A Pathfinder

More than sixty years following its inception, film noir remains one of the most beloved and influential genres of American film. The term "film noir" was first coined by French theorists in the 1930s to describe the dark, expressionistic films of European cinema, such as Fritz Lang's M and Jean Renoir's La Chienne. However, by the mid-1950s, film theorists began adopting the term to characterize the morally-ambiguous content and distinct cinematography that dominated American film in the 1940s and 1950s. That period produced a slew of film noir classics (The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil) and inspired generations of filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, and the Coen brothers.

I designed the following pathfinder as a research guide for undergraduate students with little or no experience with film noir.

LC Subject Headings

Film noir
Film noir -- Catalogs.
Film noir -- History.
Film noir -- History and Criticism.
Film noir -- United States -- History and Criticism.
Motion Pictures -- Dictionaries.

Browsing Areas

PN1995-1997, especially PN1995.9.F54

UNC's Media Resource Center provides a selection of VHS and DVD movies, many films noirs.

Print Resources


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 4th edition. New York: HarperResource, 2001.
PN1993.45.K349 2001

Katz's book is arguably the definitive encyclopedia of its kind. Entries are listed alphabetically, so access to the term "film noir" is quick and easy. Contains a one-paragraph synopsis of film noir, followed by a lengthy filmography. Perfect for the film noir novice in search of a basic definition of the genre.

McGillivray, David. "Film Noir." The BFI Companion to Crime. Ed. Phil Hardy.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, pp.131-133.
PN1995.9.D4 B45 1997

"Film Noir" can be found alphabetically indexed in this encyclopedia-like source. Like Katz, McGillivray provides a short overview of the genre. Key concepts, important figures, and significant films are referred to within the text and are highlighted in bold for easy access. Inset pictures give the reader visual examples of the film noir style. McGillivray ends by listing many recent films that have borrowed style and concepts from film noir, but he refrains from using the term "neo-noir."


Silver, Alain & Elizabeth Ward, ed. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American
Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1992.
PN1995.9.F54 F546 1992, c.2

Silver has authored a number of important guides to film noir. This particular source consists largely of a filmography, listed alphabetically, which both summarizes and identifies the significance of each film. Silver and Ward's introduction, however, details the key motifs of film noir and its importance in film history. The book's appendices define film noir's antecedents (i.e. the gangster film) and followers (i.e. neo-noir). Finally, Silver and Ward provide a chronology of noirs films, a useful ready-reference tool.

Ottoson, Robert. A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir, 1940-1958. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow
Press, 1981.
PN1993.5.U6 O9

This resource contains a comprehensive filmography in the range of what is generally considered the dates of film noir. Films are annotated with plot summaries and commentary, and references are made to other films within and outside of the genre, facilitating expanded research. Ottoson's short introduction charts the history of film noir. He also lists numerically what he considers the key factors, cinematic and otherwise, that forged the creation of film noir. Not a beauty to look at, but certainly accomplished.

Keaney, Michael F. Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classical Era, 1940-1959.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
PN1995.9.F54 K43 2003

Like Ottoson's book, Keaney strives to present an authoritative, comprehensive filmography of film noir. Unlike Ottoson's book, The Film Noir Guide contains a more robust index, with films listed by director, type ("Femme Fatale," "Bad Cop"), and year released. For asipiring cineastes, Keaney rounds out his book with an appendix entitled "How to Build an Affordable Film Noir Video Library."

Guides & Handbooks

Nachabar, Jack. "Film Noir." Handbook of American Film Genres. Ed. Wes D. Gehring.
New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, pp.65-84.
PN1993.5.U6 H335 1988

As the title suggests, Gehring's book focuses on American film. Nachabar's chapter, therefore, considers film noir a quintessentially American genre. His style is easy-to follow and comprehensible. Nachabar devotes a large part of his chapter to the influences of film noir, even including a diagram that is both simple and useful. He ends with an extensive bibliography of books and articles devoted to all things noir. A short but informative filmography of important films noirs wraps up this succint, informative chapter.

Borde, Raymond & Etienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953.
Trans. Paul Hammond. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002.
PN1995.9.F54 B67 2002

Long printed only in French, this seminal 1955 study of the rise and fall of film noir is enjoying its first printing in English. Chapter 2, "Toward a definition of film noir," is essential reading for any researcher looking for an early critique of the genre. Includes a filmography. Titles and personalities of film noir are indexed.

Sliver, Alain & James Ursini, ed. Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.
PN1995.9.F54 F57 1996

Silver and Ursini devote the first part of this book to "Seminal Essays" in film noir criticism. Here, the researcher can find primary sources for many of the theoreticians referred to in contemporary literature. The rest of the book tackles specific issues in film noir, from sexuality to sci-fi. There's even an article written by Paul Schrader, noted screenwriter and director of films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Affliction, all which explore themes that originated in film noir. Only the presenece of an index could have improved on this accomplished and wieldy handbook to film noir.

Hardy, Phil. "Crime Movies." The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-
Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp.305-312.
PN1993.5.A1 O96 1996

This source seeks to explain the history of film within the context of world events in hopes of illustrating that film is truly an artform of the world. While not devoted exclusively to film noir, Hardy's chapter of crime movies provides context in which, structurally and historically, film noir is central. A good reference source for information seekers exploring the roots and followers of film noir. Chapter can be accessed via the Table of contents or indexically.

Crowther, Bruce. Film Noir: Reflections in a dark mirror. London: Columbus, 1988.
PN1995.9.F54 C76 1988

What distinguishes Crowther's book from the slew of other film noir guides is its immense readability. Crowther breaks down complicated themes and metaphors of noir for the average reader. His approach does not, however, detract from the content. Film Noir: Reflections in a dark mirror touches on all the elements of the genre, from defining film noir, to its origins at home and abroad, to its cinematic techniques, to the genre's finest actors. Pictures set alongside the text accentuate the scholarship.

Server, Lee et al, ed. The Big Book of Noir. New York: Carroll & Graf
Publishers, 1998.
PN1995.9.F54 B54 1998

This book contains articles dealing with themes of noir in not just film, but literature, comic books, and television. Most useful for the film noir novice, however, is its introduction, which lists eleven major motifs of film noir, including "Crime as Social Criticism" and "Portraits and Doubles." A brief explanation accompanies each entry.

Cameron, Ian, ed. The Movie Book of Film Noir. London: Studio Vista, 1992.
PN1995.9.F54 M68 1992

In-depth case studies of seminal films noirs. The authors draw on narrative theorists like Northrop Frye, suggesting a more sophisticated information seeker. May be a good choice for an English student, with a background in narrative theory, who wants to apply her knowledge to film noir.

Non-print Sources


The All-Movie Guide. http://www.allmovie.com. 1 Apr 2004.

The finest electronic source for film noir. Unlike other filmographies, allmovie.com contains a searchable database for films. Hypertext links within the file connects users to related films, people, and themes. Allmovie.com also provides its own film noir essay, which summarizes the genre's basic precepts and, most significantly, connects users to the films and personalities of film noir through the use of intertextual links. The site's tone is objective but evaluative. A strong tool for the researcher looking suggestions and guidance.

Filmsite.org. http://www.filmsite.org. 1 Apr 2004.

Its commercial-looking interface may put off the film snob, but filmsite.org is a particularly strong reference tool pertaining to the history of film noir and, more generally, film itself. A tool bar to the left of the screen links the user to a table that lists the major movements in film history. Also available is a "Film Genres" page, which features film noir (though as a sub-genre of crime movies). The site also maintains an extensive listing of other film related sites on the web. Intertextual links and pictures of old movie posters make this site a lively and entertaining research tool. Particularly useful for the researcher in need of web-based visual aids.


The Maltese Falcon. Dir. John Houston. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre. Warner Brothers, 1941.

Widely consider the first film noir, Houston's classic is a whodunit, a thriller, and a social satire rolled into one. Humphrey Bogart's turn as a gritty detective serves as the template for the film noir hero.

The Big Sleep. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Warner Brothers, 1946.

Bogart stars in this adaptation Raymond Chandler's influential crime novel. Bacall plays the temptress, pointing to the chemistry between the two that would develop into a lifelong partnership beyond the screen.

Touch of Evil. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Charleton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles. Universal, 1958.

Considered the last film noir, Touch of Evil is also arguably the last great film from director Orson Welles. Welles also stars in the picture, which features Janet Leigh, playing a stranger in a strange land, and Charleton Heston as a Mexican (yes, a Mexican) policeman. The movie's opening shot is one of the greats in film history.

Blood Simple. Dir. Joel Coen. Perf. Dan Hedeya, Frances McDormand, M. Emmett Walsh. Circle Releasing, 1984.

The debut film from Joen and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple kick-started the neo-noir and independent film movements. M. Emmett Walsh's portrayal of a slimy private eye is one of the great villains in all of film.

Back to top

Site Archived By the DPR