The term film noir was coined by French film critics to explain a distinct American style of cinema that sprang up during World War Two. As the name suggests, noir films are dark, in both the literal and thematic senses of the word. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, noir tended to reflect the modern disillusionment of wartime and post-war America. The lighting is low, and the locations are seedy. Antihero protagonists with cynical world views are accompanied by femme fatale love interests with questionable morals who, as Roger Ebert put it, “would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa”. A tense air of mystery permeates the films as the hard-boiled characters wander dark alleyways and foggy deserted streets either committing crimes or trying to solve them.
The major noir era of American cinema began in the early 1940s, and continued to the late 1950s. Though there were several precursors to the era that used noir elements, many consider 1940s Stranger on the Third Floor to be the first instance of a film that used a deliberate and pervading noir style. However, perhaps the most famous example of an early noir film is the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon.
During the 40s and 50s film studios churned out hundreds of these darkly lit, intriguing crime dramas complete with gruff private investigators and their salacious would-be lovers.
Neo-noir literally means new-black, or new-dark. It is a modern day continuation of the noir style. The general consensus is that the neo-noir era of film began in the 1970s. However, as with any art style, there are several precursors can be said to be part of the era. Some critics simply consider neo-noir to be films made after 1959, when the noir era ended. The new wave of noir style encompasses all dark, atmospheric crime dramas, or psychological thrillers that combine noir elements with modern cinematic tools.
Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown is widely known as one of the first neo-noir films. It is so embroiled in the noir style that some even contend it marked the end of the actul film noir era, rather than the beginning of neo-noir.
Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic Pulp Fiction is often cited as a more modern neo-noir.
The most glaringly obvious example of neo-noir is the 2005 film adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novel series. Sin City utilizes all the gritty intrigue and classic characterizations of a noir film, while also taking advantage of modern CGI techniques to add an aura of dream-like mystery to the familiar noir story.
The above are quintessential neo-noir films because of how closely they follow the noir tropes. However, the neo-noir genre is fairly broad. Films needn’t be such obvious facsimiles of classic noir style to be considered part of the neo-noir category. Films like The Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, and The Big Lebowski have all been included on lists of neo-noir films. Not obvious homages to noir at first glance, but definitely steeped in the dark and mysterious noir style.