Walking Down The Dark Alleys Of Film Noir

Happy Noirvember. Yes it’s that time of year again where we 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, double-crosses, sexual tension, Femme and Homme Fatales and plenty of darkness and danger.  

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart engage in a little back and forth innuendo in The Big Sleep(1946)

My first time venturing into the dark alleys of Film Noir was when I watched The Big Sleep(1946). I loved Bogie and Bacall’s performances and the mind bogglingly 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 IndemnityThe Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet(1944) quickly followed and I’ve been hooked 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),Daybreak(1948),The Long Memory(1953), Le Jour Se Leve(1939), T-Men(1947), Cry Of The City(1948).

If pressed to choose just one film genre as my all time favourite, I would certainly have to go with Film Noir now. Why is this genre(yes, I do indeed consider it a genre rather than a style) such a favourite of mine? Because it changed cinema. It 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 extremely sexy, all without actually showing nudity or sex scenes. The films also featured some very psychologically complex and fascinating male and female characters.

These films reflect the truth of humanity back to those of us sitting in the audience. Film Noir reminds us that we all have good and bad within us, that we’re all complicated in some way and that we all do what we have to do to survive and get by in life. 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 were now much more aware of the dark side of humanity, and everyone in some way had been affected by the war.

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 the arrival of Nuclear weapons. Few films captured this era better than Kiss Me Deadly(1955)which is the wildest and one of the darkest Noir films you’ll ever see.

Another thing I love about Noir is that’s not just one thing there are so many different subgenres of it. For example there is Documentary Noir – true crime stories often inspired by the heroic actions of Police and Government Agencies, which include films like T-Men and Call Northside 777.Noir films weren’t all crime thrillers set in the big city either, there were also those that become known as Western Noir.

These films at first glance are your typical Westerns, but on closer inspection you can see that they have characters and plots which fit the established tropes found in traditional Noir films, such as 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 as the manipulative Connie Dickason; 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.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Ramrod(1947)

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 over the years 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 found in the whole genre. Due to the films message it was banned by the Vichy government during WW2. RKO Studios acquired the distribution rights to the film in the 1940’s and attempted to buy up every copy in order to destroy them so they could they remake it as The Long Night(1947), for many years it was feared the film had been lost, until copies were thankfully discovered in the 1950’s.

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, from which Noir directors and cinematographers found their influence. Darkness is everywhere in Film Noir, it clings to all of 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. 

A major and memorable part of a Noir film is the Femme Fatale. As a woman I love that these films offered such juicy roles for actresses 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 and complex roles. The femme fatales are clever, 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 recent years, really need to go back and watch Noir, Pre-Code and Silent films to see that just isn’t the case at all. 

Rita Hayworth as Elsa in Lady From Shanghai

Noir women are not content to just stay at home cooking in the kitchen and looking nice for their men. They do their own thing. Some become equal partners to men, while others go out and 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;Elsa(Rita Hayworth) in The Lady From Shangahi; and Peggy Cummins as Laurie, truly one of the most memorable Noir women, in Gun Crazy. 

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 in Noir actresses film credits, you’ll often find that their Noir characters are the most memorable and interesting roles of their entire career.Mention Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Lauren 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’s their Noir films such as Double IndemnityLeave Her To Heaven,The Big Sleep, Out Of The Past, The Narrow Margin, Gun Crazy and The Postman Always Rings Twice respectively.

As well as the villainesses, Noir also features many memorable heroines too. These are also strong, clever and independent gals who will happily get mixed up in danger and prove to the cynical men in their lives that not all women are Femme Fatales and can also be just as capable as men. 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.

Jean Peters and Richard Widmark in Pickup On South Street(1953)

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 chemistry between Widmark and Peters is wild!

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 face during 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. 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 they 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. 

Gloria Grahame as Debby and Glenn Ford as Detective Bannion in The Big Heat(1953)

Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark, Dick Powell, Glenn Ford 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 scenes and dialogue that make me sit up and wonder if I’ve really just seen or heard what I have. These films are often violent without graphically depicting violent acts, as most of what we see is implied, but the violence still packs a punch for the viewer. There is also dialogue and 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 in the 21st century is a credit to all involved in putting these films together. 

When you mention Film Noir, I will bet that most people automatically think of 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, filled with an intensity found in few others, while the second screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice was the brilliant Italian Noir Ossessione(1943).  

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune as the detectives in Stray Dog(1949)

There are also many Noir treasures to be found in British cinema – such as The Long Memory, They Made Me A Fugitive, The Third Man, The October Man, Night And The City, I Met A Murderer(1939),Odd Man Out, Cast A Dark Shadow and Brighton Rock. One of my favourite hidden gems 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.

Googie Withers and John McCallum in It Always Rains On Sunday(1947)

Film Noir slowly began to wind down towards the end of the 1950’s, but it enjoyed a revival known as Neo-Noir in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown(1974)and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye(1973)are two key early examples of Neo-Noir. One of the most memorable of these later films is the sexually explicit Body Heat(1981). In this film Kathleen Turner plays Mattie, a 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. 

Kathleen Turner as Mattie in Body Heat(1981)

A groundbreaking Neo-Noir, and one of my favourites, is Carl Franklin’s Devil In A Blue Dress(1995).It’s based on the novels by Walter Mosley. Set in the 1940’s, the film follows Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins(Denzel Washington),an African-American WW2 veteran living in the suburbs who turns private detective after being asked to help find a missing woman. Watching this makes me mourn for all of the classic era Noir films that we could and should have had with predominantly Black casts. Think of the roles that the likes of Theresa Harris, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge or Harry Belafonte could have had!

Denzel Washington as “Easy” Rawlins in Devil In A Blue Dress(1995)

In more recent years Noir films such as Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, Femme Fatale, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, LA Confidential and To Live And Die In L.A. have come along. It’s clear filmmakers and audiences still have a taste for Film Noir. Hopefully people who like these modern takes on the genre will go and check out Noir films from the 1940’s and 1950’s. It would be a real shame if they didn’t because they will be missing out on so many superb films and performances.

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, and 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, Rita Hayworth and Lizabeth Scott.

Why do you love Film Noir?


5 thoughts on “Walking Down The Dark Alleys Of Film Noir

  1. A wonderful tribute – and love letter – to film noir. You cited many of the reasons I love it, too. You’ve also reminded me of some films I haven’t seen in a while, and now I’m anxious to re-watch ’em.

    Liked by 1 person

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