Film noir is known for many things. Its dark and twisty characters, its violence, its intricate plots, etc. But one thing that makes film noir really stand out from all other film genres is the cinematography.
Look at a few seconds of any film, and it’s hard to tell right away whether it’s a comedy, or action movie, or romance — or something in between. But look at a few seconds of a film noir, and we instantly know what it is.
Most film noirs were B-pictures, small morality tales that showed what would happen if good men gave in to the temptation of crime and easy money. And that’s what the cinematography of film noir shows — the dark, gritty, and often deceiving visuals are a reflection of the characters, who themselves are dark, gritty, and deceiving. In noir, the cinematography is the main way to tell us about these people and the world they inhabit.
Most film noirs were B-pictures, small morality tales that showed what would happen if good men gave in to the temptation of crime and easy money.
Film noirs are famous for their darkness — hence the name noir — but the reason for the dark images was just as practical as artistic. Since majority of noirs were B-movies (movies at the time were often shown in pairs: the A-movie with the big stars, and the smaller B-movie afterwards), they were made on a shoestring budget. There wasn’t time or money to build and light beautiful film sets.
Often, the backdrop would fall into shadows, not so much for a stylistic reason, but because there literally wasn’t anything there — there was no money to build a complete set, so noir cinematographers and directors would flag off certain parts of the set, lighting only what was actually there.
However, there were noirs that had the budget of big productions, and those films showed what could be done on the artistic side if time and money permitted it.
One of the most striking examples of pure noir cinematography can be seen in The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed, shot by Robert Krasker. Krasker used single, large key lights with little or no fill light, giving the streets in the post-war city of Vienna a nightmarish feel. This style was common in noirs, especially during chase scenes, as the lights would cast long shadows, increasing energy and movement in the shots.
In addition to the exterior lighting, Krasker and Reed used a lot of dutch angles — a canted angle where the camera is tilted to one side. In fact, Reed used to tilt to camera so often that the crew gave him a spirit level tool as a joke.
Touch of Evil (1958), directed by Orson Welles, shot by Russell Metty, is considered the very last true film noir, and also employs the particular style seen in The Third Man. Most of the exterior shots at night are only lit with just one or two large key lights, which cast long and deep shadows. In many of the scenes, particularly the ending sequence, just a single light source is used — something that’s unheard of in today’s cinema, where even “dark” films often employ many lights from various angles.
When it comes to film noir cinematography, there was one man in particular who spearheaded the style: John Alton. He photographed more than 100 films in his long career, but Alton’s most productive and most famous years were in the 1940s and 1950s, where he worked on more than 20 film noirs, including T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and The Big Combo (1955). All three were quintessential Alton pictures, with low key lighting where most often a single light source was used.
“It’s not about what you light, it’s about what you don’t light.” Cinematographer John Alton
Alton was so good at his job that he was feared among other cinematographers in Hollywood, because he could light a set quickly and make it look incredible. And he had to work fast, because time was money on small B-movie noirs. Alton developed several lighting and grip techniques that sped up the process, and often only had a crew of a few people. As a result, he would have more control over the lighting and look of the film than any other cinematographer in the business.
One way that Alton pioneered film noir cinematography is by not lighting everything. At that time, focus in the Hollywood system towards high-key lit productions so that the big stars were fully explored from every angle. Alton and his directors knew they couldn’t do that on their budget, so they did the opposite: they brought out the darkness.
Not only was Alton a pioneer in film noir, he also wrote the very first instructional book on noir cinematography. Called “Painting With Light”, it has been part of film studies curriculum for decades.
Among Alton’s most impressive feats is T-Men (1947), a low-budget semi-documentary-style crime thriller. In T-Men, Alton often lit entire scenes using a single key light — whether it be a large exterior light, or a simple light bulb to light an interior set (as seen in the image below).
Being a very low budget thriller (as many noirs were at the time), T-men had no money to build big sets. Often, scene would be shot on location and lit in such a way that anything uninteresting would simply remain un-lit and fall into shadow. The small sets that were constructed for T-Men often only had two walls, and Alton would get around this limitation by simply not lighting anything else. As Alton puts it, “It’s not what you light, it’s what you don’t light”.
Alton’s other big noir masterpiece was The Big Combo (1955), where he and director Joseph Lewis made one of the most visual film noirs with striking compositions (the header to this article, seen at the very top, is the ending scene from The Big Combo).
Modern Neo Noir films are not the same as classic film noirs. Classic film noirs were bare-bones productions that used lighting as a way of expressing character and masking their low production budgets, while modern neo noirs tend to be overproduced A-films with a glossy look and an expensive cast. While the two share the word “noir”, they are quite the opposite.
One of the true modern noir films in recent memory was Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The Coen bothers, with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, brought back classic film noir cinematography and styles which were used in the 1940s (the film is set in 1949) and features a noirish plot of a barber who decides to blackmail his wife’s boss.
Despite its popularity among movie fans, film noir cinematography is quite uncommon in mainstream filmmaking today. More and more productions, even the darker ones, tend to shift towards a more high-key lighting setups, especially for television. There are always exceptions though, the most recent example being NBC’s TV show Hannibal, which featured a very noir-inspired lighting style, but even so, the lighting is softened a quite a lot compared to 1940s noir films.
Nevertheless, there are still filmmakers and cinematographers who appreciate the classic film noir style — the strong contrast, the low-key lighting, the violent lines and deep shadows — hopefully we’ll see more of it in the future.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the most beautiful music is sad, and the most beautiful photography is in a low-key, with rich blacks.” John Alton