As you may have determined by now, we are BIG fans of Film Noir. So this week we’re going to forego our usual Quiz and discuss a few of our favorite films and stars of that genre.
In discussing our favorites, we often casually drop a reference to this unique genre of movies without necessarily considering that this general designation might leave some of our readers scratching their heads.
What exactly is “film noir” and why is it so called?
To put it succinctly and perhaps oversimplifying, we can say that ‘film noir’ refers to the lengthy string of post World War II Hollywood movies — generally low to medium-budget police procedurals and crime thrillers designed to fill out bottom of the bills at the sprawling theatrical holdings of the studios.
Plots frequently turn on deadly violence or sexual obsession, whose cataloque of characters includes numbers of down-and-out private eyes, desperate women and petty criminals, write Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, co-editors of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (THE OVERLOOK PRESS, Woodstock, New York), an indispensable and comprehensive guide.
Turner Classic Movies TV host and author Eddie Muller puts it more poetically in his excellent 1998 volume, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.
Film Noirs were distress flares launched into America’s movie screens by artists working the night shift at the Dream Factory…(They were) gritty, bitter dramas that slapped our romantic illusions in the face and put the boot to the throat the smug bourgeoisie. Still, plenty of us took it — and liked it.
All this suited the depressingly grim postwar mood in Europe, particularly in France, where American movies largely overlooked in the U.S. — most notably by the folks who give out the Oscars each year — were hailed and extolled by French critics. Silver and Ward note that the actual term ‘film noir” was coined in 1946 by a French scribe by the name of Nino Frank. It” literally means “black” or “dark” film — you get the idea.
The darkness not only refers to the subject matter, but also what you actually see onscreen. Influences by European expressionism, Hollywood cinematographers devised extraordinary mood pieces reflecting subject matter by the interplay of light and stygian darkness. Often done on shoestring budgets.
Another inviting (to us) aspect of film noir is the strength of its female characters, its gritty urban settings and the frequently forceful performances drawn from its usually uncelebrated actors and actresses. Some of Hollywood best character performers did their best work in ‘film noir.’
The movies came in protean shapes. 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, say, has an entirely different feel from 1948’s T-Men, with Dennis O’Keefe and Wallace Ford (being murderously parboiled in a steam room).
1941’s Maltese Falcon — the ‘noir’ gold standard — with Humphrey Bogart typifies the hard-to-fully-follow plots of the occasional noir but like most remains immensely enjoyable no matter how times seen. In the same category is another must-see, 1944’s Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell and, certainly, the 1947 classic, Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum. Also added to the confused plot list with the international twist is Orson Welles’ 1955 thriller Mr. Arkadin.
Obviously we are only skimming the surface here. In ensuing blogs we’ll discuss some of our lesser known noir favorites. And, we’ll sing the praises of key actors and actresses we especially like. Stay tuned.