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So You Want To / Write a Film Noir

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Pop quiz — This dame has just entered your office, and wants your help. The first thing you do is:
A) Ask what's she's here for.
B) Offer her a cigarette.
C) Describe her in a voiceover, using at least three cynically gruff idioms.

Bob heard a knock on his door and quickly downed the shot of whiskey he had just poured, then turned to see who it was. The outline was definitely of a woman... one with more curves than a sine wave. He stashed the whiskey under his desk next to his revolver and said, "Come on in."

She looked like she had been poured into her dress, a red scarf wrapped around her neck that did nothing to hide her breathtaking bustline. She lowered her sunglasses and gave Bob an appraising look. "Are you Mr. Holder? Mr. Bob P. Holder, Private Detective?"

"That's me, honey," Bob said. "And who might you be?"

"I'm Alice," the dame said. "Alice X. Ample."

"You certainly are," Bob said. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

Alice sauntered into his office and leaned over his desk. "There is, Mr. Holder," she said. "I wish to to write a Film Noir."

Bob smiled and leaned back. "Of course you do," he said as he took out the bottle of whiskey. "Well, alright, siddown and I'll let you in on a few things."

Necessary Tropes

"The first thing there's gotta be," Bob said, "is an Anti-Hero. He could be a Private Detective - that's certainly one of the more popular options - but there's no need for that. In fact, he could be a she. Here's what Raymond Chandler wrote about him in The Simple Art of Murder:

"But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."

"There are other characters that are essential to a noir," Bob said. "You gotta have a Femme Fatale. It's a classic archetype. And usually there's some form of Private Eye Monologue, though you can dispense with that if you really want." He poured out a shot of whiskey and offered it to Alice. She shook her head and after he took a sip, he continued: "The important thing is is that the world is very cynical. There aren't going to be any happy endings here, at least not for some people."

Choices, Choices

"Ah, now here's where we get interesting," Bob took out a packet of cigarettes. "The film noir is essentially a modern genre, but you can make one in almost any time period. Most have been set in the Classic Period of Film Noir, the 1940s and '50s, so many modern noirs try to ape those times and be Deliberately Monochrome where Everybody Smokes because Smoking Is Cool" He searched himself for some matches, but was interrupted by Alice, who lit his cigarette with a chrome lighter. "Thanks. But you can take your Anti-Hero and plunk him down 20 Minutes into the Future and it can still be noir."

Bob let out a ring of smoke. "And then there's the plot," he said. "You can have your basic murder mystery, but you can also have a heist or con of some sort. Then there's the McGuffin - it can practically be anything. In Casablanca it was the letters of transit, in The Maltese Falcon it was...well you can guess that. It was even lampshaded in Kiss Me Deadly, where the MacGuffin was a mysterious box of glowing material. One character called it 'The Great Whatsit.'" He took another puff of his cigarette. "That's a great film, by the way, but we'll get to that later."


"So what are some things I should watch out for, Mr. Holder?" Alice asked.

"Glad you asked," Bob said. "There's a tendency to go overboard with the Anti-Hero - you know, make him so badass that he scares criminals into talking and all that. The Anti-Hero should be a man - just a man, like Chandler said - not a Mary Sue with the angst piled on."

He got up and looked out his slatted windows. "Another thing: the mysteries in noirs tend to be pretty complicated and sometimes generate plot holes. There's even a story about when they were making The Big Sleep into a movie and couldn't figure out how one character died. They called up Chandler himself and he said, 'Damned if I know.' You gotta watch for those - make sure you know where all your characters are at a given time. And keep track of your Red Herrings."

Potential Subversions

"Anything you would change?" Alice asked.

"Sure," Bob said. "Old noir films tended to be a little bit sexist, so try changing around some gender roles. Don't be afraid to make the Anti-Hero a woman. Or even a young girl. Hell, you could even make the detective a superhero if you're into the kids stuff."

Writers' Lounge

A good place to start is the The United Federation of Charles and its description of Noir as a genre, covering both the classic Depression-era works as well as Neo-Noir attitudes in fiction. What Is Noir?

Suggested Themes and Aesops

"Existentialism, baby," Bob said. "That's what it's all about." Alice raised an eyebrow. "I mean it. In the words of one critic, noir is 'filled with existential bitterness.' The Anti-Hero is all about alienation, fighting fate, and pushing back against the corruption of the system."

Potential Motifs

"Ha!" Bob guffawed. "A boatload! Try the Dutch Angle. That one's great - gives you a real twisted worldview. And then there's the surreal and dreamlike. Heck, Hitchcock even got Salvador Dali to design some scenes in Spellbound. Another important thing you'll want, if you're doing a film, if it's black and white, you've got to get the light perfect: stark, dramatic, and not a lot of it. Venetian blinds, a knocked-over lamp, even a veil pulled down over a dame's face falls into this category. Noirs are claustrophobic and dark; place your light carefully."

Suggested Plots

"You know," Bob said, "I'd love to see a Cosmic Horror Story Film Noir. I really think those two genres could hit it off. I'd like to see some Steampunk noir, too, and I'll be damned if there's enough Urban Fantasy noir out there. But if you really want to branch out. Give your Noir a little Science Fiction edge by putting it in a Cyberpunk setting."


Set Designer / Location Scout

"So what about settings?" Alice asked. "Could I set it in a bar?"

"Sure, yeah," Bob said, slightly distracted by how her chest moved as she inhaled and exhaled. "Bars are good. Alleyways, too. Anyplace that's dark and claustrophobic is good."

Props Department

"Now, this is a beauty," Bob said as he pulled out his snubnosed revolver. "The Colt .38 Special, also known as the Detective Special, the snubby, the belly gun, or, as I call her, Carol." He put the gun back in his desk. "There are other weapons, too. Brass knuckles, truncheons, things like that. I can give you a list. Just don't go wild - I don't know if you would find shurikens in a private dick's briefcase."

Costume Designer

"What about clothing?" Alice asked.

"Crumpled and on the floor is the way I like it," Bob said. "But if you gotta wear something, go simple. Men wear suits and fedoras. Women...ah, as long as it looks good, it's fine with me. You might want to try a black dress with stockings, though. And remember - everyone wears trenchcoats. Long coats just look cool."

Casting Director

"Besides the Anti-Hero and the Femme Fatale," Bob said, "there are plenty of other characters you can add. The Mafia's a nice choice. Sometimes there are two Femme Fatales - there's the good one, who often comes around to the Anti-Hero's side, and The Vamp, who sometimes dies by the Anti-Hero's hands and sometimes gets away scott clean. You can also add The Ingenue to provide a nice contrast with the Femme Fatale. There's also the Con Man and the Small-Town Tyrant - oftentimes a sheriff or police chief. If you're doing it in a particular setting, like Germany or Russia, you can also include Those Wacky Nazis and Dirty Communists."

Stunt Department

"Chase Scenes are nice and simple," Bob said. "There was even a Hall of Mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai which was great. Fight scenes, however, tend to be like Hobbes' philosophy of human nature: nasty, short, and brutal. Like Bogart said, they'll beat your teeth in and then kick you in the stomach for mumbling."

Extra Credit

"Anything you would recommend I watch or read?" Alice asked as she got up from her chair.

"Going so soon?" Bob said. "Yeah, there are plenty."

The Greats

"Chandler's Philip Marlowe books are a must, as are Dashiell Hammett's. As for films, well, besides the ones I've already mentioned, like Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Sleep, there's Chinatown. And for a newer one, which is actually set in high school, but still contains all those noir mannerisms and lingo, see Brick. It's great, I swear."

The Honorable Mentions

"Don't go yet, sweetcheeks. You'll also want to check out a couple of noteworthy detectives outside the typical genre. I've a good friend called Guy, Guy Noir, he's on National Public Radio Saturday afternoons, as part of A Prairie Home Companion."

"A Prairie Home Companion?" Alice repeated, as if she may not have heard properly.

"Yes; I'll admit, it's a parody of the Noir genre, but listening to this style on the radio can really show you a whole new dimension to your usual setup. And another buddy of mine is Tracer Bullet. He's retired now, sad to say, but he used to appear in a newspaper comic drawn by a guy named Bill Watterson. You heard of him?"

"Oh, I've heard of him." Evidently she'd received a favorable report.

"That's him, noir in the funny pages. His records show up with the Calvin and Hobbes gang, pretty sparingly, but worthwhile, I assure you. And then there's a show Noir, Japanese thing, pretty good. Got some thematic similarities, but not really Film Noir in the same way that you and I might be lookin' for."

Alice seemed a bit dismayed at this remark, as if she was going through a bucket of birds and just found a corpse.

"What about videogames?" she asked with a raised eyebrow

"[[ Ah these kids and them new-fangled videogames]]," Bob grumbled like a bear woken up three weeks too early. "Well if you want videogames, I'd suggest the Max Payne series. Yeah, I know what made it sell was that Bullet Time stuff, but it's seen as the best modern example of noir in the genre. Besides, any story that combines Ragnarok, Valkyries, and other such Norse lore with a solid noir pedigree and metaphors that all go down smoother than a 12-year whiskey? Kudos to Remedy for bottling lightning."

He stopped in thought for a second before slapping his hand to his face. "I forgot!" he continued hurriedly "There was a Cosmic Horror Story Noir Game. Discworld Noir. One of those Point and Click ones." He stubbed out his cigarette into the dirty ashtray. "Came out pretty well, although you'd need to know the series to get the most out of it. Of course there's the aptly-named L.A. Noire. And then there's the Wolf Among Us, which is great if you want an investigator whose done as much bad as good. "

"One more thing, before we get to the end of my little speech. A man named Kinky Friedman has a nice take on the genre, with a little Texas taste thrown in for good measure, like throwing a pot of salsa on top of a deep-dish pizza, but less disgusting."

The Epic Fails

"I do have to mention, though, that both Charmed and Smallville did a Noir Episode. They did The Theme Park Version and were generally considered horrible. Moonlighting's noir episode, however, is considered especially good, with a cameo by Orson Welles himself."

"And that's that, baby," Bob said. "So, you ready to write one?"

"Oh yes," Alice said as she reached into her handbag. "And like you said, I need a good plot. A murder mystery is nice."

"So, if I might ask, who's going to be your dead guy?"

"You, Mr. Holder." Alice pulled out a pistol and pointed it at him.

"Well, damn," he said. "I shoulda seen that coming."


Alternative Title(s): Film Noir