Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

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 organic, intentional creativity, but rather they spontaneously emerged from a particular social and historical context and specific industry circumstances. At the time they were produced, nobody (neither the filmmakers nor the audience) ever had a notion that this was anything other than conventional thrillers. It was only retrospectively (in the 1950s), and from an outside look (French cinema critics) that unity of themes, narrational devices and visual effects were 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 happened spontaneously in response to the time and society that kind of film spoke to, neo noir is the appropriation of that language so to consciously 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 films 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 period. 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 comes 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 brings together a realistic depiction of working-class life with a poetic, lyrical 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 richer single sources for French Film Noir.
  2.  German Expressionism – Just like in Hollywood, the Expressionist school had a significant influence on how films 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 form of popular culture, it didn’t take an especially 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. It touched on 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 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 and with very few exceptions, these women don’t have much of a narrational agency. 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 Share on X

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
MUBI – French Film Noir
BFI Film Forever – How the French Birthed Film Noir
Cine College – Film Noir

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.


  • Shawna Atteberry
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 02:21

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 18:13

      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.

  • Jacqui
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 02:26

    Have not heard of this one. Very interesting.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 18:15

      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 😉

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 05:17

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 18:16

      Thanks for the kind words, Cheryl. Knowing that people are enjoying the series means a lot to me.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 05:43

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 18:17

      Cool, I didn’t know that 🙂
      But it makes sense, I’d say.

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 10:20

    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

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

      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.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:00

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 18:23

      Hi Hilary and thanks for stopping by. I completely agree, the first two weeks of challenge had been… challenging for me too 😉

  • Roshan Radhakrishnan
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 13:26

    I have been guilty of using noir and neo-noir as the same. This is actually a lot more complex, I realize now.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:06

      There is a story behind it, that’s why it isn’t simple 😉

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 13:44

    I hadn’t considered The Usual Suspects as being neo noir. Now I need to watch it again, for science! 😉

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:07

      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 😉

  • Preethi Venugopala
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 13:56

    Quite interesting information. I never understood the difference between Noir and Neo-noir. This is so informative.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:08

      Yeah, I didn’t know either, before researching this series. I too am learning so much 🙂

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 15:21

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:09

      LOL! Maybe film noir was too specific and would have been held only for interested students?

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 16:16

    Another insightful post, Sarah. Chinatown has such an interesting story line. Hope to watch it.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:10

      It does. I haven’t seen it yet, but Iplan to. How come my TBW list has become so long after researchign this series? 😉

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 16:57

    Love the movies you cite! I’m learning something new on your blog every day 🙂 Happy A-to-Z-ing.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:11

      Happy you’re enjoying the series, Ronel. Knowing peoplke are enjoying it means a lot to me 🙂

  • Laurel Garver
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 17:20

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:18

      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 😉

  • Nilanjana Bose
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 21:45

    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.


    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:21

      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.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 22:08

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:21

      I would guess they were. Film noir was very popular at the time 🙂

  • Nick Wilford
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 23:01

    Interesting how French film noir developed independently. Of course, a lot of French films are very stylish, even outside of that genre.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:23

      French film noir was ugely influential here in Europe. I’d say European cinema, from whatever nation, is still influenced today.

  • Gail M Baugniet
    Posted April 17, 2017 at 23:57

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:28

      I dont’ think it was chance. WWII impacted many lives in many parts of the world.

  • Kalpanaa
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 08:18

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 08:29

      But there will be more time after the challenge. That’s what I plan to do too 😉

  • Trackback: Sharing #Blog Love #AToZChallenge Day Nineteen | Blog Chatter
  • Thomas
    Posted May 2, 2018 at 01:06

    We made an indie noir as fans of noir we wanted to experiment in the genre. I hope you’ll take a look

Leave a comment

Captcha loading...