Neo Noir (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

Generally speaking, the term film noir refers to crime thrillers, crime dramas, heist films and chase film produced from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, though many critics stretch the period as far as Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil (1958) and indicated that as the last film noir.

These film didn’t come from an organic, intentional creativity, but rather they spontaneously emerged from a particular social and historical context and very specific industry circumstances. At the time they were produces, nobody (neither the filmmakers, nor the audience) ever had a notion that this were anything other then common thrillers. It was only retrospectively (in the 1950s) and from an outside look (French cinema critics) that a unity of themes, narrational devises and visual effects was noted and consolidated into a new concept and possibly a new style or genre.

Neo Noir refers to post-1960s films of similar content and expression, but which consciously employ noir stylistics and conventions. Neo noir alludes to classic noir, either implicitly or explicitly, building on what is now recognised and accepted as a distinct body of films.
Where the unity of classic film noir happend spontanously in response to the time and society that kind of film spoke to, neo noir is the appropiation of that language so to contiously send a specific message. Neo noir self-consciously revised the noir tradition in a contemporary idiom.

Although neo noir started to present its first offerings in the 1960s, it’s in the 1970s that this form of film started to come into its own, with many critics indicating Chinatown as the first neo noir.
It was in this same period that Anglo-American criticism first started to recognise and discuss film noir as a unified body of films, whereas it had previously been mostly a European concern.


French Film Noir


I would like to mention French Film Noir as its own topic here. French Film Noir didn’t derive from American film noir. It developed independently and in parallel with it, during the same years – if over a longer stretch of time. In many respects, French Film Noir addressed the same kind of issues in slightly different ways, which may explain why the French film critics were sensitive in detecting a similar experience in Hollywood cinema.

Although dark melodramas and crime cinema already existed in France in the silent period, it was only with the advent of sound that French Film Noir really come into its own form of expression, around the early 1930s.
Many different elements worked toward its rise:

  1. Poetic Realism – A kind of dark, melodramatic film that fused together a realistic depiction of working class life with a poetic, lyric style. This is not confined to cinema. French writers had been fascinated with the underbelly of society, the bass-fonds (‘low depths’) from the very early modern period and particularly in the XVIII century roman noir. Authors like Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac wrote stories about poor people and criminals living at the margins of big cities.
    The XIX century saw a shift in the attitude of authors towards these subjects, probably due to the Romantics’ interest with bohemian life. Revulsion turned to fascination as authors continue to represent poverty, vice and crime, but observed it with a greater poetic sensibility.
    By the 1920s, this kind of sensitivity pervaded many stories and it’s in this cultural environment that Belgian author George Simenon wrote his mystery novels where crime is located in the everyday. When poetic realism migrated into cinema, George Simenon became one of the riches single sources for French Film Noir.
  2. German Expressionism – Just like in Hollywood, the Expressionist school had a great influence in how film were done in France as many German émigrés passed through France on their way to the US. Some of these directors and cinematographer only staid a little while, though left their mark on the French cinema. Others stayed and trained a new generation of French cinematographers.
  3. Photography – In the 1930s, Paris became a magnet for photography experimentation, attracting many foreign photographers, particularly Central and Eastern European émigrés fleeing from the rise of the Nazis. These photographers experimented with light and shadows, not unlike the Expressionists, and were fascinated, like French artist, by the underbelly of society.
    Bressaï was one of the most famous. His collection The Secret Paris of the 1930s, with his nocturnal low life depicted in a dense, inky idiom is one of his most recognised works.

Pèpé le Moko

French Film Noir married an international visual style with a minute observation of French life.
As a production of popular culture, it didn’t take a particularly political stance toward social issues, but it wasn’t a mere representation of society either. French Film Noir definitely addressed traumatic social context, particularly between the wars and after WWII: the rise of the fascism in the 1930s, the left-wing Popular Front alliance of 1936-1938, the war and the German occupation of 1940-1944 as well as the postwar advent of American-inflicted modernity were all issues touched upon in these films.

Just like American Film Noir, French Film Noir is a masculine observation of life and an expression of male vulnerability and anxiety, brimming with men falling prey of a cruel fate or victims of an alluring female.
Women in French Film Noir are usually marginalised and often degraded characters, which speaks of the male’s anxiety towards women’s shifting role in French society.  As in the American noir, these women don’t have much of a narrational agency, but – with very few exceptions – they are denied the transgressive power of the femme fatale or the alternative role of the ‘good girl’ of their American counterparts.

French Film Noir developed independently and in paraller to American #FilmNoir Click To Tweet

It was overall a very pessimistic outlook on life that attracted disapproval in many quarters (though not from the censors, as it happened in Hollywood) but certainly appealed to a vast audience well into the 1960s.



Chinatown (1974) by Roman Polanski 
When Los Angeles private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s activities, he believes it’s a routine infidelity case. Jake’s investigation soon becomes anything but routine when he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and realizes he was hired by an imposter. Mr. Mulwray’s sudden death sets Gittes on a tangled trail of corruption, deceit and sinister family secrets as Evelyn’s father (John Huston) becomes a suspect in the case. (Google synopsis)

Pépé le Moko (1946) by Julien Duvivier
Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin), one of France’s most wanted criminals, hides out in the Casbah section of Algiers. He knows police will be waiting for him if he tries to leave the city. When Pépé meets Gaby Gould (Mireille Balin), a gorgeous woman from Paris who is lost in the Casbah, he falls for her. She also reminds him of all the things he loves about Paris. Even as Pépé knows he is being trailed by Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), he considers a future with Gaby. (Google synopsis)

Rififi (1956) by Jules Dassin
Out of prison after a five-year stretch, jewel thief Tony (Jean Servais) turns down a quick job his friend Jo (Carl Mohner) offers him, until he discovers that his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) has become the lover of local gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) during Tony’s absence. Expanding a minor smash-and-grab into a full-scale jewel heist, Tony and his crew appear to get away clean, but their actions after the job is completed threaten the lives of everyone involved. (Google synopsis)



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

Crime Culture – An Introduction to Neo Noir
On Screen – Neo Noir
MUBI – French Film Noir
BFI Film Forever – How the French Birthed Film Noir
Cine College – Film Noir


SmashwordsBarnes&Nobles | KoboiBookStore
And many other stores


1940s Film Noir - MASCULINITY (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - Neo Noir refers to post-1960s films of similar content and expression, but which consciously employ noir stylistics and conventions.

FREE EBOOK - The Roaring Twenties A to Z

Subscribe to The Old Shelter mailing list and get this 56-pages FREE pdf

I will never give away, trade or sell your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.

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.

36 Comments on "Neo Noir (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. I love learning about noir in other countries. I’m pretty familiar with American Noir, but before your series I didn’t know anything about German or French Noir.
    Shawna Atteberry recently posted…A to Z Challenge: My Favorite NovelsMy Profile

    • It is really fascinating seing how the same ideas and the same anxiety has been explored from different people at different times. The similarities are always striking. We truly are all brothers and sisters.

  2. Have not heard of this one. Very interesting.
    Jacqui recently posted…Today’s #AtoZChallenge: Military GenreMy Profile

    • Really? Before I started reserching this topic, I though that American film noir was called with a French name because it derived from French film noir 😉

  3. Wow… This is really a college class, right? There’s so much information and insight. And to think I only thought Noir meant Black… It’s not often I feel like I’m learning something on a blog, but yours really fills that bill.

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter M

  4. This is a great post about Film Noir of the present…Neo Noir even though it has films from the 70’s:) what I love about Chinatown as well is that John Huston, who directed The Maltese Falcon and helped bring Film Noir to what we know it now, was in this film.
    Birgit recently posted…A To Z Challenge-Letter MMy Profile

  5. I’ve never seen any French Film Noir, but it doesn’t surprise me that they made that kind of genre their own. I like Dark City, but I didn’t like Seven – I didn’t even realise Neo-Noir was a genre, but it makes sense.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles – Dragon Diaries
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Dragon Diaries – N is for Nikita – A to Z Challenge 2017 #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

    • My father is a fan of French film noir, especially from the later period (1960s), so I’m familiar with it. Here in Europe, French film noir had a great influence on cinema.

  6. Hi Sarah – I’ve been meaning to get here for the first half of the A-Z – I know there’ll be some fascinating insights in your posts – so I’ll be back to read. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chinatown and I certainly haven’t seen the others … but I’ll be back – cheers Hilary

  7. I have been guilty of using noir and neo-noir as the same. This is actually a lot more complex, I realize now.
    Roshan Radhakrishnan recently posted…Nurse Renee Hendrix… and all the Nurses around you #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  8. I hadn’t considered The Usual Suspects as being neo noir. Now I need to watch it again, for science! 😉
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: NutmegMy Profile

    • Well, because nobody can clearly define what noir is, I suppose there will always be dabate about what films are noir and what only have noirish elements 😉

  9. Quite interesting information. I never understood the difference between Noir and Neo-noir. This is so informative.
    Preethi Venugopala recently posted…Names: Do They Matter?My Profile

  10. I am learning so much from this series… I took film classes in college, but somehow we skipped this part. Go figure 😀

    The Multicolored Diary: WTF – Weird Things in Folktales
    Tarkabarka recently posted…N339.5. Uxorious king is burned to death while taking an alcohol bath (WTF – Weird Things in Folktales)My Profile

  11. Another insightful post, Sarah. Chinatown has such an interesting story line. Hope to watch it.
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Not Done! #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  12. Love the movies you cite! I’m learning something new on your blog every day 🙂 Happy A-to-Z-ing.
    Ronel Janse van Vuuren recently posted…NaNoWriMo: How it Helped my Writing #AtoZChallenge #AuthorToolboxBlogHopMy Profile

  13. Though continental European and Hollywood noir developed “independently,” surely there was some cross-pollination, wasn’t there? German expressionism was hugely influential to aesthetics in many media of the time–including literature, theater, ballet, and visual art.

    • You know? I’m not sure there was much cross-pollination between American and French noir. You have to consider that American film noir developed during the war years and they reached Europe only after the war. At that time, American film noir was already fading.
      I suppose there would have been an influence of American film noir on French film noir in later years (the French critics noticed the noir trend in American thrillers, after all), but I’m not sure there was time for the other way around.
      Just my impression 😉

  14. American and French/European Noir, wonder what was happening at that period in British films? or Italian and Japanese? Did they too mirror this movement, or create their own versions of noir independent of each other?

    A lucidly written, insightful and comprehensive analysis, a pleasure to read. Thank you.

    Nilanjana Bose recently posted…N is for…Nourhanne… and… Nasri… and… Nomads…My Profile

    • I’m not an expert in film history, so I’m not able to answer. But I can tell you that we didn’t have a noir trend here in Italy. After the war, here developed a particular genre, “la commedia all’italiana”, which was a completely different social commentary and leaned more on commedy.

  15. I wonder if my father and his brothers were influenced by noir films in the 1940s. They took a series of photographs using shadow in a dramatic way, like the shots you share.

    Finding Eliza

  16. Interesting how French film noir developed independently. Of course, a lot of French films are very stylish, even outside of that genre.
    Nick Wilford recently posted…A-Z Challenge 2017 – N is for NettlesbyMy Profile

  17. So many great movies, so little time. I’ve seen many of the neo-noir movies, so at least I have a head start.

    Thanks for the informative explanation differentiating the subgenres, Sarah. Your comment about the French developing their own list of noir movies concurrently with those in the USA points out a similar “coincidence” of occurrences in various disciplines.
    Gail M Baugniet recently posted…N is for NACHOS with Flat Stanley Rose at Ko’Olina #AtoZChallengeHaveMy Profile

  18. I love your posts and really wish I weren’t so busy with life and the A to Z because i can’t really explore all the fabulous films you talk about.
    Kalpanaa recently posted…OffspringMy Profile

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: