Film Noir: A Beginner's Guide
During the 1940s a new style of American cinema emerged which was concerned with the darker side of human nature. A number of influences resulted in the emergence of what the French New Wave critics would dub film noir. The horrors of World War II had made Americans less optimistic and less satisfied with pat happy endings. The "hard boiled" literary genre of detective fiction served as a perfect vehicle for stories that reflected this new pessimism and the strange dreamlike style of German expressionist films of the 1930s had made a mark on Hollywood, both through its influence and the fact that a number of film professionals had fled Germany and the Nazi regime to set up shop in Hollywood. From 1940 through the 1950s Hollywood produced hundreds of films in the noir style. What follows is a list of the most important and iconic noir films; a perfect place for you to begin your association with the genre or to begin adding noir to your movie collection.
The Maltese Falcon (1940)
To many, The Maltese Falcon is considered to be the first true film noir. A number of gangster films and detective films exist before and Dashiell Hammett's great hard-boiled novel was filmed previously as Satan Met A Lady but writer-director John Huston captured just the right aesthetic for classic film noir. Add to that the fact that the film made a star out of Humphrey Bogart, the quintessential noir leading man, and you can see why this film is considered the template for the genre as it developed over the next two decades.
The plot follows closely Hammett's novel with a few omissions for the sake of the censors. In the book, Bogart's Sam Spade is a truly nasty character and we root for him only because he is smarter and tougher than the other characters, all of whom are seeking the title bird. With Bogart as the star Huston knew he had an actor who could make a character as unlikeable as Spade engaging and even charming at times. It is no wonder that this film graduated Bogart to leading man status from character roles. Even when he is stabbing people in the back Bogart's Sam Spade is an irresistible antihero.
Double Indemnity (1944)
For his third film as director, Billy Wilder chose to adapt a nasty little novel by James M. Cain. His regular writing partner, Charles Brackett, was so horrified by the choice of material that he didn't want anything to do with it. Wilder tapped crime writer Raymond Chandler instead to help him write the screenplay. The novel by Cain was so dark and morally ambivalent that getting around the censors was a real challenge. Wilder and Chandler gave the film a much tighter and more traditional structure than the novel had and invented the device that the protagonist was narrating the film into a dictaphone while he had a bullet in his belly.
The result is one of the great classics of film noir. An insurance salesman (Fred Macmurray) conspires with a client (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband and collect the insurance payout. On their tail is his boss (Edward G. Robinson) who smells a rat but has no idea that the scam is so close to home. Stanwyck's performance defined the "femme fatale" for decades to come. She seems sexy, dangerous and a bit trashy all at the same time. Both Wilder and Chandler were known as wizards with dialogue and here they have created a screenplay that is one of the most quotable ever written for the silver screen.
Going into this one you want to know as little as possible. I knew nothing about the film when I first saw it on television as a teenager and its plot twists are truly remarkable when you know almost nothing about the plot going in. Coming out the same year as Double indemnity, Laura was a totally different kind of film while at the same time being a perfect example of classic noir style. Director Otto Preminger had a much better grasp of visual aesthetics than Billy Wilder and the film seems engrossing and dreamlike from start to finish, thanks to both his excellent visuals and the haunting title song that is perhaps even more famous than the movie itself. (see video.)
The premise concerns itself with a detective (Dana Andrews) investigating a murder of a socialite (Gene Tierney) and slowly finding himself falling in love with the victim. To tell you anything else about the film would be criminal. You owe it to yourself to experience this one without all the marketing hype.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Once again based on a book by James M. Cain, this film was much more faithful to its source. A drifter (John Garfield) gets work at a diner and starts an affair with the owner's wife (Lana Turner) before hatching a plot to kill her husband off for his money. Turner was dressed in white by the studio because she was considered so sexy that an angelic color was needed to mute the effect. (or so legend goes.) While director Tay Garnett was not the auteur that the directors of other films on this list are now considered, he still crafted an excellent adaptation of Cain's work.
It is worth noting that this may be the most "existential" of the films gathered on this list. Cain's work was an influence on French philosopher Albert Camus and his novel The Stranger was in part an homage to Cain. If you find yourself pondering the meaning of it all while watching this film don't say I didn't warn you.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Raymond Chandler was one of the most celebrated writers of the “hard-boiled” detective genre and his books were adapted to the screen many times, sometimes more than once. Still, none of them are as good as director Howard Hawks take on the first of Chandler’s novels to feature private detective Philip Marlowe. Hawks simply wanted a good vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall after he directed them in To Have and to Have Not and at first glance Chandler’s novel didn’t seem like the best fit but by turning Marlowe from a loner PI, into more of a ladies man and modifying the ending a bit it ended up being one of the most famous teamings of the real life couple.
The Big Sleep is also famous for its convoluted plot. When Hawks couldn’t figure out who committed one murder he asked his three screenwriters (including novelists William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett) who had done the deed. When he called Chandler himself he was shocked to find out that the author didn’t know the answer. He finally decided it didn’t matter and audiences have been so engrossed in this film ever since that they have never complained.
Out of the Past (1947)
One of the themes of film noir is the seedy hidden underbelly that lurks just below the surface. This film capitalizes on that theme exploring the life of a seemingly ordinary gas station owner (Robert Mitchum) who has his dark past come back to haunt him. Kirk Douglas gives a memorable performance as the man with a grudge against Mitchum and part of the appeal of this film is watching those two intense actors square off against each other.
Director Jacques Tourneur was a genius with atmosphere and he made the usually B-grade scripts that he was given to work with shine with his superior craft. This is his finest hour. When asked what he expected his contribution to film history to be Tourneur replied, “none.” He was definitely wrong about that.
The Third Man (1949)
There are a number of reasons that this film is great. Brilliant cinematography and a classic score, a twisting plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat, Orson Welles giving the famous “cuckoo clock” speech are among them. It is rare to see so many outstanding elements blend together in such an intoxicating whole. We have director Carol Reed to thank for bringing those elements together so brilliantly from a novel by Graham Greene.
Joseph Cotton stars as a writer of Westerns who has come to Vienna in search of his old friend Harry Lime but finds he has seemingly been killed in an accident. Things don’t quite add up though and he finds himself pulled into the dealings his friend had set in motion long before he arrived.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
While I chose to limit this list to one film per director Bogart still manages to slip onto this list three times with three different directors at the helm. This time it is Nicolas Ray best known for Rebel Without a Cause. Bogie plays a Hollywood screenwriter with a drinking problem and predisposition for violence. He ends up suspected of the murder of a hatcheck girl but gets an alibi from his mysterious neighbor. (Gloria Graham) The two start a romantic relationship but he remains under suspicion for the murder and as time goes by it becomes less clear whether he really is innocent.
In a Lonely Place isn’t just one of the great noirs but a great tragic love story. Also interesting is what was going on behind the scenes. Bogart and Ray made the film as friends but by the end of production were not speaking and Graham, who was married to Ray, would soon divorce him and marry his son. Who knows how such a great film got made with everybody at each other’s throats.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Hollywood had been churning out noir films for over a decade before director Robert Aldrich got the chance to adapt this Mickey Spillane novel. Aldrich didn’t think much of Spillane’s novel and he thought that his detective Mike Hammer was a fascist, so his film has a definite satirical bent, portraying Hammer as an arrogant and amoral cretin that gets into a tough case by accident and realizes too late that he is in over his head.
Aldrich wants to go against the grain almost immediately. The credits scroll down toward us as we watch Hammer and a woman he has picked up speed away in his car and the backwards, top down movement already puts us on edge. This film is an absolute triumph of style but it has something to say too. Aldrich sees Hammer as the absolute worst parts of the American psyche and he used him to give the culture a scathing critique.
Touch of Evil (1958)
By the late 50s Orson Welles career as a director was in real trouble. He had been a wunderkind in 1941, pushing the boundaries of what cinema could be with Citizen Kane but film after film had failed at the box office and getting financing for each new project just kept getting harder. Welles had no choice but to do a commercial project and when Charlton Heston wanted him to direct him in a movie based on a lurid pulp novel, where Heston would play a character that was Mexican he had to take it.
Welles threw himself into the project. He opened the film with one of the most stunning long takes in cinema history. (see video) He played the film’s villain, a corrupt border town sheriff who “never framed anybody who wasn’t guilty” and shot some of the strangest and haunting images a film noir had ever included. Despite this, the film still turned out to be too weird to be a hit but continues to be watched and studied by generations of movie buffs today.
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