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Fritz Lang's M (1931), shot only a few years before his departure from Germany, is among the first major crime films of the sound era to join a characteristically noirish visual style with a noir-type plot, one in which the protagonist is a criminal (as are his most successful pursuers).Directors such as Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Michael Curtiz brought a dramatically shadowed lighting style and a psychologically expressive approach to visual composition, or mise-en-scène, with them to Hollywood, where they would make some of the most famous of classic noirs.By 1931, Curtiz had already been in Hollywood for half a decade, making as many as six films a year.

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The authors' caveats and repeated efforts at alternative definition have been echoed in subsequent scholarship: in the more than five decades since, there have been innumerable further attempts at definition, yet in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir remains an "elusive phenomenon […] always just out of reach".

Film noir similarly embraces a variety of genres, from the gangster film to the police procedural to the gothic romance to the social problem picture—any example of which from the 1940s and 1950s, now seen as noir's classical era, was likely to be described as a "melodrama" at the time.

While noir is often associated with an urban setting, many classic noirs take place in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road; so setting cannot be its genre determinant, as with the Western.

Similarly, while the private eye and the femme fatale are character types conventionally identified with noir, the majority of film noirs feature neither; so there is no character basis for genre designation as with the gangster film.

Nor does film noir rely on anything as evident as the monstrous or supernatural elements of the horror film, the speculative leaps of the science fiction film, or the song-and-dance routines of the musical.

A more analogous case is that of the screwball comedy, widely accepted by film historians as constituting a "genre": the screwball is defined not by a fundamental attribute, but by a general disposition and a group of elements, some—but rarely and perhaps never all—of which are found in each of the genre's films.

Film noir's aesthetics are deeply influenced by German Expressionism, an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s that involved theater, photography, painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as cinema.

The opportunities offered by the booming Hollywood film industry, and, later, the threat of growing Nazi power, led to the emigration of many important film artists working in Germany who had either been directly involved in the Expressionist movement or studied with its practitioners.

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