Smoking was cool. Lighting was dark. And the souls of the denizens of film noir were even darker. Born out of post-war angst and moral uncertainty, the “noir” movement in literature and film produced some classic movies. And the sultry, corruptible influence continues today.
Some of the classic greats:
Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred MacMurray–usually a nice guy on film if you ignore his slimy Jeff in The Apartment–pulls off the insurance agent too easily persuaded to a life of crime. Barbara Stanwyck pulls off the femme fatale with her usual proto-biker-chick flair, though what’s with the all-wrong blonde hair? With Billy Wilder directing and a script by Raymond Chandler, the film lives up to its pedigree. And Edward G. Robinson, no extra charge.
A mere painting of Gene Tierney is enough to send police detective Dana Andrews into a morally-ambiguous tizzy as he investigates the death of the elusive Laura. A fun turn by a young Vincent Price as a “male beauty in distress.” Also, some gorgeous black-and-white art direction, in case you ever wondered what was the big deal about b&w films.
Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant get away with surprising amounts of naughty in this Hays-Code-era thriller, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. There’s real heat in the story, and it’s not just from the jungley South American locale or the bottles of (spoiler alert!) Nazi uranium. Bergman makes a believable party girl gone reluctant spy and Grant does his usual thing with panache and just the hint that he might go nuts at any second.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Another Hitchcock, this one based on Patricia Highsmith’s slitheringly amoral examination of everyone’s secret wish to get rid of a pesky loved one by any means necessary. Hint: If a stranger approaches you on a train with a proposal to do just that, stop riding trains.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
The fatale doesn’t get any more femme than Lana Turner, and John Garfield does his usual smoldering slow burn here as a drifter seduced into murdering Turner’s husband. I saw the 1981 Jessica Lange/Jack Nicholson remake first and found it engrossing and sexy. But watching the original, in the native land of the more repressed 40s, I found the boundary-pushing to be more shocking and the sense of unhappy people doomed by their twisted aspirations to be more oppressive. Plus, this version actually explains the title, which the remake left out.
Neo-Noir (Newer, less likely to be in black and white.)
The Grifters (1990)
John Cusack and Anjelica Huston tweak their usual cool/likeable personas and play to their very dark sides as mother/son con artists in this gritty-to-the-point-of-grim crime drama. Based on a Jim Thompson novel, the searing brinksmanship of the grifters leaves you feeling like your soul needs a shower. But in a good way.
One False Move (1992)
Violent drug dealers head South along with the lawmen trying to stop them in this terrific sleeper film from first-time director Carl Franklin. Racial tensions up the ante as everyone tries to find Fantasia, the gorgeous femme fatale with a secret. Bill Paxton pretty much steals the show as the small-town sheriff with secrets and demons of his own.
The Wachowski brothers first movie would never have slipped past the censors in the days of classic noir. Partly the violence would have nixed the movie, but mostly, it’s the hot lesbian sex. Gina Gershon owns the role usually played by Bogart or Garfield–the jamook taken in by the sultry dame-in-distress (Jennifer Tilly.) The film also lets itself have a wink at the genre it’s paying homage to. Enjoyable and refreshing.
LA Confidential (1997)
A labyrinthine plot. Hot Aussies playing cold American cops. Kim Basinger actually being great as a poignant Veronica Lake stand-in. Everybody in 50s Hollywood is on the move and on the take. Don’t understand the complicated goings-on? Watch it again and this time follow the heroin. Russell Crowe didn’t win an Oscar for his fierce portrayal of troubled, abusive cop Bud White. But you can’t take your eyes off of him as he struggles to figure out where the punishment for his sins is going to come from. There might even be some fairy dust left over from the Hollywood dream factory to come up with a not-tragic ending for some of the characters.
Who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself? A breathtaking achievement for screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan and his brother, writer Jonathan Nolan. They unravel a murder mystery backwards in three-to-four minute segments in what must have been a bear of a script to write. The form matches the content as brain-damaged Leonard struggles to find his wife’s killer amidst a host of questionable characters and his own constantly-shifting grasp of reality. He uses notes and tattoos to try to keep track of the clues. One problem; how does he know if he kept the right ones, or even why he wrote them? And what if he doesn’t like the answers? Outstanding.
The writer Ray Dean Parker, who wrote a blog post about Noir Fiction, also recommends Pulp Fiction, as well as Freeway and After Dark, My Sweet.
Next up on Devlin’s blog: How To Write a Batterer