I Found It at the Movies

Six Things I’ve Learned from Watching Film Noir

Number one: Everyone looks better in a hat.

Nancy Friedman
7 min readSep 20, 2023

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When movie theaters shut down in the early weeks of the Covid pandemic, I created my own home-based film festival. The festival had a theme: Together with a few like-minded friends, I began streaming film noir — the dark, dangerous, fatalistic movies that emerged in the troubled aftermath of World War II and matured during the paranoid Red Scare of the 1950s. Over email and Zoom, we analyzed the films’ plotlines, actors, cinematography, politics, and style. When theaters reopened, some of us attended Noir City, a traveling film-noir festival hosted by Eddie Muller, founder and chair of the Film Noir Foundation and self-appointed “Czar of Noir.”

More than three years later, the film-noir group is still going strong. Although I’m no longer an active member, I’ve continued to watch and study film noir on my own, and my film diet has led me to reach some sweeping conclusions.

Here they are, in order from frivolous to deadly serious:

1. Everyone looks better in a hat.

Hat-wearing Robert Mitchum (left) as Jeff Bailey and hat-wearing Jane Greer as femme fatale Kathie Moffatt in “Out of the Past” (1947). Everyone else is wearing a hat, too.

From Humphrey Bogart’s fedoras to Claire Trevor’s giddily festooned chapeaux, everyone in film noir wears headgear at least some of the time. And everyone, even the rottenest bad guy, looks terrific. A hat frames a face and gives it focus; it casts meaningful shadows, adding to the mood of the genre. Hats give characters character: sinister, glamorous, practical, treacherous.

Everyone wears hats in film noir because just about everyone wore hats in the late 1940s and early 1950s, noir’s heyday. In The Lost Art of Dress (Basic Books, 2014), fashion historian Linda Przybyszewski sets the real-life scene:

Except at home in the evening, hats were once a normal, often required part of our wardrobes. The simple beret for the college girl, the casual felt for the young businesswoman, the veil for the bride. … [N]o normal woman would appear hatless on a city street[.]

Ditto for their male counterparts.

And now?

Today, we have women obsessed with shoes instead of hats. We are willing to make ourselves…

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.