Film Noir


Film Styles & Genres: Film Noir

Fall 2022

Steven Shaviro ( or

This class provides a deep dive into the movie genre known as film noir, perhaps the most beloved and popular genre of movies from the old Hollywood. Film noir is a subset of the crime film; it is descended from the hardboiled crime literary fiction of the first half of the twentieth century. Hardboiled crime fiction featured tough guy detectives, who were often at odds both with the cops and the crooks, and who lived by their own private moral codes. These detectives did not solve their cases by logical deduction, but by getting their hands dirty, stirring things up, and putting themselves into situations of violence and danger. Film noir translated this sensibility into the movies. Film noirs were made in the 1940s and 1950s; they were generally shot in black and white, on relatively low budgets. They were focused on themes of corruption and moral ambiguity, and they exhibited moods of anxiety, alienation, cynicism, and paranoia. They also often featured protagonists who were ethically dubious. Film noir has a typical visual look, as well. We get nocturnal urban settings, dark and murky streets in the rain, together with dimly-lit apartments and hotel rooms. Visual motifs include swirling cigarette smoke, light filtered through Venetian blinds, and pulsing neon lights. Many of these movies use oblique camera angles, low-key, chiaroscuro lighting, and the prominent play of light and shadow. Typical film noir characters include the tough, seemingly amoral detective, the alluring but dangerous femme fatale, and disconcertingly weird gangsters and authority figures. In this class, we will look at a range of film noirs from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1940) to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).


By the end of the course, successful students should be able to: 1. Identify major scholarly conversations in relation to film noir 2. Analyze texts in relation to multiple contexts relevant to film noir. 3. Compose research-based argumentative essays that answer specific research questions about film noir.


This class will not meet in person, but will be conducted entirely online, asynchronously. In the course of the semester, we will watch 27 feature-length films. I believe that the best way to get to know film history is through immersion. That is why we will be watching a lot of films, rather than going over a smaller number in more depth. There has been a lot of scholarship published on the subject of film noir; I may mention some of it in the course of our discussions, but I am not assigning any readings because the best way to get to know the subject is to engage with the films directly.

I will write a general introductory essay at the start of the semester; going forwards, I will write a long essay on each film. These essays will take the place of the lectures that would be delivered in an in-person class. There will be discussion boards on Canvas for each film, for you to discuss and ask questions about the films. These discussion boards will take the place of in-class discussion; their format allows everyone in the class to participate.

The films will all be available on online streaming services. You are responsible for finding and watching the movies on your own; most of them are available for rent or purchase on the major online streaming services (Amazon, Apple, Google Pay, YouTube, etc.). A good way to find which services have which films is to use one of the streaming movie search engines, such as JustWatch. The syllabus provides links for movies that are especially difficult to access.

Most of the streaming movie rentals for older movies like the ones we are watching this semester come out to $3.99 or less; the cost of renting movies for the entire semester should still be far less than purchasing a textbook in an ordinary class.

Your class grade will be based upon your participation in the discussion boards, together with your performance on three analytical essays. Individual participation is important; I will expect everyone in the class to make comments on the discussion boards about each film we discuss. These can include responses to the films, questions about specific points in the lectures that need further explanation, discussions about further implications, or references to related examples of what we are discussing. I will respond to all serious comments, but I also encourage discussion among all the members of the class. Give your own impressions of and responses to each film; but also build upon, question, or otherwise respond to previous comments. The discussion should remain polite and focused; show respect to people you are responding to.

Participation in each discussion board is worth two points. You will get full credit (two points) for thoughtful participation in the discussion; one point instead of two if your participation is merely perfunctory (or if your response has come after the deadline); and zero points if you fail to participate in the discussion altogether. I strongly encourage keeping up with the semester; you should watch the films and lectures, and post your comments, promptly. In terms of absolute due dates, discussions will be closed after two weeks.

There will be three analytical writing assignments; each of them will be worth ten points. I will count the total points everyone has received at the end of the semester, and then convert them to letter grades.

I will give more details on the analytical assignments when we are closer to the due dates. But the first assignment will ask you to further analyze one of the films that we have discussed up to that point; the second will ask you to watch at least one additional film noir that we have not discussed; and the third will ask you to look at a more recent film (a “neo-noir”) and relate it to the noir tradition. Below I provide lists of other film noirs and of neo-noirs, to guide you in choosing additional films.

The due dates for the essays are as follows:

  1. October 14 - Close analysis of one of the films we have seen in class.
  2. November 18 - Discussion of a film noir that we have not seen in class, either on its own or in comparison to films we have seen and discussed.
  3. December 16 - Discussion of a more recent neo-noir film, with attention paid to how it uses, and how it diverges from, the film noir tradition.


1. August 31 - September 2

2. September 6-9

3. September 12-16

4. September 19-23

5. September 26-30

6. October 3-7

7. October 10-14

8. October 17-21

9. October 24-28

10. October 31 - November 4

11. November 7-11

12.November 14-18

13. November 21-22

14. November 28 - December 2

15. December 5-9

Other Recommended Film Noirs

Some Neo-Noirs

Grade Appeals
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences stipulates that course grade appeals must be initiated within 30 days from the time the grade is posted. The English Grade Appeal Form can be obtained at the English Main Office on the 9th Floor of 5057 Woodward or by emailing Royanne Smith at More information on this process, including the limited grounds for appeal, can be found at

Plagiarism is a very serious matter and should be recognized as such. The University has a very strict policy on plagiarism. Always cite your sources when quoting, paraphrasing, or using the ideas of other writers. When paraphrasing, place in quotes any phrase of four words or more that comes directly from the source being used.