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Essential Film Noir

Essential Film Noir

Articles - Directing

Since French critic Nino Frank
first identified it in the 1940s, film
noir has evolved into a unique phenomenon.
Look no further than noir themed
calendars, greeting cards,
martini bars and clothing lines—or
at the growing array of noir subsets
(neo-noir, techno-noir, cable-noir
and even porn-noir) for starters.
What was once a subversive, celluloid worldview is now a brand.
Yet in the beginning, according to perceptive critics, noir was
bracingly new. They noted
the evolution of a film style
devoid of whodunit formulas
or simplistic depictions of
good and evil. Rather, noir’s
high-key streets were grim
landscapes where protagonists
faced vicious criminals,
brutish authority figures
and dangerously beguiling
women. Noir’s less-thannoble
leading men could
be violent cops or sadistic
criminals—sometimes both.
In short, Hollywood was discovering
life in the margins,
a place much more exciting
than the world of creaky
morality plays. For what
emerges in the best noir films
are richly complex characters
at war with themselves,
each other and society.

Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett star in Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahila (2006).

If there are any lingering
doubts about noir’s allure in
2006, consider two recent
releases, Brian De Palma’s
The Black Dahlia and Allen
Coulter’s Hollywoodland, each of which is firmly ensconced
within noir traditions. For contemporary proof of noir’s continuing
vitality and flexibility, check out Rian Johnson’s 2005
Brick—a genre-busting film that’s set in a high school and somehow
still manages to out-noir most traditional tough-guy tales.

The following isn’t a definitive overview of all the genre’s mustsees,
but a look at a dozen films that capture the essence of
film noir’s unblinking ability to investigate our dark places.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director: John Huston
Warner Home Video, $19.97
The quintessential noir. In his first film
as a director, Huston gives us a flawed
leading man operating between heavyhanded
cops and shameless criminals.
Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade possesses
intimations of sadism as he
slaps a cringing Peter Lorre, torments
diminutive tough guy Elisha Cook Jr. and
coldly brushes off a former paramour
who just happens to be the wife of his
murdered partner. Add in Mary Astor as a
duplicitous lust interest and you have the
stuff of classic noir. Worldviews don’t get
much grimmer. Consider Bogart’s farewell
to Astor before he hands her over to
the cops: “If you’re a good girl, you’ll be
out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If
they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Quotable: Bogart to a gardenia-scented
Lorre: “When you’re slapped, you’ll take
it and like it.”

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Universal Studios, $26.98

A lesson in rapid-fire dialogue and how
to bring a memorable femme fatale to
the screen, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis
Dietrichson and Fred MacMurray’s Walter
Neff play a dangerous game from the
start and an inevitably grim journey
unfolds. MacMurray’s no-nonsense
approach to murder and Stanwyck’s
coolness make for a chilling look at an
amoral universe. (In general, beautiful
women seeking help to dispose of doltish
husbands bode ill for male accomplices
in any film noir: See Body Heat,
The Postman Always Rings Twice, The
Last Seduction
, etc.) In the end, the justice,
dispensed via Edward G. Robinson,
seems more a victory for actuarial tables
than for morality.

Quotable: MacMurray
to Stanwyck: “It’s just like the first time
I came here, isn’t it? We were talking
about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.”

Peter Lorre and
Humphrey Bogart in
John Huston’s The
Maltese Falcon
(1941).

Detour (1945)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Image Entertainment, $9.99
A shining light for Poverty Row studios,
Ulmer improvises a no-exit riff on an illtimed
hitchhiking ride. Reportedly shot in
six days on a shoestring budget, Detour
makes the most of a limited cast, with Ann
Savage delivering a solid performance as
the odious Vera, whose stab at becoming
a femme fatale fails miserably on effective
lead Tom Neal. This is a solid, low-budget
noir—a couple of sets, ludicrous deaths,
entanglements, entrapments and cruel
fate. It’s all here.

Quotable: Savage: “I’d
hate to see a fellow as young as you wind
up sniffing that perfume Arizona hands
out free to murderers!”

Scarlet Street (1945)
Director: Fritz Lang
Kino Video, $24.95
Another common noir theme is a regular
Joe caught up in entanglements
that lead to bloodshed. Lang’s Scarlet
Street
stands out for its stark ending:
A redemption-free walking death for
Edward G. Robinson’s hapless, hobbyist
painter, who doesn’t quite have a grasp
on perspective. Dan Duryea stands out
as a braying hustler and Joan Bennett
is seduction itself as a quasi-prostitute
without a heart of gold. A thoughtful, rich
movie.

Quotable: Bennett on Robinson,
her mark: “If he were mean or vicious or
if he’d bawl me out or something, I’d like
him better.”

The Big Sleep (1946)
Director: Howard Hawks
Warner Home Video, $19.98
Humphrey Bogart is less prickly (and
interesting) here than in the The Maltese
Falcon
, but he still shines, especially with
Lauren Bacall. The film is proof-positive
that film noir is far removed from whodunits,
for the plot is indecipherable.
Don’t worry too much about who did
what to whom; one story has it that
neither Howard Hawks nor screenwriter
William Faulkner was able to make complete
sense of the plot. However, the film
does have atmosphere, inspired dialogue
and a surprising level of sexual tension
for the era.

Quotable: Bogart spars with
Bacall about what type of horse she is.
Bogart: “Well, I can’t tell ‘til I’ve seen you
over a distance of ground. You’ve got a
touch of class, but I don’t know how far
you can go.” Bacall: “A lot depends on
who’s in the saddle.”

Out of the Past (1947)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Turner Home Entertainment, $19.98
Among the best of the noirs, Out of the
Past
boasts a gracefully constructed
plot and employs impeccable use of
flashback. One of Robert Mitchum’s
finest roles as a garage owner whose
past catches up with him. (The guynext-
door-with-a-scary-backstory also
appears in such films as The Killers,
Unforgiven and A History of Violence.)
Tourneur’s film stands out from the field
in that Mitchum’s character is a bit more
noble, therefore more tragic, than typihome cal noir protagonists, which makes for
an emotionally fraught—and ultimately
redemptive—ending. However, the path
to that ending passes through a corrupt
landscape peopled with sirens, doublecrosses
and murder. Kirk Douglas chips
in with a fine early performance as the
smiling shark of a jilted lover.

Quotable: Mitchum’s voiceover: “I never saw her in
the daytime. We seemed to live by night.
What was left of the day went away like
a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t
know where she lived. I never followed
her. All I ever had to go on was a place
and time to see her again. I don’t know
what we were waiting for. Maybe we
thought the world would end.”

The Third Man (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
The Criterion Collection, $39.95
What could be more grimly atmospheric
(or oppressive) than Vienna in the aftermath
of World War II? Proving that noir
can be transplanted anywhere, Reed
brilliantly realizes Graham Greene’s
script and makes corruption palpable,
while somehow successfully integrating
Anton Karas’ haunting zither score.
Reed also surprisingly juxtaposes bright
daylight scenes with some of the film’s
darker moments—including Orson
Welles’ famous “cuckoo clock” speech
(see below) and his “exhumation.”
Welles is chilling as Harry Lime, terrifying
in his calmly delivered rationalizations
of indefensible actions. Joseph
Cotten is solid as Holly Martins, a naive
American. Nazis, doctored vaccines,
the black market, child victims—The
Third Man
is about as noir as it gets.

Quotable: Welles: “Don’t be so gloomy.
After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella
says, in Italy for 30 years under the
Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder
and bloodshed, but they produced
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and
the Renaissance. In Switzerland they
had brotherly love, they had 500 years of
democracy and peace, and what did that
produce? The cuckoo clock.”

In a Lonely Place (1950)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Sony Pictures, $24.95
Humphrey Bogart delivers a searing
performance as a cynical, hard-drinking
screenwriter with a violent temper.
A strong murder suspect, he understandably
falls under the spell of Gloria
Grahame, who becomes his redemptive
muse. But the demons return—and Bogart
is pitch-perfect as a man on the edge of
a violent abyss. Ray wisely decides not
to explain how Bogart has evolved into
the ill-mannered writer; he merely hints
at Bogart’s combat experience. What’s
left unsaid speaks volumes.

Quotable: Bogart’s screenwriter delivers the following
prescient lines: “I was born when she
kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived
a few weeks while she loved me.”

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in
Unforgiven (1992).

On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Warner Home Video, $49.98
(part of the “Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume 3”)
A fascinatingly bifurcated film, where
the first half is the usual dark cityscape
but the second half is a snow-whitened
countryside, far from idealized, what
with a damaged, knife-wielding youth
and a vengeful farmer with a shotgun.
Pulling it all together is Bernard
Herrmann’s brilliant score. Robert Ryan
is at his best as Jim Wilson, a tightly
wound cop who enjoys his work a bit
too much, but who ultimately softens
in the presence of Ida Lupino, who is
intelligent in the difficult role of a blind
woman in need of an operation. George
Diskant’s camera work, especially
the grimly realized countryside and a
first-person POV car crash, stands out.

Quotable: Ryan, before beating a suspect
to a pulp: “Why do you guys do it?
You know you’re going to talk. I’m going
to make you talk.”

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
MGM Home Video, $14.98
Think of Laughton’s only directorial effort
as a noir fairytale—with Robert Mitchum
in the role of the very bad wolf in minister’s
clothing. A rather melodramatic
opening gives way to a surreal chase
downriver. Dozing children drift in a rowboat
as night creatures loom large in the
foreground, all beneath an eerie night
sky. Mitchum, the hunter, sings in the
distance. Lillian Gish is terrific as Rachel
Cooper, the children’s shotgun-toting
protector. Mitchum’s macabre sermon
explaining the words “Love” and “Hate”
tattooed on his hands is worth the price
of admission. The film sets the standard
for creepy malevolence.

Quotable: Gish:
“It’s a hard world for little things.”

Touch of Evil (1958)
Director: Orson Welles
Universal Studios, $14.98
Famous for its breathtakingly long opening
shot (compare it to the opening of
Robert Altman’s The Player), Touch of
Evil
offers up one the genre’s defining
themes: The gyrations of a protagonist
caught between the criminal world and
corrupt authority. In an odd bit of casting,
Charlton Heston delivers an interesting
performance as a Mexican cop and Janet
Leigh is convincing as his uncomfortable
wife. However, it’s Welles who makes the
film as Quinlan, a sweating beast of a
cop (an entity redefining noxious) and
brilliantly creates a grotesque, lawless
atmosphere.

Quotable: Welles: “Come
on, read my future for me.” Woman: “You
haven’t got any.”

Chinatown (1974)
Director: Roman Polanski
Paramount Home Video, $12.98
Screenwriter Robert Towne and director
Polanski deliver a lesson in creating
near-perfect noir. From its intelligently
twisting plot involving Los Angeles
water rights to Jack Nicholson’s definitively
cynical, stubborn and competent
Jake Gittes, Chinatown journeys into
darkness—here in the form of John
Huston. In Polanski’s darkest of noirs,
power wins and there’s naught to be
done. The final, freighted lines explain
nothing and everything: “Forget it,
Jake. It’s Chinatown.” What more can
be said?

Quotable: Polanski, as a
thug holding a knife to Nicholson’s
nose: “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty
cat. Huh? You know what happens
to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna
guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their
noses.”

Unforgiven (1992)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Warner Home Video, $19.98
A noir western? All the elements are
here: Brutal law enforcement, a seemingly
“regular Joe” dragged back into a
world of violence and an oppressive
atmosphere with one of the (literally)
darkest fade-outs imaginable. This is
no morality play—nobility is notably
absent. Clearly, Unforgiven has roots in
the dark underbelly of the genre. The
film is an unsparing, ultimately unforgiving
view of a violent, corrupt world.

Quotable: Gene Hackman’s Little
Bill Daggett: “I don’t deserve this. To
die like this. I was building a house.”
Eastwood, before pulling the trigger:
“Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.”
Fade to black. MM

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