March Noir: Top 10 Classic Film Noir Clichés that aren’t Clichés

Posted by on Mar 7, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 4 comments

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When building a top 10 classic film noir clichés list, certain images immediately come to mind. Looming fog, racing cars, an intense stare glaring out from under the brim of a fedora. With the release of What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli and a whole month of noir here on the Apex blog to celebrate, I’ve been taking in a lot of noir, watching classic movies and reading everything I can get my hands on. What I’ve found is that what I thought were clichés aren’t really. The fog, the cars, the glares. They’re all there.

Top 10 Classic Film Noir Clichés that aren’t Clichés

Here’s my list of the top 10 classic film noir clichés that aren’t clichés.

1. Shadows—Without the use of fancy special effects available today, lighting becomes a character all its own in the noir films of the 1940s and 50s. It reveals intent, adds to the mystery, and gives the audience a glimpse of the violence that takes place off screen.

2. Lightening quick dialogue—When you sit down to watch a noir film you’d better bring your listening ears. Snappy dialogue races by so quickly you’ll be flipping on the closed captioning just for a chance to keep up. It’s witty and smart and funny, revealing the plot in clever little turns of phrase that leave you breathless.

3. Slick flirtatious banter—A lot of the dialogue speeding through the film goes on between the leading man and lady in bursts of flirtatious banter. They’re so slick, they’ll leave you wishing you could come up with something half as smooth.

Take this exchange in Double Indemnity (1944) between Phyllis (played by Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) at the end of their first meeting.

Walter went to Phyllis’s house with the intentions of getting her husband to sign some insurance papers but ended up trying to put the moves on her instead.  From this exchange it seems like she might resist his advances, but soon the two are embracing and planning the demise of her husband.

4. Romance and deception—As with Walter and Phyllis, it seems like people fall in love at the speed of light in noir films. Like “I know we only met two weeks ago, but I can’t live without you, baby. Let’s get married” kind of fast. This romance inevitably leads to murder, mayhem, or crime, and ends with one person finding out that the other has been deceiving them all along.

5. Fast cars—Whether they’re hightailing it cross country or running from the law, classic cars cruise their way through many noir films. They become an additional set where our unlucky leading man can reveal motives or fill in back-story while stock footage churns past the windows.

6. Fedoras and cigarettes—Mention film noir and the image of a fedora with cigarette smoke curling over the brim immediately comes to mind. The clothes in the movies are amazing. Stylish suits, tailored dresses, gloves, and hats that leave the characters looking sophisticated and oh, so cool.

7. Cutaway murder—Film noir and death go hand in hand, but rarely do you see murder committed on screen. The plans are all laid, each step carefully choreographed and danced, taking the audience right up to moment when the hands reach around, grip the victim by the jaw, and then – when you’re cringing, waiting for the twist—the camera cuts to a close up of the killer’s face and all you hear is a sickening crunch.  You may think this would leave you feeling gypped, like you’re missing out on all the good parts, but it doesn’t. It allows your imagination to fill in all the grisly details and let’s killer’s reaction reign on the screen. Many times the killer isn’t a hard, fast criminal who’s be unaffected by their actions. In film noir the killer is usually a normal Joe pushed to do the unthinkable because of a manipulative love interest or financial gain.

8. The gun and the scuffle—Inevitably, there comes a moment in every film noir where a gun is whipped out and two characters scuffle over it. And scuffle is the right word. It’s a lot of quick movements half concealed in shadows with one character trying to force his way around the other, and the other character grappling for control of the gun. Sometimes the gun inadvertently goes off, drawing a shocked gasp from the lady who’s been watching on the sidelines.

9. Flashbacks—A lot of noir films are almost entirely flashbacks. Take Double Indemnity. The movie opens with Walter Neff going into a dark office,  blood stain on his suit jacket where he’s been shot, and turning on a recorder to tell his friend why he’d gone so far off track. In Detour (1945) Al (Tom Neal) hears a song in a diner that triggers a memory and the story unfolds.

Even if the entire movie isn’t a flashback, there’s usually a moment when the main character flashes back to the moment that set them on the dark path they’re traveling. It’s a quick and easy way for the director to show the audience that the main character is a bad guy, he’s just doing bad things in response to unusual circumstances.

10. Anti-hero - Whether they’re insurance salesmen or piano players, the lead in film noir doesn’t fit the iconic image of a hero: strong, confident, always doing the right thing for the greater good. Instead, he’s impulsive and wreckless, making decisions based on desire, fear, or greed and the decision he makes is usually the wrong one. He’s a normal guy having the worst day of his life. I think that’s why the audience connects with him. You can’t help but wonder if you would fall prey to the same manipulative people or if you would do the right thing and be the hero. You watch the movie, rooting for him as he struggles against deceit and bad luck, but understanding when he stumbles.

Noir films are a lot of fun. If you haven’t seen one, snuggle up with a bowl of popcorn and fix that. I’d suggest Double Indemnity or Gaslight, a 1944 film with the fantastic Ingrid Bergman. Actually, let me leave you with my favorite scenes from Gaslight, the moment when Paula (Bergman) takes out all the fear and anger she’s been holding in on her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer) who happens to be tied to a chair.

From Modern Noir Master Tom Piccirilli
What Makes You Die by Tom PiccirilliScreenwriter Tommy Pic fell hard from Hollywood success and landed in a psychiatric ward, blacked out from booze and unmedicated manic depression. This is not the first time he’s come to in restraints, surrounded by friends and family who aren’t there.

This time, though, he also awakes to a message from his agent. The first act of his latest screenplay is their ticket back to the red carpets. If only Tommy could remember writing it. Trying to recapture the hallucinations that crafted his masterpiece, he chases his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop downstairs, and the Komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut one Christmas Eve. The path to professional redemption may be more dangerous than the fall.

…This is what makes you die.

Order What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli

Lesley Conner is an Assistant Editor and Marketing Leader for Apex Publications. When she isn’t chatting with people on the Apex Twitter feed, she writes horror, something she considers good practice for shaping the minds of future generations of girls as a Girl Scout Daisy Leader. You can follow Lesley via Twitter at the handle @lesleyconner.

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  1. Why aren’t these cliches? I don’t understand.

  2. According to the writer’s logic, they are not cliches because they exist.

    Which you’d think would be the stupidest thing you’d ever read, but not if you’ve read this:

  3. I’m still not sure how these aren’t clichés. It’s a great description of what’s in a film noir but, I’m just not catching why they aren’t clichés.

  4. I think the author’s point is that these conventions, though very common in noir, can still be effective when used artfully. A cliche, on the other hand, is not only conventional, but so conventional that it actually hurts the work it appears in.


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