Film Noir: The Underside of Classic Cinema

'How can you watch those old movies?' Film buffs get this from family, friends, and co-workers, but we're mesmerized by the entertainment that our grandparents and great-grandparents enjoyed. Happily, there are films from 60, 70, and 80 years ago that have retained their appeal for a mass contemporary audience. Among them, we have Buster Keaton's masterworks, Laurel and Hardy, Frank Capra's populist comedies, Universal's horror classics, and the cycle of stylish crime dramas from the 40s and 50s that we know as film noir. Noir is both prototypical of its era and contemporary with modern tastes.

It can also be elusive. Warners' gangster films of the 30s share some themes and production elements with 40s noir, but they are not true noir. Or consider The Maltese Falcon, which was filmed in 1931, remade as Satan Met a Lady in 1936, then under its original title in 1941. All these films are based on Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel, but only the 1941 version is a noir, and in fact, one of the purest examples of noir. Noir classics such as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) are psychodramas without any professional criminals among the characters, yet both fit the definition. So what is noir? There are themes in the screenplays and stylistic elements in the photography that create this genre.

Film noir centers on corruption. While most noirs show one or several characters dispatched by pistol shots, these films explore motivation and obsession to a degree unmatched by earlier crime films. The villains reek of greed, depravity, and sadism. Audiences were jolted when Richard Widmark tossed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs in Kiss of Death (1947). It was a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, which, in light of the character's viciousness, is extraordinary. Some of Hollywood's old guard despised these films. Louis B. Mayer, distressed that MGM was releasing The Asphalt Jungle (1950), described it as 'full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things.'

Noir is cynical. It plays out in an urban landscape where money corrupts the working class, the bourgeois, the professionals, and even law enforcement. Women can be provocateurs, sirens, thieves, and killers. Bette Davis had played dangerous females in half a dozen films in her rise to stardom, but her characters didn't reach the moral nadir of a noir protagonist like the woman Barbara Stanwyck portrayed in Double Indemnity (1944). As the bored trophy wife, Phyllis, she progresses from seduction and adultery with her insurance agent boyfriend (Fred MacMurray) to a string of horrible crimes by the picture's end.

Stanwyck & MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Fate and hubris bring down the characters in noir. Sometimes the titles telll us that a heavy door will slam in their faces: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Too Late for Tears (1949), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950). Humor in these films ranges from sardonic to jet black. Humphrey Bogart scores a solid laugh in The Maltese Falcon as he snarls at Elisha Cook Jr.'s rodent-like gunsel, 'When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!'

Cinematographers gave noir its visual signature. The low-key lighting and use of shadow owe a debt to German expressionist cinema. Michael Curtiz and Billy Wilder worked in the German film industry in their early careers, and both made masterful noirs in Hollywoood. Noir abounds in faces half hidden in shadow, foggy piers, keylit jewels and revolvers, windows and walls tracklined by headlights or raindrop shadows. Noir sets were not complete without mirrors to create a frame within a frame to isolate the faces of villains and victims. This reached its apex in Orson Welles' audacious hall of mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Noir photography's biggest cliche is the Venetian blind which throws symbolic prison stripes on a doomed character.

Criticism of noir reached full expression in synchronism with the auteur theory, because noir shows what the auteur critics believed, that directors could use production design to imprint theme and personality into a cycle of films. The golden age of noir is often said to start with Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and to end with Orson Welles' baroque Touch of Evil (1958). In the intervening years there were several hundred major and minor noirs. Here are some of the acknowledged classics:
1940: Stranger on the Third Floor

1941: The Shanghai Gesture, The Maltese Falcon, Ladies in Retirement

1942: The Glass Key, This Gun for Hire

1943: Shadow of a Doubt

1944: Phantom Lady, The Woman in the Window, Laura, Gaslight, Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity

1945: Mildred Pierce

1946: Lady in the Lake, Gilda, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia, The Stranger, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Lady from Shanghai

1947: Crossfire, Boomerang!, The Unsuspected, Nightmare Alley, Out of the Past, Kiss of Death

1948: The Big Clock, The Naked City, He Walked by Night, Sorry, Wrong Number, So Evil My Love, Force of Evil

1949: Gun Crazy, White Heat

1950: Sunset Boulevard, The Asphalt Jungle, Panic in the Streets

1951: Strangers on a Train

1952: The Narrow Margin

1953: The Big Heat, Pickup on South Street

1955: The Night of the Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly

1956: The Killing

1958: Touch of Evil
The better noirs are brash and unsentimental. They were startling in their day and can hold a general audience today. The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the earliest and most fully articulated noirs, gets the look, attitude, and thematic obsessions down. Falcon was John Huston's brilliant debut as director, and the first film to utilize Bogart in the full range of his powers, giving a groundbreaking performance that mixed sardonic intelligence and virile charm. He plays Sam Spade, a private eye who squares off with four villains (Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr.), all of whom are willing to commit murder in the quest for the fabulous black bird.

Audiences in 1941 were in for quite a ride. First, Huston kept the story popping at a frantic pace. In the opening minutes we see Spade, his partner, and Astor as a shady client, and then the murder that sets the plot in motion. Huston's Oscar-nominated script gave choice lines to a cast packed with scene-stealers. There was Greenstreet as Casper Gutman chortling, 'I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.' And what did the original audience make of Bogart's complaint that the cops were 'crackin' foxy' with him? It must have sounded like bebop slang. While Falcon has explicit on-screen violence (we see one character take a kick to the head while lying unconscious on the floor), it has a gratifying mix of humor and suspense. Lorre is a fop, constantly flying into hysterics; Astor gets tied up in lie after lie, which Bogart takes apart with nonchalance; and even psychopathic Cook is comic as a wanna-be tough guy, trying to out-Bogart Bogart.

Bogart & Cook, Jr. in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart was the perfect film noir star. His Spade is an antihero, as cynical as the villains and manipulative toward the three female characters played by Mary Astor, Gladys George, and Lee Patrick. Ten years after Bogart's death, there was a revival of his films on college campuses, followed by a general revival of interest in noir. Neo-noir films would follow, Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), and others. Book like Danny Peary's Cult Movies (1981) celebrated the more obscure noirs of the classic era, and there was a rediscovery of 'B' noirs that had been forgotten since their initial runs. Director Edgar G. Ulmer, who did most of his work for Poverty Row companies, was recognized for Bluebeard (1944), Ruthless (1948), and especially Detour (1945). Film buffs heard of the seldom-seen Gun Crazy (1949), and when it was finally seen on video, it turned out to be a nervy take on the Bonnie and Clyde story (though with different names and settings.)

Low budgets will doom musicals and war stories, but they don't always detract from noirs. The best of the low budget indie noirs (1946’s Decoy is another well-regarded example) are compact and brutal, sparse in their telling, and often naturalistic. Gun Crazy's most famous sequence is a long, single-shot take of a robbery and getaway, filmed with natural light in the criminals' car. Gun Crazy's Peggy Cummins and Detour's Ann Savage are two of the most sordid females in all noir. These low-budget films had taken the dangerous woman theme as far as it could go.

Three more noirs that deserve another look:

To the Ends of the Earth (1948): T-man Dick Powell pursues heroin traffickers around the globe. This film turned up frequently on local TV in the 60s and 70s, but hasn't been seen much since. In its day, it required special clearances from the Breen office, because it depicts the Asian poppy harvest and drug production. It is filled with shady, menacing characters, and the story's final irony is not to be missed. (This film is currently out of print.)

Try and Get Me! (1950, aka The Sound of Fury): An underrated and rare crime thriller based on a 1933 kidnap-murder case in San Jose. Unemployed Frank Lovejoy falls under the spell of natty holdup man Lloyd Bridges, who proves to be capable of psychopathic violence. We see how poverty brings one man to commit a crime, while the other is driven by antisocial egotism. The low budget dictated using real neighborhoods and natural light, which heightens the power of this wrenching film. Unhappily, Try and Get Me! has been out of print since a brief release on VHS in the early 90s. A collector's copy on disc shows up occasionally at memorabilia shows.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950): James Cagney's followup to White Heat. It doesn't have the scope or impact of White Heat, but, taken on its own, it has some delectable thrills. Cagney is again persuasive as a heavy who will annihilate anyone who crosses him. He encounters two corrupt police officials (Ward Bond and Barton MacLane) and uses a debauched lawyer (Luther Adler) to blackmail them. Add a dangerous female (Barbara Payton) and the plot tightens up. Payton in real life would have an ending as grim as anything dished up in the noirs; her 2006 biography by John O'Dowd uses this film's title.

Film noir is a self-contained world with enough classics, near-classics, and guilty pleasures to give buffs an opportunity for extended exploration. It is a counterbalance to The Bells of St. Mary's, and it tells us that in the long-ago studio era there were masters of comedy, romance, and escapism, but also artists of anxiety, strangely eager to intrigue us with their visions of life's back alleys.