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The Magic of Film Noir

Sunday night is noir night on my cable channel KCOPDT3, so that inspired me to write a post about my favorite movie genre. I know that there are a lot of important things going on right now in the world, but sometimes it is nice to escape into another one for at least a couple of hours, which is the appeal of noir night.

I am by no means a film expert, in terms of the actual art of filmmaking, although I can appreciate the effects of cinematography, editing, and visual style, as they obviously are essential to what makes movies. I am more attuned to stories, dialogue, and the themes of any work of art. I have always thought of myself as someone who “likes the book better than the movie,” though there are exceptions. I love a good story, complex characters, memorable dialogue. Those are rare enough, in novels or films, but when you encounter them, it is special.

By far my favorite genre of films is “film noir.” Everyone has heard the term, but it conveys something a bit different to each person. When we think of film noir, we most often refer to a cinematic style. Shadows and light, dark streets, ominous visual angles. Film noir took some of this from German Expressionism in art and film. But to me, noir is about a good deal more than the style and visual images. It is the perfect melding of theme, dialogue, and style.

The term film noir was actually coined by French movie critics, it means “dark film.” It was applied to a type of movie which first came out in the 1940’s. Some of the first uses of the term go back to 1941 or so. The “noir cycle” is generally considered to be from around the early ’40’s to the mid-’50’s, but there are a few which came out after that.

The film analyst Eddie Mueller, whose essential genre is film noir, has a game on TCM, where he asks whether people consider this film to be “noir” or not. The definition, like the films themselves, can be rather opaque and ambiguous. Some concentrate on the visual elements, lighting camera work. Some focus on the dialogue. i have my own definition, which is more related to the themes and characterizations of a noir film.

I like to think of the classic noir period as beginning around 1946, which is when many young men came back from four years or more of military service in World War II. Their individual stories differ, of course, but the essence of them is that they left America as 18-20 year old boys, often from small and somewhat innocent towns, and came back changed. They saw death. In some cases, they were required to kill people. They saw bravery and other less appealing traits.. They lost their innocence to varying degrees.

The town they came home to was changed. Their “girl” had grown up as well. Some of them were essentially the same person, but some became more worldly and sophisticated. Some had moved on in relationships, and had become involved with an older man, someone who did not have to serve, and who may have used the opportunity to accumulate wealth and power.

The classic noir theme was the young man returning home, to find that things had changed, and that his ground had shifted. He had to find a job, pick up a past vocation, or find a new one, without much in the way of help or sympathy. He might have a few buddies from the war, and they might try to help each other. Or they might drift apart. His former girlfriend might be overjoyed to see him, or might not really want him back. She might have a new boyfriend. He might be someone who has a good deal of political and financial power. He might be amoral or corrupt. She might be fine with that, and actually use her former boyfriend in their scheme.

The sense of uncertainty, not knowing what you are facing, not even knowing yourself, or what you are capable of, is essential to classic film noir. One of the classics of the genre, is “Somewhere in the Night,’ what a great title. John Hodiak plays George Taylor, a soldier who finds himself in a military hospital just after the end of the war. He has been injured, and he realizes that he is also suffering from amnesia. Some form of amnesia is not uncommon in these stories, and one does not have to believe that it is medically believable, because it is virtually a metaphor for the theme of not knowing who you are, coming to a place which is somehow unfamiliar to you, like a maze where you have to somehow find your way through it, though you do not know what lies around the next turn.

Hodiak has only one clue to start him off, a slip of paper in his coat pocket, a check for $500 made out to him by a Larry Cravat. He somehow gets out of the hospital without the doctors realizing that he does not know who he is, or anything about his former life. He goes to Los Angeles, maybe because the check is drawn on a bank there. He tries to cash the check, but the bank officer is suspicious, so he runs out of the bank. He finds that people are also looking for Mr. Cravat, and think he might know where he is. He gets beaten up for not telling them things he does not even know. He meets a young nightclub chanteuse who likes him and wants to help.

Eventually, he learns that he and Cravat may have been involved in a murder/robbery, Again, the theme of “What am I capable of?,’ which is central to many classic noir films. He is compelled to find the truth about himself, which leads him on a quintessential noir journey through the streets of Los Angeles, meeting a variety of colorful and sometimes haunted figures. Every character in a noir film is important, and there are so many absolutely unforgettable roles where mostly unknown but sometimes famous actors (such as Mary Astor’s stunning performance in “Act of Violence’) are absolutely crucial to the story.

Every person in a noir film counts, they advance and color in the plot Taxi drivers, hotel desk night clerks, pharmacists, unlicensed plastic surgeons, people behind the counter at diners, habituate the great noir films. There is no other genre where “ordinary people,’ sometimes revealed as heroic, sometimes untrustworthy, are so important and compelling.

So in what I view as the classic noir story, a man is the protagonist in his own existential drama. He is looking for someone or something. He wonders if he has done something very wrong. He is being pursued by dangerous people whose motives may be difficult to know. He has got to keep on moving, following whatever clues he can pick up. He must rely on someone, but whom can he trust?

We are all familiar with the classic “femme fatale” role in noir movies. But contrary to what some may think, not every woman in a noir is a femme fatale. There is also the ‘angel,’ the woman who believes in the protagonist, tries to help him. One could say that the key female characters in noir are either ‘dark’ or “light.” But for those who may not like the fact that noirs almost always feature a male protagonist, the women in noir films are essential; and there are so many brilliant performances by female actors in leading or supporting roles, in these movies.

One of the things which led to the end of the noir cycle, in addition to the changing culture, is the fact that the studios were getting pressure from political types to do more moralistic stories, as compared to the moral ambiguity of some of the noirs. So a succession of police crime dramas were made, often with the voiceover telling us how the FBI agents used their skill to capture a crime ring which was undermining the society, and then the credits thanking J. Edgar Hoover for making the files available. I do not like most of these, as they really are not noirs, they are the precursors to “Dragnet.” The characters are black and white, there is no existential dilemma. Some of the stylistic aspects of noir remain in these, but they are by the book, and preachy, as were much of the 1950’s.

I could write so much more about the film noir genre, but I will list my favorite noir films which I hope you will try, if you like noir movies, because I think they are the best of the best.

1) “Out of the Past.’ This is actually my favorite film of all time, irrespective of genre. The script, actually written by an unattributed Frank Fenton, is poetic, with so many unforgettable lines and beautiful verbal similes and metaphors. The story is complex but dramatically and psychologically believable. The three lead actors, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, are virtually the creators of classic noir character types in these roles. Greer, at 22 years old, portrayed the ultimate femme fatale with an amazing nuance, and even real charm. The great director Jacques Tourneur, with his legendary photographer Nicholas Musuraca, create scene after scene, shot after shot, which will stay in your memory. “The first time I saw her, she was coming out of the sun.’

2) “Kiss Me Deadly.” This movie is late in the noir cycle, and it has a different aspect, but is absolutely brilliant. It is based on a Mike Hammer novel written by Mickey Spillane; but the screenwriter, the novelist A.I. Bezzerides, and the director Robert Aldrich.; as well as Ralph Meeker, in a great performance as Mike Hammer, take it to another realm. The dialogue is a haunting combination of tough guy language, and a kind of strange, allusive poetry. It is filled with wonderful shots of ’50’s Los Angeles. It evokes a world which is dark and corrupted. The opening credits which play backward, while Cloris Leachman is desperately running down a road, and the theme song plays, “I’d Rather Have the Blues Than What I’ve Got,”is one of the greatest opening scenes I have ever seen, and it indelibly evokes the mood and themes of this unsettling but always involving masterpiece.

3) “Dark Passage” This is a very effective adaptation of a novel written by the great noir writer David Goodis. The sense of danger never leaves it. One does not know how it will end. (That is something almost unique to noirs;; since there is darkness there, the happy ending is not at all guaranteed. Anything is possible, the suspense continues until the last shot. Eddie Mueller seems to favor noir films which have a dark ending, but I actually like those which have a happy ending, if you have sympathy for the character, and also for the romantic relationship portrayed.). Humphrey Bogart’s face is not visible until halfway through the film, which caused the movie to be underappreciated. I think it is the best of the four films that he and Lauren Bacall made together, which many might argue with, but I am adamant about. The supporting performances, by Agnes Moorhead, Clifton Young, Tom D’Andrea, Bruce Bennett, and an iconic Houseley Stevenson, are wonderful. Delmer Daves was a great director.

4) “Somewhere in the Night’ A classic noir theme, as I discussed above. I always like Richard Conte in anything, he should have been an even bigger star. A very poignant scene with John Hodiak and Josephine Hutchinson is one of those brief moments in noir films that will always stay with you, something rather unique to this incredible genre.

5) “The Narrow Margin” This is a very hard choice, and this movie does not have the classic noir themes of the first four. But it is so brilliantly done, with pounding suspense from the very first scene, and with great pacing, and a superb mostly unknown cast, that it deserves its acclaim. Richard Fleischer’s direction is impeccable. Jacqueline White did not have a long movie career, as she decided to marry and raise a family instead, but she is one of the most charming female leads I have seen in any of the noir movies

I could mention about twenty others, as well. I did not list some of the famous noir movies, which I think have been overrated, but that is what opinions are for. If “The Maltese Falcon” counts as a noir (which it probably is, though it was made in 1941, and I think of it as possibly more of a detective story). then it should be on the list

And we know the phrase “neo noir,” which refers to a later film, often in color, past the era of the noir cycle. The best of those, in my opinion, are “Chinatown,” “Cutter’s Way,” and “Dark City,’the movie written and directed by Alex Proyas.

The pleasures of film noir are both plentiful and endlessly repeatable. You can watch them many times, and escape to a world which was partly very real, partly accentuated; full of drama and complexity, but almost always immensely entertaining. Would that they made more of them, but I guess that it is essentially impossible, as the world which they portrayed does not exist any longer, except in our memories and vivid imaginations.

Sometimes one sees something: a part of a film, a TV drama, which has elements of noir, which is always nice to encounter, if it is done with real regard for the qualities which are the essence of that amazing period in movie history. Or you see something in “real life,” and you think, ‘That is so much like a noir movie.’ There have been all sorts of movies and genres and themes over more than a hundred years of filmmaking. But are there any which have made such an impression, and are virtually a way of looking at the world, as film noir?

5 Responses

  1. Love this post!

    My favorite noir films:

    “Laura” (1944): Starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. Novel by Vera Caspary.

    “Murder, My Sweet” (1944): Starring Dick Powell, Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley. Novel by Raymond Chandler.

    “The Blue Dahlia” (1946): Starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Screenplay by Raymond Chandler.

    “Kiss of Death” (1947): Starring Victor Mature and Coleen Gray. Story by Eleazar Lipsky.

    “Odd Man Out” (1947): Starring James Mason and Kathleen Ryan. Novel by F. L. Green.

    “The Big Heat” (1953): Starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. Novel by William McGivern.

  2. William, I think I recommended “Somewhere in the Night” to you several years ago. I’m glad you liked it. It’s a good film.

    I agree with you about Richard Conte. Excellent actor. I don’t think he ever gave a bad performance.

    • My favorite Richard Conte film is “Call Northside 777” (1948) which also stars Jimmy Stewart. It is sometimes considered a noir but I would classify it as a crime drama. Anyway, it’s a classic.

      • i like “The Brothers Rico,’ and “The Big Combo,’ though he played a bad guy in that. Also, “House of Strangers.”

        • Those are good films.

          I like “Whirlpool” (1950), too. It is mostly a vehicle for my beloved Gene Tierney. Conte plays her doctor husband in a not very sympathetic role.

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