Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 3 – The Psychological Thriller

What sets Film Noir apart from other crime films is the psychological depth of the characters. Whether the protagonist is a troubled anti-hero facing an existential crisis or a criminal driven insane by the bleak and cruel reality of the world, it is the psychological motivations that trump the quest for monetary gain in the best noirs.


The surreal dream sequence in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) was achieved with minimalist sets and creative lighting.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is perhaps the first real noir and it’s one of the best both visually and psychologically. Mike (John McGuire) is a reporter who wrongly implicates a man in a murder trial resulting in the death penalty. When Mike’s loathsome neighbor is murdered in a similar fashion, he begins to doubt his own testimony. To top it all, Mike then comes under suspicion for both murders (as he found both bodies), igniting a nightmare in which even his own sanity is thrown into doubt.

Detour (1945) tells of a hitchhiker (Tom Neal) who is picked up on a lonely Arizona highway. When his driver suddenly dies, the hitchhiker assumes his identity to avoid being pinned for his murder. Unfortunately he picks up femme fatale Vera (Ann Savage) who recognizes the stolen car and immediately pegs him as an impostor before ruthlessly trying to blackmail him. Told in flashback and by a mentally unhinged man on the run, it is not guaranteed that the version of events being portrayed is even the truth.

In D.O.A. (1950), accountant Frank Bigelow takes a short vacation to San Francisco. While at a bar, somebody slips him a poisoned drink. The doctors tell him he has only days to live and Bigelow decides to use them to find out who killed him and why. When the protagonist is handed a death sentence in the opening act, it’s hard to raise the stakes any higher. The plot is complex involving gangsters, adultery and stolen iridium and Bigelow’s increasing frenzy as the inevitable climax approaches turns him from a dull every-man into a gumshoe of Bogart’s ilk.


 My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.


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