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Chiaroscuro (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

Chiaroscuro is an Italian word 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 the cinema.

To a certain extent, the use of chiaroscuro in film noir was a necessity. Many of these films were made on a budget and didn’t have many possibilities 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.

Stranger on the Third Floor is a 1940 film noir, starring Peter Lorre and directed by Boris Ingster. It is often cited as the first "true" film noir of the classic period (1940–1959)
The Stranger on the Third Floor

When Hollywood decided to go noir, there were no greater masters of chiaroscuro than the Germans, so it’s no surprise that so many Germans and East Europeans, newly arrived in 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 normally given equal light emphasis, which took away from the characters to provide 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 sharp light and shadow and uses unique camera angles. His light is deliberately artificial, it emphasises deep shadows and stark contrasts to create a world that, although perfectly recognisable, also carries many characteristics of the fantastic.

With chiaroscuro, #FilmNoir turned a limit into one of its strengest points #AtoZChallenge Share on X

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

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

FILMS CITED

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)


READ MORE ABOUT IT

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

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


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

44 Comments

  • Shailaja Vishwanath
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 03:44

    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.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:30

      Chiaroscuro in literature is awesome too. Very different, of course, but certainly one of the most intersting techniques.

  • Dena Pawling
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 04:46

    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.

    Dena
    https://denapawling.blogspot.com/2017/04/b-is-for-bakke.html

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:32

      That video is awesome, don’t you think so? I learned lots of things myself thanks to it.

  • Shawna Atteberry
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 04:59

    I’ve only heard of chiaroscuro in paintings before. I didn’t know it applied to film as well.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:33

      Chiaroscuro started with painting, but I think it has a particular charm when used in black and white. It’s so mysterious.

  • Melanie Atherton Allen
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 05:09

    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!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:35

      You are absoutely right. And that’s a subject for another post 😉

  • Sreesha
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 05:57

    I had no idea such a technique even existed. But reading about it, I see what a great technique it is!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:37

      It can be used with colours too, that’s actually how it was born, but b&w is a lot more fascinating, in my opinion.

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 09:35

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

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:39

      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 😉

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:40

    Fascinating! Happy A-to-Z-ing.

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 15:22

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

    Oops.

    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

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:43

      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.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 15:26

    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

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:44

      I’ve studied chiaroscuro at school, in arts lessons. Always fascinated me.

  • Wolf of Words
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 16:34

    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.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:46

      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 🙂

  • Jacqui
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:11

    That was interesting.I can see how effective that would be. Great images.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:47

      That’s one of the reasons I like German Expressionism in films. Such great visuals.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:32

    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.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 17:53

      It’s a great technique, especially in b&w, in my opinion. Not only it creates volumes and feeling, but also mood and emotions.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 18:06

    That’s an interesting technique. Learnt something new today. Thanks Sarah!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 22:05

      Happy you found the post interesting. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 20:12

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

    Calen~
    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter C

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 14, 2017 at 22:38

      I’m happy to hear this, Cheryl. Hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the challenge 🙂

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 21:00

    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.

  • Isa-Lee Wolf
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 23:42

    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
    Isa-Lee Wolf
    A Bit 2 Read
    @IsaLeeWolf

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 08:34

      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.

  • Kalpanaa
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 07:40

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

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 08:38

      Isn’t it?
      Sounds like film noir made a lot of clever things with very little badget. I suppose there’s something to be learned there 😉

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 07:52

    I’d only heard of chiaroscuro in relation to painting. I hadn’t thought of it in relation to film, though it makes sense.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 08:40

      I suppose it can be used in any visual art. Though to be honest, there’s a particular tecnique that’s named like that even in storytelling.

  • Debs
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 11:45

    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

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 17:53

      LOL. Can’t say how romantic Italian is as a language, since I speak it everyday, and some situations aren’t romantic at all 😉

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 17:49

    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. 🙂

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 17:57

      Well, I suppose that lots of ideas and techniques moved from painting to photography 🙂

  • Birgit
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 20:18

    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.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 21:18

      Thanks. I think most of the merit goes to the video. And excellent one. I’m happy I’ve found it 🙂

  • Arlee Bird
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 20:23

    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

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2017 at 08:35

      I totally agree. The way film noir uses shadows is one of the first things that attracted me to it. So fascinating and moody 🙂

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