Friday, January 13

Film Noir

In all likelihood the primary reason for my love of the movies of the 1940s and 1950s is a type of film called film noir.  The bumper crop of them was dispatched in some abundance in those two decades.  Another tack is to perhaps say the period from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958)Some might not consider either of those films as film noir, but I do.  What we can be certain of, oddly enough, is that even the high-minded film scholars don't always agree on what film noir is. 

I call it a genre, but not everyone refers to it as that either.  A number of the earlier noir films were not even called that.  More or less they were simply regarded as melodramas.  The term film noir seems to have evolved over a bit of time.  And what attracted one's attention was in noticing a style of filmmaking that had been gathering steam (and steaminess).  That style was seen in new lighting techniques, including mood, a certain look and also in a similar type of storylines.

The roots of film noir come from German expressionist cinematography.  It was a new visual style with respect to camerawork (angles, framing, etc.) and unbalanced composition (unusual placement of things) and lighting.  The lighting was low-key, shades of blacks and whites (the term film noir is French for black film), often taking place at night, on wet streets, usually in New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco.  Inside shots were stark, economical, drab.

Jean Wallace & Cornel Wilde at the finale of The Big Combo

There was often great use of fog and shadows to create mystery and ambivalence.  New camera angles were used to show faces partially obscured in darkness; perhaps venetian blind shadows were shown across faces.  The duration of camera shots were different from the past, the movements could be more sudden.

I think an example of this sort of camerawork and lighting is Citizen Kane (1941), its black and white images as dazzling today as when the film was first released.  It is not considered, I suppose, a true noir.  It has the visual part of the definition but not the thematic one.

And that theme is crime.  Whether about cops or private eyes (both a staple) or femme fatales or others, everyone is hard.  Many are tough, cynical, greedy, cruel.  Jealousy runs rampant.  So does murder and sex (in the 1940/50s way of doing things, mind you) and everyone but everyone smokes cigarettes.  There is a foreboding nature to the entire proceedings.  Someone has an inescapable past and seemingly nowhere to go.  Trust someone and then deal with regret.  Pessimism and a good bottle of scotch are around every corner.

Oddly, a feature of film noir is often convoluted stories.  Among the very finest is The Big Sleep (1946), the Bogie-Bacall-starrer that half the time one wasn't sure what was going on and it wasn't much different at the end when you decided you didn't really care whether it all made sense... you just knew it was a wonderful sleep.

Another feature that identifies noir is the narration generally in the first person.  That voiceover could be helpful to us in filling in the gaps not shown but it could also be ambivalent.  

It was only natural that as film noir blossomed crime writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain came aboard either as screenwriters and/or having their own novels made into films.  Coming from one or the other of these three superb writers were such outstanding film noirs as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Glass Key (1942), Double Indemnity and Murder My Sweet (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Blue Dahlia and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951).  

Also worth mentioning (so hard to mention some and leave out others but my aching fingertips and your patience win out here) are Fallen Angel (1945), The Killers and The Dark Corner (1946), Nightmare Alley, Crossfire and Kiss of Death (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950), Angel Face and a little B-movie gem called Narrow Margin (1952) and Pickup on South Street (1953).

A number of these films may be discussed in future posts with some different slants, but let's unveil my four favorite film noirs of them all.  Get a pencil and paper.  If you haven't seen any of them, correct that.  If you live near me, come over.  I own them.  I'll cook.

Gloria Grahame knows the meaning of The Big Heat

Number four is superb noir director Fritz Lang's 1953 pearl, The Big Heat starring noir veterans Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.  You may remember it as the film where Lee Marvin threw a pot of boiling coffee in Grahame's face.  Most of these characters are as hard-boiled as they come.  Ford plays a cop investigating mobsters at his personal peril.  A film noir staple, the bad girl, is here in abundance.  All four of the main female characters die.  Very noir.

Rita Hayworth and her frequent costar Glenn Ford in Gilda

The only film noir poster I have in my house, Charles Vidor's 1946 famed Gilda starring Rita Hayworth and again Glenn Ford is in the number three spot.   He was never better and she had a screen entrance that is as memorable as they come.  I still think her Put the Blame on Mame was so sexy. The camerawork in this film is full of shadows and mystery.  They are on-again, off-again lovers in South America; she is married, he works for her husband in a gambling palace.

Dana Andrews falling for the haunting Laura

In second place is a film that in my heart I almost want to put in first place and that is Otto Preminger's 1944 classic Laura.  (Hmm, the second film of a woman's first name.  What does it mean?)  Old autocratic Otto is perhaps the noir director supremo.  Laura came from a popular novel, featured a haunting score, was photographed in black and white brilliance.  It starred one of the best ensemble casts of that era in the form of clothing designer Gene Tierney, hard-bitten cop Dana Andrews, haughty journalist Clifton Webb, playboy Vincent Price and aunt Judith Anderson.  The story is of a cop who has fallen in love with a woman whose death he is investigating.  We watch him moon for her as he stares at her portrait.


Out of the Past with noir icons Mitchum and Greer

The crown jewel of film noir for me has always been Out of the Past, director Jacques Tourneur's 1947 story of a cynical private dick and the baddest of the bad girls he's hired to find, played by noir icons Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.  It has narration, flashbacks, fabulous shadowy photography, a fatalistic mood, sex, cruelty, morally-corrupt characters, greed, jealousy... and everyone smokes.  

Along with Mitchum, Greer, Ford, Grahame, Andrews, Webb and Tierney, there are other actors closely identified with film noir... Robert Ryan, Lizabeth Scott, Richard Widmark, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Burt Lancaster, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, to name a few.  Their work in this genre is worth a gander.

Film noir has continued outside the classic period (and outside America as well).  A few of the ones that have caught my eye are Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), Black Widow (1982) and L.A. Confidential (1997).  Later films had one thing about them that the earlier ones did not and that is color.  Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is a notable exception.  These are sometimes referred to as neo-noir.

Again, not everyone, in or out of the industry, has always agreed on what film noir is.  Sometimes this or that element is missing but what seems most apparent is that film noirs are stylish crime stories.  Film historian Mark Bould says it "remains an elusive phenomenon... always just out of reach."

NEXT POST:  Golden Globes 2012

1 comment:

  1. Bob, love the information about film noir - one of my favorite genres too! Fox Movie Channel is soon going to be showing "Where the Sidewalk Ends", another Otto Preminger film with Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Since I've never heard of it I assume it's no 'Laura', but is it still worth a look? Thanks for the great blog!