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.

Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana_Turner_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_TwiceThe first time I saw this gripping noir, my least favorite part of the film probably was the title, and it still is. That’s saying a lot, and the film is adapted from the James M. Cain crime novel anyways, with the title included free of charge. Otherwise, Postman is a wonderful example of the film noir canon, and yet it lacks the elements of your more typical private eye mystery.

It trades dark streets of crime for a small roadside burger joint owned by a shrewd man and his noticeably younger wife. Bring a drifter searching for a quick buck and you have everything set for the deadliest of love triangles. At the tips are John Garfield as the rambling man Frank who initially couldn’t care less for his boss’s pretty wife. Then there’s Cora, the alluring girl who seems out of place in her life. Then you have the money-grubbing Nick (Cecil Kellaway) who seems naively oblivious to the whole situation.

At first, nothing seems to be afoot, and Cora is adamant about not getting involved with the new hand. However, ultimately things evolve. That’s not necessarily the exciting part. We expect the rapid and lurid love affair that soon besets Frank and Cora.  We expect, more likely than not, that Nick will either catch them or they will knock him off first. They choose the latter and its far from preferable. Soon the district attorney is down their throats with his own suspicions about the forbidden couple. He’s pretty smart too.

Sackett plays Frank and Cora off of each other. They’re both scared. Neither one wants jail or worst the gas chamber. Nora ends up being the only one prosecuted, but her sly lawyer (Hume Cronyn) is able to call his opponents bluff and get Cora off with hardly a hitch. The only problem is that Frank and Cora hate each other guts now. They are positively poisoned to each other.

The story could end there and it would be ironic enough, but it doesn’t. It has yet another act where Frank and Cora make up following the illness of her mother, the flourishing of her establishment after the trial, and a bout with blackmail. All seems to be better than it ever was, but fate can have a cruel sense of humor.

On one out of the ordinary car ride, Frank crashes and in the aftermath, Cora is left dead with Frank on the fast track to the gas chamber. And that’s where the title comes in. The Postman Always Rings Twice. In other words, if you don’t pay for your crimes the first time around, you always end paying up one way or another. Cora was killed and Frank faced execution. Neither one got off in the end.

Putting aside the Hay’s Codes need for justice to be dealt, this is a wonderfully sardonic tale and ultimately sensual noir for the 1940s. Lana Turner was never better dancing with relative ease between amorous sweetness and acidic intentions. And the moment she first shows up on the screen is one of the most eye-catching entrances by a femme fatale period. Although not the greatest of leading men, John Garfield is surprisingly credible opposite, Turner. He plays the hard-working everyman incredibly well. Hume Cronyn, for his part, plays his wily prosecutor wonderfully with a sly smile all the while. I cannot quite put a finger on it, but I like him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – Film-Noir

Starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, the film begins with a drifter taking a job at a roadside diner for a jolly older man with a beautiful young wife (Turner). After initial conflict, Frank and Cora fall passionately in love. They try one disastrous attempt to take the husband’s life, and in desperation they try again, this time succeeding in getting rid of him. Soon they are in court fighting the murder rap. Miraculously the two of them get out of it but ironically by the time the trial is over they hate each others guts. They live in constant loathing of each other but after thwarting a blackmail scheme their wild love is rekindled. In an equally cruel twist of fate, they both end up paying for their actions the second time around. With the voice-over, femme fatale, cinematography, and twisting plot, this is a quintessential film-noir that I really enjoyed. I would consider it the landmark performance for Lana Turner and maybe John Garfield as well. They learn the hard way that the postman does always ring twice and there is nothing you can do about it.

4.5/5 Stars