Although film noir is often associated with American cinema, the movementís roots actually originated in Weimar Germany, where the activities of the criminal underworld were brought to the screen courtesy of directors such as Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Fritz Lang (M, Dr Mabuse: The Gambler). Just as film noir thrived in the radical economic conditions of post-war Germany, its popularity in America was sealed during the Great Depression, where tough, gritty films proved successful at the box office.
Film noirs often focus on crime, and the gangster movies of the 1930s were a big influence. Nearly always shot in black and white, the classic film noirs often feature a hard-bitten male protagonist, sometimes a private eye, who becomes involved with a femme fatale, a female character who uses her sexuality to her own immoral ends. More often than not the films have a bleak ending. Stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum featured in many noirs, sometimes as the villain, sometimes as the anti-hero, while Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake played many femmes fatales during their careers. The films were often based on detective novels, with bestsellers by Raymond Chandler(The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key) inspiring brilliant movies. Directors who returned to the genre throughout their work include Otto Preminger (Laura, Angel Face), Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man) and Billy Wilder, who made two of the best regarded film noirs Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.
Film noir flourished outside America. The movie often cited as the best British film ever made - The Third Man - is an archetypal noir, while brilliant films were made by French directors such as Jules Dassin (Rififi), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques).
Although the classic age of film noir is generally thought to be the 40s and 50s, many contemporary films are heavily influenced by the staples of the genre. Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction prove the iconic femme fatale is as indelible as ever, while Brick and LA Confidential openly played with the conventions and style of noir, and proved hugely successful when released on DVD, introducing a whole new generation to film noir.