If pressed to choose just one film genre as my all time favourite, I would certainly have to go with Film Noir. Why is this genre such a favourite? 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. Noir films reflect this reality back at us.
Following the horrors of WW2, 1940’s film audiences began to be bombarded with films which reflected the reality of the life they were living at the time. Not since the 1930’s gangster flicks had films been so violent. These films dished out a slice of real life for many viewers, and they captured the cynical and bleak mood of the times. People now were much more aware of the dark side of humanity, and everyone in some way had been affected by the darkness of the war. Noir films picked up on the mood of the times.
The Noir villains were ice cold and very nasty pieces of work, the women were independent, strong and even manipulative; even the heroes themselves 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 though had also made many excellent Noir films; films such as Le Jour Se Leve and Rififi for example. These moody and atmospheric films are among the very best in the genre. My favourite French Noir is Le Jour Se Leve, featuring an unforgettable lead performance by the great Jean Gabin.
I also really 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. The photography and lighting are such important parts of these films, so much of that Noir atmosphere and look is down to the skill of the camera and lighting crews.
Another major and 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 actresses had been offered such 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.
Ava Gardner, Ann Savage and Barbara Stanwyk as three memorable Femme Fatales. Screenshots by me.
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, Vera in Detour 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, Marie Windsor, 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 such as Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Narrow Margin, Gun Crazy and The Postman Always Rings Twice respectively. 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. These gals don’t get their kicks in using and hurting men.
My favourites of these characters are Kathleen (Lucille Ball)in Dark Corner (1946). Kathleen is the loyal 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.
My other favourite is Candy (Jean Peters)in Pickup On South Street. Candy is a tough gal who puts up a I can take care of myself front, when in reality she can be easily hurt. Candy puts herself in great danger helping Skip (Richard Widmark)uncover a communist gang.
The men in Noir films (both good and bad)are usually cynical and world weary chaps. 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 powerful when viewed 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, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) in Pickup On South Street and Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Despite being made 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 it still packs a punch for the viewer. The films also contain dialogue or shared glances between characters that leave you in no doubt as to meaning, be that implied meaning sexual or violent.
When you mention Noir, I will bet that most people automatically associate that word with American cinema. Noir films were predominantly American, but there were many fantastic Noir films made outside of the USA though.
I’ve already mentioned that the French made many fantastic Noir flicks. There are also many Noir treasures to be found in British cinema. Films like: The Long Memory, Pool Of London, Hell Is A City, The October Man, Odd Man Out, It Always Rains On Sunday and Brighton Rock. My favourite of these is The Long Memory, which sees John Mills playing against type as a tough, embittered man wrongly accused of murder who is out for revenge. I also love Pool Of London, Pink String and Ceiling Wax, It Always Rains On Sunday, and Hell Is A City.
Noir slowly began to wind down towards the end of the 1950’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 sultry femme fatale leading William Hurt into her trap. Sex is Mattie’s 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, then I say that they are missing out on so many superb films and performances.
10 Noir films that I love are: Murder, My Sweet (Dick Powell version),Double Indemnity, Pickup On South Street, Le Jour Se Leve, The Dark Corner, The Big Heat, The Narrow Margin, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly and The Long Memory.
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.
My favourite Noir actor? Dick Powell, he suited these films perfectly. His appearance in these films gave him a nice career change proving he was a gifted dramatic actor.
My favourite Noir actress? A tie between Jean Peters and Barbara Stanwyck. They were both perfect as tough and sultry dames.
Do you love Noir too? Please share your thoughts below. What are your favourite Noir films? Who are your favourite Noir characters?