Lighting of Film Noir

cropped-crippled-film-noir.jpgThe lighting of film noir has been the most influential element of the grim, low-lit film movement of the 1940’s. Although noir films may be a thing of the past, their distinct lighting techniques continue to be employed by countless directors.

Come with me on a journey of self-discovery through the many aspects of lighting in film noir. Our journey will include sections on high contrast lighting with shadows, low key lighting through the use of props, key lights, fill light, and lighting in The Maltese Falcon.

Low Key vs. High Key Lighting

High key lighting helps to improve contrast ratios. Containing a lot of whites and light tones, high key lighting creates a much more lighthearted tone than film noir. Characters’ faces can be seen completely, reflecting their mostly transparent attitudes. Nothing needs to be hid in movies with high key lighting, as the light exposes everything in frame. The image from the lighthearted film The Wizard of Oz below represents the typical high-key lighting found in studio set movies of the 1940s and 50s.

Wizard of Ox.jpg

On the other hand, low key lighting relies more on shadows, dark colors, and an overall reduction on lighting. Usually only a portion or half of a character’s face can be seen. The shadows attempt to cover up the extensive lies and mischievous acts of individuals in these films. White tones and colors are rarely used, and when they are, it is used to emphasis a bit of purity or good in the world.


Lighting in The Maltese Falcon

Bars across Femme Fatale's face.jpg

The Maltese Falcon touches on every usual part of film noir lighting. Most rooms are only lit by one or two lamps, the streets of the city are dark with the exception of a part of the character’s face being illuminated, and shadows are cleverly cast across faces. In the image above, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy’s path towards indictment begins with her entering the elevator in Sam’s apartment building. After she enters the elevator, the bars cast “prison bars” across her face, signaling her eventual imprisonment.

Maltese Falcon illuminated.jpg

The image above comes from the beginning of the film. Sam is much more open and willing to take customers at the beginning of the film, before he gets wrapped up in the murder of his partner. Sam seems trustworthy and much more straightforward at the beginning. This is displayed through his completely illuminated face, with the light reaching across most of his face.

In contrast, the image below shows Sam’s want to lay low and get out of his current problem. Contrasting his openness and highly illuminated face in the beginning of the movie, Sam’s eyes are covered up by the shadow cast by his hat. Sam can no longer be trusted, by his colleagues and the audience alike. As the eyes are the windows to the soul, Sam wants to hide any hints that may result from his looks.

Maltese Falcon.png


High Contrast Lighting: Shadows

The high contrast lighting that became the staple of film noir projects shadows that reflect the emotions of the characters and events of the film. Known to reveal more about a character’s true intentions than their words, the lighting diminishes some of the mystery around a character.

In the picture above, the bars casted across the man’s face represent a feeling of entrapment. The eyes are the only part of his face left in the light, signaling that he is looking out of a “prison cell.” This “prison cell” is symbolic of the mental isolation that most male characters experience in noir films. A femme fatale has most likely cornered this man into a situation with no escape.

Low Key Lighting: Props

With low key lighting, props are usually the only source of lighting in a scene. Instead of studio lighting, the director relies on lamps to emphasize how little of an effect light has on the scene and add mystery to characters. The use of lamps can portray a little bit of purity or good character that is left in a character; surrounded by darkness, the lamp struggles to keep up its “good character.” When the lamp flickers, it is the point where a character begins their descent into the criminal underworld. Shown in the image below, a character can also turn a lamp on or off, indicating a change in their tactics or overall motive.

Femme Fatale turning off light

Lamps can also be used in a comedic or more lighthearted way in film noir. In the following clip from The Big Sleep, a lamp is used to signify Humphrey Bogart getting an idea. The light especially sticks out in a film that’s dark for the most part.