Paul Schrader’s Recurring Characteristics of Film Noir

Great Noir poses the question: Why me? Why is this happening to me? And the answer is for no reason, for no reason at all. Noir concerned with error and confusion.
-Errol Morris

These are notes I took during Cinema History class some years ago. I hadn’t seen them written quite so clearly on the Internet (I probably didn’t look hard enough), so I am doing so. Thanks to both gentlemen for their contributions (any mistakes are mine, not theirs).

Schrader’s Recurring Characteristics of Film Noir

  • The majority of scenes are lit for night.
  • Oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal.
  • The actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis. This devalues the characters’ humanity.
  • Compositional is preferred to physical action.
    • Performance intensity
    • Crowded characters
  • Much use of reflective surfaces (water, mirrors, windows).
    • Goes back to German Expressionism
    • Introspection of characters
  • Voice-over narration is often used. It is frequently needed by the audience to understand the plot.
  • Complex chronological order reinforces a sense of hopelessness and lost time.

Here is the addenda provided by my professor, Robin Matthews:

Matthew’s Recurring Characteristics of Film Noir

  • Rain
    • Adds a somber tone
    • Creates reflective surfaces
  • Neon lights
    • Indicate an urban environment
    • Give off little light
  • Dimly lit nightclubs: provide a place to plan crimes
  • Winding roads: relate to dreams, as unsolved
  • Characters with physical handicaps, or “grotesques” (E.g., Nicholson’s bandaged nose in Chinatown transforms him into a clown.)
  • Sadists (E.g., Night of the Hunter)
  • Double- and triple-crosses
    • Can’t trust anyone
    • Femme fatales
    • E.g., Body Heat
  • “Cosmic” irrationality
    • Good and bad are not that far apart
    • Happy endings are rare
    • Example 1: French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle endangering innocent lives during a car chase
    • Example 2: DOA
  • Dream sequences

2 thoughts on “Paul Schrader’s Recurring Characteristics of Film Noir”

  1. WOW. I had no idea just how well “Blade Runner” fit the noir mold. I knew it instinctively, but had not had a chance to think about it analytically. Which is one reason why I am still one of a handful of that film’s fans that actually prefers the Deckard voice-over in the original release of the film; everyone else seems to hate it. But film noir demands it.

    Oh well…… I’ll get my chance to purchase the original film presentation on DVD later this year when the definitive Blade Runner collection comes out with 4 film versions in one package !

  2. Yes, I generally think of it as the ultimate cyberpunk movie, but it is also noir. I believe Schrader said in his essay that noir is not a genre, I think it can be applied to many genres.

    Film noir does not demand voice over. If you read again, he said the audience often requires voice over to understand the complicated plot. The Blade Runner plot may be compled enough to warrant it.

    Narration is often looked down upon, esp. in screenwriting, because the breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule.

    I think I will wait for the HD version of Blade Runner.

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