It all started with the hardboiled detective fiction which exploded onto the American popular culture way back in the roaring twenties, and which portrayed America's evolving urban landscape as vividly as the Western genre did the rural frontier.
The originators of this type of fiction -- notably James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler -- got their start writing serialized stories for the pulp magazines, then moved on to books and eventually screenwriting. And thus... film noir was born.
Several conventions most always hold with this genre: 1) events usually revolve around, or culminate in, the commission of a serious crime; 2) the line between good and evil is blurred to the extent that the cops may be corrupt and the bad guys quite human -- likewise, the heroine is rarely lily-white and virtuous. In fact, rather than supporting or deferring to her man, she may be actively working to undermine him; 3) the prevailing mood is one of distrust and malevolence, as motives and allegiances remain murky until the end of the film, if not beyond.
Beyond this, a film noir must always be in black and white (not much noir without it), and in the view of this purist, should take place in America, since it all began as a distinctively American form.
And in the hey-day of noir -- from the end of World War II through the mid-fifties -- what an America it was. After four years of bloody conflict, this country simultaneously confronted the reality of genocide in Europe, the advent of the Nuclear Age and the Cold War. A more sober view of reality set in, characterized by distrust and paranoia. This moment in our history seemed tailor-made for the distinctive moods and attitudes of film noir.
Yet since then, even as the national mood has brightened, the best of these noir entries have held up, perhaps because the dark side of our natures never really leaves us -- it just goes into remission. Treachery always fascinates in the end.
So many noir classics have entered the popular zeitgeist, from Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), to Otto Preminger's Laura, made the same year, to John Huston's indelible The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Yet lesser-known entries also abound that merit another look. Here are just a few of my personal favorites.
Kiss Of Death (1947) -- Pinched in a Manhattan jewelry heist, Joe Bianco (Victor Mature) faces a tough choice: He can rat out his accomplices to assistant DA D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) or spend 15 to 20 in the clink, far from his two young daughters. Joe loves his family, but he's no stool pigeon, and elects to do the time. But after a tragic event, he changes his mind and makes parole. Joe settles into a quiet, honest life with his new wife, until a vicious mobster he testified against, Tom Udo (Richard Widmark), is unexpectedly released, forcing him to meet the threat head-on. Scripted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, this taut gangster thriller is chilling and literate, with consummate performances by Mature (at his dour best as unwilling squealer Bianco) and co-stars Donlevy and a young Karl Malden. But the film is best remembered for launching the career of Richard Widmark, in the role of Udo, a sadistic criminal with a cackling, fearsome laugh. Hathaway handles the noir elements with expert attention to detail, including filming the stark action on-location in 1940s New York City.
Out Of The Past (1947) -- Private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is hired by high-ranking mobster Whit Sterling (a young Kirk Douglas), to find the crook's runaway mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Apparently, the young woman got into some serious mischief and ran off with $40,000. Tracking her South of the Border, Bailey meets and falls for Kathie's seductive charms, setting off a chain of events that drags him ever deeper into a world of lies, treachery, and betrayal. Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere, cynical dialogue, and a sizzling femme fatale, Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past is quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cemented his image as a laconic, heavy-lidded fatalist, while the white-hot Greer -- radiant as Kathie --executes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. All conspire to make this Past damn close to perfect. Remade to lesser effect as Against All Odds (1984), with Jeff Bridges.
Raw Deal (1948) -- Framed for a crime he didn't commit by mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), tough-talking gangster Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) breaks out of prison with the help of his gutsy gal, Pat (Claire Trevor). Needing a hostage in case the cops manage to track him down, Joe kidnaps his kindly social worker, Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), and sets off to seek revenge on Coyle and his men. This hard-as-nails potboiler was made for pennies at a Poverty Row studio by director Anthony Mann and his legendary cinematographer, John Alton. Like the very best films in this genre, there's plenty of raw dialogue, heart-fluttering suspense, and a square-jawed tough guy who isn't afraid to blast away at his nemeses. But the sizzling love triangle that develops between Joe, Pat, and Ann is a perversely clever plot twist that contributes much to the fatalistic tone, with Trevor's cold-hearted voiceover to top it all off. Burr's turn as the brutal Coyle (watch out for that fruit flambeé!) is especially nasty. If you're in the market for a visceral thriller, put your money on Raw Deal.
D.O.A (1950) -- Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) is an accountant who finally takes a long-overdue vacation to San Francisco to take stock of his life. Waking up feeling severely ill after a night on the town, he goes to the doctor only to learn he's ingested a lethal, slow-acting poison and has less than a week to live. Rather than wait to die, Bigelow resolves to retrace his steps in order to find his own murderer, and equally important, discover just why he was targeted in the first place. Cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Mate crafts an ingenious thriller whose premise originated in an early thirties feature in his native Germany. Told in flashback, this breathless film keeps us aware that Bigelow is working on a most unnerving deadline: his own approaching death. Character actor O'Brien anchors the film with a superb performance. Vivid location shooting also adds immediacy and period flavor. In all, D.O.A is one compact little noir that will never die. Avoid the Dennis Quaid re-do!
The Narrow Margin (1952) -- Tough-talking LA detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) arrives in Chicago to escort a cynical mobster's wife (Marie Windsor) to a California grand jury, where she plans to testify against her estranged husband. The mafia has other plans for Mrs. Neall -- namely, to rub her out. After his partner is gunned down leaving Neall's apartment, Brown is on high alert, and must outwit a team of gangsters who follow them onto a sleeper train but seem to have no idea what their female target looks like. A smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller set almost entirely on a West Coast-bound train, Richard Fleischer's Margin captivates thanks to its many sudden plot twists and ingenious central tension: Brown doesn't know which of the men on-board is a gangster, and the hit men don't know which of the female passengers to bump off. McGraw's gritty, hardboiled cop and Windsor's catty moll play off each other extremely well, and portly actor Paul Maxey adds a bit of mystique as an irritating, perhaps devious passenger. Snappy dialogue, crisp pacing, and even-handed direction keep Margin flying like a bullet. Infinitely better than the 1990 remake.
The Big Heat (1953) -- Scrupulous police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) decides to target slick mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague's suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana's men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion's wife, placing the enraged lawman on a single-minded path to bloody vengeance. This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft by German ex-pat Fritz Lang is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford's portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. Heat is particularly memorable for two other performances as well: a young, dark haired Lee Marvin as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whose face Stone cruelly disfigures -- with a cup of scalding hot coffee! Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, The Big Heat is one steamy ride.
Pick Up On South Street (1953) -- Small-time grifter and pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) gets more than he bargained for when he picks the purse of beautiful but naïve courier Candy (Jean Peters). It turns out the purse carries microfilm with top-secret information being sold to Communist spies. Soon Skip and Candy are emmeshed in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, involving the New York police, the feds, and the spies themselves. Question is, will the pair live long enough to explore their growing mutual attraction? Idiosyncratic director Sam Fuller's most successful film is prime noir with priceless tough guy patter emanating from the scummy Skip. Also featuring a sultry femme fatale turn from Peters. On-location shooting in lower Manhattan adds an authentic feel and the premise itself is a cut above most standard crime stories: beyond the espionage yarn, the audience yearns to know whether Skip, a man with no conscience, can develop one under extraordinary circumstances. Widmark is aces, as is Thelma Ritter playing Jo, a veteran stoolie.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) -- Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) seeks the killers of a blonde hitchhiker abducted from her car on a dark, isolated road, only to cross paths with a gangster (Paul Stewart) and a duplicitous scientist (Albert Dekker). The trail of mysteries eventually leads to the contents of a stolen box which Hammer's secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) describes as "The Great Whatsit." All bets are off as the film builds to its climax. Director Robert Aldrich comes close to noir perfection with Deadly, transferring the pulp flavor of Mickey Spillane's books directly to the screen. Meeker is ideally cast in the central role Spillane's battered hero, private eye Mike Hammer, who represents the true noir protagonist, devoid of pretension or romance. His fundamental concern is his own-and his client's-survival, and of course, there's plenty to be concerned about. Ahead of its time when released, Deadly is a tense, thrilling masterpiece of Cold War paranoia. (Film buffs: look fast for a dishy Cloris Leachman in her film debut.)
Let's face it -- there are plenty of films out there that make us hopeful about life and living. Film noir, by contrast, is a guilty pleasure where we witness the denizens of society's bottom rungs stamping on each other's feet for a higher, safer position.
After seeing one of these pictures, you may even feel slightly soiled. But then you can always take a long, hot bath.
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