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Killers (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

In the 1940s thrillers, criminal impulses generally originated in 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 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 sometimes delves 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 gets pushed to the crime from many directions.
From the outside, the opportunity comes from 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 isn’t moved by the hero’s will, but by some darker, inner impulse. Even when he decides to go along with the criminal plan, he is very seldom in control of the action.

Film noir is thus about the disconnection and 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 Share on X


It’ 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 fragments the narration. Some movies, like The Killers, are built around a very complex structure of flashbacks that shifts point-of-views and breaks the narrative, so gives an ununified view of the story. It forces the viewer to piece the story together on their own, with no authoritative guidance. This reflects the hero’s awkwardness in piecing together the world around him.

Voice over

It’s one of the chief characteristics of film noir and one of the places where the divided identity of the hero becomes more apparent. In the flow of the action on screen, we see the image of self-confidence and competency hero, what society expects from him. But in the voice-over narration, he speaks his true heart, his fears and insecurities. This is how 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

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


  • Birgit
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 04:28

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2017 at 13:36

      Indeed, the femme fatale tends to bestronger and more ruthless then the hero.

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 06:44

    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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  • Aditi Kaushiva
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 16:49

    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!


    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:27

      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.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 17:41

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:29

      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.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 18:03

    Showing the fears and insecurities of a hero is indeed interesting! Flashbacks would appeal to me more than voice-overs though.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:30

      Showing a character’s insecurities, even a hero’s insecurities, makes them more human and so more relatable, I think.

  • Andy
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 18:10

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:32

      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?

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 18:56

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

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 20:01

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:34

      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.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 21:30

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:36

      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.

  • Jacqui
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 22:03

    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).

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:38

      Well , they are thrillers, after all. And they came after a brutal war. I’m not surprised death and killing were main aspects of these stories.

  • J Lenni Dorner
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 22:27

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:39

      LOL! I couldn’t have explained it any better, Lenni! 🙂

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 14, 2017 at 05:29

    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. 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:42

      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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