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Film Noir Classics: An Appreciation

Updated on October 3, 2012

A Happy Accident

So when I was a junior in college, I was busy trying to graduate on time. In doing so, I was trying to finish my second major (Communication Studies: Media Studies) and possibly have one last hurrah with my first major (Sociology). In doing so, I discovered my love of classic film, classic Hollywood, and so much more.

When I was going through the course listings online, I stumbled on a course called Film Noir. At the time, I had no idea what it was. All I know is the description mentioned films from the 40s and 50s and my interest was piqued, so I decided why not? What do I have to loose? I have a lot to learn. Well, it turns out I gained more than I could have ever lost.

I spent the second semester of junior year immersing myself in a culture, a lifestyle and a time period I previously did not have much knowledge about. But what was so interesting is how the themes and details of Film Noir connected so much to the present. It enthralled me and I knew from there I was in love with this genre, this moment that has contributed so much to pop culture.

Some films that I watched engrossed me to no end. Here are some of the films that helped me fall in love.

Double Indemnity: A Captivating Classic

If you're looking for a real dame, Barbara Stanwyck is your woman. Bold, brash, and brave she embodies everything in a spiderwoman that makes Film Noir so intriguing. Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a disgruntled housewife in search of a better life. She meets insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) as he is trying to sell her husband (Tom Powers) some bogus insurance. As he exits, the two exchange information and begin a dark and twisted association that leads to murder, revenge, and tragedy.

If you like your movies with ruthless women and morally depraved men, then this is the picture for you. Barbara Stanwyck was one of the best at playing the femme fatale. She knew just how to combine the right amount of sex appeal, wit, and deceit to make you love hating her characters. What electrifies this film is her on-screen chemistry with Fred MacMurray.

Fred MacMurray, at the time was traditionally associated with happier fare such as The Gilded Lily and later hits such as The Shaggy Dog. But he had begun to prove himself in movies such as Above Suspicion, but broke out with this role. I personally remembered him as Steve Douglas from the reruns of My Three Sons that aired on TV Land, so to see him as a sex-crazed adulterer was surprising. However, he delivered in this film.

With a supporting cast that includes the legendary Edward G. Robinson, this film is deeply addictive and exciting. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, and if you watch it you will see why. Everything works at its highest level and as a result we get an enduring classic about adultery and power.

Gilda: The Original Goldigger

If you've ever heardof Rita Hayworth, you've probably heard of Gilda. She even blamed Gilda as one of the reasons men had a misguided impression about her character. She was famously quoted as saying:

"Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me."

Hayworth felt doomed by the role ultimately because it was the role she was most remembered for. Gilda played with hearts as much as she played, "Put the Blame on Mame." And it was true, she was the center of the tension in the picture.

Going to bed with Gilda was not cheap. And the men she dealt with it knew it. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) worked for Ballin Mundson (George Macready), but fought with him for Gilda's heart. All the while, Gilda was looking out for #1, herself.

Rita Hayworth adds such a vulnerability beneath a layer of iciness that seems to give her performance a new dynamic. The way she pretends to love both Ballin and Johnny is both admirable and despicable. You spend the entire movie trying to figure out why she is the way she is. And by the end you can see her shortcomings rise to the surface.

Glenn Ford and Ballin Mundson give solid performances, but this by far is Rita Hayworth's show. She glides effortlessly and easily gives one of the best performances of her entire career. Gilda was the goldigger's goldigger.

Leave Her to Heaven: A Depraved Dame

Leave Her to Heaven is one of the few Film Noirs made in the 1940s done in Technicolor. It was the combination of a long and expensive process that held the movie up from being completed sooner. However, the results are excellent.

Gene Tierney, in one of her most spine-tingling roles, really gives the goods. She plays Ellen Berent, a young woman on vacation with her family who is introduced to Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). She at the time is engaged to another man, but is so struck by how much Richard resembles her father, that she drops the other guy and pursues him.

Ellen is the original stage five clinger. She soon marries Richard and infiltrates every part of his life, even committing one of the most sinister acts that you can imagine a newlywed committing. Not only that, but she sabotages her husband's relationships with everyone including her sister (portrayed by the brilliant Jeanne Crain).

Tierney's performance is more than Oscar-worthy, it's legendary. This movie grabs you from beginning to end and believe me, it's worth watching.

Gun Crazy: Bonnie and Clyde with a Twist

You may not recognize Gun Crazy's title- but the plot is familiar to you. A gun-loving free spirit meets a kindred soul in a young woman and they run off together. Bart Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) meet, fall in love and marry. Since Bart's been in trouble with the law, he's aiming to lead a straight and narrow life.

But Annie sees the money running out and the opportunity to go on a crime spree. She convinces Bart to go along with it and they go on the run. What ensues is a path of murder, destruction, and deceit.

Even though Annie warned she was bad- Bart still tries to stay with her and ends up setting himself up for a deadly imposition.

It seems to me the reason this movie didn't get the attention of other movies in the film noir genre is that there are no big names in this film. It's considered a B-Picture. But the quality is still very much first class.

The Big Heat: A Revenge Picture

Glenn Ford appears in this next movie which may arguably one of the last great movies of the classical film noir era. Ford is an honest cop named Dave Bannion- investigating the suicide of a fellow cop, Tom Duncan when the cop's mistress informs him it could not have been suicide- her lover was murdered. The mistress also tells him that Duncan owned another home.

From there Bannion, is met with resistance from both his superiors and the cop's widow but continues investigating. He forms an interesting bond with local gangster Vince Stone's (Lee Marvin) girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame).

Even though Bannion does not fully trust anyone involved with the mob he becomes protective of Debby and even puts her up for a while. Another interesting thing to note is that this film seems to be an early predecessor to action films that are currently popular where the protagonist is out to avenge a personal wrong done to him. Bannion does not turn rogue but walks a very fine line at certain points in the film.

The film is one of those fast paced nail-biters that is brimming with dialogue, action, and adventure. Fritz Lang gave film noir a much-needed boost with this 1953 classic.


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    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks Sunshine!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I agree Hyphenbird- the newer movies seemed to have removed the tension that made some of the classics so great. Thank you so much for coming by!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Bonnie and Clyde with a twist! One of my favorite movies! Bonnie rocks as does your hub!!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Some of these wonderful movies I knew. Some I didn't but sure will find them somewhere. Today's movies just cannot capture the tension like these old Noir ones do. You did a great job with your presentation. Now I most likely will be up all night watching old movies.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you Janine! Gilda is a classic.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thank you The Dirt Farmer! I highly recommend Gun Crazy it's a unique twist on the Bonnie and Clyde type stories.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I wish there were movies like this as well Mary! Thanks so much for coming by, commenting, and sharing!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks rcrumple! I wish they still showed these old movies on some of these cable channels.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 5 years ago from New York, New York

      Wow, you really had so many wonderful movies from that time era right here in one article and my favorite truly has to be Gilda. Thanks for sharing and have of course shared all over and voted up too!!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      OMG! I love Leave Her to Heaven. Gene Tierney's awesome, as is another film noir classic that she stars in, Laura. I'm going to have to see Gun Crazy. It sounds like a lot of fun, too. Really enjoyed your hub.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

      These are still my favorite kinds of movies. I wish they still make movies like this. I haven't been to a movie theater in years. I'd rather watch this kind on my Roku box and Netflix.

      I voted this UP, and will share and Pin.

    • rcrumple profile image

      Rich 5 years ago from Kentucky

      Have actually seen many of these movies. When I was young, the local independent station would show the oldies on Sunday afternoons. My father, not much of a football fan, would always have them on. Many are ingrained in my memory still. Great Hub!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Hi Jools,

      I think you will enjoy Leave Her to Heaven Gene Tierney does not disappoint in it. Thanks for commenting!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks Docmo! Double Indemnity is one of my favorites as well :)>

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Alecia, very interesting hub - I love Double Indemnity and Gilda but have not seen Leave Her To Heaven; your description of Tierney's performance makes me want to track it down sometime. I love Film Noir.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      I am a big fan of film noir and love these films. Double indemnity is such a groundbreaking classic and inspired many since... great list here Alecia. voted up and shared!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks for commenting! I agree about women getting the best lines, but they don't always end up with the best circumstances at the end of the movie. Yeah, I did see Stella Dallas. I felt really bad for Stanwyck's character in that.

    • profile image

      juliafranceschini 6 years ago

      I love Double Indemnity and Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress from that era. I had a similar experience in discovering film noir. I took a cool college course and was hooked. I even spent a semester wearing only black outfits and red lipstick! The best part about film noir, is that the women get all the best lines!

      Have you seen Stella Dallas? It's not a film noir, but Stanwyck is so good in it!