By D. Scott ApelIn the years following World War II, America experienced an optimism unknown for nearly a generation. After years of Depression and deprivation, babies started booming and consumers started consuming.
But in the midst of this "happy daze," there were dissenters, and those in Hollywood created a series of fatalistic films which dealt most frequently with moral ambiguity and the seamy side of human nature, and which expressed the repressed shadow of the era. The films themselves were somber, downbeat and gloomy, often concentrating on urban crime and personal corruption. The characters were frequently cynical, disillusioned loners and hard-hearted, amoral femme fatales, all suffering from a suffocating sense of despair and inevitable doom. These B-pictures, shot in black and white due to budgetary constraints of the studios, turned that restriction into a metaphor in its own right, sculpting light and shadow into stylish, mood-enhancing metaphors that are still recognized as hallmarks of the genre.
In the short time between the release of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958, this genre was born, thrived -- and ultimately died. Although distinctly American in its themes, the French were the first to recognize and to name this new style. Due to the dark imagery of these films, combined with their preoccupation with crime and the dark side of the psyche, French critics christened the style film noir -- literally, "black film."
Attempting to provide an exact definition of film noir is an exercise in futility. No two critics have ever agreed on precisely the elements that define the style. In the same sense, no two critics (or viewers) will likely ever agree on a single "Top Ten" list of the all-time best noirs. If, however, you set out to build a video library of the genre, you could do far worse than to begin with the following highly-recommended films (listed in chronological order):
The Maltese Falcon (1941; MGM/UA and CBS/Fox; 1:41). Humphrey Bogart (the ultimate noir star) is Sam Spade in director John Huston's faithful adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel about a private eye swept up in a vortex of murder, lies and obsessive possessiveness. Every frame is energized with electric perfection, making this one of the most engrossing, entertaining and fully satisfying films ever produced.
This Gun for Hire (1942; MCA; 1:21). Alan Ladd shines in his first lead role as a professional hit-man dead set on revenge against his double-crossing bosses. Ladd's sullen character finds redemption of sorts in the most unlikely location: his hostage, Veronica Lake, who uncovers a true human inside the simple-minded, cat-loving killer. Intense acting, breath-clenching suspense and original plot twists highlight this superb thriller.
Laura (1944; FoxVideo; 1:25). For a change of pace, how about a film noir romance? In this hard-edged film with a soft, sweet center, Dana Andrews plays a police detective investigating the murder of a socialite -- but the deeper he digs, the more he falls in love with the allegedly dead Laura. Outstanding performances from Gene Tierney and an eccentric supporting cast (including Clifton Webb and Vincent Price), crackling dialog and hard-edged suspense -- all tempered by an understated poignancy -- conspire to make this a compelling film experience. Laura took home an Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography, and the film received several additional nominations, including one for Webb as Supporting Actor, one for the screenplay, and one for director Otto Preminger (who assumed the helm from its original director, Rouben Mamoulian).
Double Indemnity (1944; MCA; 1:47). Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a smart-ass, weak-willed womanizer who conspires with brassy, hard-boiled blonde Barbara Stanwyck to kill her unsuspecting hubby for the insurance money. In another change of pace, Edward G. Robinson -- typically cast as a tough-guy -- plays the savvy soul who sees through their sinister scheme. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder adapted James M. Cain's nasty novel for this unflinchingly gritty and razor-sharp suspense masterpiece, in which tension and lust crackle almost palpably.
The Big Sleep (1946; MGM/UA; 1:54). Humphrey Bogart is hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe, teamed with tough cookie Lauren Bacall in this memorable version of Raymond Chandler's classic novel -- although Chandler's plot took a back seat to the dialog and atmosphere. (Co-screenwriter Leigh Brackett once told me in an interview that she and writing partner William Faulkner "got so confused with the plot that we just threw Chandler's book out the window and came up with our own solution to the murders.")
Out of the Past (1947; Media Home Entertainment; 1:37). Director Jacques Tourneur's slick and stylish mystery could be considered the quintessential film noir. Sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum stars as an unflappable man of mystery who discovers he can't escape his sordid past. When his former boss, a ruthless gangster (Kirk Douglas), enlists the aid of a jilted jezebel to draw him out of "retirement" and back into a web of underworld intrigue, Mitchum reluctantly returns to undermine the criminal's empire.
Gun Crazy (1950; CBS/Fox; 1:27). Gentle gun-lover Bart Tare (John Dall) is held spellbound by carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), whose lust for excitement, violence and material possessions leads the lovebirds on an ill-fated crime spree. The suspenseful central section is as riveting as a nightmare, and features a jaw-dropping, Scorsese-style sequence which involves driving into town, robbing a bank and driving away -- all in a single, seamless, unedited shot that runs a full three minutes.
D.O.A. (1949; Kartes and Nostalgia; 1:23). When Edmond O'Brien is slipped a lethal dose of irreversible, radioactive poison, he's got only 48 hours to find out who did the dirty deed -- and why. His trail of dead ends and red herrings leads him stumbling through the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles at an ever more frantic pace in this mesmerizingly stylish film.
Night of the Hunter (1955; MGM/UA; 1:33). Robert Mitchum is in peak form as a bible-whacking wacko who hooks up with his ex-cellmate's widow (Shelley Winters) in an effort to track down the dead man's stash of cash from a bank job. Charles Laughton (in his sole directorial effort) succeeded brilliantly in creating a dark, creepy classic, enhanced by the suave, sinister menace of Mitchum.
Touch of Evil (1958; MCA; 1:48). Naive narcotics cop Charlton Heston is in way over his head when he tangles with Orson Welles' corrupt cop in a sleazy Mexican border town. Welles' incomparable talents as writer, director and star makes a sense of dread palpable, and is matched by the chilling script and the rancid, sweaty, skin-crawling incarnation of evil he himself portrays. The opening sequence -- a cat and mouse game involving pedestrians Heston and Janet Leigh and a bomb in the trunk of a nearby car -- sets the suspenseful tone from frame one, and illustrates once again Welles' genius as a director.
Even this list of genuine film noir classics barely scratches the surface of the unique genre. If you're intrigued by the above, follow up with such other three- and four-star noirs as Rebecca (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Glass Key (1942), Gaslight (1944), Murder My Sweet (1944), Detour (1945), Mildred Pierce (1945), Gilda (1946), The Killers (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Notorious (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Dark Passage (1947), Key Largo (1948), The Lady From Shanghai (1948), The Big Clock (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Force of Evil (1949), White Heat (1949), The Third Man (1949), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), In A Lonely Place (1950), Strangers on a Train(1951), The Big Heat (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Killing (1956) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.
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November 9, 1997