The Conventions of Film Noir

Peta Darby (Dickson College, 2009)

The Film Noir sub-genre of Crime Fiction follows a series of rigid conventions that must be strictly adhered to. James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity demonstrates the effective observance of these conventions, along with the modern films Brick and The Man Who Wasn’t There. One significant convention of the Film Noir sub-genre is the use of visual motifs, which feature strong shadows that often obscure the characters in focus. Film Noir conventionally features archetypal characters who play prominent roles in the fiction, most notably the femme fatale. The combination of visual motifs and archetypal characters accentuate the pessimistic world view that underlies successful Film Noir. Adherence to these conventions of the sub-genre generates powerful, effective Film Noir.

The use of visual motifs is a significant convention featured in the Film Noir subgenre of Crime Fiction. The lighting in the subgenre is very dark and often partially, if not fully, obscures the faces of characters. This is a visual device used predominantly in intense moments to add to the uncertainty of the scene. Shadows are used to obscure the protagonist’s and other significant characters’ faces, which is a technique that distances the reader through their perceived lack of clear understanding of the characters. This is seen throughout The Man Who Wasn’t There, as the characters in focus are often silhouetted against a lighter background, emphasizing the way in which the protagonist is unable to clearly understand the characters around him, also distancing the viewer from the protagonist himself. The obscuring of characters is also referred to in Double Indemnity as Huff describes that “The night light over [his] head was the only light in the room. I could only half see him…”.[1] This description of the obscuring of Keyes’ face accentuates Huff’s inability to predict Keyes’ actions and heightens the sense of nervousness apparent in that moment. Using lighting techniques to obscure the characters’ faces is just one conventional visual motif that must be included to create effective Film Noir.

Archetypal characters such as the femme fatale are conventionally featured in Film Noir. The femme fatale is an alluring, naturally seductive and manipulative woman, who is largely motivated by her greed for money. Once introduced to the main characters, she proceeds to manipulate them to create a situation in which she is able to bring about their ultimate downfall, or death, for her own gain. The character Laura in the film Brick plays the role of the femme fatale, manipulating all the characters around her for personal gain, leading to the death of all but one. She is dangerous to her surrounding characters, which is evident as the main character Brendon illustrates how Emily, the victim, “saw [Laura] and ran like she saw some devil”.[2] Laura’s actions and the way in which other characters perceive her are typical of the femme fatale. Phyllis Nirdlinger, in Double Indemnity, also plays the role of a femme fatale, deliberately causing the death of numerous people around her to fulfill her own greed. When the reasons behind her actions are finally realised, Keyes describes her as a “… cobra…, a pathological case…”.[3] Both Phyllis and Laura are typical femme fatales, consciously orchestrating the death of many characters to fulfill their greed and avoid blame. The two femme fatales also meet their downfall in their respective stories. This, along with most characters’ vast inability to avoid or disobey them, expands the feeling of impending doom in the fiction, which is distinctive of Film Noir. The use of the femme fatale accentuates the ominous atmosphere of the fiction, and is a convention which should most certainly be adhered to.

A strongly pessimistic world view is a conventional theme that can be used to essentially describe Film Noir. Many other conventions apparent in the sub-genre highlight this theme as a major convention. The visual motifs, including dark lighting and prominent shadows, draw attention to this theme as they make the characters in general appear untrustworthy. The use of the femme fatale also emphasizes this theme as it heightens the sense of impending doom, that the world is heading toward an imminent end. The use of these conventions accentuates the Film Noir perspective of the world, which insinuates that the world is a place that is inherently corrupt, filled with people in unwanted situations and who are striving against fate. This is evident in The Man Who Wasn’t There through Ed Crane’s narration, which repeatedly expresses the hardship endured in life on this world. He describes himself as having “…made it to the outside somehow, and they were all still struggling way down below”.[4] Ed’s description of the people in his world presents a very pessimistic view of the world, furthering this theme. In the film Brick, The Pin’s description of life in his world insinuates a strongly pessimistic world view. The Pin explains that life “…gets tough… twisted and complicated… everyone’s got their thing”.[5] The Pin’s insinuation of the prominent difficulties and selfish nature of the world around him deepens the incessant negativity present in the story. This pessimistic view of the world is also present in Double Indemnity, predominately through Huff and his portrayal of the world. “[Huff] had seen so many houses burned down, so many cars wrecked, so many corpses with blue holes in their temples, so many awful things that people had pulled…”.[6] The relentless referral to the flawed world in which the characters live strengthens the pessimistic view of the Noir world. A pessimistic world view is the theme that ultimately defines all Film Noir and must always be evident in the Crime Fiction sub-genre.

There are many strong conventions that are included in effective Film Noir. Double Indemnity, as well as the recent films Brick and The Man Who Wasn’t There, provides powerful examples of these conventions. The use of visual motifs, such as low, shadowed lighting, is a convention that increases the distance between the audience and the characters within the story. The inclusion of archetypal characters like the femme fatale assists in insinuating the inescapability of the world’s doom. The use of both visual motifs and archetypal characters helps to portray the incessant, conventional theme of a pessimistic world view. The adherence to its rigid set of conventions is essential in producing powerful, distinctive Film Noir.


Caine, J. M (1943), Double Indemnity, Orion, London.
Coen, E and Coen, J. (2001), The Man Who Wasn’t There, DVD, USA Films, USA.
Johnson, R. (2006), Brick, DVD, Universal Studios, USA.


  1. ^ Caine 1943:124
  2. ^ Johnson 2006:1:36:15-1:36:20
  3. ^ Caine 1943:124
  4. ^ Coen 2001:52:50-53:00
  5. ^ Johnson 2006:1:00:10-1:00:30
  6. ^ Caine 1943:27