Top Ten Film Noir Elements in Inception…and One That Isn’t
Noir is one of the most celebrated and misunderstood film genres. Many people get an instant image of a grainy black and white film when they think of a “Noir Film”. Some think that Noir is a dead art form or something for “Cultists”. There are many of those unfortunates out there who can’t be bothered with something older than last week, let alone a film from the fifties.
Never fear, the art is alive and well, and maybe just a little too well hidden right out in the open. Lets take a look at some elements of Noir style in the thoroughly modern film Inception.
1. The Femme Fatale.
All the great Noir films have one. Cobb’s dead wife runs around his subconscious causing a lot of trouble for his fellow dreamers and constantly trying to convince him to commit suicide. While the “real life” Mal seemed nicer, Cobb’s projection was defiantly the true antagonist of the film.
Useless Trivia… Mal is Latin for bad.
2. The City.
Noir stories almost always take place in a big city. Not only are they the logical setting for gritty crime, but the towering buildings represent entrapment and confinement, a metaphor for prison.
Cobb and Mal build an entire dream world. In it, all the sky scrappers are evenly spaced and the same height, much like prison bars. Ariadne builds her dream cities to be mazes, making it harder for projections to pursue the dreamers.
Useless Trivia … Venation Blinds are also used to represent entrapment in Noir.
3. The Water.
Bodies of water are classic symbolism for the unconscious. In Noir pieces they are the literal dumping grounds for bodies and weapons, but also the symbol of hidden treachery. In the opening of Inception, Cobb wakes up on the shoreline of an ocean. This is the first clue to what becomes apparent as the movie progresses he has dropped into “Limbo” in Saito’s subconscious. Cobb’s “Limbo” is also at the edge of an ocean.
4. The Stairs.
Stairs are a classic Noir film motif. They can have many symbolic meanings, ascension to heaven, dissention to hell. Winding staircases usually represent deceit or entrapment. In inception this idea is taken to its literal end as impossible infinite staircases are used to trick and defeat the projection pursuers.
5. The Mirror.
Another classic Noir motif, the mirror represents duplicity in a character. Here it is used to create part of a dream world, by facing two mirrors opposite each other. We see images of Cobb stretching on to infinity. Rather than representing duplicity, in this case, it represents the ever deepening levels of the dream world.
6. The Rain.
Rain usually comes at one of two points of a film, the beginning were it represents danger, or the end were it represents the climatic resolution. In Inception it comes in the middle, as the mind heist is starting, an indication that it’s about to go sideways, which it does.
Useless Trivia … Regular rain doesn’t register on film, movie productions have to use special rain machines that create bigger drops that can be seen.
7. The Lighting.
One of the most obvious style elements for Noir is stark contrasty lighting. “Dark cinema” is meant both figuratively and literally. Color film has lessened the effect of high contrast lighting, it brings out details that would normally be lost to the darkness.
Nolan compensates for the limitations of color lighting by using a muted color palate and often drab lighting that tones down the whole scene rather than gives it high contrast.
8. The Powerful Men that control the lives of others.
The very essence of bleakness that makes Noir resonate, human depravity. Murder and mayhem can happen even in a Disney cartoon. Its Noir that makes it an unavoidable, natural state of the human condition. In Inception Saito calls the shots, holds the keys to Cobb’s freedom, and takes part in the mind heist. Why? Because he’s an expert with the skills they need. No, because he’s rich and powerful.
9. The Anti-Hero
A good Noir hero will not be “good”. With no clear distinction of right or wrong, even the ones trying to solve a crime are often criminals themselves.
Cobb fits this pattern perfectly. He commits “mind crimes” to survive. He makes a bargain with Saito to get the charges against him dropped, and as we come to the end of his story arc, we find out a darker truth about him.
10. The Trains
Trains often appear in Noir classics representing impending doom or a journey to nowhere. In Inception trains are incredibly important textually and sub-textually. They bring both trouble, and a journey to an unknown place.
Bonus item… The Long Tunnel
….And 1 element that isn’t Noir:
The happy ending.
Much as been made as to whether or not the ending of Inception is a dream, but either way it is a happy ending, and that’s unusual in traditional Noir films.