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.
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 Click To Tweet
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.
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)
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Schrader, Paul. Notes on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971
Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop – What is… chiaroscuro?