Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff. It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation. What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic. 

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Grace Kelly

Here is the latest installment in our beginner’s guide to classic movies where we look to profile a Hollywood star by highlighting 4 of their films and getting sidetracked by a few others too good to pass up.

This week we’ll be talking about none other than Princess Grace of Monaco who willingly gave up her movie career in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier and become royalty. Here’s where to start!

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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There were plenty of early films worth noting including Fourteen Hours, High Noon, and Mogambo. But how could we not acknowledge this first Hitchcock pairing that has Grace Kelly fighting desperately for her life against a jealous husband (Ray Milland)!

Rear Window (1954)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Grace Kelly

The top tier of Hitchcock movies and it solidified Kelly and Hitch for the ages as one of the great movie partnerships. She is the quintessential “Icy Hitchcock Blonde,” cool and collected in one moment, beautiful and elegant, and yet impetuous as the stakes get higher. Despite their differences, Jimmy Stewart cannot help but fall in love with her.

The Country Girl (1954)

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Grace Kelly had so much poise and screen presence in all her films. But if there was ever a question of whether or not she was a “serious” actress, The Country Girl might as well dispel any doubts. She exudes a quiet dignity as she supports her husband (Bing Crosby), a soused up entertainer who unwittingly assassinates her reputation. They also starred together in the light-hearted musical High Society.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

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Grace Kelly and Cary Grant together are literally fireworks. The outfits are as extravagant as they are iconic. The interplay sizzles as the mystery mounts on the stunning French Riviera. A game of cat and mouse is afoot and both our leads are more than obliging in this lithe Hitchcock offering.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Cary Grant

It’s that time again to profile a classic Hollywood star by briefly looking at 4 of their films. Today’s centerpiece is Archibald Leach more commonly remembered as Cary Grant, the suave, debonair, screwball extraordinaire who groomed himself into one of Hollywood’s preeminent leading men.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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He’s rude and obnoxious and yet something about him makes it hard for Katharine Hepburn to say no to her old beau even as he tries to scandalize her latest marriage. The dynamics between Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are what you dream for with such a pairing. While you’re at it, Bringing Up Baby is a must.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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This is a true Cary Grant tour de force as he whizzes through the newsroom sparring with his old matrimonial partner in crime Rosalind Russell. Their verbal jousts are truly frenetic poetry, and the turbulence they churn up is some of the best conflict any screwball comedy was ever blessed with. The Awful Truth and The Favorite Wife with Irene Dunne are swell as well.

Notorious (1946)

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He’s always a bit of a debonair or lovable cad. In this one there’s no pretense. As the callous government agent Devlin, he makes Ingrid Bergman cry. This total revision of his persona is powerful, and it would lay the groundwork for one of the great Hitchcock movies. Not only that, their amorous kiss fest would slyly obliterate Hollywood convention.

North By Northwest (1959)

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What makes him so great in North By Northwest is how ordinary and amicable his Roger Thornhill is only to be thrown pell-mell into a cross-country murder plot. The advertising exec finds himself fleeing from the authorities and the perpetrators in this delightful man-on-the-run pulse-pounder.

Worth Watching:

Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Suspicion, Talk of The Town, The Bishop’s Wife, People Will Talk, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, Charade, and many more!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Audrey Hepburn

I wanted to continue with my series of classic movie beginner’s guides. The idea is to make learning about old movies more manageable by providing bite-sized chunks to watch. In other words, 4 films to begin with.

Here’s our latest list on Audrey Hepburn, one of the most beloved and widely-photographed figures of all time.

Roman Holiday (1953)

She came onto the scene as a radiant princess. Literally. Her Cinderella-like romance with Gregory Peck through the streets of Rome is one of the great cinematic fairy tales of all-time. Understandably, it netted her acclaim and made her an instant Hollywood star. She’s just too adorable not to love.

Sabrina (1954)

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Not a bad follow up to land a movie with director Billy Wilder and two big stars in William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. Audrey more than holds her own with her waifish elegance and fitted with a wardrobe newly-acquired from Givenchy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Parts of this movie certainly haven’t aged well (Mickey Rooney ahem!), but there’s also so much that’s enheartening about this classic romantic comedy. It’s one of Audrey’s finest and most vulnerable performances stretching her innumerable talents. Those opening shots are magic. Moon River is for the ages.

Charade (1963)

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I could have picked a handful of other movies that you should also watch, but this one is just too fun not to mention. Audrey and Cary Grant together are obviously delightful. It’s also in the public domain too so no excuses for not getting around to watching it someday.

Worth Watching:

Funny Face, A Nun’s Story, My Fair Lady, How to Steal a Million, Two For The Road, Wait Until Dark, They All Laughed (and everything else if you love Audrey)

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

This series is meant to help fledgling classic movie fans grab hold of a few titles they should watch. Instead of trying to be comprehensive, I want to try and make the discovery manageable with only 4 films.

Let’s begin with one of the most universally beloved directors of all time, “The Master of Suspense” himself: Alfred Hitchcock.

He began his career in silent film and made a name himself with a bunch of early British thrillers in the 1930s. After transitioning to Hollywood in 1940, his career took off and by the 1950s he was one of the most widely-known directors in the world.

Here are a few films to get you started!

Notorious (1946)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

It kills me to leave off so much early Hitchcock. The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt. You should go watch them all. But Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, is arguably one of his finest romantic thrillers. It’s masterful.

Rear Window (1954)

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I know, I know. It’s quite a big jump but this is also the quintessential Hitchcock movie (at least in my humble opinion). James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Limited space and a harrowing murder plot. This film is a textbook example of how to create tension. There’s so much here worth talking about. I’ll leave it at that.

If you like it, check out Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much remake (with Stewart) and Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief (with Kelly).

North By Northwest (1959)

It didn’t earn its nickname as the most epic man-on-the-run Hitchcock movie for nothing. Between crop dusters and Mt. Rushmore, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, this one is an absolute blast of thrilling exhilaration. For bonus points, see how it reworks themes of Hitch’s earlier masterwork The 39 Steps.

Psycho (1960)

Here we are. The one everyone will forever associate with Hitchcock and showers everywhere. And Norman Bates. And his mother. Anyway, it’s another technical masterpiece in manipulation. It rewrote the books on modern horror and still packs a psychotic punch. Pun intended.

Worth Watching:

Let’s make this easy and say all of them. And for the record, I realize I left out Vertigo. Go watch it.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Gregory Peck

We want to try something a bit different at 4 Star Films. Most of what we put out are film reviews. As the years have gone by, they’ve gotten quite hefty. Frankly, they’re what I get the most joy out of writing.

But I thought it would be a welcomed addition to help other nascent film fans out with some Beginner’s Guides to introduce Classic Hollywood actors, directors, etc.

We will introduce 4 films that we enjoyed (both big and small) while referencing others throughout. Hopefully, this combination of titles will provide ample rabbit holes to jump down and be on your way. This week our topic is none other than Gregory Peck!

Keys to The Kingdom (1944)

Gregory Peck was a founding member of The La Jolla Playhouse but he took his stage acting to Hollywood and quickly became a formidable new leading man. Some of his early performances in the likes of Spellbound, Valley of Decision, and The Yearling show the breadth of his talent and the candor that would make him a star for decades. Keys to The Kingdom uses him quite well as a missionary to China who strives to live out a life of loving his neighbor in a world straining with discord.

The Gunfighter (1950)

Due to his commanding presence and imposing voice, Gregory Peck fashioned himself into quite the western hero in his own right. He could play heroes (The Big Country), he could play villains (Duel in the Sun, Yellow Sky), and he could ride somewhere in-between (The Bravados). However, he arguably had no better opportunity than his performance as a jaded gunfighter turned into a sideshow attraction.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Yes, it made Audrey Hepburn a star. Yes, it’s a quintessential romantic comedy. Yes, Rome has never looked better but Gregory Peck also made a valiant go at comedy and did quite well thanks to the chemistry with Hepburn and Eddie Albert. Designing Woman (with Lauren Bacall) nor Arabesque (with Sophia Loren) were quite as spectacular, but the star power is still worth coming out for.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

If there’s one synonymous role for Peck, it’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’m pretty sure he’d be proud to acknowledge it as one of his finest achievements of integrity. Times have changed. Perceptions of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s narrative are more complicated, but Peck’s performance cannot be understated. The rapport he built with the likes of Mary Badham is undeniable.

Worth Watching:

Twelve O’Clock High, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Moby Dick, On The Beach, Pork Chop Hill, Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, Mirage, etc.