"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 8, 2012

Classical Film Noir (1941-1958)

Film Noir is a style of Hollywood crime dramas that were made in the 1940s and 1950s, and that share a number of important characteristics:
  • Inevitable doom and a nightmare-like atmosphere - crime films where the main character is usually a small man who commits murder and then is sucked up by the maelstrom he has set off
  • Sexual motivation & femme fatale - the films often center on a vamp-like woman who catches the male protagonist in her spider web
  • Expressionist cinematography - black-and-white visual style with low-key lighting, chiaroscuro, and unbalanced compositions originating in German Expressionism of the 1920s, that greatly influenced Hollywood as many of the key directors such as Fritz Lang moved to the U.S.
Here is the quintessential Noir dialogue: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" (from Double Indemnity)

Stories were often taken from hard boiled crime fiction that came up during the Great Depression (Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler). There is a lot of cynicism - a pessimistic world view was characteristic for the postwar years when people felt disillusioned (although the Hays Code demanded that the crime be punished). On top of that, the witch hunts of McCartyism in the U.S. brought about a tense atmosphere and we had the new threat of the Bomb...

[Lauren Bacall]

The Noir canon was defined in retrospect - in their own time the films were called melodramas - and the term "Film Noir," "Black Film," was coined in 1946 by a French critic, who was thinking of American hard-boiled novels which had been published in France in a series of books with black covers ("Series Noire"). The first study of Film Noir was also written in France in 1955. Film Noir was in that study defined as "oneiric" (having dream-like states), "strange," "erotic," "ambivalent" and "cruel."

[Rita Hayworth]

Many Noirs were often helmed by unknown B-masters, but we have also excellent ones by famous directors, such as John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and so on. Actresses known for their roles as femmes fatales were Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney and Lauren Bacall. Humphrey Bogart was of course the archetypal Noir sleuth.

[Lana Turner]

Noirs were also made outside the United States, for example in the U.K. (The Third Man), France and Japan. In the 1960s and 70s ( and in fact, until today) there was a second wave of films in this style in Hollywood which has been called Neo-Noir. In the same period the style of "Noir SF" films came up.

Whether to include particular films in the canon depends on the exact definition (about which opinions are divided), but generally speaking about 300 Noirs were made between 1941 and 1958, the so-called "Classical Period."

Here are the best films from Hollywood in the Noir style that fit my definition (inevitable doom, femme fatale / sexual motivation, Expressionist style):
  • Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder and with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. Gothic tale of greed, sex and betrayal. An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme by the seductive wife of one of his clients. The investigator for the insurance company has his doubts. Not only a great Noir, but a flawless film in every respect. Great chemistry between "femme fatale" Stanwyck and MacMurray. (10)
  • Gilda (1946) by King Vidor and with Rita Hayworth and John Ford. A twisted Noir film with the most famous femme fatale of all time. Hayworth wears a Jean Louis strapless black satin dress for a song and dance number, one of the most famous dresses in all film. A gambler is employed by a sinister Buenos Aires' casino boss with a dagger in his walking stick. The German also appears the be the head of a Nazi cartel. Trouble starts when the boss brings home a sensuous new wife who his right-hand man already knows and learned to hate. The wife runs wild with other men as her husband seems incompetent, but she also challenges her old buddy who has to watch her. Hate and love splash off the screen in equal measure. (10)
  • Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles and with Orson Welles himself, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich. Dark, atmospheric story of murder and corruption in a Mexican border town. A study in moral dissipation - on the American side, with a corrupt police officer who plants evidence to solve his cases - his Mexican counterpart is a hapless do-gooder. The last classical film noir. Starts with great 3-minute tracking shot of a car with a time bomb hidden in its trunk cruising down a busy street, crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at a control post and finally blowing up. Full of visual and dramatic flamboyance, and too big for the Hollywood studio system. (10)
  • The Big Sleep (1946) by Howard Hawks and with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. After the novel by Raymond Chandler. A cynical private sleuth is asked to delve into the blackmailing of the daughter of a wealthy family. His quest takes him through Los Angeles' dark streets and lonely houses, and through its underworld, but also across the path of a vamp who finally concedes there is nothing wrong with that her that he can't fix. (9)
  • Criss Cross (1949) by Robert Siodmak and with Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea. A man returns to Los Angeles to find his ex-wife with whom he is still in love, but she marries a mobster. The man and the mobster set up an armored-truck robbery, but end up criss crossing each other with fatal consequences. Great noir with vampish woman and an atmosphere of doom that is thrilling from the start. The sexual tension jumps off the screen. (9)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder and with Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim. Unsuccessful screen writer is drawn into the dangerous fantasy world of a faded silent movie star when he becomes her kept man. Cynical and hard Noir, literally told from beyond the grave. (8)
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1948) by Orson Welles and with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.  A seaman is hired by a beautiful woman for a yachting cruise with her crippled husband and his business partner. The poor guy has only eyes for the curvaceous vamp and doesn't notice that he is taken for a ride in a triple-cross murder plot. After the cruise with sunny beach scenes and bathing suits, we get some real noir when the story moves to San Francisco, with a great finale in a hall of mirrors. (8)
  • I Wake Up Screaming (1941) by Bruce Humberstone and with Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Laird Cregar and Carole Landis. Why is a police inspector trying to frame a sports promoter for the murder of a beautiful model he discovered? True Noir, that deserves to be better known, with great expressionist "shadowy" cinematography, sexual  motivation and perversity (the sister of the murdered woman immediately becoming close with the suspected murderer, the sicko detective). (8)
  • Scarlet Street (1945) by Fritz Lang and with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Middle-aged man with harpish wife falls in love with young woman and is cheated by her and her boyfriend. They make him steal money from his company and sell his paintings for their own profit. Although the boyfriend pays with his life for the murder of the young woman, the main character loses everything and ends up a tramp. Remake of La Chienne by Renoir. The quality of the print is terrible, but the film is free from copyright.  (8)
  • D.O.A. (1950) by Rudolph Mate and with Edmund O'Brien and Pamela Britton. A doomed man frantically tries to find out who has poisoned him and why. The style of filming is just as frantic as the dying man's quest. Doom is certain: he will be D.O.A. or "Dead On Arrival" at the police station. A low-budget noir that packs lots of punch. Also freely available. (8)
  • Detour (1945) by Edgar Ulmer and with Tom Neal and Ann Savage. A NY nightclub pianist who hitchhikes to Los Angeles to join his girlfriend, gets involved in trouble and is blackmailed by a rather wild vamp. The small man can't evade his doom. Made with the smallest budget possible and shot in only six days, this is a spare Noir that has over the years become a veritable cult film. Watch it here.(7)
Here are some films which are usually considered as important parts of the Noir canon, but which in my view lack crucial Noir elements (which does prevent them from being fine films in their own right, of course):
  • Ace in the Hole (1951) by Billy Wilder and with Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. Biting satire of the sensation press. Down-on-his-luck journalist stops at nothing to fabricate news even when he has to make victims, just to get back his job at a major newspaper. Interesting film, but without any real noir elements. (9)
  • Sweet Smell of Success (1957) by Alexander Mackendrick and with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Susan Harrison. Small-time, unscrupulous  press-agent working for unethical Broadway columnist is forced to break up the romance of the columnist's sister by foul means. Interesting dialogues and great acting in another satire of the press (and power people have over each other), but I can't see any real Noir elements except in the depiction of nightly Manhattan. (8.5)
  • Laura (1944) by Otto Preminger, and with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. A police inspector falls in love with the woman whose death he is investigating, even spending the night in her apartment, going through her intimate stuff. Except for this one, perverse element, the film is more a normal whodunit than a Film Noir - the female protagonist is a business woman rather than femme fatale, there is no mood of doom, and little noirish photography. (8.5)
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston and with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. A cynical private detective gets involved with a beautiful liar, three ruthless criminals, and their quest for the statue of the Maltese Falcon. After the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Often called the first film noir, although I find all my key elements missing - no doom, no sexual motivation, no Noir photography - but it is a fun sleuthing film in its own right, as cartoonish as the novel. (8)
  • Out of the Past (1947) by Jacques Tourneur and with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. Small-town gas pumper knows his doom is impending when his mysterious past - including a femme fatale - catches up with him. After a good start with a taut Noir flashback sequence the film gets lost in plot complexities and tedious  melodrama. (7)
  • Asphalt Jungle (1950) by John Huston and with Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern and Jean Hagen (and a small role for starter Marilyn Monroe). A heist film, about a well-planned jewel robbery that does not go off as planned after which the criminals start double-crossing each other. The fact that they are all killed off in the end looks more like a strict application of the Hays Code than any Noir-like doom. In fact, I can find no real Noir elements in this flick. (6)