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.
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.