Yes it’s that time of year again, time to once again celebrate all things Film Noir. Put on your trench coats and hats, pour yourself a glass of bourbon and sit back and revel in a cinematic world of shadows, thrills, Femme and Homme Fatales, and plenty of darkness and danger.
My first time venturing into the dark alleys of Film Noir happened when I watched The Big Sleep(1946). I loved Bogie’s performance and the complex plot. What I loved most of all about the film was the daring dialogue and use of innuendo, especially in scenes between Bogie and Bacall and between Bogie and Dorothy Malone in the bookstore scene. I knew after seeing this that I had to check out more Film Noir.
Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet(1944) quickly followed. I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve had great fun heading off down the side streets of Film Noir and discovering less famous/somewhat less discussed gems such as The Narrow Margin(1952), They Made Me A Fugitive(1947),The Phantom Lady(1944).
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(yes, I do indeed consider it a genre rather than a style) such a favourite of mine? Because it’s so awesome. These films pushed against the restraints and restrictions of Joseph L. Breen’s ridiculous and prudish Production Code, and in the process provided audiences with the only truly adult film content on offer since the Pre-Code era.
Noir film directors quickly mastered the art of innuendo and double entendre. The result was a set of films which were extremely violent and brutal without wallowing in blood and graphic violence, and which were also sexy and daring, all without showing nudity or sex scenes. The films also featured some very psychologically complex and fascinating characters of both genders.
I also love these films because they reflect the truth of humanity back to those of us sitting in the audience. 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 on from 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 gritty or violent. Noir films dished out a slice of real life for many viewers and 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, nasty pieces of work, while the women were independent, strong, and even manipulative in some cases. Even the heroes themselves were not always clear cut good guys. The public lapped these films up and they continued being made throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.
Where 1940’s Film Noir was all about cynicism and the dark side of man, the Noir films of the 1950’s focused more on the paranoia and fear surrounding things like communism and Nuclear weapons. There are also several Noirs which fall under the category of Documentary Noir – these true crime stories are often inspired by the heroic actions of Police and Government Agencies and include films such as T-Men and Call Northside 777.
Noir films weren’t all crime thrillers set in the big city either, there were also a small series of films which have become known as Western Noir. These films at first glance are your typical Western, but on closer inspection you can see that they have characters and plots which fit the established tropes found in traditional Noir films. These films have femme fatales, outright bad guys who revel in violence, and the good guys who are more gray than white. My favourites of these are Ramrod, featuring Veronica Lake giving one of her best performances; The Furies,which features Noir Queen Barbara Stanwyck in one of her most memorable roles; and Station West,starring Noir favourites Dick Powell and Jane Greer.
It was the French film critics who first came up with the name for these dark crime films that we now know as Film Noir. The word they chose was Noir(literally meaning black or dark.) The French themselves have 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. The atmosphere, lighting and performances in this film are some of the best in the whole genre.
Noir films are often very interesting visually. The black and white photography captures long dark shadows,and creates an atmosphere unlike anything else found in film, with the exception of the German expressionist films of the 1920’s. Darkness is everywhere in Noir films, it clings to all the characters like a suffocating fog. The photography and lighting are such important parts of these films, with so much of that Noir atmosphere and look down to the skill of the camera and lighting crews. An early Noir that makes great use of shadow and lighting is The Stranger On The Third Floor(1940). This film also has the added bonus of Peter Lorre lurking in the shadows.
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 1930’s that actresses had been offered such strong, complex and obvious bad girl roles. The femme fatales are overtly sexual, independent and sexually aggressive women. These gals know what they want and they go after it. Anyone today who says actresses didn’t start getting good roles until now, really need to go back and watch Noir, Pre-Code and Silent films to see that just isn’t the case at all.
Noir women are not content to stay at home cooking in the kitchen and looking nice for their men. They do their own thing. Some 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(Ann Savage) in Detour,Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck)in Double Indemnity, Cora(Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Elsa(Rita Hayworth) in The Lady From Shangahi, and Peggy Cummins as Laurie, truly one of the most sexual and strong Noir women, in Gun Crazy.
A few femme fatales of Film Noir. Screenshots by me.
I think it must have been a lot of 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 careers.
Mention Stanwyck, Bacall, Jane Greer, 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, Out Of The Past, 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 when these films were first released.
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.
Gloria Grahame as Debby. Image source IMDb.
I also love Debby Marsh(Gloria Grahame)in The Big Heat. Debby is the sweet and slightly naive girlfriend of Lee Marvin’s gangster. When he permanently scars her in a fit of rage, Debby hardens and turns to Glenn Ford’s Detective Bannion to help take her man down.
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 this world, but underneath that toughness are actually total sweethearts. Sometimes a decent guy (like Walter Neff for example)gets caught up in a web weaved by a femme fatale, or an old pal who they should have steered well clear of,and becomes caught up in murder and crime and has no way out and will end up dead or in jail.
A few of the Noir guys. Images on left screenshots by me. Right image from IMDb.
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 Murder, My Sweet; Raven(Alan Ladd) from This Gun For Hire; Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)in The Dark Corner; Jim(Robert Ryan) in On Dangerous Ground; Mark McPherson(Dana Andrews) in Laura; Sam(Van Heflin) in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers;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; Martin Rome(Richard Conte) in Cry Of The City; and Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Despite being made in an era when films were heavily censored, Noir films contain images and dialogue that make me sit up and go “did I really just see or hear that?” These films are often very violent without graphically depicting violent acts, as most of what we see is implied, but the violence still packs a punch for the viewer. These films also contain dialogue or shared glances between characters that leave you in no doubt as to the meaning, be that implied meaning sexual or violent. These films were about as risque and daring as you could get in mainstream cinema at the time. The fact that they retain their shock value and impact is a credit to all involved in putting these films together.
When you mention Noir, I will bet that most people automatically associate that word with American cinema, and while it’s true that the majority of Noir films are predominantly American, there are also many fantastic Noir films which were made outside of the USA as well. I’ve already mentioned that the French made many fantastic Noir flicks. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese Noir Stray Dog (1949) is one of the best in the genre, while the first screen adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice was the brilliant Italian Noir Ossessione(1943).
There are also many Noir treasures to be found in British cinema. Films including The Long Memory, They Made Me A Fugitive, The October Man, Night And The City, Odd Man Out, Cast A Dark Shadow 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. Some other good ones are Daybreak and It Always Rains On Sunday.
Noir slowly began to wind down towards the end of the 1950’s. But it enjoyed a revival in the 1980’s, with the release of the much more sexually explicit Noir film Body Heat. In this film, Kathleen Turner plays Mattie, the sultry femme fatale leading the lovestruck 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 1940’s and 1950’s. Kathleen is up there with Lana, Barbara, Jane and Rita for me.
In more recent years Noir films such as Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Femme Fatale, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For and LA Confidential have come along. It’s clear filmmakers and audiences still have a taste for Film Noir. Hopefully people who like these modern Noir flicks, characters, and the overall look of these films, will now go and check out Noir films from the 1940’s and 1950’s. It would be a real shame if they don’t, as they will be missing out on so many superb films and performances.
10 of my favourite Noir films are Murder, My Sweet (Dick Powell version),Cry Of The City, Double Indemnity, Pickup On South Street, Le Jour Se Leve, They Made Me A Fugitive, The Narrow Margin, The Big Heat, Kiss Me Deadly(the darkest and wildest Noir flick as far as I’m concerned) 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, of smoke filled rooms where the light catches the shadows on the blinds, which in turn cast long dark shadows. This decade has so many films that I think are amongst the best of the genre. For me just the word Noir is enough to conjure 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. The 1940’s Noir films capture all of this to a tee.
My favourite Noir actor? It’s got to be Dick Powell. I think he suited these films perfectly. His appearance in these films also ensured he got a nice career change as he moved away from musicals and proved his dramatic acting ability. As much as I adore Bogie as Philip Marlowe, it is Dick Powell who I consider to be the best screen version of Raymond Chandler’s most famous private detective. Both the film Murder, My Sweet(1944) and Dick Powell’s performance in it are so underrated. I also love Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Charles McGraw, Dana Andrews.
My favourite Noir actress? Jean Peters, Marie Windsor and Barbara Stanwyck. They were perfect as tough and sultry dames. I also love Lana Turner,Jane Greer, Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth.
Do you love Noir too? Please share your thoughts below. What are your favourite Noir films? Who are your favourite Noir characters?
Happy Noirvember! 🕵️♀️