Chiaroscuro (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

1940s Film Noir - CHIAROSCURO (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - In film noir, chiaroscuro helped with many aspect: set and light management, expression of mood, suggestion of the characters' soul

Chiaroscuro is an Italian world that literally means ‘light-dark’ and is a visual technique that was first used by Baroque painters. It was a form of studio lighting that would cast harsh shadow and design volume and forms.
It was later applied to photography and eventually to cinema.

To a certain extent, the use of chiaroscuro in film noir was a necessity. Many of these films where made on a budget and didn’t have a great possibility of using lavish sets. Lighting only a part of the set helped to save money on lighting as well as using shabbier sets that would be concealed by the shadows and only partially revealed by the light when and where needed.

When Hollywood decided to go noir, there were no greater masters of chiaroscuro then the Germans, so it’s no surprise that so many Germans and East Europeans, newly arrived to America as expats, worked on these films.
These cinematographers cast an expressionist shadow on the realistic setting, populating it of oblique and vertical lights and sharp shadows that often came from just one source of light. This created a very specific mood. Oblique lights tend to split the screen, making it restless and unstable.
The actor and the setting were

The Stranger on the Third Floor

normally given equal light emphasis, which took away from the characters to give the environment where they moved a greater weight. This created  an overwhelming sense of unbalance and uncertainty that perfectly expressed the message of these films.

The Stranger on the Third Floor is a prime example of how chiaroscuro could be used for emotional effects. Cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca creates a world of high light and shadow and uses unique camera angles. His light is deliberatly artificial, it emphasises deep shadows and sharp contrast to create a world that, although perfectly recognizable, also carrys many characteristics of the fantastic.

With chiaroscuro, #FilmNoir turned a limit into one of its strengest points #AtoZChallenge Click To Tweet

Ultimately, film noir turned its limit into its greatest strength. Born out of necessity, the use chiaroscuro lighting is now one of the most recognizable characteristic of film noir in all its forms.



The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) by Boris Ingster
When upstart journalist Michael Ward (John McGuire) testifies that he saw Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) at the scene of a murder, Briggs is jailed and sentenced to death. Later, Michael’s conscience and troubling dreams get the better of him. He tells his girlfriend, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), that he isn’t certain Briggs is guilty. They begin to investigate, but unfortunately, the couple soon makes the acquaintance of an ominous, enigmatic man (Peter Lorre) who wants the case to stay closed. (Google synopsis)



Schrader, Paul. Notes on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971

Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop – What is… chiaroscuro?


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1940s Film Noir - CHIAROSCURO (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - In film noir, chiaroscuro helped with many aspect: set and light management, expression of mood, suggestion of the characters' soul

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

44 Comments on "Chiaroscuro (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. I’ve only heard of chiaroscuro in reference to Literature and the play of dark and light in the context of plots and characters. Always fascinated me. This was such an insight into the history of the technique in film-making. I love how Hitchcock used this technique (not sure if he did this exactly)to maximum effect.
    Shailaja Vishwanath recently posted…Controlled – #FlashFiction #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  2. I didn’t know there was all this information available on this topic. Wow! Lots to learn and very interesting. Even that video on lighting. Thanks for sharing.


  3. I’ve only heard of chiaroscuro in paintings before. I didn’t know it applied to film as well.
    Shawna Atteberry recently posted…A to Z Challenge: C is for Comfort & CompanionshipMy Profile

  4. Ooh, this is excellent. I especially liked your point that financial necessity created the amazing visual style of film noir. It is similar to the way in which censorship added to the mysterious feel of film noir, as a system of nods and winks at forbidden acts and ideas became a complete visual code of naughtiness. Noir truly did make a triumph of its limitations. Thanks!

  5. I had no idea such a technique even existed. But reading about it, I see what a great technique it is!
    Sreesha recently posted…Call Me When You’re Sober | #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  6. I never knew what it was called, thank you for enlightening me :). The lighting brings so much drama and a very distinct feeling.
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Shapeshifters and Werewolves

    • It’s what I’ve always liked about film noir, even before I appreciated the stories. Besides, I used to draw with ink… I don’t think it’s a mere chance 😉

  7. Fascinating! Happy A-to-Z-ing.
    Ronel Janse van Vuuren recently posted…Calling It #TwistedTaleTuesday #FlashFiction #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  8. When I first saw the title of today’s post I wondered “What does Portuguese grilled chicken have to do with Film Noir?”


    Alot of great art comes from necessity. You work with what you have, and limitations drive creativity.

    C is for The Toronto Circus Riot of 1855

    • LOL! Well, I didn’t know Chiaroscuro is also a Portuguese grilled chicken dish. How that? Now I’m curious.

      Pushing one’s limits is always the best way for finding new solutions. Might be hard, but worth it.

  9. Fascinating! I have seen it done, but I never knew the name or the concept behind it…

    The Multicolored Diary: WTF – Weird Things in Folktales
    Tarkabarka recently posted…C961.5. Person transformed into an anthill (WTF – Weird Things in Folktales)My Profile

  10. As a former lighting designer for theater, lighting in movies (and elsewhere) are of great interest to me. I used a lot of the same lighting tricks above when I did some ghost story plays on the stage. I love film noir, though. Anyway, just thought I’d check in from the A to Z Challenge and throw my two cents in.

    • Lighting design is such an interesting activity. I’m fascinated by the posibility to create imagines and moods with just light.

      Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

  11. That was interesting.I can see how effective that would be. Great images.
    Jacqui recently posted…Today’s #AtoZChallenge Topic: Commercial Fiction GenreMy Profile

  12. I love the word ‘chiaroscuro,’ I remember the first time I heard it! I see now why it’s a necessity of film noir. When I think of those films I always think of the light and dark aspects.
    Megan Morgan recently posted…C Is For Creating CharactersMy Profile

  13. That’s an interesting technique. Learnt something new today. Thanks Sarah!
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Child Abuse #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  14. Captivating! And easy to see from your example. Am really loving your blogs!

    Impromptu Promptlings
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  15. I would say necessity is the mother of invention, but since the technique had been used in other mediums, I suppose necessity was the uncle of adaptation.
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…#AtoZChallenge – Perspectives: Cursive WritingMy Profile

  16. Love the films of the 40s, it’s my favorite classic era. I’ll have to check out The Stranger on the Third Floor if I can find it.

    Candidly; The Work of Writing: Two
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    A Bit 2 Read

    • I haven’t watched it yet. I see that normally it isn’t considered one of the best noir film, but it’s still very intersting, because of its expressionistic elements.

  17. The lighting technique that gave the feeling of uncertainty is so clever.

  18. I’d only heard of chiaroscuro in relation to painting. I hadn’t thought of it in relation to film, though it makes sense.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Castle District, BudapestMy Profile

  19. Like others, I was only familiar with the word in relation to painting. But the technique – light and dark – is used in so many creative arenas. But I think I shall use the word chiaroscuro itself from now on. It has a wonderfully romantic feel and whilst I know that virtually any Italian word does that, still …

    Bunny and the Bloke

  20. Hey, I’d actually heard of chiaroscuro in regards to the technique applied to painting. Very cool, and very effective, applying it to film as well. 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: DandelionMy Profile

  21. hahahaaa-I just wrote about German Expressionism in your D post and here we are! A great post on the camerawork and lighting of these Film Noir gems.
    Birgit recently posted…A to Z Challenge-Letter DMy Profile

  22. I’ve never heard this term in relation to film, but it makes sense. The elements you’ve described are part of what makes black and while film so appealing to me. Shadows in film work best with black and white and the effective use of shadows can really create a mood.

    Arlee Bird
    Arlee Bird recently posted…Fridays (#AtoZChallenge) (#BOTB results)My Profile

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