Film noir; not only is it cool, it sounds cool. I think it is the genre that best marries style and realism. The films use impossible angles, angular shadows and compressed character studies to portray a hardbitten, hardscrabble but honest existence which can peel back to reveal paranoid versions of reality which will suckerpunch you if you step out of sunny main street and into the dark alley.
Any genre carries the message in the style but noir still seems to stand out in that respect. In the others, its more implicit. In noir, its all out there. The film maker is saying “watch this!” and what they are demonstrating is the real heart of film, what sets it apart. All mediums tell a story but in film noir, we go back to the image. Noir does have narrative conventions which I wrote more about when I was ranting on about the film Brick but its the visuals that really sing.
Above is a great shot from Man Who Wasn’t There. Billy Bob Thornton stands and smokes one of the million cigarettes he smokes in the film. He seems to be waiting for his featureless life to be over, and even the excitement that interrupts this stasis, doesn’t really seem to change anything. He is a man just waiting for this nonsense to be over. Kind of brings to mind John Ridley’s great title Everybody Smokes in Hell.
If I had to whittle it down to a few favourites I would have to start with Double Indemnity in 1944 with Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck batting lines back and forth like fiercely competitive tennis players as they cat and mouse each other all the way though their meticulously planned imperfect murder. My memory of this film, (I really need to get a copy of this), is more of the performances and dialogue than it is of the visuals.
A film that is over the top in every respect, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly from the Mickey Spillane book is shocking even now in many ways. Its style on speed, overblown stereotypical characters, leering, brutal, and smug. The violence though lacking the spouts of blood that passes for expression these days, is scary; Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer is sadistic when he’s let off the leash.
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958)is one of the sweatiest films of all time with corruption oozing out of every frame and every shot worth freezing. You can watch this film with the sound off. Even in black and white, every scene seems hot and damp.
In a different realm, a noir military cold war thriller, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Love the Bomb (1964) shows off Kubrick’s noir beginnings and his background in magazine photography. Also one of the funniest films ever. And this is the film that puts the lie to the false observation that Kubrick could not direct actors. This has some of the best performances from Peter Sellers (playing three roles), Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens as the cowpokin’ roughridin’ bomber pilot (you can take Slim out of westerns, but you cannot take the westerns out of Slim), George C Scott (incomparable really) and a host of others.
Big Sleep (1978) just because Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling do such a fine job of the hard boiled style. Its the noir equivelant of curling up with a cup of tea on a cold day, cozy because you know where its all going.
Steve Martin as the private dick, Rigby Reardon, sends it all up in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). Classic noir scenes are intercut beautifully into what I think is his best film. You have to imagine his dead straightpan delivery when he answers a fathers’ demand of “Don’t go near my daughter again. Don’t try to see her. Don’t write her and don’t phone her.” with “Can I use her underwear to make soup?“. And the following interchange shows how the film veers between its own narrative and an open eyed knowledge of the original films the clips come from:
Charles Laughton: We know who you are, Mr Rigby.
Rigby Reardon: So? I’m interested, who am I?
Charles Laughton: You could be a guy that collects 10,000 dollars, just to leave this stinking town.
Rigby Reardon: I could, could I?
Charles Laughton: And you know who I could be?
Rigby Reardon: Hunchback of Notre-Dame?
Charles Laughton: I could be the guy who hands you them 10,000 dollars. 10,000 dollars, me to you, just like that.
Rigby Reardon: Sorry, but my price for leaving stinking towns is 11,500 and a kiss on the lips from Carmen Miranda.
And to round up this cursory list: After Dark My Sweet (1990): Jason Patric’s first really good performance and also to represent the great noir scribe Jim Thompson, Last Seduction (1994): for Linda Fiorentino for whom cold hearted bitch would be a step up, UTurn (1997): for the sexiest and most unscrupulous femme fatale and best red dress in a noir ever, courtesy of Jennifer Lopez, and one of the most arresting full colour noir films; Oliver Stone at the top of his game, the aforementioned Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and also Brick (2005).
It would be easy to run off a hundred worthy noirs, they’ve been the flavour of the decade it seems but this is a start. Next noir posting will be about writers.