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The Mystery of the Murderous and the Femme Fatale: How Film Noir Changed Movies For the Better

Updated on May 12, 2012
The Big Sleep Movie Poster
The Big Sleep Movie Poster
The Postman Always Rings Twice Poster
The Postman Always Rings Twice Poster
Dial M For Murder Movie Poster
Dial M For Murder Movie Poster
The Postman Always Rings Twice Poster
The Postman Always Rings Twice Poster
L.A. Confidential Movie Poster
L.A. Confidential Movie Poster
The Ice Harvest Movie Poster
The Ice Harvest Movie Poster

What is film noir? It's a type of film that takes audiences through both the glamorous as well as the seedy underworld universes that many people bounce between. Sometimes this bouncing back and forth leads to consequences that led to the ultimate insider (the private detective) getting into the mix to decipher what's going on. Of course, that insider has to decide whether they're on the right or the wrong side of the law as well. This is what makes film noir so great, because the audience doesn't always know who to root for. Everyone is flawed in the end.

When a film noir works, it's a wonderful sight to watch on the big screen. If there's anything wrong with the movie, it unfolds like a bad car wreck. A prime example would be The Black Dahlia which mixed bad casting (Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson in mismatched parts) and an unevenly paced script that was all over the place. It's a shame because it had the potential of being something big, but the execution just wasn't there. Read on for the three elements that make a film noir work like a charm or turn into fool's gold by the end credits.

The Anti-Hero- This element of film noirs usually followed some flawed private investigator or a cop with a vice that could undo them in the end. Usually, it's the love of a femme fatale who could kill them with a single look. In 2005's The Ice Harvest, John Cusack played one half of a criminal partnership trying to commit the ultimate robbery. The plan starts to fall apart and the arrival of the mysterious Renata (Connie Nielsen) uses her looks to lure him with an ulterior motive behind it. Sure, Cusack's character has enough flaws to make him dislikable, but it's to his credit that the audience wants to root for him to survive no matter what because he tries to do the right thing even when it's wrong. John Garfield and Jack Nicholson both attempted to give the drifter with a past in both versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice a soul, even when they plotted murder. In terms of good versus evil in noirs, it always best to look under the surface to get a fuller picture. It's worth the look.

The Bombshell- It's understandable why blonde bombshells like Lana Turner, Jessica Lange and Grace Kelly can make a regular man go murderous. Lana Turner and Jessica Lange played damaged housewife Cora who just wanted too much: love, sex and money. Did both versions really love Frank or was it just a relationship of convenience? The audience never really knows, because it's the one mystery that shouldn't be solved. Grace Kelly, on the other hand, played a more demure femme fatale who didn't really know she was one. In Dial M For Murder, she was an unhappy housewife who stumbled into an extra-marital affair that marked her for death with her vengeful husband. Overall, Kelly's character was a reasonably good character, except for her one indiscretion. A more modern version of those bombshells is Kim Basinger's hooker with a heart of golf in 1997's L.A. Confidential. She's stuck between her feelings for the brutish cop Bud White (Russell Crowe) who could truly love her and being caught in a murder/blackmail scheme that could get her killed for being a pawn.

The ultimate purpose of the femme fatale is to give the main character someone to spar and spark with. That's why The Big Sleep ultimately worked. Sure, it had a killer murder/blackmail mystery, but it the onscreen magic of Humphrey Bogart and his regular onscreen/offscreen partner Lauren Bacall. Their chemistry was off-the-charts. Case closed.

The Plot- The one thing that's more essential than a great cast is an even better story to keep audiences in their seats. Sunset Boulevard had one of the best openings that reeled people in: a murder mystery told through the voice of the dead via flashback. Leading Man William Holden was found dead in the swimming pool in the very beginning and the story flashed back to how he ended up there. The audience couldn't help but get sucked into the plot because they wondered if his character truly deserved to die, or was just a victim of poor circumstances. L.A. Confidential's story started off with a brutal mass killing in an all-night diner that evolved into a longtime police corruption scandal that even touched the most shocking of individuals. No one was safe from it, especially the so-called good guys.

The only catch-22 with the blackmail/murder plot is that it can duplicated over repeatedly with sometimes inferior results. Luckily, that's not always the case. The Postman Rings Twice's plot has been copied in such films as Double Indemnity, Body Heat and a same name remake. They all sold the idea of sex, adulterous risk and a murder that led to disaster. Still riveting to watch nonetheless.

In the end, film noirs are few and far between to find because audiences are nowadays often searching for the sunnier side of films to avoid thinking about economic chaos out in the real world. Let's face it. No one wants to always deal with the dark and dangerous behavior that a lot more are surprisingly capable of. Instead of going to the big screen, audiences can just turn on their television and watch some reheated tv movie based on the latest crime novel series to get their mystery solving skills warmed up (John Sandford's Certain Prey). The best solution is to always resort to the classics to get your film noir fix while searching for newer material (Drive and Brick to name a few) to add to your collection. Start watching at your own risk.

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    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 5 weeks ago from London England

      Not 'film noir' but has been writtern as a play and subsequently on film, the extraordinary case of the Papin sisters who in the 1930's murdered their employer. The pair were retained as maids and were resentful of Madame's overbearing nature. I dare not make a statement on the matter as it was contoversial, so i shall leave it up to anyone wanting to research it themselves.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 6 weeks ago from London England

      For an unforgettable 'film noir', several adaptions of Stephen King's novel 'Carrie' have been done by Hollywood. The ultimate in horror genre but fortunately the whole plot is only some one's nightmare. Worth mentioning whilst on the subject the 1944 production 'Cobra Woman'.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 23 months ago from London England

      Don't like the use of the word 'murderous' as we could have fictional roles without the death of a victim. Today two women are appearing in court charged with the murder of a successful business woman. I find these difficult to comprehend but i'm off the topic. In the screen adaptation of Samson & Delilah, she betrays him for her own ego but is full of remorse after learning he has been tortured and killed.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      I've heard that Bollywood now is looking at venturing into the 'film noir' genre. This could be interesting as they have a veritable harem of exotic Deva's who could take on the role of the Femme Fatale luring her unsuspecting male victim to his destruction.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      I'd be delighted to see the return of 'film noir'. Back in the early 1960's a weekly television programme hosted by Boris Karloff titled Thriller had it's fair share of virago's, vixens and vamps.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 2 years ago from London England

      Don't know about actress Linda Hamilton other than a publicity still from a Terminator movie. She is squatting in a harsh desert land armed with a high powered rifle with telescopic sights and wearing aviator sunglasses, a cigarette in her mouth.

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 3 years ago from London England

      Though the three films concerning Modesty Blaise flopped and could hardly be classed as 'film noir' the first in 1966 staring Monica Vitti was considered too 'campy' to be realistic. Ann Turkel in the remake of Modesty Blaise proved to be just so so and the third film made the cutting room floor. However, in the Modesty Blaise anthologies where ever M.B. encountered a sinister adversary i get the feeling that she actually thought that the villain deserved to die and the number of victims she dispatched would qualify her as a serial killer. Even when Modesty only defeated her opponent she seemed to delight in humiliating him as well. Coupled to this fact Modesty Blaise had style and panache, the height of elegance adding to her mystique.

    • profile image

      Gadfly 3 years ago from Olde London Towne

      Greetings my little Darklings!

      Thought the plot line rather 'far fetched' at the tyme but the 1969 production of Fraulein Doktor may fit smoothly into the 'film noir' category. Set in the murky world of espionage, assasination, poison plots and betrayals, the central character is a female spy possibly active in both world wars however no trace of her was found after 1941.

      The film also features the gorgeous French starlet Capucine as a scientist Madame Sarforet coducting top secret experiments in chemical warfare. Capucine at the height of her career portrays a convincingly straight forward role however she is seduced by the Fraulein Docktor an enemy agent intent on stealing the plans.The good part is although betrayed as a lover Capucine survives. Not so in her previous not so 'film noir' The year of the Dragon where Capucine portrays a freedom fighter. The opening scenes shows her participating in the mass executions of enemy prisoners of war.

      Long live the Femme Fatale

      gadfly

    • profile image

      Gadfly 3 years ago from Olde London Towne

      Greetings my little Darklings!

      In the 1966 production of Modesty Blaise and the several remakes, M.B. a glamorous slueth and forerunner of this genre of Female assassins did battle with a mixed collective of sinister adversaries. On some occassions it was necessary to kill in self defence. But what we didn't see on screen was the premeditated killing in cold blood of an evil crime czar by suffocating him underwater to appear as a drowning accident. In another novelette Modesty and her man friday, Willie take out two viscious hitmen on a Carribean island and immediatly come to the notice of the police however the murder charges get dropped.

      sweet dreams!

      the gadfly

    • limpet profile image

      Ian Stuart Robertson 3 years ago from London England

      Any 'red blooded' boy in the 60 s would have idolised Cinnamon Carter a glamorous fashion model who made the front cover of Vogue magazine

      before entering the shadowy world of covert missions to expose corrupt tyrants and Mr Bigs of the underworld

      Cinnamon using Her intuition and other femminine traits to distract the villains bringing about their downfall with their own chauvinism

      She never carried a gun and used martial arts to protect Herself when nescessary, also She didn't care about their demise either!

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I have always been a fan of film noir, particular from the studio system era.