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.

Whirlpool (1949)

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Despite being ludicrously absurd, it’s impossible not to get whisked away by the swirling cauldron of psychological drama found in Whirlpool. Otto Preminger adds yet another perplexing noir to his filmography and it seems reasonable that Whirlpool along with The Fallen Angel (1945) and Angel Face (1953) deserve more recognition though, it’s true his debut, Laura (1944) will forever be the benchmark.

But these three films share such fascinating themes beyond beautiful photography and quality staging. They find roots in some odd bits of quack chicanery like fortune tellers and astrologers while interesting themselves in psychologically unstable women and male confidence men who like nothing more than taking advantage of others.

Whereas Laura (1944) works exquisitely because the title character casts a spell on everyone else, Whirlpool functions in part because our protagonist falls under another man’s spell. But it takes something else, something in her past that he can prey on and exploit.

You see, in the opening moments of the film we find out something about Gene Tierney’s character. She’s a kleptomaniac which in itself is a fairly startling albeit intriguing revelation. And we don’t see it occur just the aftermath that follows. But here is a dilemma already. Her husband (Richard Conte) is a renowned psychoanalyst. How would it look if his wife was found shoplifting from a reputable establishment? The house detective catches her. The manager is looking to bring in the police. The wheels of justice are turning and scandal looks all but inevitable.

Then, in walks David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) a man with a certain magnetism that still makes him a tad unsettling. In fact, it’s pretty easy to assume he has ulterior motives. Because he so easily smooths things out for Mrs. Sutton so she is, to a certain extent, indebted to him. Something like that can quickly turn into a splendid opportunity for blackmail. Except the check comes and he rips it up so from thenceforward it’s a little more difficult to discern his intentions and it proves to be a wonderfully enigmatic performance from Ferrer start to finish.

It’s true. He is a charlatan. He’s preoccupied with astrology and then hypnotism which he uses on his new “patient” supposedly for her own good. But he’s had other women who have called on his services before. In fact, one of them has now sought help from Mrs. Sutton’s husband. Because Korvo had made her life miserable coaxing her to withdraw her daughter’s inheritance and leeching her happiness. Soon Theresa Randolph is found dead with Ann at the scene of the crime — the prime suspect.

By this time, you almost forget that Charles Bickford is in the film because the bewitched Tierney and stolid-faced Ferrer steal the show. But it is Lt. Colton (Bickford) who must get to the bottom of this whole twisted affair. He and Dr. Sutton are quick to write off the poor woman with a closeted kleptomania hidden under the cloak of a respectable suburban housewife. However, after hitting the beat, they know it stinks to high heaven but there’s no proof.

What can be said of Ben Hecht’s script is the very fact that it relies on unbelievable occurrences in both its beginning and ending. But in this very reality, there’s a certain continuity where the psychologically dubious extrapolations become the new normal. That in itself is unsettling.

It’s notable that when he has multiple figures Preminger never seems content to be stagnant, instead constantly utilizing close-ups and see-sawing camera movements that readily change the dynamics of scenes. The climactic moments proving a prime example.

The power struggle dictates itself in other ways too, namely in the physical staging of characters. Ferrer hanging over Tierney as he begins to hypnotize her. Bickford questioning Ferrer who himself looks so vulnerable lying in his hospital bed. But even that composition in itself is at times a put on as we soon find out. However, it’s phenomenal that the very projections up on the screen are indicative of what is going on with the film’s main point of conflict. This quality we can safely assume can be attributed to Preminger himself. He has an intuitive understanding of cinematic space and how to utilize it to his greatest advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

The Big Combo (1955)

b456e-bigcombo1There is so much to the plot of The Big Combo, but the irony is that the story is not altogether extraordinary. Instead, highlights include David Raksin’s (Laura) jazzy score infused with brass which is somewhat unusual for the genre. Cinematographer John Alton also helped in making this film visually and stylistically engaging. There are some crazy, overstated shadows making this undeniably film-noir. There are very few better examples of so-called “dark” cinema with prototypical chiaroscuro and low key lighting.

Honestly, I have never been a huge fan of Cornel Wilde, and I can understand why he is not that popular or well known. He’s relatively beady-eyed, not particularly good looking, and his voice is not altogether memorable. Like Mr. Brown said in the film, “It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop.” Even Dick Powell has some wit but Wilde’s character is straitlaced and steady. There’s nothing of much repute about him. But enough about Wilde.

The story is your somewhat typical procedural with a righteous cop facing off against a big time mobster. Mr. Brown is practically untouchable with a large pool of money at his disposal and a group of faithful thugs ready to do his bidding. He has a girl, Susan Lowell, who is about fed up with him, but she sticks around.

Lt. Diamond (Wilde) is totally fed up with the corruption but himself is also infatuated with Lowell. His only lead is the name “Alicia” which leads to trouble with Brown and his thugs who rough him up and leave him drunk. However, he learns from a man named Betini that “Alicia” was Brown’s wife who was supposedly murdered and thrown overboard with an anchor.

Next on the beat is a tight-lipped Swedish antique dealer, and ultimately, Diamond comes up with proof that Brown’s wife is still alive. He’s getting too close so Mr. Brown sends out his thugs Fante and Mingo to shut him up for good. They get the wrong person.

Alicia finally turns up, a few more figures get mowed down in Mr. Brown’s wake including Diamond’s trusty colleague Sam (Jay Adler). All that’s left is a showdown at the airport that is like Casablanca‘s atmosphere on steroids. It truly is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis.

There is not a great deal of sympathy to be had for a lot of the characters who got it, and though she seemed to have little bearing on the plot, Rita’s demise was surprisingly difficult to take. She was the girl with the heart of gold. Brown’s heartlessness finally came back to bite him but honestly, I could have cared less if Diamond was the one to catch him or not. He couldn’t have done it without Susan anyways.

3.5/5 Stars