The Five Codes of Film Noir

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In Drive (2011), Driver (Ryan Gosling) lives by a “code” dur
In Drive (2011), Driver (Ryan Gosling) lives by a “code” dur© 2011 Bold Films, Oddlot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Motel Movies / TASCHEN

We celebrate the wonderful world of film noir, where world weary private eyes solve crimes from within a fog of cigarette smoke despite the machinations of a fabulous femme fatale

“Gangsters sit in offices at midday with the shades pulled and the lights off. Ceiling lights are hung low and floor lamps are seldom more than five feet high. One always has the suspicion that if the lights were all suddenly flipped on the characters would shriek and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at noontime.”

So writes Douglas Keesey in a new photobook from TASCHEN that looks at 100 all-time film noir favourites. Describing a classic noir scene, he continues on to investigate the tropes and themes of Hollywood films from the 1940s and ‘50s that portrayed the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption – as well as the many films since that follow the same rules. Here, we look at some of our favourite noir codes.

1. Cigarette smoking
It’s hard to imagine noir’s double crossings, double entendres or treasure hunts without the rapid-fire lighting of many a cigarette. Most certainly in the case of Humphrey Bogart, who in his many film roles, including private detective Sam Spade, was a veritable Marlboro Man of the mean streets.

2. Femme Fatale
The real danger at the heart of many noir films is the woman with the mysterious past; the one who seduces our protagonist and whose deadly motives are not discovered until it’s too late. Here, Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) goes to work on private eye Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in Murder, My Sweet.

3. Excellent names
In Poison Ivy, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) and Carlotta de La Rue (Dominique Wilms) shoot it out with Rudy Saltierra’s gang. The character names don’t get any better than this – and let’s not forget the likes of Gwen Dulaine and Mike Hammer.

4. Stark, beautiful cinematography
Never missing the opportunity to make the most of a location or set, noir cinematographers revelled in shadows, obscure angles and, as in Foreign Intrigue, arresting mise-en-scène that makes a character of the background as much as the people in it.

5. Fog 
It’s everywhere in noir. And luckily too as without so many dramatic vapours, what else would there be for people to exit into? Similar to the climax of Casablanca, the final iconic image of The Big Combo shows Susan (Jean Wallace) and Detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) walking out of an airplane hangar into the ever-present fog.

Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favourites is out now, published by TASCHEN.

Text by Ananda Pellerin