“The theatre exists to present a contest between good and evil. In both comedy and tragedy, good wins. In drama, it’s a tie. In film noir, evil wins.”—David Mamet
Despite the passage of years—or maybe because of them—one genre of movies remains alive and well, dark and menacing, engaging one generation after another in the contemplation of what happens when things go wrong.
That genre is film noir, the name given to those black-and-white films of the 1940s and 1950s that depict some or all of the following: crime, corruption, false accusations, seedy settings, smoky nightclubs, dark alleys, femme fatales, car chases, rough customers and tough cops.
Film noir buffs will argue over what entitles a movie to be included in the film noir library, but there’s little debate over the appeal of the category itself. At a time when old movies find new life through technology—being remastered and remarketed to new audiences—film noir continues to grow.
The secret may lie in the simplicity of the approach. An innocent man makes a bad decision and spends the rest of the movie trying to get out of trouble. That’s not the only noir plotline, but it encompasses a lot of territory. Another element might be that territory itself—the city, the urban jungle, the teeming metropolis where individuals are swallowed up like so many peanuts.
Many of the most successful film noir entries take place on city streets. They showcase actual buildings and landmarks in cities like New York and Los Angeles, the two cities most familiar to noir fans. As you take in the streetcars of the 1940s, the classic roadsters of the ‘50s, or the various other vintage trucks and buses that turn up on the noir highway, you can almost detect the smell of gas or diesel.
The “reality” of film noir may have been ahead of its time. After all, today’s TV reality stars rely on appearing natural on camera. In noir, the idea is always to provide a slice of life, even if it’s a slice of bologna. While earlier Hollywood efforts focused on rich snobs with their cocktail parties and polo ponies, film noir takes us to a tenement flat on a scorching summer day, where men in soiled T-shirts squint through broken glass at a world that has denied them happiness.
Film Noir Facts
ORIGIN. After World War II interrupted the distribution of U.S. films to Europe, French critics labeled some of the ‘40s Hollywood fare as film noir (“black film”) due to the dark content.
GOLDEN AGE. Film noir is usually characterized as running from 1941 (The Maltese Falcon) to 1958 (Touch of Evil). Noir buffs will point to earlier examples, while neo-noir continues to this day.
DIRECTORS. Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, Orson Welles, Edgar Ulmer, Otto Preminger, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Joseph Lewis.
STARS. Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Sterling Hayden, Charles McGraw, Glenn Ford, Orson Welles, Gloria Grahame, Barbara Stanwyck, Edmund O’Brien, Rita Hayworth.
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF IT’S NOIR? The title often gives it away. Short Cut to Hell or Nightmare Alley indicate that problems may lie ahead. Also, “big” and “dark” are both very big—and dark. The Big Caper, The Big Clock, The Big Combo, The Big Heat and The Big Sleep are just some examples, along with Dark City, The Dark Corner, Dark Passage and The Dark Past.
IS NOIR STRICTLY AN AMERICAN OBSESSION? Not at all. The French have a raft of great noir movies. Look for works by directors Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Becker, Jean-Pierre Melville or Henri Verneuil. But there are also British, Italian and Japanese masterpieces, such as Akiro Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.
But let’s get back to simplicity. When Glenn Ford orders a beer at the bar in The Big Heat, he’s not asked what kind: import or domestic, regular or light. He gets a beer. When Humphrey Bogart slaps around Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, often viewed as the quintessential noir film, he tells Lorre “to take it and like it.” And the women, who can be just as tough as the men, tend to be direct. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” says Gloria Grahame to Ford in the aforementioned The Big Heat. “Believe me, rich is better,” she notes.
You won’t find cell phones, computers or microwave ovens in film noir. Most of the men wear hats, and Lord knows, there’s a lot of smoking. Ricardo Montalban broke through the WASP ceiling, portraying a Hispanic authority figure in both Border Incident and Mystery Street, but film noir is predominately blanc, a sad reflection of the times.
Some of your most honored noir titles were made as “B movies,” shoestring productions designed to fill the bill for moviegoers whose frequent trips to the theater came in an era when TV was just being born. But film noir showcased the future. Check out Dial 1119, the 1950 release starring former Peorian Marshall Thompson as a gun-crazy lunatic. The big-screen television over the bar that Chuckles the bartender (William Conrad) has trouble tuning in at times is a glimpse of things to come.
But don’t make the mistake that the “B” in “B movie” stands for bad, said critic Arthur Lyons, whose book Death on the Cheap serves as good a guide as there is when it comes to “the lost B movies of film noir.” “Although a lot of awful B movies have been made, many of the Bs produced from the 1930s until 1960 were quite good,” he said.
So you have movies like Detour, made in six days in 1945 that can still hold up in the 21st century. How is this possible? Because, regardless of the year, whether you’re texting, tweeting or deleting, life remains unfair. So sit back and enjoy the ride. You may wind up alone on some dark, unfamiliar street with a sinister theme playing in the background. a&s
A Film Noir Top 10
Hollywood brings us lots of entertainment, but in the case of film noir, no one’s going to skip down the street and burst into song. These are hard cases, and the world view is somewhere between desperate and hopeless. When you climb on board, you can expect a bumpy ride—if you don’t crash first.
Here’s a look at 10 of the roughest—and most celebrated—rides: my top 10 film noir list, for now. As old releases find their way onto DVD collections, it’s likely to change. Just like the weather. You can’t count on anything. But count on these 10.
10. The Big Clock (1948). Ray Milland is the editor with style—on a crime magazine that’s part of Charles Laughton’s media empire. Talk about a film being ahead of its time. A good story that’s made even better by a great cast that includes noir heavy George Macready as Laughton’s right-hand man and Harry Morgan as the sinister henchman (who never says a word).
9. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Otto Preminger directed this one—perhaps his best film noir. (He also brought us Laura, Angel Face and The Man with the Golden Arm.) Dana Andrews is totally convincing as the tough cop with a problem.
8. The Big Sleep (1946). Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a storyline that even Raymond Chandler, creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, couldn’t explain. Don’t worry about it, though, because the action is non-stop and you never want to take your eyes off Bogey (who’s in virtually every scene). William Faulkner was one of the writers on the film.
7. The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed’s masterwork, with nothing but heavyweights on board. Graham Greene wrote the script and Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton and the beautiful Alida Valli fill the screen. Robert Krasker won an Oscar for best cinematography with his depiction of postwar
6. Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Ralph Meeker is Mike Hammer, and that’s basically all you need to know. This movie is a prize fight where the audience takes a series of body blows from start to finish.
5. The Narrow Margin (1952). Charles McGraw is the cop with a tough assignment—take care of Marie Windsor so she can testify. They board the train and the fun begins. McGraw’s description of Windsor: “a 60-cent special, cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.”
4. The Killers (1946). The best opening in film noir history as hit men Charles McGraw and William Conrad converge on a small-town diner. The rest of the movie, starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, is good, too. Directed by Robert Siodmak.
3. D.O.A. (1950). Edmund O’Brien decides to take a little time off in San Francisco. Big mistake. Cast members to watch for: a very young Beverly Garland, a very suave Luther Adler and a very scary Neville Brand (Kewanee’s own).
2. The Big Heat (1953). Coffee anyone? Not if Lee Marvin’s brewing it up. Glenn Ford is on a mission and Gloria Grahame shows why she’s a film noir favorite in this Fritz Lang epic.
1. Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum is as smooth as silk and Jane Greer shows the proper way to smoke a cigarette (if there is one anymore). Kirk Douglas leads a marvelous cast of supporting players in a story directed by Jacques Tourneur.
The Film Noir Foundation is dedicated to the cultural, historical and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement. For more information, visit filmnoirfoundation.org.