Film Noir Studies
Film Noir StudiesFeatured EssayMore EssaysTimelineGlossaryMore NoirAboutSubmit
  A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | L | M | N | O | P | S | T | U | V | W | Z

The principal protagonist of a film who lacks the attributes or characteristics of a typical hero, but with whom the audience identifies. The character is often confused or conflicted with ambiguous morals, or character defects and eccentricities, and lacks courage, honesty, or grace. The anti-hero can be tough yet sympathetic, or display vulnerable and weak traits. Specifically, the anti-hero often functions outside the mainstream and challenges it.

A character, place, or thing, that is repeatedly presented in films with a particular style or characterization; an archetype usually applies to a specific genre or type classification. Archetypes often associated with film noir include the femme fatale and hard-boiled detective.

back story
Refers to the events that happened prior to the beginning of the story, or lead to the story; composed of information that helps fill out the skeletal story of a screenplay or a character's background, often to help actors (or the audience) understand motivation.

This phenomenon occurs when the lighting for the shot is directed at the camera from behind the subject(s), causing the figure(s) in the foreground to appear in semi-darkness or as silhouettes, or highlighted; with backlighting, the subject is separated from the background.

The process of figuring out where the camera goes, how the lights will be arranged, and what the actors' positions and movements are for each shot or take.

camera angle
The position of the frame in relation to the subject it shows. A high angle is when camera is looking down, low angle when looking up.

canted angle
See “Dutch angle.”

Literally, the combination of the two Italian words for "clear/bright" and "dark"; refers to a notable, contrasting use of light and shade in scenes; often achieved by using a spotlight; also referred to as low-key lighting or high-contrast lighting. This lighting technique had its roots in German Expressionism.

Refers to the art and technique of film photography, the capture of images, and lighting effects, or to the person expert in and responsible for capturing or recording-photographing images for a film, through the selection of visual recording devices, camera angles, film stock, lenses, framing, and arrangement of lighting.

crane shot
A shot in which the camera is mounted on a crane to achieve striking height or aerial movement. (See also “traveling shot.”)

deep focus
A use of the camera lens and lighting that keeps both the close and distant objects being photographed in sharp focus.

depth of field/depth of focus
The depth of composition of a shot where there are several planes: (1) a foreground, (2) a middle-ground, and (3) a background. Depth of field specifically refers to the area, range of distance, or field (between the closest and farthest planes) in which the elements captured in a camera image appear in sharp or acceptable focus.

diegesis, diegetic
The “world” of the story and all the elements that belong to it: the sight and sounds of the action (e.g., footsteps, explosions), including off-screen action and objects (e.g., birdsong, church bells). The most common non-diegetic sound is music (which would only be diegetic if the musicians or source of music were part of the action).

Dutch angle
A tilted camera angle that shows images obliquely slanted to the frame's vertical axis; also called oblique or canted angle.

establishing shot
A shot that shows the environment in which the action will take place, usually early in the sequence.

A style of filmmaking that distorts physical reality in some way in order to "express" strong feelings about it. Typical expressionistic techniques include the use of distorting lenses, extreme camera angles, bizarre lighting and sound effects, and fragmented editing. The personality of the director is always paramount and obvious in this type of film.

fade out
The practice of ending a shot by progressively darkening the image until it becomes pure black.

femme fatale
A French term that literally means "fatal woman”; an irresistibly attractive woman who leads men to destruction.

film noir
A French phrase literally meaning "black film" that developed in the early 40s; refers to a genre of mostly black-and-white films that blossomed in the post-war era in American cinema, with bleak subject matter and a somber, downbeat tone; the plot (often a quest), low-key lighting often in night scenes, camera angles (often canted or high-angle shots), the setting (the gloomy underworld of crime and corruption), iconography (guns, urban settings), characters (disillusioned, jaded), and other elements combined to present a dark atmosphere of pessimism, tension, cynicism, or oppression.

An alteration of story order in which the plot moves back in time to show events that have taken place earlier than the one already shown.

focal length
The distance between the optical centre of the lens and the image sensor. The longer the focal length, the greater the magnification involved; the shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view.

Foley track
Sound effects created by the “Foley artist,” after shooting, to be dubbed onto the film to match the action (e.g., footsteps, rustling clothing).

The linear distortion caused by a wide-angle lens; the perception of depth is exaggerated.

The use of edges of the film to select and to compose what will be visible onscreen.

A type or category of motion picture, such as westerns or film noir, that employs similar plots, narrative conventions, character types, and formulas.

German Expressionism
A style of film common in Germany in the 20s, characterized by dramatic lighting, distorted sets, and symbolic action and character; often cited as a precursor to film noir.

hard lighting
Lighting that creates sharp-edged shadows.

high-angle lighting
Lighting coming from above a person or object, usually in order to outline the upper areas of the figure or to separate it more clearly from the background; also called top lighting.

high-contrast lighting
Lighting that creates strong contrast between light and dark areas of the shot, with deep shadows and little fill light; also called low-key lighting.

The use of thin beams of light to illuminate selected or limited parts of the subject.

The use of a well-known symbol or icon; a means to analyze the themes and various styles in a film.

low angle-lighting
Lighting from a point below the figures in the scene; also called underlighting.

low-key lighting
See “high-contrast lighting.”

French term from the theatre that literally means “what's put in the scene.” In the cinema it refers to the elements of a shot—the set, the props, the actors, the use of color and light—and the way these elements are composed or choreographed.

A dark and brooding film that features a downbeat, depressing, dreary, cynical, gloomy or bleak tone; often doom-laden and concerned with the subjects of death, suffering, tragedy, unhappiness, and existential despair; the protagonist often meets with death or tragedy in a film's conclusion. Nearly all film noir films are nihilistic.

oblique angle
See “Dutch angle.”

Poetic Realism
A cinematic style that emerged in France during the 1930s that combined working-class milieus and downbeat story lines with moody, proto-noir art direction and lighting to stylishly represent contemporary social conditions. Considered by some critics as a precursor to film noir.

point-of-view (POV) shot
A shot taken with the camera placed approximately where the character's eyes would be, representing what the character sees; usually cut in before or after a shot of the character looking.

A speech, preface, introduction, or brief scene preceding the main action or plot of a film.

subjective point of view
A film in which the narrator has a limited point-of-view regarding the characters, events, action, places, thoughts, conversations, etc.

Modern-day (or post-modern) expressionistic film noirs set in the future, with dark, decaying societies. Some examples include Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).

top lighting
See “high-angle lighting.”

top shot
An extreme high-angle shot, where the camera looks straight down.

tracking shot
See “traveling shot

traveling shot
A shot in which the camera, mounted on a vehicle, moves while filming. Traveling shots are sometimes identified more specifically according to the kind of vehicle used to move the camera (a dolly shot or a trucking shot, for example). When tracks are laid down for the camera to roll on, the shot is usually called a tracking shot.

See “low-angle lighting.”

Refers to recorded dialogue, usually narration, that comes from an unseen, off-screen voice, character or narrator who can be heard by the audience but not by the film characters themselves; narration often conveys the character's thoughts, either as a “voice” heard within one's head or as other narrative information and commentary; often a technique in film noir.

wide-angle lens
A lens of short focal length that affects the scene's perspective by distorting straight lines near the edges of the frame and by exaggerating the distance between foreground and background planes. In 35mm filming, a wide-angle lens is 30mm or less. Also called a short lens. 

The change of image size achieved when the focal length of the zoom lens is altered.

BFI Film Language Glossary:

Cinematic Terms, A Filmmaking Glossary:

Raritan Valley Community College, Film Glossary:

Screenonline, Glossary of Film and Television Terms:

The Seventh Art, Art of Cinema – Classic & Foreign, Glossary of Film Terms:
Earth Cinema Circle

film noir studies