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Film noir encompasses a range of plots: the central figure may be a private investigator (The Big Sleep), a plainclothes policeman (The Big Heat), an aging boxer (The Set-Up), a hapless grifter (Night and the City), a law-abiding citizen lured into a life of crime (Gun Crazy), or simply a victim of circumstance (D. Many pictures released from the 1960s onward share attributes with film noir of the classical period, and often treat its conventions self-referentially. The clichés of film noir have inspired parody since the mid-1940s.
"We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel […]"—this set of attributes constitutes the first of many attempts to define film noir made by French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir), the original and seminal extended treatment of the subject.
The authors' caveats and repeated efforts at alternative definition have been echoed in subsequent scholarship: in the more than five decades since, there have been innumerable further attempts at definition, yet in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir remains an "elusive phenomenon […] always just out of reach".
Film analyst Eddie Muller writes, “If a private eye is hired by an old geezer to prove his wife’s cheating on him and the shamus discovers long-buried family secrets and solves a couple of murders before returning to his lonely office – that’s detective fiction.
The primary literary influence on film noir was the hardboiled school of American detective and crime fiction, led in its early years by such writers as Dashiell Hammett (whose first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929) and James M.
Cain (whose The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared five years later), and popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask.
Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography.
By 1931, Curtiz had already been in Hollywood for half a decade, making as many as six films a year.
An analogous case is that of the screwball comedy, widely accepted by film historians as constituting a "genre": the screwball is defined not by a fundamental attribute, but by a general disposition and a group of elements, some—but rarely and perhaps never all—of which are found in each of the genre's films.
The aesthetics of film noir are influenced by German Expressionism, an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s that involved theater, photography, painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as cinema.
Wedding a style and story both with many noir characteristics, released the month before Lang's M, City Streets has a claim to being the first major film noir.
Raymond Chandler, who debuted as a novelist with The Big Sleep in 1939, soon became the most famous author of the hardboiled school.
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Edeson later photographed The Maltese Falcon (1941), widely regarded as the first major film noir of the classic era.