Killers (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

In the 1940s thrillers, criminal impulses are generally motivated in terms of personal malaise or psychic dysfunction. Any social critique is avoided… at least on the surface.
There were in fact a few characteristics in these films that suggest the hero’s personal experience is actually the figuration of a larger social issue.

Most of these stories are concerned with crime, very often murder. While in previous years crime had been seen as something ‘other’, something ‘outside’ that needs to be controlled, in film noir crime gets very close. The hero himself becomes – willingly or by accident – the criminal, which cause a shift in the way the crime is handled: because the criminal is also the hero, the story delves sometimes very deep in the reasons and especially in the consequences, both psychological and material, of the crime.


The inadequacy of the hero as a mover of events becomes central as he get pushed to the crime from many directions.
From the outside, the opportunity is provided by a woman, who first and foremost induces the hero toward an ‘alternative’ world, a transgression that promises to give a new sense to life and, sometimes, a totally new material life. And killing is the ultimate form of transgression.
On the inside, there’s a sense that the action is moved not by the hero’s will, but by some darker, inner impulse inside himself. Even when he decides to go along with the criminal plan, he is very seldom in control of the action, in spite of his every efforts.

In this sense, film noir concerns the disconnection and the confusion of a hero who has lost his centre in the world. It all comes down to his fears and his insecurities and the ways he tries to re-conquer his central place in the world. Which, if it is indeed a personal story, it nonetheless reflects a social issue.

The sense of subject drama is very strong and intensified by the narrational strategies found within these films. Film noir uses in particular two techniques to suggest the hero’s confusion and his position of insecurity:

In 1940s #FilmNoir the hero becomes the criminal and the story is all about his reasons… Click To Tweet


This is a common narrative tool in film noir, and while it offers the usual possibility (characteristics of the technique)  to fill the viewer in about events which happened before the film started, it also fragmentises the narration. Some films, like The Killers, are built around a very complex structure of flashbacks that shifts point-of-views (and so gives an ununified view of the story) and breaks the narration, forcing the viewer to piece the story together on their own, without an authorative guidance. This reflects the hero’s awkwardness in piecing together the world around him.

Voice over

This is one of the chief characteristics of film noir and one of the places where the divided identity of the hero becomes more apparent. While on the screen, in the flow of the action we see the image of self-confidence and competency the hero gives to the world (since that’s what society expects from him), in the voice over narration he speaks his true heart, his fears and insecurities. In this way the voice over gives us a more complex, more complete and more secret image of the hero.




Detour (1945) by Edgar G. Ulmer 
In New York, piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) laments when his singer girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), leaves for Hollywood, Calif. When Al gets some money, he decides to hitchhike to California to join Sue. In Arizona, Al accepts a ride with Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), but during a storm in a freak accident, Haskell is killed. Frightened, Al assumes Haskell’s identity and car, but soon comes upon the mysterious Vera (Ann Savage), who seems to know all about his true identity. (Google synopsis)



Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC

Sillage Critiques – Flashbacks in film noir


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1940s Film Noir - KILLERS (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - Most of noir stories are concerned with crime. While in previous years crime had been seen as something ‘other’, in film noir crime gets very close. The hero himself becomes – willingly or by accident – the criminal

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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.

24 Comments on "Killers (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. This is very well written and seems to apply to the hero or anti hero. I even find many of them weak while the women are strong
    Birgit recently posted…A to Z Challenge-Letter JMy Profile

  2. I’ve noticed this technique before, but it becomes more meaningful when you explain it like that. Well done!

    Impromptu Promptlings
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  3. From a writer’s perspective, sketching such a character who is both a hero and an anti-hero is both interesting and challenging. I do like the use of flashbacks but voice-over, not so much.

    I am enjoying your series!


    • I agree. These are very interstign characters because they offer a more complex image of the hero.
      I do like flashbacks too, they are very powerful… when used with intent (unfortunately, I often see them used carelessly in fiction). Voice over is hard to pull off, I think, but in the same way, it can be very powerful is used with purpose.

  4. What an interesting post! I think this trend has had an influence on today’s ‘anti-hero,’ where the protagonist (or is it the antagonist) is sometimes morally quite ambiguous.

    • I think these films (and these stories) have indeed had an influence on how we perceive the protagnist today. They may feel cliched today, but I do think they were groundbraking at the time.

  5. Showing the fears and insecurities of a hero is indeed interesting! Flashbacks would appeal to me more than voice-overs though.
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Knotty Affairs #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  6. This is fascinating! Oddly enough, the first thing that came to my mind while reading your post is the children’s chapter book series “Nate the Great.” The hero is a kid who talks about solving mysteries in a unique voice over style. It is clever, clever and my kids loved those books. Makes me want to delve into the genre.

    • Ah! I suppose that does refer the film noir style.
      Isn’t it awesome that the voice-over of film noir took up a life of itself, so much so that today, when we hear voice over, we almost authomatically expect to be in the style of noir?

  7. Barbara In Caneyhead | 13th April 2017 at 6:56 pm | Reply

    When I think of this film genre, voice over is one thing that instantly comes to mind.

  8. Voice over is a throwback to the written word, where we can hear the narrator’s internal monologue, but I like the way you explain it. I remember the first time I saw Blade Runner (which I’ve heard argued is Film Noir), it was the director’s cut without the voice over and it made no sense to me whatsoever.
    CD Gallant-King recently posted…K – Canada comes from the Iroquois word “Kanata” (probably)My Profile

    • Such a long time since I watched Blade Runner. I will watch it again in light of what I’ve learn researching film noir. It is indeed heavily influenced by film noir, both with regard to themes and visuals.

  9. Villains and anti-heroes are more interesting and compelling when we get to see their motivations for doing things. Even if they might be doing things we don’t agree with, we can at least see where they’re coming from. I always loved the “interesting-evil” villains on soap operas for this very reason, as opposed to the “psycho-evil” villains who were evil for no reason.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Košice, SlovakiaMy Profile

    • I totally agree. Anti-heroes and problematic heroes, and well as ‘defendable’ villain are interesting because they pose problems to us viewers and readers. That’s the true value of stories: have us reflect on matters we usually dont’ encounter in our everyday life. That’s how stories let us grow.

  10. Interesting to call ‘killing’ out for this theme, but it absolutely fits. I do think of lots of killing in 1940’s films, as well as falling in love and war (OK, back to killing).
    Jacqui recently posted…Today’s #AtoZChallenge: Kitchen Sink GenreMy Profile

  11. Oh I DO love stories like those! You fall in “love” with the hero and then… oh no, sorry, that’s the villain. But is it? Because now it feels like maybe the reason was a good one and then you have to question your values and beliefs. Anything even slightly along those lines gets me every time.

    Excellent post, my friend! Keep em coming.

    J — Co-host the #AtoZchallenge, Debut Author Interviewer, Reference and Speculative Fiction Writer
    J Lenni Dorner recently posted…L #AtoZChallenge Statute of Limitation #Fiction #SFFMy Profile

  12. Moral ambiguity is always fun. The voice over is the one of the things I most associate with film noir (that and the femme fatale). And now I understand the reason for it. Good stuff. 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: KnotweedMy Profile

    • I agree. Ambiguity in stories is fun both as writer and reader. And any technique that enhences it it’s good in my book.
      film noir was all about disconnection, so it used many techniques that suggested it, like flashbacks and voice over, but also chiaroscuro and weird camera angles, anything that will disrupt what we expect to see or hear. It’s a very interesting form of expression, in my opinion.

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