Christopher Nolan's Memento - Analysis of the narrative structure of a noirish revenge film

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

28 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents

0. Introduction

1. Classic Film Noir: Definiton, primary characteristics, conventions and historical surroundings
1.1 Definition
1.2 The role of the male protagonist
1.3 The femme fatale
1.4 Further characteristics of classic film noir - Mood, tone, visual and cinematic elements
1.5 Historical and social surroundings

2. Neo-Noir Films
2.1 Definition and Characteristics

3. The Revenge Film
3.1 Common Characteristics

4. Analysis of the narrative structure of Christopher Nolan’s Memento
4.1 A Plot Summary
4.2 The Narrative Structure
4.2.1 Colour Scenes
4.2.2 Black and White Scenes
4.2.3 The Opening Scene

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. The Chronological Order Plot Table

0. Introduction

Christopher Nolan’s low budget film Memento (2000), which is based on the concept of a short story named Memento Mori written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, was certainly one of the most successful films in the United States in 2000. In most cinemas it was shown for more than 15 weeks in the summer season – the most competitive season of the year. While the success of many modern Hollywood films is a result of “money, hype and more money”, Memento“represents a triumph of writing, directing, and performance” (Klein 2001). This film belongs to the so called neo-noir and revenge-film genre. In this paper these two genres will first of all be described in detail. Afterwards, the plot and the narrative structure of Memento – which is extremely complex, clever and demands intelligence and constant attention from its spectators – will be discussed.

1. Classic Film Noir: Definiton, primary characteristics, conventions and historical surroundings

1.1 Definition

In the early 40s a new form of cinema emerged in America. Dark and gloom laden, it reflected the anxieties of a country entering a new era. Cynical and subversive in attitude, here was the antithesis of Hollywood’s glamour productions of the 30s (Cameron 1993; Copjec 1993). The term film noir (literally black film) was first introduced by the French critic Nino Frank in 1946 as he noticed “how dark and often black” (Tims 1996) the settings and themes of these Hollywood films were. John Huston’s detective story “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart, can be considered the first film of this genre. Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958), starring Charlton Heston, marks the end of the classic film noir cycle (Crime Culture “Neo-Noir” 2002). Unlike other forms of cinema, film noir has no elements that it can truly call its own. Rather, film noir borrows elements from other forms, usually from the crime and detective genres, but often overlapping into thrillers, horror, and even science fiction (Copjec 1993). Certain melodramas, cowboy films, and even musicals also fit in this particular genre (Encarta 2002). The primary moods of classic film noir are “melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt and paranoia” (Tims 1996). As far as the typical characters in these films are concerned, it has to be pointed out that there traditionally is a classical male protagonist. The main characteristics of the typical film noir protagonist will now be described in detail.

1.2 The role of the male protagonist

This person – in many cases impersonated like mentioned before by the job of a “hard-boiled” (Crime Culture “Film Noir” 1999) private detective[1] – is alienated from society and creates a feeling of social estrangement and disillusion. He is usually a hard-working, “brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure” (Tims 1996) loner hidden in metropolitan architecture who makes his daily way through desolate redlight districts and other filthy and ghetto-like areas of his environment looking for possible hints for his work. Furthermore, the protagonist never succeeds in becoming economically and privately successful. He neither becomes rich, nor does he find a loving woman. Encarta (2002) considers this phenomenon the “opposite of the American Dream.” The dark and scary setting of film noir is the everyday-world of the protagonist. There is no room for peace or real happiness in his life. Through his eyes the recipient is shown a world dominated by corruption and greed, violence and crime in which the protagonist sometimes seems to have difficulties with drawing a clear line between right and wrong. As a result of this, he sometimes finds himself closer to the scenery of crime than one would expect a person in his position to be, e.g. illustrated by a friendship to some “syndicate’s big shot underling” (Blaser 1999) or his fatal affection for a woman from the underworld, which usually leads to his own downfall. A description of this type of woman – the so called femme fatale – will follow now.[2]

1.3 The femme fatale

Besides the male protagonists, the femme fatale resembles the other key iconic figure of film noir.

She poses seductively both on film posters and on hundreds of mid-twentieth century pulp covers. The elements of the image are a kind of visual shorthand for perilous attraction and steamy corruption. Sometimes the dangerous woman is simply a sexual predator who tempts and weakens a male protagonist; sometimes she actually imitates male aggression and appropriates male power. On the poster or pulp cover she perhaps holds only a cocktail glass and a smouldering cigarette, or she might hold a gun and might by the end of the narrative have pulled the trigger. Constrained by the Hays Code, Hollywood tended to package the femme fatale narrative in ways that ensured the defeat of the independent female, but such was the power of the image of the sexual, aggressive, strong woman that she in many ways, in the minds of audiences, resisted this formulaic reassertion of male control (Crime Culture “Film Noir” 1999).

So the role of the “mysterious, (…) gorgeous, unloving, predatory, (…) unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate” (Tims 1996) femme fatale in film noir is extraordinarily dominant and seems to be painted far away from reality. The greatest difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘noir’ woman is the ambition the on-screen version has (Blaser 1999). Housewives rarely represent a threat to the men and the patriarchal system. In contrast, the femme fatale ’s industriousness for independence and her sexual powers and ambitions jeopardize not only the protagonist, but also the entire system behind him in a tenacious way. Blaser (1999) says that “the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family.” In addition to the role of the male protagonist and the femme fatale there are of course some more characteristics of classic film noir which will now be discussed.

1.4 Further characteristics of classic film noir – Story line, mood, tone, visual and cinematic elements

One of the most important characteristics of classic film noir is the story line, because all these films had two similarities:

They were all dark, desperate tales and they were all based in contemporary settings of the city, or the urban sprawl. Their stories often centred on law and order, with outsiders, opportunists, losers and criminals busy plotting revenge or murder. (…) The mood always remains the same. Classic film noir stories, no matter their detail, are always pessimistic, obsessive and full of dark intent. Part of this pessimism is to do with an inescapable fate that reaps its ill harvest come what may (What makes a classic film noir movie? With reference to the Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Sunset Boulevard (2000).

Schrader (1972) also sees some common characteristics of classic film noir. He puts emphasis on film noir as a visual style. He says this genre was characterised by “mood” and “tone”:

Watching film noirs, I have noticed some elements which they all have in common. One of the techniques used is the very low key lighting which obscures the action. The uses of night and shadows are a recurring factor in noir films, emphasising coldness and darkness. In the films, the world often seems like a prison, this is often shown through image metaphors like sun blinds. A lot of use of extreme low and high angle perspectives which serve to create a mood of uneasiness and loneliness in noirs (Schrader 1972).

So in the classic film noir the audience is introduced to the dark world of crime, a world full of shadows, rain drenched streets and sleazy bars. The photography is equally distinctive. With disorientating camera angles, expressionist, distorted close-ups and chiaroscuro lighting that fills the frame with shafts of light and shadow, a claustrophobic world of fear and paranoia is created (Crime Culture “Film Noir” 1999). These, and many other filmic elements and devices, constitute meaning in the early films. The focus will now be put on the relations between the classic film noir and the social and cultural surroundings in the United States at this particular time.

1.5 Historical and social surroundings

“Cinematic noir can be seen as closely related to the modernist crisis of culture – as reflecting the feelings of nightmarish alienation, disorientation and disintegration that are often taken as hallmarks of the modernist sensibility.” This is the first sentence of a definition of the term given on the website of Crime Culture “Film Noir” (1999). But does the film noir genre really reflect the American society of the late 30s, 40s and 50s?[3] Classical ‘ noirish ’ films emerged during and after World War II, greatly influenced by the circumstances at that time. In order to understand the development of film noir one has to go even further back and observe the situation in America from the 1930s up to the late fifties. In the thirties the whole country was struggling with depression and the problems (widespread unemployment etc.) contributed to this being a difficult time for the American people. When America entered the battlefields of the Second World War it changed the country and its situation. While most parts of the world were shattered at the end of the war, the USA had managed to leap out of the depression, build a high employment rate and become the undisputed leader of the world without even suffering any sort of destruction in America. In a way World War II was the best that could have happened to the United States. They now played the most decisive role in the world, once again underlining their ambition to be a strong and almost invincible nation. In the late forties and fifties the American economy was in full bloom. It seemed like the citizens wanted to make up for all they had missed out during the depression. Along with the economic boom came the well-known baby boom and also a high increase in marriages. Families moved out to live in the suburban communities which, in fact, exploded. By all appearances, people had the need to build new larger houses. Hence there was a population increase in metropolitan areas while the number of people living in agrarian areas decreased heavily. Since the surroundings in the suburban lives were (and still are) very similar, people longed for some rapport, which most people found in religious participation. Religion drew large crowds especially because of Cold War issues which put the communists in the position of a new enemy, matter-of-fact, most people simply saw communists as “Anti-God”. Thereby religion also became a form of expression for strong patriotism. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, among others, encouraged the American citizens in their new-found pride and the government liked to make people think that the good times were there to stay (Hordnes 2002). Post-war life also had consequences on the lives and roles of family and its members. The hard-working (male) individual who had always advanced by means of his own creativity and ability had now become a person within a collective cooperation. The women, on the other hand, were led back to their pre-war working routine: the household. It was seen as a matter of obligation that they would leave their jobs so the veterans could get them back. Most people were content with their lives at that time, but there was a minority of citizens questioning the new situation of wealth. They became more and more uneasy while seeing the American society become more conformist and more materialistic. That was the point at which two entirely different approaches to life clashed: Idealism and materialism.

It was also due to the fact that the states were globally involved in various matters and all these responsibilities were reason enough to scare at least some of the American people. Another feeling that came up in post World War II America was a certain “paranoia” (Hordnes 2002). The Americans felt their new interests threatened by the communists. Of course, this way of thinking, the breakout of the Cold War, and the development of the so-called ‘McCarthyism’ aggravated the ’Red Scare’ in the heads of the American people. While America had not been a country known for being a military force in pre-war times, this was clearly reversed after the Second World War was over. One of the inevitable consequences this change from peace to cruelty had on the American people was some sort of shock. Never had the citizens experienced what brutality human beings were capable of. Everything mentioned here contributed to the Americans having a feeling of unease about themselves and about their country. The predominant feelings of alienation and disillusionment were mainly expressed in the artworks of that time. So film noir can be seen as symptomatic of American society and as a reaction to the darker sides of reality of the 40s and 50s.

Certainly, film noir was in its prime during the late 40s and 50s. Still, the concept has not died out yet and every once in a while there are films that are strongly influenced by film noir or which even represent some kind of homage to the classics of the genre. These modern films are referred to as new noiri sh films or Neo-Noirs. Before one particular Neo-Noir film – Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) – will be discussed in detail, I will first of all focus on the characteristics of Neo-Noirs and secondly on the so called revenge films, because these are the two film genres or categories Memento (2000) fits into.


[1] particularly as exemplified by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and as Marlowe in The Big Sleep (Crime Culture “Film Noir ” 1999).

[2] For a description of the role of the femme fatale in film noir see Blaser 1999.

[3] The following explanations are mainly based on Hordnes’ (2002) article.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Christopher Nolan's Memento - Analysis of the narrative structure of a noirish revenge film
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institute for England and American Studies)
Decadenca and Modernism in Late 20th Century Cinema
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
641 KB
Film, Memento, Analyse, film noir
Quote paper
Torben Schmidt (Author), 2003, Christopher Nolan's Memento - Analysis of the narrative structure of a noirish revenge film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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