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)

Image result for the maltese falcon

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)

Image result for double indemnity

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)

Image result for laura 1944

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)

Image result for out of the past

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.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

bluedahliaSoldiers returning home from war is a recurring theme in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives and Act of Violence and given the circumstances it makes sense. This was the reality. Men returning home from war as heroes. But even heroes have to re-acclimate to the world they left behind.

Blue Dahlia is not so much about the assimilation of G.I.s though. It’s more an excuse to show the noir world creeping into a man’s life infecting all he left behind. As he returns, Johnny Morrison’s wife (Doris Dowling) is keeping company with another fellow (Howard Da Silva) and everyone else seems to know about it except Johnny. Also, his young boy died tragically while he was away and his wife has taken to a life of drinking and partying. He’s not expecting any of this but then again what happens in film-noir is very rarely what we expect.

Raymond Chandler weaves together his first original screenplay here, a production that was hampered by the impending deployment of Alan Ladd as well as Chandler’s own bouts with alcoholism and writer’s block. It’s hard to know which one caused the other. But either way, the film finds its roots in a murder and the man who is suspect just happens to be the returning G.I. Before he ever knew people were looking for him he playfully took the name Jimmy Moore after meeting a lady (Veronica Lake) who happens to be closer to him than either of them realize.  Their paths cross more than once.Then he’s on the run. His war buddies (Hugh Beaumont and William Bendix) are worried about him after being questioned by the cops. And the cops are anxious to hone in on the killer because no one is of any real help. No solid leads come their way and that means Johnny has to track down the killer himself.

The direction of George Marshall is not particularly inspired but his players are compelling enough. Alan Ladd can still play the brusque tough guy and William Bendix steals the show with his own blue-collar bravado and snarling bluster. Veronica Lake doesn’t show up until well into the film and in many ways, despite her billing, she feels relegated to a smaller role. She’s not particularly memorable in the majority of it even with her scenes with Ladd. She’s mostly just there which is grossly unfortunate. It feels like a waste.

After the novelty of Hugh Beaumont wears off it makes sense why he transitioned to TV while Howard Da Silva and Doris Dowling denote a certain sleaze that comes off quite well. Meanwhile, Frank Faylen plays an integral role as one of his typical curmudgeon types. He made a killing off of that niche. Still, Ladd and Bendix are the main attraction in this adequate serving of film-noir. On a darker note, this film also gave its name to the unsolved Black Dahlia killing of Elizabeth Short in 1947. It’s one time when perhaps reality was more tragic than fiction. Raymond Chandler could not have even dreamed up such a grisly drama. At least not for the silver screen.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

b4c25-bigsleep1

Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly Raymond Chandler’s character, but Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart brought him right out of a pulp novel and stuck him on the silver screen to ever be solidified in our minds. Needless to say, this is a quintessential film-noir coming right at the tail end of WWII, known as much for its incomprehensible plot line as it is the romantic pairing of Bogey and Bacall.The title credits role and the contours of our two leads can be seen in the background, cigarette in toe with Max Steiner’s furious score pulsing in rhythm. We find ourselves on the doorstep of a man named Sternwood. A hand is ringing the doorbell and a servant answers. The hand, of course, belongs to Humphrey Bogart or closer yet Philip Marlowe. Right off the bat, he gets the come on from the flirtatious younger daughter of Sternwood and he takes it in stride.

When he meets the sickly man of the house, he’s stricken to a wheelchair parked inside a greenhouse. He and Marlowe get chummy, and he calls upon the P.I. to find a man named Geiger, while bemoaning the trouble his daughters get into. For good measure, Marlowe also gets his first taste of Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge who is more mature, but suspicious all the same. From then on the case is a series of storefronts, L.A. street corners, and car interiors. It’s hard to believe, but it also seems so dark and dreary with buckets of rain to boot. It must be L.A. in winter (or in an alternative universe). Bogey has a little fun masquerading as an antique book aficionado and every lady he interacts with feels like another Carmen Sternwood. Always ready to flirt and he usually gives them the time of day.
He stakes out a home and he investigates a piercing scream only to find a disoriented Carmen in a big mess. Next, a dead man is pulled out of a Packard near Lido Pier. The names keep piling up too. There’s A. G. Geiger, Sean Regan, Owen Taylor, Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) and a number of others. Most are seen at one time or another but a few are not.
08bfb-bigsleepBy this point, The Big Sleep is less about all the facts and more about how we get there in the end. Obviously, the source material is from Raymond Chandler, but the witty script full of great patter is courtesy of William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett of all people. Bogey and Bacall have some fun on the telephone (You like to play games don’t you) which coincidentally has no bearing on the plot. Later on, they have some more spirited back and forth about horse racing. It’s at these times that you cannot help but chuckle at the rapier wit of the script. Philip Marlowe is a great character with a lot of great things to say indeed.
Soon we suspect there is something romantic going on between Eddie Mars and Rutledge. A few more stooges get it and Marlowe gets himself beat up in a dark back alley (Of course). Next thing we know is our new favorite gumshoe is tied up in a house with two ladies. Rutledge is there and the wife of Eddie Mars. What? He gets out of harm’s way thanks to Vivian, and the showdown that we have been waiting for comes to pass. Marlowe outsmarts everyone and puts the damper on the case. Everything seemingly comes to a smooth resolution, the audience just has little idea how we got there. But that’s not the greatest of concerns.

It would be great enough to watch The Big Sleep for the sass and repartee which it is positively dripping with. Thanks to the reworking of the film in 1946, the Bogey and Bacall dynamic became more prominent and fun. Although it is slightly disappointing that a lot of Martha Vickers performance ended up on the cutting floor, it is made slightly better by a memorable appearance by a young Dorothy Malone. All in all, there is very little to complain about if you just sit back and enjoy this very engaging film-noir for what it is. Howard Hawks brought us yet another unassuming post-war classic that is unequivocally American.

4.5/5 Stars

The Long Goodbye (1973)

LongposterIn the storied tradition of film-noir comes another film in the canon and yet another depiction of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. However, the world with which Robert Altman places his private eye is far different than any place the character has ever inhabited before. Whereas another neo-noir such as Chinatown followed the storied tradition of noir in many ways, The Long Goodbye is often more of a satire than a new addition to the genre.

Elliott Gould as Phillip Marlowe has the smoking down like Bogart or Dick Powell, the garb, and even the car, but his environment is the 1970s, making him quite anachronistic, and that seems to be just fine with Altman. He subverts the genre by placing Marlowe in a world he does not seem to fit in and yet he himself does not seem to question it.

The girls next door are hardly your typical girls-next-door. The police station looks like it could be out of The Rockford Files. John Williams and Johnny Mercer’s title song pops up in all places from the elevator to the car radio. His tail Harry is an incompetent joke. Passing cars give the security guard time to practice his best movie star impressions. Marlowe as well proves he is not much of an animal guy with a cat that he loses and a dog that hates him.

The drama is not much better in that regard. Two murders take place (including the death of a friend), which are later followed by a man’s suicide and his beautiful wife fleeing the country. All the while, on the case Marlowe is scrounging around and coming up mostly empty. The cops bring him in, an unhappy thug roughs him up over some money, and he can get very little out of the drunken writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) or his wife (Nina van Pallandt) before she disappears.

By now we know better than to compare this Marlowe to any predecessor. He gets smashed about by the waves trying to stop a suicide and ends up in the hospital after getting bowled over by a car. He seemingly does his best detective work in a stupor, and he somehow escapes a chilling confrontation where everyone is removing their clothes. All these scenarios make little sense and even with the twisted conclusion to the mystery, there still is no explanation for the way things are. Altman gives us a surprising end but no answers as we watch Gould dance off into the distance playing a mini harmonica. Marlowe can often be heard saying, “It’s okay with me.” It’s the story of his life and if he is fine with it, I suppose his audience will just have to accept it too, even if they do not quite like it.

4/5 Stars

Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double_indemnity_screenshot_8It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” – Walter Neff

I can’t say this enough. Double Indemnity is so deliciously enticing each and every time I see it. Maybe it’s the A-grade script from Billy Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler with its noir cynicism and memorable phraseology. Maybe it’s the shadowy, low-key interiors or L.A. exteriors. The monotonous beating score of Miklos Rozsa, mourning impending doom. Maybe it’s the plain, laconic way of Walter Neff or his bloodhound buddy Keyes. Is it the innocent Lola who gives the film morality? Or the artificial wig and the silky smooth purring of Phyllis Dietrichson?

In fact, I named many, if not all, of the many facets of this film, because I want to attempt to acknowledge all of them before I forget. But the reality is I love Double Indemnity at its most basic level as a piece of prime American cinema. Yes, it is film-noir and yes, it came from a European director, but it is very much a product of 1940s sentiment as the war years waned.

The story is pulled right from some pulp fiction sleaze by James M. Cain and cemented itself as a noir classic in its own right with all the trappings that are called for.

It opens with the beginnings of Rozsa’s score reverberating in our ears and it very rarely lets up. A car blazes wildly down the street and winds up in front of an insurance agency. Out stumbles our protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and for the rest of the film, he relates the recent happenings over the Dictaphone of his colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). It goes something like this:

During his first visit to the home of a Mr. Dietrichson, he instead has his first encounter with the man’s sensual wife, and his heart goes pitter-patter from then on. His motivation is no longer insurance. Now he just wants the chance to see her more. He gets his chance to advise her on a plan, and it all seems playful enough until she insinuates that she wants to knock off her ol’ hubby. At least that’s how Neff reads it. However, he cannot get her out of his head as he has fallen into her web. There’s no turning back.

They think of everything and Neff has everything figured out to a tee. As he suggests, it’s like having the perfect odds on the roulette wheel, you just need an accomplice to spin and Phyllis is just that person. From then it’s just straight down the line. They corroborate on all the details at local Jerry’s Market, Walter sets up his alibi, and he does the devilish deed as Phyllis stares with cool satisfaction at the road ahead.

They set it all up like an accident as the last touch, because as Neff knows all too well if it looks like Mr. Dietrichson was killed from riding a train the Double Indemnity clause of the insurance will mean double the payoff due to how unlikely the occurrence is.

 Double Indemnity (1944) - UpdatedHis only fear is the inquisitive nose of Keyes and the “little man” inside the claims investigator’s stomach, who warns him of the first sign of anything fishy. He gets close to the truth but not quite there. Neff is too close for him to see it. However, as things begin to heat up Phyllis and Neff must separate.

As Neff tries to console Lola Dietrichson over the death of her father, he quickly finds out what the naive girl has to say about her step-mother. It puts a little light on the subject, and Neff realizes what he’s been taken for. He wants to remedy things while he can, patching Lola up with her boyfriend, and going to confront Phyllis one last time.

It’s the perfect set-up. Darkened rooms with curtains drawn. Phyllis reclined in an armchair with evil intentions on her mind. In walks Walter and they have it out. Shots are fired, literally. Phyllis will never let up with her ploys until Walter gives her a little help for the final time. I’m sure the Hays Codes loved this one. I certainly did.

Back in the office Keyes finally overhears the end of Walter’s “confession” as his friend bleeds to death. In one last touching moment, Keyes returns the favor and lights the cigarette like Walter has been obliging to do the entire film.

Walter: “Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.”
Keyes: “Closer than that, Walter.”
Walter: “I love you too”

Billy Wilder traded longtime partner Charles Brackett for Raymond Chandler, and despite a rocky partnership, they ended up with one of the greatest scripts, chock full of memorable bits of dialogue. You know you have an impressive cast when Edward G. Robinson is your third lead and each character is playing against type. It’s great casting, in a quintessential American drama solidified by great cinematography and storytelling.

It doesn’t get much better than this and it certainly does not need to. You know Double Indemnity is good when I’ve seen it multiple times and each time the bullets still keep me on the edge of my seat. Thank you, Billy Wilder, for teaching us murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle. That’s absolutely beautiful.

Phyllis: “No, I never loved you, Walter, not you or anybody else. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you just as you said. That’s all you ever meant to me. Until a minute ago, when I couldn’t fire that second shot. I never thought that could happen to me.”
Walter: “Sorry, baby, I’m not buying”
Phyllis: “I’m not asking you to buy. Just hold me close.
Walter: “Good-bye baby.”

5/5 Stars

Review: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

e30de-murdermysweet1Ann Grayle: You know, I think you’re nuts. You go barging around without a very clear idea of what you’re doing. Everybody bats you down, smacks you over the head, fills you full of stuff…and you keep right on hitting between tackle and end. I don’t think you even know which side you’re on.

Phillip Marlowe: I don’t know which side anybody’s on. I don’t even know who’s playing today.

Now after seeing the original Dick Powell as a crooner in light song and dance flicks, his re-imagined image as Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is that much more surprising. This film quickly dropped being the potential musical Farewell my Lovely and ultimately became a hard-boiled Noir called Murder, My Sweet. To Powell’s credit, his new alter ego works and he brings his own spin to the role. Perhaps he has a little more humor than Bogart but there is still enough of the tough guy in his role to make it work. He’s also deliciously cheeky which is perfectly illustrated by a scene where he lights his match on the butt of a statue. It’s great.

Edward Dmytryk gave us a film that has often been credited with helping to define the film-noir style of the 1940s. It makes perfect sense since his film brims with many of the major hallmarks of the genre. The powder-burned Marlowe’s initial narration carried through a flashback lends a wry and cynical commentary to the entire story. The screen itself is cloaked in shadows, filled with billows of cigarette smoke, and is often superimposed with disorienting images.

Early on one man named Marriot is dead, Marlowe gets clocked over the head, roughed up several times, not to mention drugged up. He gets hired, used, thrown off, and seduced more than once. All because of an expensive jade necklace. As Anne (Anne Shirley) notes, Marlowe goes charging into his case not quite knowing what is going on or who he is dealing with. That ambiguity is one of the strengths of this film because we are never allowed the comfort of knowing who to side with.

By default, we begin the film from the point of view of Marlowe, and so he is our anti-hero who we track with the entire film. He gets the giant thug Moose (Mike Mazurki) tossed his way first. Marlowe meets the pretty Anne who hides her true intentions, introducing him to her wealthy father (Miles Mander) and seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor). Next up is quack doctor Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) who appears to be our most clear cut villain and yet nothing is for sure.

It takes a late night confrontation at a beach house for things to straighten themselves out. Yet even up until that point, we do not know Marlowe’s true intentions, and he does not find out the resolution of the case until well after, thanks to the powder burns to the face.

Aside from Dick Powell’s anchoring performance, Claire Trevor is a tantalizing femme fatale, while Anne Shirley plays the guardian angel rather well. The juxtaposition of a morally questionable woman and an innocent girl develops the tension, not to mention that they are step-daughter and step-mother. When it’s all said and done, Marlowe got a sweet deal. He didn’t even need the jade necklace.

4/5 Stars

Murder, My Sweet (1944) – Film-Noir

murder my sweet

This film-noir adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel stars Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, and Anne Shirley. It opens with a blinded Philip Marlowe being interrogated and so he agrees to spill everything he knows.

It all started one evening in his office when a big thug named Moose came in to get his help in finding a girl. Marlowe agrees to take the case and he questions a drunken bar owner but all is not right. He returns to his office where a man named Marriot wants his protection during a ransom drop off. However, at the location Marlowe is knocked out and the man is left dead. Through a series of events he meets Helen Grayle and her significantly older husband, who are both involved with a necklace. Also involved is the shady psychic adviser Jules Anthor, not to mention Mr. Grayle’s protective daughter Anne. Marlowe is forced to meet with Anthor and he eventually finds himself locked up in a facility. He gets away and after a meeting with Anne they head down to the Grayle’s beach house. There they have a confrontation with Helen. Now Anther is dead and Marlowe agrees to show Moose his girl Velma. They head down to the beach house and Marlowe puts all the pieces of the case together in front of Helen. Then Ann, Mr. Grayle, and finally Moose all burst onto the scene in a final chaotic finale.  Despite this bleak conclusion, there is also a hint of a happy ending. Much like the Big Sleep this film at times becomes incomprehensible but it just means your brain must work fast to catch up. Dick Powell I felt was a great Marlowe and Anne Shirley was a strong heroine. This is a quintessential film noir to say the least.

4/5 Stars