The Movies Times Five: Film Noir

As a big fan of classic movies, I have often written about my favorite films in different categories – Favorite Westerns, Best War Movies, Great “Chick Flicks,” and so forth. One category that I have enjoyed more as I have gotten older is what is known as “Film Noir.” The name comes from French movie critics in the 1940s, and literally means, “dark movie.” Dark: as in made in black and white with lots of shadows, and dark: as in a pessimistic subject and cynical characters.

Noir movies have more to do with a film’s style rather than its storyline – they are often crime movies, but they don’t have to be. The classic period was from the early 1940s to the late 50s, and they were made in black and white, with high-contrast lighting and deep shadows. The style of storytelling involves a lot of flashback scenes with one of the characters serving as a narrator. The main character is usually a private detective or a plain-clothes police officer – sometimes a crooked one, or one that at least looks the other way about things. He’s tired, world-weary, and cynical. There was a time when he cared and wanted to make a difference, but life has just beaten him down, and now he’s just trying to get through his day.

Another common element – the “femme fatale.” A female character and possible love interest for the main character, but she has her own agenda, and is willing to use any means necessary to get what she wants. In many cases, the main guy gets dragged into the story against his will, either by the femme fatale or some other factor, and he ends up risking, and sometimes losing, everything to make it right. Other frequently used cinematic devices include unusual camera angles; the use of extreme close-up shots; “Venetian blind” shadows; plenty of crackling, sharp dialogue; lots of alcohol and smoking, including use of dramatic fog, smoke, or steam; and the use of voice-over narration to set up and advance the plot.

These silouetted figures from 1955’s The Big Combo are typical of the Film Noir style.

World War II was a driving force behind this type of movie, especially the war’s effects at home, and the difficulty that some GIs experienced in re-adjusting to civilian life. The disillusionment and disappointments that were very real for some former servicemen provided great material for Hollywood storytellers to explore.

Here are five of my favorites –

Double Indemnity (1944) Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson; directed by Billy Wilder. Long before he was such a wonderful dad in “My Three Sons,” MacMurray played an insurance salesman who is seduced into committing murder and fraud. His character, Walter Neff, says, “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman.”

Laura – (1944) Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb; directed by Otto Preminger. Dana Andrews plays a cynical, weary police detective summoned to a luxury Manhattan apartment to investigate a brutal murder. The beautiful victim (Gene Tierney) is featured in a gorgeous portrait in her living room, and as the detective (and the audience) get to know her through flashbacks, he falls in love with her through the painting.

Sunset Boulevard – (1950) William Holden, Gloria Swanson; directed by Billy Wilder. An up-and-coming screenwriter forms a dangerous relationship with a has-been movie star who is determined to make a comeback. Deadly consequences ensue. Famous for Miss Swanson’s line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

The Maltese Falcon – (1941) Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet; directed by John Huston. Considered by many to be the first film noir: San Francisco private detective Sam Spade (Bogart) is on the trail of a priceless bejeweled statuette. The murder of his partner and the presence of three eccentric criminals and a beautiful liar make it all more difficult. “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

The Big Heat – (1953) Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin; directed by Fritz Lang. Glenn Ford plays tough guy cop Dave Bannion who is on the trail of a very powerful and very well-connected crime syndicate boss. When the case gets personal for the cop, he has to decide how far he will go to get the bad guy.

Five others I really like as well – Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Key Largo, The Naked City, Out of the Past.

See you at the movies.

Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.