Are Alien, Outland, and Blade Runner late examples of film noir?

Cassiel C. MacAvity

    In 1979 and 1981, respectively, a pair of movies called, respectively, Alien, from 20th Century Fox, and Outland, from Warner Brothers, were released, both of which had separate casts, settings, and plots, but even with such differences had many similiarities in mood and character interaction. Another film that was much the same for its differences with the first two was Blade Runner, released in 1982, and with it's quick acceptance as a clear example of late film noir, it soon became clear that from their similarities, the other two also probably qualify, and needed only a detailed look at them, and at the concept of film noir.

    Of film noir, almost any discussion of it seems to start with the apparently immortal words; "In 1946 . . .", but then the first discussions of film noir did start right after World War II. Only once the war was over could the French moviegoers finally get back to the theatres and catch up on what had presumably just been verboten. As they started to go through the accumulated backlog of previously unseen American movies, they started to notice something. Unlike their predecessors, these new, or fairly new, movies were more cynical, grim, more black, to coin a phrase, than ever. The viewers did indeed coin a phrase; black film, or film noir. The difficulty from this point is it seems six experts deciding what makes a film "noir" will come up with about seven or eight opinions.

    According to noir scholar Dennis Jacob, film noir only existed between 1940 and 1955, starting with The Stranger on the Third Floor and ending with The Big Combo. Afterwards, the only example of film noir comes from the casino robbery sequence in the 1960 movie Ocean's 11. According to Jacob, film noir features a polarization of forces, a battle between light and dark, good and evil. Also, individuals in these movies can undergo the same polarization, an example being a cop with a shoe fetish in The Big Combo. (1)

    In his notes on film noir, Paul Schrader also argues for the same general time period, stating "film noir refers to those Hollywood films of the forties and early fifties which portrayed the world of dark, slick, city streets, crime, and corruption." (2) Listing the limits of noir, he argues for 1941, with The Maltese Falcon, to 1958, with A Touch of Evil. Schrader also lists some repeating characteristics of film noir;

    "The majority of the films are lit for night. Gangsters sit in the offices at midday with the shades pulled and the lights off. Ceiling lights are hung low and lamps are seldom more than five feet high. One always has the suspicion that if the lights were all suddenly flipped on the characters would shriek and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at sunrise.

    . . . oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal . . . Oblique lines tend to splinter a screen, making it restless and unstable. Light enters the dingy rooms of film noir in such odd shapes . . .

    The actors and the setting are often given equal lighting emphasis. An actor is often hidden in the realistic tableaux of a city at night, and, more obviously, his face is often blacked out by shadows as he speaks . . .

    There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain (even in Los Angeles), and the rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama. Docks and piers are second only to alleyways as the most popular rendezvous points. (3)


    Raymond Durgnat, another noir scholar, stretches the time a little further, including on the list the 1933 film King Kong and the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He comments "The film noir is as often nihilistic, cynical, or stoic as reformatory; there are Fascist and apathetic denunciations of the bourgeois order, as well as Marxist ones." He adds, "The happy end in a true film noir is the worst of danger is averted, with little amelioration or congratulation." (4)

    In his book The Dark Side of the Screen, Foster Hirsch states the 1971 film Dirty Harry is an example of film noir. As for some sort of definition for film noir, Hirsch gives many examples over many pages, all apparently boiling down to the ever workable "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it."

    Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, coauthors of the book Film Noir, also list Dirty Harry as being film noir and include the 1976 film Taxi Driver as well. Definitely helped by their book being a collection of many opinions, Ward and Silver can also be summarized with Hirsch. (5)

    With all the differing opinions available, the only way to develop a working definition of film noir is to observe films which have been defined as being film noir. The paradox is obvious, but since noir did start being discussed at some point, there has to be some way to operate the boot straps.

    To begin, there seems to be a uniform agreement that the first major years of film noir are the forties through the early fifties. Thus, the first step towards a definition is to look at films made between 1940 and 1953-55. Deciding which films to look at can be handled by collating several critic's lists into one and using the master list to search for available films. Films which appear several times are obvious choices, but other films should also be noted; depending on means, time, and availability, the films which repeat may not be as immediately accessible as others.

    Following these methods, the films used for this paper are listed here. The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Spiral Staircase (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), The Lady From Shanghai (1948), Key Largo (1948), D.O.A. (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Big Heat (1953), and On the Waterfront, (1954).

    After ignoring "the experts," or at least giving a respectful nod to the knowledgeable, and choosing and examining twelve films, a few things do become apparent. One thing which is notable with these films is they all seem to start with some sort of dark, forbidding scenery. The Spiral Staircase opens with a dimly lit shot of the particular piece of architecture for which the movie is named. D.O.A. starts with a nighttime shot of a city. The Big Heat has a pistol. Dark Passage begins with broad daylight, but it's a shot of San Quentin Prison. Sunset Boulevard Does has a nice morning shot---of a police car racing through Hollywood.

    What follows is usually some sort of problem. The Maltese Falcon begins with a woman wishing to find her missing sister. The Big Sleep begins with a blackmail case. Sunset Boulevard has a corpse floating in a pool.

    As stated earlier, there are similarities in lighting in film noir. In The Spiral Staircase, everybody is constantly lighting or putting out candles. The Big Sleep continually follows people about at night. Much of Key Largo occurs in one night and when morning comes, there is a thick fog. Thick fog and nighttime scenes play a part in D.O.A..

    There was a reference to obliquity and attention to vertical lines. Near the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, light shining through an office door casts a very clear and very crooked shadow on the floor. Much of On The Waterfront takes place on rooftops, in ship's holds, with people looking up and down, in places where cars and people must ascend or descend to get places. The title of The Spiral Staircase speaks for itself. People in Dark Passage keep running up and down diagonal hills and at one point, a woman falls through an upper story window.

    Sometimes people are obscured by light or a lack of light. Near the beginning of The Spiral Staircase, a figure in raingear is skulking about a garden at night. There is only enough light to see a silhouette and not enough to make out who it is. In Dark Passage, someone is shown watching two shadows in a window. At a point in Scarlet Street, the three main characters meet, but there's not enough light for them to recognize one another. The Asphalt Jungle repeatedly features people disappearing into one dark corner or another.

    Liquid, preferably water, keeps appearing throughout these films. In The Big Sleep, an early scene takes place in a humid greenhouse. Later in the film, it's raining. Both Key Largo and The Spiral Staircase are almost literally one big storm. A pool features prominently in Sunset Boulevard. Hot coffee is thrown at people in The Big Heat. The Lady From Shanghai features a long ocean cruise. Scarlet Street begins with a rainstorm. Dark Passage begins inland on a clear day in broad daylight---and an escaping convict falls into a stream.

    Finally, concerning visual aspects, there are a number of simple architectural similarities. Often, if a character is not inside a corridor, he or she is outside in an alleyway. The Spiral Staircase keeps going up one hallway and down another. In On The Waterfront, the corpse of a main character is found hanging in an alley. A plastic surgeon in Dark Passage is reached by going up an alleyway. In Scarlet Street, one character repeatedly ducks into one passage as another repeatedly walks up another. In The Asphalt Jungle, characters repeatedly run up an alley, go thorough a door, and find themselves in a long passageway.

    Another repeat feature of film noir seems to the a general feeling of cynicism and corruption. Other people are unimportant, deaths aren't considered a high price for anything at all.

    In The Maltese Falcon, a gunman is casually set up as a fall guy because it's convenient. The Big Sleep features a flourishing blackmail ring and ends up with the coverup of a murder. In The Spiral Staircase, a servant is allowed to steal a bottle of brandy so she'll drink herself into a stupor. Again, mentioning drugs, medication, whatever, a man in D.O.A. is poisoned because of an obscure connection with a crime. It's not made clear with what, but in The Big Sleep, a woman is mentioned as being regularly intoxicated with something. A woman who might have given the police some damaging information in The Big Heat is tortured to death. Another gets a potful of scalding coffee thrown in her face. Both The Big Heat and The Asphalt Jungle deal with police officers and officials who are corrupt. In Sunset Boulevard and The Lady From Shanghai, money is stated to be a primary method of getting people to do things. Nobody goes to the police in Dark Passage while an escaped convict goes from one person to another, all of whom know exactly what he is. In Key Largo, Dark Passage, and The Spiral Staircase, honest police are merely there, people don't help them when there's a problem. In On The Waterfront, again like The Big Heat, if it's possible someone could talk to the police, he or she is killed. The best thing to do is to look the other way, to mind your own business.

    As a separation from the gangster genre, murders are not performed strictly with shotguns, machine guns, whatever, which noisily spit lead in all directions. Instead, murders in film noir seem to be performed as unobtrusively as possible. A man is thrown from a rooftop in On The Waterfront. A series of women are strangled in The Spiral Staircase. A man is poisoned in D.O.A. A woman is stabbed to death in Scarlet Street. People have their heads smashed in during Dark Passage.

    Finally, people are never who they seem. The Maltese Falcon features several stories about people which change with each new fact which turns up. The same is true of The Big Sleep. Names and identities are tossed about in D.O.A. A man changes his name and face in Dark Passage. A butler and chauffeur in Sunset Boulevard turns out to be a former husband and director of the woman he serves. After saying otherwise, a man in The Lady From Shanghai turns out to have never had a wife. A character in Scarlet Street goes from being the unknown mugger of one woman to the boyfriend of a different woman, when he's always been the boyfriend of the first woman.

    To sum all this up, there are a number of points common to the preceedig films which one can use as a filter when viewing both Alien and Outland. When considered, film noir is not a specific genre, such as the western, the gangster movie, the psychopath movie. Instead, there are more intangible connections.

    It is generally agreed that film noir tends to be gloomy, and as examples of the style, these several films certainly are as well. Scenes often take place indoors and often at night. Lighting is often irregular, casting deep shadows. Any bright lights usually simply form bright pools, leaving the surrounding dark blacker than ever. Sometimes there is a mist, steam, smoke, something which obscures.

    Liquid, usually water, is often falling, from above, sloshing about nearby or below, getting thrown or splattered about.

    Sets are usually multilevel and constricting, People are always running up and down stairs, ladders, whatever. Scenes keep taking place in corridors, alleyways, small rooms.

    Finally, film noir characters are often cynical, corrupt, possibly aware of written or unwritten rules, but apparently unconcerned with them. If something works legally, fine, If not, do it illegally. As a character in The Asphalt Jungle states, "Crime is just a lefthanded form of human endeavor."


    Released roughly forty years following the high period of noir, Alien is set in and around a huge interstellar spacecraft, the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo. The story is about the crew of the Nostromo and their attempts to deal with the title beastie.

    Outland, released in 1981, is set in and around a huge mine on Io, a moon of Jupiter. It, in turn, is about a newly arrived Federal District Marshal and the way he deals with a major drug smuggling ring with important connections.

    Both Alien and Outland are completely different in plot, cast, direction, and production. Beyond that, the two movies are almost identical. Both films open with dark, long distance shots of the story setting, with stars in the background. In Alien, the Nostromo is shown with the cargo it's towing. The whole mass is an irregularly shaped conglomeration of odd angles seemingly perfectly designed to catch light and not reflect it. In Outland, the mine's administration, housing, whatever, buildings are shown. It, too, is an irregularly shaped conglomeration of odd angles seemingly perfectly designed to catch light and not reflect it. With Outland, the major light source not a nearby sun is more of a curse than a blessing. The enormous bulk of Jupiter is hanging almost directly overhead.

    Both films take place in very dark, horizontally confined quarters which open up vertically. The Nostromo is made up of a long series of often dimly lit corridors leading to and from rooms with a limited amount of space. The mine's center of operations is made of a long series of often dimly lit corridors leading to and from rooms with a limited amount of space.

    When some alien blood hits a deck in the Nostromo, it immediately starts eating through to open space below. As damage to the pressurized hull is an obvious concern, the crew does a fast drop down ladders for three decks as the acid easily burns through at least three feet of metal.

    When the Marshal is chasing a suspect, the two don't just go running around corners, they go up and down through the miners' quarters. The suspect and the Marshal sprint down passageways, the suspect jumps an open space, the Marshal doesn't make it, falls about ten feet to the floor below, dives for a flight of stairs, and runs up them almost as fast as the suspect drops down a ladder.

    Even when the characters are still, they are in limited, dark areas. In all the of the scenes in Alien which involve a specific search, the characters are dimly lit or reduced to silhouettes. The only bright lights which appear are either limited in their throwing narrow beams, or, when the light is uniform, something is going on which ruins any cheering effect. In Outland, personal quarters are gloomy, administrative areas are gloomy, the security areas are gloomy, and again, any place with bright light has too much of a sense of impending doom to be worth mentioning as an exception.

    At a point in Alien, action is obscured by a combination of vapor and light. At the same time a crewmember is trying to navigate the Nostromo's maze, carry both a cat in a box and a flamethrower, dodge blasts of fire and steam, and dodge the alien, warning strobe lights and rotating safety lights are going off in all directions.

    At a point in Outland, action is obscured by a combination of darkness and light. At teh same time the Marshal is trying to follow someone with a surveillance camera, the person is in a crowded, almost completely blackened bar lit only by bright lights built into tables and by hollow columns of projected lasers containing dancers.

    Liquids of one sort or another keep turning up in both Alien and Outland. In Alien, the science officer keeps drinking what appears to be milk, and after a fight, apparently spits it all back up. The chief engineer wants to finish his coffee. A revived crewmember keeps gulping down glasses of (presumably) water. As the alien is first discovered and as it goes about its business, great quantities of blood go splattering about. As a crewmember is searching for the ship's cat, he enters an area of the Nostromo where enough water is dripping down to make a virtual rainfall.

    In Outland, the drug is a liquid, and is first discovered in a dead man's blood. When a suspect is cornered in a kitchen with a quantity of the drug, he drops it into a vat of boiling water. Several deaths involve explosive decompression, with blood again shown spattering in all directions.

    Forms of death are another parallel point. In Alien, one of the crew undergoes what he remembers as " . . . some horrible dream, as if I was smothering . . ." Later, another crewmember tries to murder a third by choking her with a rolledup magazine. In Outland, the explosive decompression responsible for six deaths is a fancy way of saying instant no air. At one point, a man is strangled and later, the Marshal almost joins him.

    A general lack of concern for others is evident in both movies. In Alien, a sleepy crewmember complains "I feel dead." Another crewmember tosses off "Anybody ever tell you that you look dead?" then, with another, starts complaining about lack of pay. "Everybody gets more than us." When the Nostromo is diverted to investigate a mysterious radio signal, there is a comment of "This is a commercial towing vehicle, not a rescue ship. If you want to pay me . . ." The only reason why the speaker goes along with landing is the penalty clause in their contract which involves "total forfeiture of all shares. No money." When a crewmember is trying to decide on the motivation of another, she tells the person she's talking to; "I don't trust him." The person she's talking to simplifies things. "I don't trust anybody." The ultimate unconcern is discovered by running an override on the computer. It is discovered the diversion wasn't accidental, but had been set up by the shipping company. "Investigate alien. Gather specimen. Priority one. Ensure return of specimen. All other priorities rescinded. Crew expendable."

    In Outland, a drug is supplied which makes workers capable of sixteen hours labor in eight hours. The catch is after about eleven months, people who take the drug become psychotic and often commit suicide. If anybody notices, he or she looks the other way because it's not profitable to interfere. A policeman is deliberately paid not to interfere in slow murder. When one worker goes psychotic and threatens to kill a hooker, the paid cop's response is, "Some guys just like to slap hookers around, I guess." The Marshal tells the mine doctor he wants a list of suicides for the last six months. She had greeted him with "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning---that's a doctor joke." The Marshal responds with "I'd like (the information) real soon or I might kick your nasty ass all over this room---that's a Marshal joke."

    In both Alien and Outland, no one is quite who they seem. In Alien, the third officer ends up commanding. A supposedly healthy crewmember has a rather healthy infection. An otherwise apparently normal crewmember turns out to be an unusual company spy. In Outland, a supposedly honest General Manager is the local head of the smuggling ring. First one cop, then another, is discovered to be in on the ring. A man is thought to be dead, until he knocks his assailant unconscious.

    Overall, when the two movies are brought together, the sets of both Alien and Outland are gloomy, often obscuring the characters through lack of general light, lack of light in a specific area, inclusion of such things as smoke or vapor.

    The sets of both Alien and Outland are constricting horizontally, with layers of floors which the various characters run up and down.

    Liquids play important roles and turn up time and time again in sometimes unexpected locations.

    Characters are cynical and tend to show a great amount of unconcern for others. If a deception is required, fine. If a death is required, fine. Money tends to get chosen over people more times than not.


    Of the question posed by this paper, it seems that there are indeed quite a number of paralels that have occurred across quite a few years. Where film noir was the collective name first given by post World War II French film critics to a type of American film which first appeared during the forties and early fifties, the evidence given calls for an expansion of the original time.

    Film noir is not a genre, and evidently it is not a time. It is less sharply defined as being a type of film than one featuring set characters and plots. However, a number of features do reoccur in both origianl noir, and these later two films, regardless of film genre or plot.

    One of the first rules listed in a class of logic is; if A is equal to B, and B is equal to C, then A is equal to C. Therefore, by the syllogism listed above, Alien (1979) and Outland (1981) are late examples of film noir.


Durgnat, Raymond. "The family tree of film noir," Cinema. August, 1970; Greendale productions, London, and Rostrum Publications, Cambridge.

Jacob, Dennis. Telephone interview.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen. San Diego. A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1981.

Schrader, Paul. notes on film noir," Film Comment. Spring 1972: Film Comment Publishing Corporation, New York.

Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth. Film Noir. New York: Overlook Press, 1979.

Alien. 20th Century Fox, 1979.

The Asphalt Jungle. MetroGoldwynMayer, 1950.

The Big Heat. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1953.

The Big Sleep. Warner Brothers, 1946.

D.O.A.. Popkin-United Artists, 1949.

Dark Passage. Warner Brothers, 1947.

Key Largo. Warner Brothers, 1949.

The Lady From Shanghai. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1948.

The Maltese Falcon. Warner Brothers, 1941.

On The Waterfront. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1954.

Outland. Warner Brothers, 1981.

Scarlet Street. Universal Pictures, 1945.

The Spiral Staircase. American Broadcasting Corporation, 1945.

Sunset Boulevard. Paramount Pictures, 1950.

1 Dennis Jacob, interview.

2 Schrader, p. 8.

3 Ibid., p. 9, 11.

4 Durgnat, p. 49.

5 Ward and Silver, p. 16.


© 1998 Cassiel C. MacAvity