s motivations from the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, then we would never be surprised when we the twist at the end. We have to be kept in the dark until the end, when we find out at the same time as the femme fatale, so that the tension over “will he fall to corruption or not?” is not wasted. The mystery wasn’t really about who killed Miles Archer, not really. It was about the moral fiber of Sam Spade.
The confusion of the plot makes the audience fall back on understanding motivations. They may not know exactly what is going on, but if they can try to guess what someone’s game is, they can at least start formulating their own theories about what’s happening. They’ll be thinking and asking questions to themselves, especially during those long moments without dialogue that Film Noir enjoys. It also helps make it look like the whole world, in the Film, is going nuts. Isolating the “one sane man” in the plot, but still keeping his line of thinking separate from the audience, deepens the atmosphere of mistrust and fear that Film Noir often overlies.
You can’t take all that and make a paint-by-numbers work out of it, but you can see a lot of the hallmarks. One of the things I didn’t include in this list of major points is the concept of Societal Decay. I think that one point is massively overstated, and has more to do with a desire to upset the norms that the character enjoys (ie, help to increase the confusion of the plot and situation) than a specific desire to lay out the decaying moral framework of 1940s society. If that were the goal, it would be an embarrassment, as societal decay is handled better in other films of other genres, like High Noon (1952, Western) or Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Drama). You can also find many examples of Film Noir, including some of the biggest and more influential ones, where there’s no real theme of Societal Decay at all, just the same underbelly of desperate individuals that we normally see. Noir will often show how average people slide into that kind of desperation, or get caught up in the underbelly, but that’s not decay. It’s rotten luck, but it’s no more decayed than it ever was.
You’ll find other definitions elsewhere, but that’s mine and my thoughts behind it. I’m not even sure if I’d call it a genre at all anymore. Some film critics call it a setting or a theme or a mood, or a movement, but not a genre. I suppose it depends how narrowly you want to define it. I think the labels are handy, but ultimately pointless to get too upset about. When people were making the Noir classics they were not calling them Noirs, and they were not following a stylistic playbook. I think the real thing about Noir is that it was the first wave of the “Darker and Edgier” movements we’ve seen ever since. I’d call it a movement more than a genre, because it was what you got when you let people play with characters and themes in an artistic way at a time when the old kinds of clichés felt out of touch.
These movies were also influential on directors and movie makers, even if the early ones didn’t earn much of a profit, so they continued to be made and talked about despite the fact that the studios had no reason to push for them early on. That way a movement got started even without the public pushing for it—Noir really started as an artistic movement, not a public consumption medium. It is also helpful to know that movie makers over in America were the first ones to get any taste of the work being done by the German Expressionists and guys like Fritz Lang. Lang’s famous movie M may not be a Noir according to many critics, but you can see the influence it had on filmmakers. They wanted to make stuff like M, and a B-Movie about some cheap thug on the run would be a perfect time to flex those artistic muscles.
The first big A-class movie to do well in the Noir vein was Double Indemnity, which I think has caused a lot of these problems. Is it even a Noir? I’m not sure. I also find it plodding and uninteresting, too safe for the Noir genre and without the kind of unpracticed edge you really need to get the feel for it. It has a dangerous woman, which defined a continuing cliché, but it also kills off the fallen protagonist rather than redeem them. Dangerous women are again an emasculating threat, and the dying fallen man giving his story to the just man is fine, but it also is a bit weak. There’s a bit of redemption but I never really bought it, and I also never bought why the Insurance Salesman main character talked like he stepped out of a Private Detective novel. He’s not a tough guy, he’s just tempted. To me it always felt like Double Indemnity was a cludge. You get a bunch of sappy romance that’s entirely out of place, you get the “good and evil” poles rather than the actual Noir setup, you get a lot of very unambiguous moral moments, and worst of all the delivery is exceedingly flat. These aren’t desperate people, they’re cartoon cutouts giving lines through clenched lips. You’d almost think it was something made in the late 50s trying to fake a Noir style. Personally, because I see the roots of the Noir movement coming out in the 30s and already visibly by the early 40s, Double Indemnity in 1944 was already riding the coat-tails of an artistic movement that started in the 20s and made it to American movie theaters in the 30s, and it rode them with bland conventionalism. That’s all personal opinion, mind you, but I find it a lot easier to trace a line between movies like Double Indemnity and the crime thrillers of the day, movies like Little Caeser or White Heat where you get a lot of Noir aspects (including some excellent dramatic lighting tricks) but your protagonist is a through-and-through turd who dies in the end, maybe with surprise and a bit of regret, but with total justification.
Well that ended up being a lot longer than I expected. But I did promise something about the flipping of Noir and normal hero, so let’s be expedient and use Star Wars.
For the classic “normal hero,” let’s look at Luke. He starts off fresh-faced, and he’s still the fresh-faced idealist and open-minded future hero while running around Dagobah being taught by Yoda. When he finally leaves, as the doe-eyed young Knight he is, to go confront Vader, the big revelation is that he and Vader are family—father and son. They’re the same, in a sort of way, and his mentors have been lying to him the whole time. Again in Return of the Jedi, the action culminates with a confrontation between Luke and his dark nature, when the Emperor tells him he will fail, sends his father to smite him, and challenges Luke to give in to hate. The twist in both of these is “you are not so different,” and that creates tension in the story and makes us wonder, “Will he stay good?” It’s not much of a question, but there is that moment of doubt.
If this were a Film Noir, the character of Luke would be older and nastier from the get-go, with a developed personality that we may not like or identify with. He may even come off as rougher than the Imperial officials on Tatooine, who give him a hard time in the middle of a job helping this old fart Ben Kenobi off the planet. Luke might be working with Vader directly, when the surprising murder of Kenobi, a dead R2 unit, a mysterious disc, and a whole lot of questions. That’s when Princess Leia gets ahold of him, and tries to play him for a sucker, but he’s not biting. With the murder of Kenobi on his back, the underground Rebellion sniffing around him and a pair of two-bit thugs named Solo and Chewbacca giving him a hard time. He’s wrapped up with this Leia dame, who won’t tell him anything but wants the disc, and he’s got the Imperials trying to pin the old man’s murder on him.
It goes on and on until Luke’s about ready to turn over the disc, the Princess, and the whole shebang and gets Vader to confirm the one thing Luke didn’t know for certain: Vader killed Kenobi, his old partner, for the disc. That’s when Luke reveals his own double-cross, shows the disc he has to be a fake, says the Rebellion is on the way to blow up the Death Star as they’re speaking, and lets Leia go off with Han and Chewie before the place blows and the authorities arrive to question Luke. The hero goes from looking like an even worse guy than the villain to a real stand-up guy—even revealing to the Emperor, as Vader is being hauled off, that Vader propositioned him to join up and overthrow the Emperor to “rule the galaxy together,” but Luke wasn’t having any of it. Bad guys still around, good guys still around, hero in the middle, but while the world looks crappy it shows that a good guy can still do something positive in the midst of a hell of a lot of bad news.