Here are a few of my favorites of this genre of film.
Film noir is a frequently misunderstood film style. It overlaps crime, detective and action genres, but doesn’t encompass them. Typical film noir films were so called B pictures. Shown alongside bigger name productions during their runs in theaters. Occasionally a major production like Leave Her To Heaven, The Big Sleep or Casablanca is included in the genre due to style similarities.
Film noir is characterized mostly by its atmosphere. Frequently (but not always) shot in black and white. The cinematography style often borrows heavily from the German Expressionist movement of the early 20th century and emphasizes contrasts of light and shadow. Lighting effects and camera angles frequently emphasize the seedy nature of the plot.
Villains are often shot cloaked in shadow, or from unusual camera angles to emphasize their alienation from normal society. The film noir style complements the stories which frequently feature protagonists on the shady side of society, if not outright criminal. The characters often make these films, even more than the story and atmosphere. Although most film noir movies are shot in black and white. There are a few standouts such as Leave Her To Heaven, Bladerunner and Chinatown, shot in glorious technicolor.
The characters are very different than the typical types of the classic Hollywood era. They are often shady, if not outright criminal, usually committing a variety of misdemeanors and outright felonies through their stories. Private investigators, drug smugglers, racketeers, mobsters and murderers abound. Most would not be out of place in a police mugshot book. Sometimes the story follows criminals planning their big caper. Other times it’s an intrepid but morally flawed private investigator as in the Maltese falcon. These characters feel much more like flesh and blood people especially when compared to the squeaky clean types favored by Hollywood at the time. While anti-heroes are almost clichéd now, they were a bold stylistic choice in the more restrictive classic Hollywood era.
Another stylistic hallmark of film noir is that actresses were given much more varied roles than in other film genres. Far from the squeaky clean types in A-list productions. Film noir leading ladies were often able to explore as wide a range of character types as the actors. Far from being eye candy or supporting characters. These ladies play femme fatales, gun molls, lethal criminals, intrepid investigators, con artists and tragic lovers that are often more interesting than the male performers.
This is by no means a complete list, the film noir genre covers a good portion of 20th century concerns and continues into this decade. These films are mostly from the 40’s and 50’s considered by many to be the golden age of the genre. I consider these films to be some of my personal favorites and are a good start for anyone who wants to investigate this fascinating genre of film.
The movie that marked Humphrey Bogart’s leap from the ranks of B movie villains, to the tragic hero/tough guy roles he is more known for today. He stars as Roy, a professional thief just out of prison planning a big caper with an inexperienced crew. Also starring the formidable English actress, Ida Lupino, in a powerful role as Marie, the love interest of the doomed criminal. This film has all of the elements of a great film noir tragedy and the ending is one of the most spectacular and iconic of the genre.
The Big Sleep
For many people this is the quintessential film noir. Loosely adapted from the great Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name. It follow Bogart as Phillip Marlowe, who along with Hammet’s Sam Spade, defines the Private Investigator character type for most people.
This film has more twists and turns than a city sewer system and shows the dark, seedy underbelly of the rich and famous in Los Angeles. Also starring screen great Lauren Bacall in a steamy role as Vivian Rutledge, a widow with a dark past. The on-screen chemistry between the two is positively electric throughout the movie and serves to drive the movie, especially in the second half.
The Glass Key
A film with much less exposure than the previous two. A story of greed and corruption in big time politics. The story could be from today’s news. A win at any cost political operative tries to cover up a nasty murder that threatens to derail the election chances of his boss and is dragged down into a vicious street fight between reform politicians, gangsters and the press. By the end, the lines between good and evil are so thoroughly muddled that no one comes out of the mess intact.
Starring great screen pair Alan Ladd and Veronika Lake. Also starring Brian Donlevy as likeable tough guy gone straight and narrow politician Paul Madvig and William Bendix, in a truly epic role as heavy “Jeff”, who easily has the best lines in the film. Ladd, Lake and Bendix would also star together in another film noir classic “The Blue Dahlia”, a few years later.
A haunting love story as well as a thoroughly entertaining film with some of the snappiest dialog you’ll ever hear. Based on a book by Vera Caspary. Starring movie tough guy, Dana Andrews, as a detective who investigates the murder of a beautiful model and begins to fall in love with her memory. Gene Tierney plays the before mentioned model, a woman who’s kindness, beauty and grace drive men to all kinds of evil deeds to possess her. This is one of her signature performances. Watch for Clifton Webb who puts in a spectacular performance as the viciously catty and dangerously perceptive journalist, Waldo Lydecker. While some consider this movie to be a lightweight and more love story than film noir. In my opinion, Laura’s dark tone and flawed characters make it a truly great movie and well worth your time. The plot twists and final scene are a must see.
A real doozy of a film, directed by Billy Wilder and screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as lovers plotting to murder her husband to collect on his “double indemnity” insurance policy. MacMurray’s bumbling insurance agent doesn’t stand a chance against the wiles of Stanwyck in a truly vicious performance as the manipulative wife using everyone around her to get what she wants. Also starring the great gangster movie actor Edward G. Robinson in a bit of a reversal of his typical roles. He plays a dogged actuarial specialist who picks up a whiff of rot in the whole deal and relentlessly pursues the lovers.