Elements of Film Noir and its Implementation in the Contemporary TV-Series "True Detective"

Term Paper, 2015

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


2.Film Noir
2.1 A brief overview of the history and development of film noir
2.2 Main Elements of Film Noir
2.2.1 Themes
2.2.2 Characters
2.2.3 Narrative Strategies

3.An Analysis of the Series True Detective as a Product of Film Noir


Works Cited

1. Introduction

The noir universe is dark, malign and unstable where individuals are trapped through fear and paranoia, or overwhelmed by the power of sexual desire (Spicer 2002: 4).

When researching for the topic of film noir, it is inevitable to stumble upon keywords like nihilism, femme fatales, post-war American life or the adjectives dark, gloomy and mysterious (Naremore 1998: 9). But what is film noir? And why does it appear so bleak? In this term paper, film noir as a movie genre in the 1940s will be examined and applied to the contemporary TV-series True Detective (2014). First of all, it is important to provide a theoretical foundation. Therefore, the history of film noir and how it developed will be discussed tersely. Afterwards, the main elements that mark a film noir as film noir will be described. Themes, like nihilism or pessimism are essential parts of film noir, but so is murder and corruption. The characters are also quite dreary, there is a male victim, who gets seduced by a femme fatale and precisely that woman might be involved with the noir psychopath. Hence, themes and characters are part of this term paper. Cinematic features are not to be forgotten: the extensive use of e.g. voice-over and cut-backs is also representative. It will be explained what the features mentioned before are and how they are applied in film noir. After the theoretical foundation is made, the analysis of the HBO TV-series True Detective takes place. The choice has been made because many newspapers and articles considered True Detective as film noir and it was sapid to investigate whether this can be proven on facts or whether it is simply an assumption. After a short summary of the series, the items themes, characters and narrative strategies will be explored and applied to the film noir schema. Concluding, the aspect of neo-noir will be taken into account and the decision will be made whether True Detective can be seen as a product of film noir.

2.Film Noir

2.1 A brief overview of the history and development of film noir

The American thrillers „The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944) and The Woman in the Window (1944)“ could be deemed to be the impulsion for the coinage of the term film noir. During the Second World War and the five years lasting occupation, American movie productions were banned from the big screens in France. The five movies mentioned above where the first American movies to be published in France after the war in August 1946. On this account, Nino Frank, a French film critic, occupied himself with the examination of those movies and “believed to signify a series or narrative, stylistic and thematic departures from the Hollywood cinema of the prewar years“ (Krutnik 1991: 15). He probably came to this conclusion because the crime fiction storyline changed from the classical „whodunnit“ structure to a rather „how does the protagonist act?“ atmosphere (Spicer 2002: 2). The term film noir itself deviates from the “série noiré“ which was used to describe the American hard-boiled fiction stories that had been translated into French and were foundation for many adaptations (Spicer 2002: 2). From there on, the terminology spread into the French world of arts and was used to describe particular themes, atmospheres and „cinematographic techniques“ (Naremore 1998: 10). Not until the 1960s did the film noir arrive in the mindset of the people of the United States of America. Therefrom the term entered critics reviews, essays and books and the development of the film noir started to distribute all over the world. A very important influencer on the perception of film noir, was the American film critic Paul Schrader, who saw film noir as an inevitable development of the gangster film delayed by the war, which divided into three broad and overlapping phases: 1941-6 was the phase of the private eye and the lone wolf; 1945-9 showed a preoccupation with the problems of crime, political corruption and police routine; while 1949-53 was the period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse (Spicer 2002: 3).

With this segmentation of the phases in the movie history, he made it quite clear, what the contemporary social issues were and how the film industry handled them. Afterwards, many publications and books were published on the term of film noir, but until today, it still is difficult to define which movies are film noir and which are not (Spicer 2002: 3f.). Naremore comments that „it has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term“ (Naremore 1998: 9)

2.2 Main Elements of Film Noir

Although it is difficult to identify a film noir as film noir, there are certain elements that can be perceived as typical noir. In this section, the typical themes and most common character constellations are examined, and afterwards certain cinematic aspects will be described. However, there are plenty of factors that could be investigated, for example the production of the movies, sales and distribution, or the choice of actors. But those factors will not be an object of enquiry for this term paper.

2.2.1 Themes

Noir themes and moods include despair, paranoia, and nihilism; an atmosphere of claustrophobic entrapment; a nightmarish sense of loneliness and alienation; a purposelessness fostered in part by feelings of estrangement from one’s own past even as one seems to driven to a compulsive confrontation with that past (Conard 2006: 92).

The topics are tight-knit with the hard-boiled crime fiction themes. Therefore, crime and murder can be found in various ways. Topics that often occur are murder, corruption, prostitution and of course concepts like pessimism, hopelessness or nihilism. Nihilism is a very present one in film noir, since it occupies itself with a philosophical point of view; saying that “traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.“1 This senselessness in life can be perceived in most films noirs, because everything always seems so fathomless and arbitrary that it communicates a very morbid and miserable atmosphere. As well as the characters contribute to the synthesis of certain topics, because for example, a femme fatale usually is connected with jealousy and a love affair. (Conard 2006: 91 ff.).

2.2.2 Characters

Noir characters seem ever on the run (sometimes literally, sometimes only from themselves), the most hapless of them caught in frames and webs and structures with no escape. Above all, film noir depicts a world of characters trapped in circumstances that they did not wholly create and form which they cannot break free, characters hopelessly isolated and all but immobilized in moral dilemmas whose implications they must follow out, as it were, to the end of the night (Conard 2006: 93).

The repertoire of characters is extensive and diverse and a common denominator is that they are usually depicted as very pessimistic, dark personalities that struggle with life. In the following section the male victim, the private eye, the noir psychopath and the femme fatale will be discussed, because they are the most-known figures of film noir.

The first character type to be described is the typical male victim, which usually appears as the main protagonist of the movie. Spicer characterizes the male victim as „middle-class professional and working-class drifter respectively. This figure is not admirable or innocent but morally weak, apparently helpless in the throes of desire and attempting to escape the frustrations of his existing life“ (Spicer 2002: 85). This type of male victim could be the stereotypical father of a family, who is forced to commit a crime because his family received death threats or a foe claims to reveal a lie the father tried to keep secretly. Therefore, external circumstances would change the father into a criminal, but he would choose the path of crime himself. Another male victim, driven by internal circumstances, would be the working-class male victim who often becomes a target “simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong moment“ (Spicer 2002: 85). Internal in so far that he is selected on account of his working status and not by his own decision to pursue the criminal path, and therefore, he can be framed for any crime without effort. As a rule, the male victim as the protagonist dictates the story line of the movie, given that he commonly tries to justify or explain for which reason the particular crime act happened. This renarration and the flashbacks that come along with it, structure the plot and the chronology of the movie. For his reason, the male victim is one of the most important characters in film noir.

Another character which is indispensable for film noir is the personage of the private eye. The detective-like character is usually depicted as an outsider, who pays attention to the odds and ends and hence, appears quite intelligent and cultivated. But he is not to be confused with the typical detective in the “whodunnit” movies who solves the riddles with algorithmic methods to identify the murder. (Röwekamp 2003: 17) Spicer describes the private eye in the following way: „The private eye was the rugged, self-reliant, individualistic frontiersman urbanized, acting as a cultural middleman, poised between respectability and the underworld“. (Spicer 2010: 246). The private eye can be seen as the individualist who tries to solve the case by means of money other than the police cops whose work is that of the executive force. As a matter of course, the realization of the private eye varies from movie to movie: in one movie, he can be an aggressive competitor, who is driven by sarcasm and egoism and tries to outdo his competition. Than again, the private eye might be a very loyal partner and adherent to justice and does not care about money and competition (Spicer 2002: 87). Important for film noir is not the sort of private eye, but that there is a figure of a private eye at all.

A private eye could not perform his work, when there is no criminal. Therefore, the noir psychopath is essential for the plot. It is necessary to distinguish the prototypical gangster and the noir psychopath. The image of the gangster changed considerably after the war: the audience wanted to see the lunatic veteran who suffers from post-war anxieties. The gangster as a member of a gang, driven by the desire for wealth, reverence and appreciation seemed too inaccessible since the war changed the mindset of many humans (Spicer 2002: 88). On the other hand, the psychopath appears quite more complex and disturbing than the average, flat gangster. He suffers from several psychological disorders, which themselves are highly interesting. “The noir psychopath, inevitably, is bedeviled, pursued by ghosts from his past; and he is often fatally self-divided“ (Hirsch 2008: 190). His motivations are not controlled by money or material gain, if anything by deep psychological dysfunctions that seem fathomless. The fact that the spectators rather wanted to see a unfathomable psychopath as the villain could be traced back to the matter of fact that they tried to understand which kind of person would commence a World War. Hence, it is easier to consider a hardly accessible psychopath as the culprit than the father next door - but this is only a consideration.

The last character, and one of the best-known also, is the femme fatale. The figure of the femme fatale is often shown as an enticing, pretty woman, which with her sexual charms, bewitches men and attains her goals. During the day, the femme fatale usually is an ordinary women with a nine-to-five job whom no one would expect to become a criminal seductress at night or as Spicer puts it: “the woman who never really is what she seems to be” (Spicer 2002: 90) This picture of a woman appears especially in film noir because the role of the woman in the post-war period was primarily to be the wife and mother but the femme fatale demonstrates the complete opposite. Nowadays, the femme fatale can be found in the majority of movies, for example in The Dark Night Rises (2012)2. In this movie, the role of the Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway, is the counterpart of the femme fatale. (Spicer 2002: 91)


1 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

2 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Elements of Film Noir and its Implementation in the Contemporary TV-Series "True Detective"
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Institut für Anglistik)
Introduction to Crime Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Crimefiction, crime, fiction, truedetective, detective, filmnoir, film, filmanalyse, tvserie, englisch, literatur, noir, anglistik, introduction, contemporary
Quote paper
Sarah Hofmann (Author), 2015, Elements of Film Noir and its Implementation in the Contemporary TV-Series "True Detective", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/319941


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