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.

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple

Two summers ago, my wife and I took a belated 40th anniversary celebration trip to visit “The City So Nice They Named It Twice” – New York, New York. It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time.

We took an Amtrak passenger train to get there, leaving from Beaumont on a Monday afternoon. (At the time, we were still living in Southeast Texas, where we had been taking care of my elderly father. He had passed away a few months earlier.) We changed trains in New Orleans and headed east into the early morning sunlight. Our first-class tickets included a roomette (it’s pretty cramped for two, but we managed) – and the roomette also included our meals in the dining car at no extra charge. And those were great!

I dozed off in our compartment, but a little while later, Kathy woke me up and said that we were in Laurel, Mississippi, featured in the HGTV program, “Home Town.” And yes – Ben’s shop really is right next to the train tracks, and we went right by it. We cruised along the smooth track, riding that “magic carpet made of steel,” and by suppertime, we were in Atlanta, where we turned north. Overnight through the Carolinas, breakfast in Virginia, and then DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and lunch in Philadelphia. Then it was through New Jersey, under the Hudson River, and there we were, at the underground Penn Station, Manhattan, arriving on time a little before 2:00 that afternoon.

Being in New York was exciting, exhilarating, and a little bit scary, all at the same time. I absolutely loved it.

We came up on the Seventh Avenue side. Kathy had made us reservations at the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, and there it was, right across the street. We got checked in, went up to our room, and unpacked.

A dear friend of mine, a writer, had asked me to take a few pictures for him, and research a particular neighborhood that he was interested in for a novel he was writing. So, we headed for the old Irish part of the city known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” We continued west to the river, where we had reservations for an evening cruise on the Hudson, out to the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River. Sailing past Lady Liberty at sundown was a memory I will always cherish.

The next day, we took the subway and headed down to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. We saw the World Trade Center memorial, went past Wall Street, Chinatown, and the Bowery. I learned that in New York, it’s pronounced “How-ston” Street (not the way we Texans normally pronounce “Houston”). We saw famous locations such as Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park. We visited the beautiful courthouse with the tall steps, featured in “12 Angry Men,” “The Godfather,” and dozens of episodes of “Law and Order.” We went by the police station where “NYPD Blue” was set – it’s an actual police station, and for fans of the show, yes, there really is a little park across the street with basketball courts, and off-duty cops really do shoot hoops with neighborhood kids.

We had tickets for a Broadway show that evening, where we saw “Beautiful – The Carole King Story;” you ladies of a certain generation probably owned her 1971 album “Tapestry.” We both thoroughly enjoyed the show and our walk across Times Square.

Kathy and I enjoying the lights of Times Square, New York, in 2019

On Saturday morning, we had reservations for a Turner Classic Movies bus tour of Manhattan. They drove us all over the borough, as the knowledgeable guide talked about movies that had been shot in various locations around the city and showed brief clips from those films. We had lunch at a little grocery store-deli featured in “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. That afternoon, we went up to the top of the Empire State Building.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. We ate a hot dog from a street cart and had New York-style pizza from a little family-owned restaurant. We bought some souvenirs and took lots of pictures. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the New Yorkers we met were smiling and friendly, and tolerant of this traveler’s questions. We never felt afraid, nervous or worried. The most annoying part? Learning to figure out which direction to walk when we came back up to street level after riding the subway.

Sunday morning, it was Father’s Day. We packed up, went back across the street, and boarded the train for Baltimore, where our daughter Brittany lives. We spent a couple of days with her, then flew home. While we were there, she took us to an Orioles game at Camden Yards, and we visited some great museums, including Ft. McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote a poem during the War of 1812 known as “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know it better as, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But that’s another story.