Classic film noir — deceitful people at work — a private dick with a dicky past — a murderous art dealer with an obsession about a woman in a painting — sluggings in the dark — frame ups — a cheating wife — crosses — and double crosses.
The Dark Corner (1946) presents full on film noir in the shape of an ex-con detective willing to bend the rules at every point, with the most wholesome role going to an angelic Lucille Ball — though even dear sweet Lucille is up to her elbows in blood, lying, is complicit in conspiracy to conceal evidence, washing murder weapons and immediately opting to cover up a crime rather than report it . . .
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is a typically depraved hardboiled noir story, with an uncaring and sleazy anti-hero. There are complex plot threads that form an overall labyrinth that has to be ignored if you are to enjoy the story, and Cold War and nuclear paranoia grow like weeds through this, eventually and dramatically engulfing everything. Kiss Me Deadly has many of the elements of film noir — a stark opening sequence, several destructive femme fatales, a clutch of low-life gangsters, and many expressionistically-lit night-time scenes.
There is also within this mess of noir, a vengeful quest, and a constant dark mood of hopelessness, which shows that the patterns of noir had by this late stage been refined into a high art in themselves. It is also the closing point of the canon, the last ever film noir — so everything after May 18, 1955 — the day that Kiss Me Deadly was released — can officially be known as ‘neo-noir’.
Cornered (1945) brings Dick Powell back to the noir screen, and opens with him being refused a passport between London and France. Undeterred, Powell slams his hands in his pockets, storms out of the passport office, and promptly swims the English Channel. It’s that spirit that dominates Cornered (1945, Edward Dmytryk starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel and Nina Vale.)
The war had only been done a matter of minutes before the noir canon kicked off a whole new epoch in cinema — a time of uncertainty, deceit and men whose identities were always up for grabs. Generally these guys were suckered by deceitful women, but often they didn’t know which way to wear their pants to begin with. Either way, the post war male was wholly bruised and confused. Who exactly was he fighting?
This Gun For Hire (1942) — one of the finest of the early film noirs available — and the first to show off the mutual talents of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd — is a film noir to the core. This classic film noir features a troubled protagonist, a strange mix of genres, and a mean streak that has you questioning its cruelty from the off. This Gun for Hire might be the title, in fact, but I would on occasion simply like to refer to it as Psychopaths of 1942 — because that is what it is like at times.
In a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, usually turns up high in the list of classic noirs. This probably has more to do with its adoption by the French New Wave than it does with true noir credentials, and the fact that it is one of Hollywood’s periodic flashes of its own underbelly. But Bogart is slick, wise-ass and selfish and so is the movie, which has for a hero a bitter and depressed cynic, one incapable of heroism. It's a comment on the 1950s, when screenwriters were accused of communism and their friends often turned against them, and Humphry Bogart plays it dark, often amoral, insisting that a girl find her own cab, refusing to show empathy for a murdered woman, remorseless when shown photos of a crime scene and sexually aroused when given the chance to re-enact a violent murder.
It’s plastered on thick. Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) opens with Edward G. Robinson giving a college lecture, while behind him the words SIGMUND FREUD are written on a blackboard. If only he had turned to read that board himself. Ten minutes later Joan Bennett, playing the strange femme fatale of the title, turns up in a see-through blouse, and asks him to her apartment to see her etchings.
That would be enough, but in terms of the psychological goodies of film noir, The Woman in the Window probably has it in greater quantities than any other movie of the era.
For devilish double-crossing and deceit, Destination Murder makes a decent choice of viewing. The central wise-ass is a total scuzzball, a murderer and two-timer who takes up blackmail and loves to think he’s in charge. His boss is Armitage, an evil nightclub owner, who has a player piano which plays the Moonlight Sonata every time he throttles someone to death.
Weirdly, when he kills his fiancée in the apartment of his right-hand man, the player piano is present, begging the question — did Armitage actually bring the piano with him to the murder scene? This and many other stupid questions trip quickly offa da brain pain while watching this low grade film noir, which both perlexes and pleases in equivalent degrees
To avoid making audiences read subtitles in-a-da movies, foreign-speaking characters are generally played by actors speaking Amerenglish with a variety of accents. We are used to this, and don’t mind a bit of it — the English is handy so we can understand what’s being said, and the accent is handy because then we know what they're actually supposed to be saying. Marlon Brando — a self-confessed MASTER of accents — muddled his entire way through The Young Lions pretending to be German (pronounce this ‘Chairman’) with lines like "Ve vill sturm the Ardennes and crush dee Amerikanz" — and although he didn’t say that, at least there were plenty real American accents in the film to provide contrast. In So Dark the Night (1946) by Joseph H. Lewis, these issues are exacerbated as the entire film is set in France — making it the most unwatchable film-noir of them all.
One of several highway film noirs, The Hitch-Hiker (director: Ida Lupino, 1953) is brutal, effective and in its day introduced a new kind of criminal to the screen. With a compelling normality, The Hitch-Hiker shows the kind of pointless hold ups and killings that in the 1950s, were generally framed as a social-problem crime film. The Hitch-Hiker is also a mess of huggable homoerotic heteronormativity, with two very close men on a fishing trip (or is it?), bullied at gun point in their car and in the desert, by a dominating sadist, who has an evil ‘bum eye’ to boot.
This time yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl. But now she’s the marmalade on 10,000 pieces of toast. In this fashion — by being murdered — this young model becomes one of the stories of The Naked City (1948) which was not just a seminal film noir, but a new departure in many different screen-crafts.
If you were looking for brave film making in 1948, this was it — cutting edge — innovative and yet sticking to some familiar aspects and techniques, as seen its police procedural and final chase and shoot out. It was all the inspiration of Mark Hellinger, who was one of the most ground-breaking producers of the time. And directed by Jules Dassin, whose film noirs always appear in critic's top tens.
From the shadows of the past stumble the memories of your misdeeds — they lug themselves towards you in heavy coats and hats — packing heat and chewing on cocktail sticks. Whatever you do, wherever you go, fate can catch you — fate WILL catch you. That’s the message of Out of the Past (1947) director: Jacques Tourneur, and starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Out of the Past is one of the most heavy duty, hard wearing, cigarette smoking film noirs out there — hoods, hats, hold ups and past actions dredging up the most awful barrelfuls of darkness. The debasing cult of noir has rarely seen such a troublesome bunch as this flick throws up, so much so that resolution seems impossible. Crime don’t pay, bub — it only costs.
Not everything that they say is film noir, may be film noir. It depends on what you consider to the elements of film noir to be, although you’d generally be looking for some luckless, dark and erotic tale of crime, generally in what is known as society’s underbelly. In Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmark, 1944, starring Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Elisha Cook, Jr, Thomas Gomez and Regis Toomey) we have most of that on show. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable noirs out there — unpretentious, fast and pleasing to watch. It has a frantic ‘rape by jazz’ drum scene, and is a high point of the sub-genre I call ‘The Wifelet Seeker Hero.’
A woman’s place in film noir is evilly clear — she’s the seductress who tempts the man into his own destruction — although often she plays a stronger role as the heroine, a seeker hero of her own, solving a crime on behalf of an imprisoned or incapacitated male.
The Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang, 1947, with Joan Bennett and Richard Redgrave) was released at the height of the brief boom in what is styled by this website at least, as the ‘paranoid woman film.’ In these momentarily fashionable movies, female sobs glance from wall to wall, doors loom large, keys symbolise everything, and worst of all — your husband wants to KILL YOU. The psychology is always cod, but to make it even fishier, a psychoanalyst character is usually thrown in. In The Secret Beyond the Door, one of the lead’s friends pipes up at the half way point and announces: “Paging Dr. Freud!” Excitement, mystery and nerves on edge — is this what every woman longs for?
‘Hey you — I’ve seen the sleeping act before. You know your ticket ran out the last stop!’ With these words a bus driver drops off the world’s next noir victim on the outskirts of Walton, and in the middle of the night. It’s Fallen Angel, a film noir starring Alice Faye, Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell, director Otto Preminger. Stuck in Walton, 150 miles short of his destination, our anti-hero Dana Andrews wanders into the local diner, where the locals are up to a decent amount of skulduggery, worried about a missing girl called Stella. It isn’t long before the floozy breezes in, her legs at a dangerous angle. She swipes the hero’s hamburger and he exits to wander the streets alone.
Eddie Robson, who is one of the world’s most thorough-going experts on film noir, is determined that Stranger on the Third Floor is the world’s first noir. Not that one should spend a lot of time on this debate, but still it’s discussed. Despite being heavy on the expressionist shadows and the hapless hero, Stranger on the Third Floor lacks a few key noir elements, notably the femme fatale or bad girl — of which there is none. But it more than makes up for that in shadows and the psychological blurring of dream and reality.
On the Brooklyn shore, there’s a mess of fog, and in that fog is corruption, seeping into the failing hearts of the innocent. Down in this gutter, we find the broke, a bunch of hard working guys that are just trying to scrape together enough bits to secure their next fishing trip to the bay. In Out of The Fog (1941), starring Ida Lupino, a moody yarn about a racketeer and his gormless marks, which features abundant fog and plenty of dark and moody water lapping sound effects, John Garfield steps in an tries his hand at Bogart — or is it Cagney? Hard to say. Of course Bogart does Bogart best, and the same is to be said of James Cagney, but there’s a ton of film-flam holding John Garfield back in Out of the Fog, and try as he may, he just can’t see his way out of it.
The Crooked Way, 1949, (starring John Payne, director Robert Florey) isn’t one of the great and celebrated noirs. It’s not the most convincing film of its time either, and fails to deliver the levels of paranoia that the great noir dramas do. It doesn’t feature a detective but follows the story of a much truer noir archetype — the WWII veteran, and his struggle to readjust to civilian life. Still the movie should be better known than it is, as it is one of the truest expressions of another 1940s Hollywood obsession — amnesia. Boy they loved it back then.
Who is The Enforcer? Is it Humphrey Bogart as District Attorney Martin Ferguson, who enforces the law, slapping hoods where necessary, an enforcer of morals in a sick crime game? Is The Enforcer Everett Sloane as Moriarty-like mastermind Albert Mendoza, a man so feared in the city that even the mention of his name enforces a certain silence, an absolute fear, the inevitability of a violent death?
Or is it tough guy turned snivelling snitch, Rico, played by Ted De Corsia, whose king-pin status keeps the whole racket going; Rico who enforces the deadly conviction of the mysterious boss man, until his own nasty death?
Where the sidewalk ends, morality falls away, darkness prevails and in the night, nobody can see who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. Where the sidewalk ends, you’re on your own, making your own moral choices, with no guidance other than your past, and your own spur of the moment errors — your own dry, cold and helpless anger, your vendettas. In this devilish and dangerous land, noir lives and breathes — and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is an epic film noir, one of the greats, and it drives the cynicism home, before kicking it to death in the garage. Directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Gary Merrill.
Jean-Luc Godard said that all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl — and of course Godard had seen several hundred hours of noir. Certainly, Black Angel satisfies Godard’s wisdom within one minute, because Roy William Neil knew what he was doing. There’s a lot of noir in that first minute of Black Angel. Darkness, shadows, the down-at-heel, a glamorous girl with a gun, and piece of music that is going to haunt everyone, right to their graves. Who or what is the Angel, though?
The greatest tale of moral degradation in film noir is Quicksand (1950) — with Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney and Peter Lorre. It’s okay for a film noir to ship with a weak male lead, but often these guys have issues to begin with — their moral compasses have been spun to point to Palookaville — sometimes by war, by crime, suburbia or a dilemma that’s placed in their path. It ain’t so with Mickey Rooney as Dan Brady.
In the wake of the televised Kefauver hearings which revealed the extent of organised crime in the US to a fascinated public, Broderick Crawford stepped up to camera to play a leading member of a syndicate, in its Manhattan headquarters. Part documentary, part gangster thriller, New York Confidential (1955) (director Russell Rouse, and staring Richard Conte, Ann Bancroft and Broderick Crawford) is played to perfection and has a strong cast.
New York Confidential almost stands alone. We're much more used to seeing the corporate gangster these days, but in the mid 50s, at the tail end of film noir, it was a far harder pitch.
Noir is darkness, noir is crime and noir is human folly, a force of evil. Films about weakness, deceit, lust driven crime, greed and mid-century urban survival. In the noir city disasters are acted out in bars, cars and street corners, or in cheerless apartments, suggestive of a kind of homelessness. The high contrast lighting is central , as is the downward plot spiral which so many noir characters take. Force of Evil has it all . . .
Depending on your point of view, Orson Welles is either peripheral or central to film noir; peripheral in that he didn’t make many films that are considered to be noir, but central because of the influence of Citizen Kane, made when he was only 25 years old. While not a film noir, the chiaroscuro lighting of Citizen Kane, the low-angle photography and nonlinear structure had a great influence on film noir as it developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Welles is considered to have made three ventures into noir territory with Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil and this overlooked gem — The Stranger — which remains his first, and maybe his only commercial success. The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles himself, has an excitement largely generated by Welles’ own performance, which is intense — to say the least. It’s a sweet addition to the noir barrel, with a great opening and an unbearably fine performance from Orson Welles.
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (director Jacques Becker, 1954) is a consumate French classic, and if you’re looking for something different, a new angle on the gangster genre, then you are implored to check it out. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi has a great story, superior performances, largely from Jean Gabin, but most essentially it plays against a great backdrop of thugs, prostitutes and other underworld characters — here shot in many genuinely seedy settings in and around Montmartre. A good gangster film always demands this kind of background colour, and Grisbi has it all. Merd Alors, it’s 60 years old but it is as burning hot as any turd Tarantino might turn out! I promise you'll love it.
If you’re Gun Crazy, you’re going to shoot your pistols. And if you shoot your pistols, then somebody is going to get hurt. Quasi-sociological accounts of how kids turn to crime are fine, even if they explain nothing. Gun Crazy (1950) an outlaw-couple thriller and film noir, has titillation and education in the right balance. Tearaway good-kid-at-heart Bart Tare is played by John Dall but it’s Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr who calls the shots. The message is that it’s the broads, not the rods that are the fatal force.
Although the propagadnda is blunt, it’s easy to overlook how enormously popular I Was a Communist for the FBI was in its day. That day was 1951 and I Was a Communist for the FBI spoon fed the anti-Communist prejudice of its era so hard and fast that you'd be forgiven now for thinking that it was a parody — but it’s not.
The slimy backstabbing Communists in Gordon Douglas’ film may not be real, but the fear of them was real, as was the hero — Matt Cvetic — although this isn’t a true portrayal of him. Cvetic wasn’t of entire use to the Feds, but really came into his own as a media personality, and one who could be relied upon to play it nice for the crowds. What a heel.
If Fatal Attraction represents the male pitfall-movie of the 1980s, with Glenn Close presumably playing a role akin to the AIDS virus, Pitfall (1948 André de Toth) is the 1940s equivalent, with Dick Powell sliding into the equally heinous sin of finding life too boring.
This is exactly the opening scenario of Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, and as in Woman in the Window, the point is laboured in Pitfall. With the war done and dusted, in fact, it seemed like a whole bunch of the film noir guys wanted a bit more action, and there were a bevy of the deadliest women in the world on hand to supply it, steeped in the forbidden social excess and treachery that can only lead to trouble — and of course death.
Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon in 1941, and then played Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep in 1946, but in between these two, we find Dick Powell playing Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1944, director Edward Dmytryk) — an adaptation of Farewell My Lovely. History has been kinder to Humphrey Bogart, but most would argue that while Bogart may have been a definitive Sam Spade, Dick Powell does well to capture the charm and cynicism of Marlowe. In fact, he’s probably proved better at it than anybody else.