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How To Know If It's Film Noir
The Golden Era of Film Noir was generally from 1942 to 1955
Post WWII France was fascinated by a style of certain American crime and detective movies which they called Film Noir which literally means "black cinema."
Here are the props, the attitude and the feeling you get from these type of movies while we're IN one. So instead of scientific analysis let me tell you in plain English what you'll find in nearly every plot. You'd better roll up the sleeves of your starched bright white shirt, loosen your tie and you best not try anything cute, fella or I'll blast ya!
This could take all night if we have to or if you cooperate, we can be out of here in two shakes of a lamb's tail, bub. Cigarette? Yeah, that's right. The non-filtered type. It's either Chesterfields, Lucky Strike or Pall Malls.
I'm gonna fix us both a drink because you look like I could use one. Hope you like scotch on the rocks because that's all there is. I'm saving the bourbon for when I run out of scotch. Oh, and I don't have any ice. So, I hope you like it straight up. I don't trust a man who doesn't drink and I have never had a drink with an umbrella in it. Think I'll make mine a double, right after I finish this double.
Say, you're silent type aren't you? Or you just clammin' up? Well try a couple of belts from this cheap "truth serum" and I'll probably be beggin' ya to shut up in no time. So, you wanted to know what Film Noir is, eh? It's not hard to explain and even easier to figure out once I draw up some images for ya.
Our Story Begins
It's a feeling of impending doom and despair hanging over every character in the story like a dark cloud filled with detachment, alienation, disillusionment, lethargy, ambiguity, and corruption. It's a guy who was awarded a Silver Star or Medal of Valor in "the war" and together with two bits he might be able to buy a cup of coffee.
It's standing in the pouring rain cascading down like Niagara Falls as you watch two figures in the window of that second floor suite. Even though the rain doesn't let up, neither do you on your stake out, not even batting an eyelash as your light brown fedora hat and beige trench coat don't keep you from getting soaked to the bone anyway.
You do it because you've got a job to do and someone is paying you. Tonight it's to keep an eye on those two lovebirds as they cavort about drinking, playing records, laughing and eventually they embrace in a passionate kiss while he grabs the shade and pulls it down. You light another cigarette. Your night's over. End of Act I.
Gathering More Clues
Then, and only then, can you call it a night. But not before you stop off for a nightcap or two or three at Pete's or Harry's Hideaway or The Blue Oyster Bar or whatever that gin joint is called downstairs and around the corner from your flat in that rented dive of a room or city bungalow you call home.
HA! Yeah. "Home." It's not even a home but a place to drop off your dry cleaning after it's pressed at the "chink laundry" that's been run by the same family for generations for as long as you can remember. They're always good for a lead, a ticket with an address, a description of what the guy looked like. You keep each other in business.
It's ALWAYS raining or "pea soup" foggy and always a starless night around midnight or after two a.m. or closing time in some filthy metropolitan city as you slosh through the streets head down, hands buried into the pockets of your Burberry trench coat. Not even a taxi would be out on a night like this.
There's always a femme fatal
Everything Turns To Black
And there, you can feel it. The cold steel of a black snub-nosed handgun in your coat pocket or in your holster strapped to your chest or the one shoved into your back. Hey, easy there, junior.
It's lighting two cigarettes and giving one to her, it's two short glasses and one bottle of scotch. It's a "tail," a dame, a kiss, ("How 'bout another one, baby?") A slap in the face, a sock on the jaw, a blackjack to the back of the head and then everything went black, officer. It's a moll, an ex-girlfriend or a broad you wouldn't trust to tie your own shoe laces.
It's a "gum-shoe," it's always a leather shoe, it's a wing-tip (if you're a bad guy,) it's high heeled shoes for the girl, it's spike heeled shoes for the bad girl. It's shadows, it's blood red lipstick, it's red brick buildings, it's shining wet black as night asphalt and it's a lump on your noggin. Ouch! Now how did THAT get there? Oh yeah. From HIM, "The Ape." The guy hovering over you in the tight fitting cheap suit.
"Mornin', sweetheart" he says. *SMASH!!* His big balled up mitt does a wreckin' ball number to the side of your nose and what do you say to him? "Is that the best ya got, King Kong? BRING IT!"
It's lights out for you. It's someone drugged, it's being slipped a "Mickey Finn" in your drink, it's someone beat up, someone dead, someone left for dead, someone I had to kill, someone “on the take,” someone did an “inside job,” someone's headed for a fall, someone is cruisin' for a bruisin', someone got what they deserved, someone was double-crossed, someone better watch their back, someone won't talk and someone was just here. I can feel it! End of Act II.
The face, the dame, the smoke, the shadows, the trench coat...
Someone Is Bound To Get Hurt
It's waking up in an alley or next to a dead body or if it’s in your bed you’re still in your dark suit and always hungover. Finally "snapping out of it" only to find yourself on a rat-infested hotel bed with needle marks in your arm or tied to a chair and some gorilla of a guy making hamburger meat of your face.
"My mother hits harder," you say with a smile while spittin' blood into "Moose's" face. Maybe if you're lucky you'll pass out from being beaten unconscious because you can never let on to these weasels that you hurt or that you're gonna break or that you know something (even if you know nothing.) You mustn't let them know where she is or where "the book" is hidden or where the diamonds are stashed.
Hope for surviving the night looks pretty bleak when "The Big Boss," who ironically is skinny as a flag pole with a dark striped suit on a hanger, shows no regard for anyone but himself. Or he could be fat as a hippo with a face like one too sweating profusely from his pink skin that resembles uncooked poultry or some weasel barely above a jockey's height smoking a cigar to make him lose that initial little kid appearance.
"So just where did you get the big idea that you could just walk out of here, sir? Continue, Moose" he orders, through bored looking coal black eyes.
It's a smart remark, a number on a matchbook, a lamp in your eyes, a car skidding out of control, a trusted pal posting bail, a woman screaming in the night, a cigarette’s smoke curling into your eyes, a side glance, a whistle for a cabbie, a "wolf whistle," a twinkle in a woman's eye and a world that scowls back at you.
I don't know why, but a feeling just came over me like a worried mother, a little brother with braces on his legs looking up to the wrong kind of guy, a sis so naive to the real world, a corpse telling more information than you ever got from the living, a bullet hole, a knife wound, an ice pick hole barely visible at the base of the skull, a fatal blow to the head or the smell of almonds on the corpse's breath. "Hey! This guy's been poisoned!"
The Women Want You, The Men Want To Be You
It's telling a meddling cop to, "Butt out!" It's a fat cat boss saying calmly, "Aw, we don't wanna get Johnny Law involved, now do we, Mr. (Spade or Marlow or Spillane or Hammer?)"
Why do they always have an odd way of speaking? Why does The Boss always seem to be the calmest fellow in the room... well, besides you, of course? Is that a German, Austrian or a British accent he has as he carries a long haired cat around on his lap, or grips a studded walking stick or a flower in his lapel that he's constantly smelling.
It's getting clues from an informant, a punk, a paperboy, a mechanic, a snitch, a jailbird, a cellmate, a doorman, a hitman, a patsy, a soda jerk, a cheap whore, a high priced call girl, a Daddy's Girl, a spinster, a drunk, a liar and a cheat, a perp, a private dick who used to be a cop, a dead partner and a grieving widow that you "vow to get revenge for and bust whoever did this."
Or it's a dame who's name you'll never forget. It was Sadie, Blondie, Red, Ivana, Carol, Ginger, or Elsa. Yeah, that was it. She was a real gold digger, a part-time model, a reluctant hooker, a high priced call girl, a down on her luck stripper (who always winds up dead it seems,) a cute hat check girl, a sassy cigarette girl, a sexy secretary, a struggling nickel a dance girl who used to be a pretty good actress, because those are the only jobs available for young girls in the big city. At least in this movie. End of Act III.
The author knows a thing or two about film noir.
They Told Me About Guys Like You
The guy who was driven to do this used to be a swell guy until he drank himself into becoming a desperate play writer, a washed up thespian, a drug addict, a dealer, a shady character, a hack for the local rag, a victim of the city, a loan shark's collector because a guy on the take will do almost anything to survive. Even if it means taking someone's life. What a shame. What a waste. What a palooka. What a pair o' gams on that dame, eh?
Because now he's just a bum, a real thug, a guy "on the take," a remorseful guy telling a kid brother not to end up like him, a con, an ex-con, a canary and now a squealer who's about to sing to the cops so ya better go "take care of him." If you know what I mean.
Now It's Time To Payup
Take him "for a drive," take him to the top of a building and show him the fastest way down, take him into the countryside and "ventilate him," take him around back to see the boss, take a shovel with ya too, just take him out of here and shut him up - for good.
Maybe you can "persuade him" by "suggesting" you take a little stroll with you and Rocco, Tony, Whitey, Jinx or Bruno. Try a finger in a cigar cutter or a hand placed on a table that needs working on - with a hammer or maybe just break something like a thumb if he's an athlete, a kneecap if he stands all day on the assembly line or an eye socket so he can see your point of view.
Because we don't want "guys like him" or "his kind" to become one of the thousand stories in the naked city. The ones that ONLY take place in a city like post-war Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York City.
This article was banged out by me. Yeah, that's right. Me, Dan W. Miller in a 48 hour sleepless stretch, on a Royal brand typewriter with a non-filter cigarette permanently dangling out of the side of my mouth. My only "meal" was from a bottle of Ol' Rot Gut and I'm wearing the same dark wool suit I'd worn the day before. So what? Here's my card. Call me. Now get the Hell out of here before I change my mind. Beat it, kid!