The term “film noir” (literally “black film”) was originally coined by French critic Nino Frank back in 1946 to describe a certain subspecies of American crime movies. But it took the British Film Institute to create an authoritative infographic that defines, quantifies, compares, and rank the masterworks of noir. In a stylish chart called “Darkness Visible,” designed by Melanie Patrick, the BFI identifies the crucial elements of plot, theme, style, and general philosophy of life that truly make a film noir. Not every film about detectives makes the cut, after all. But it does help to start out with an investigator “of relative integrity,” usually operating in an urban setting. Naturally, he’ll get mixed up with a criminal of some sort, probably a murderer. And no film noir would be complete without a dame or two, preferably one who is bad but beautiful and another who is good but bland. Make sure to add some flashbacks, plus plenty of drinking and smoking.
Film noir is also noted for its stylistic idiosyncrasies. People associate this sub-genre with high contrast lighting and long shadows, but the BFI identifies some other tell-tale symptoms: deep focus, asymmetry, and “choker” close-ups. All that’s left to add after that is some “fast-paced and poetic dialogue,” as exemplified by The Maltese Falcon, Touch Of Evil, or Out Of The Past. Top it all off with a “stylish poster” and a “startling tagline,” and another film noir classic is on its way. For those who still aren’t clear on the concept, the BFI ends its survey with a list that compares various movies to determine which of them is “the noirest ever.” Points are awarded for each individual noir element: stolen valuables, bleak ending, etc. After crunching the numbers, the experts at the British Film Institute have determined that Billy Wilder’s insurance fraud classic Double Indemnity from 1944 is both the best and the bleakest in its class.