If pressed to choose just one film genre as my all time favourite, I would certainly have to go with Film Noir. Why? I love these films because they reflect the truth of humanity. We all have good and bad within us, we are all complicated in some way, and we all do what we have to do to survive and get by in life.
Following the horrors of WW2, 1940’s film audiences were bombarded with films that reflected the reality of the life they were living. Not since the 1930’s gangster flicks had films been so violent. These films reflected real life for many viewers and captured the cynical and bleak mood of the times.
The Noir villains were ice cold and nasty pieces of work, the women were independent, strong and even manipulative, and even the heroes were not clear cut good guys. The public lapped these films up and they continued being made throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.
It was the French film critics who first came up with a name for these films. The word they chose was Noir(meaning black or dark.) This word was their way to best describe these films being made in the States. The French themselves also made many Noir films; films such as Jour Se Leve and Rififi for example.
I also like Noir films because they are often very interesting visually. The black and white photography captures long shadows and creates an atmosphere unlike anything seen before or since (with the exception of German expressionist films of the 20’s.) Darkness is all around in these films, clinging to all the characters like a suffocating fog.
Another memorable part to a Noir film is the femme fatale. As a woman I love that these films offered such juicy roles for women to play. The Noir era was really the first time since the 1920’s, and pre-code 30’s, that American actresses had been offered strong, and obvious bad girl roles. The femme fatales are overtly sexual, devious, independent and sexually aggressive women. These gals know what they want and they go after it. These women are not content to stay at home cooking in the kitchen and looking nice for their men. They use men and then toss them aside without a second thought. My favourites amongst these women are Kathie (Jane Greer)in Out Of The Past, and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck)in Double Indemnity.
I think it must have fun for the actresses to be able to play these women in this way. When you look at the roles of Noir actresses film credits, you’ll often find that their Noir characters are the most memorable and interesting roles of their career. Mention Stanwyck, Bacall, Peggy Cummins or Lana Turner, and what is the first film of theirs that usually gets mentioned? nine times out of ten it is their Noir films – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Gun Crazy and The Postman Always Rings Twice. These strong female roles remain as memorable and impressive today as they were upon release.
As well as the bad girls, Noir also features many memorable good girls too. These are also strong and independent gals, who will happily get mixed up in danger and who prove to the cynical men in their lives that not all women are femme fatales. My favourite of these characters is Kathleen (Lucille Ball)in Dark Corner (1946). Kathleen is the secretary to Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)a tough Private Investigator who is being set up. Kathleen happily puts herself at risk to help him uncover the bad guys, and proves herself to be a woman worthy of his heart.
The men in these films (both good and bad)are usually cynical and world weary. They are tough and comfortable with dishing out and being around violence. Some are bad guys with no redeeming features; while others have tough exteriors in order to survive, but who underneath are total sweethearts. Sometimes a decent guy (like Walter Neff for example)gets caught up in a web weaved by a femme fatale, and becomes caught up in murder and crime and soon finds they have no way out and will end up dead or in jail.
Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark, Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum played some of the best remembered Noir male characters. These performances remain affective today. My favourites from the Noir guys are Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell)in Farewell My Lovely, Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)in The Dark Corner, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) in The Narrow Margin, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) in Pickup On South Street and Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Even in the era of the censor, these films contain images and dialogue that make me sit up and go “did I really just see or hear that?” These films are very violent without being overly so, most of what we see is implied but still packs a punch for the viewer. The films contain dialogue or shared glances between characters that leave you in no doubt as to meaning, be that implied meaning sexual or violent.
Noir slowly wound down towards the end of the 50’s. It enjoyed a revival in the 80’s though, with the release of the much more sexually explicit Body Heat. In this film, Kathleen Turner is Mattie, the femme fatale leading William Hurt into her trap. Sex is her weapon and she is in complete control of her situation. I consider this to be the best Noir film made outside of the 40’s and 50’s.
Since then films such as Basic Instinct, Femme Fatale and LA Confidential have gained Film Noir new generations of fans. Hopefully people who liked these flicks, characters, and the look of the films, will go and check out Noir titles from the 40’s and 50’s. If they don’t they are missing out one so many superb films.
My top 10 Noir films are: Pickup On South Street, Farewell My Lovely (Dick Powell version),Double Indemnity, Le Jour Se Leve, The Dark Corner, The Big Heat, The Narrow Margin, Body Heat, LA Confidential and T-Men.
My favourite decade for Noir? Without a doubt it has to be the 1940’s. When I hear the word Noir, I immediately think of black and white images, smoke filled rooms, the light catching the shadows on the blinds, which in turn cast long dark shadows. This decade has so many films that I think are the best of the genre. For me just the word Noir, conjures up images of world weary detectives, cynical people trying to make it from one day to the next, and of women whose greatest weapon is themselves.
Do you love Noir too? Please share your thoughts below. What are your favourite Noir films? Who are your favourite Noir characters?