Even though I hadn’t quite finished with The Great Unseen, when I found November—or more specifically, #Noirvember—approaching, I thought it might finally be time to do a series on film noir, perhaps my favorite genre after screwball comedies. Noirvember is a concept created by @oldfilmsflicker in November 2010 in order to catch up on her film noir viewing (sound familiar?) and has since grown into a month-long online celebration of all things noir.
As is often the case, I began this project by making a few lists to sort out what I had seen and not seen, what I wanted to rewatch, and what I wanted to make sure and watch for the first time. While I have seen most of the major titles at least once, and a few of them many times, there were some I didn’t remember very well. There are also a few well-known titles that I haven’t seen, mostly because they are harder to find.
I watched most of these films on DVDs borrowed from the library because, for the most part, they are not available on basic streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Although this project did push me to finally sign up for MUBI, which I’ve been meaning to do for some time, I would be even happier if I could access FilmStruck on either my Smart TV or Sony Blu-Ray player.
Because I started off the month with a few critic screenings, Noirvember didn’t really get underway for me until late in the first week, but I caught up by watching a number of double features, usually pairing one well-loved classic with a new-to-me film. [Side note: If you are looking for a great film to watch at your local theater this month or next, check out Mudbound, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.]
I also began re-listening to one of my favorite podcasts from back in the day: Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, hosted by Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards, which aired monthly from mid-2005 to mid-2008. Each episode is dedicated to a particular film or pair of films, and while I don’t always agree with their assessments, most of the episodes provide thoughtful commentary on the film(s) in question.
If you’ve ever looked at any serious writing on film noir, you have likely encountered the “cycle” vs. “genre” vs. “style” argument. Some people are willing to argue ad nauseam about where they come down on this. I am not one of those people. Merriam-Webster defines “genre” as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content” and frankly that suits me just fine. Like pornography, you can recognize it when you see it. In these posts, I will mostly be focusing on the classic period of noir (from the early 1940s to the late 1950s), but will likely watch a few neo-noirs as a point of comparison, especially since Taxi Driver, part of The Great Unseen, if often given that label.
Finally, a note on the term “film noir” itself. This term was coined by French critics, mostly because of the genre’s relation to the hardboiled detective books published under Gallimard’s Série Noire imprint. However, much like the term “western” (which some people see fit to capitalize), I use this label as a generic English term, sometimes shortened to just “noir” on its own. In either case, the plural adds an “s” only to “noir”: noirs or film noirs. For the love of god, if you insist on also adding an “s” to “film” because “that’s how the French do it” (les films noirs), please do not pronounce said “s” (because that is most certainly not how the French do it). Sorry for the digression, but this drives me batsh*t on the above podcast and whenever I hear it—not as much as people who refer to Simone de Beauvoir as De Beauvoir, but still.
With that said, let’s take in some doubleplusgood double features, shall we?
Double Date: Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) and Angel Face (1952, Otto Preminger)
Though I generally like to start any series or project by looking at things chronologically, to me, Out of the Past seemed a natural beginning point for a film noir retrospective. First, because it was the namesake (and subject of the first episode) of the Out of the Past podcast. Second, because it contains a number of the tropes and techniques (flashback structure, low-key lighting, skewed composition) that define film noir as well as some notable performances by Robert Mitchum, femme fatale extraordinaire Jane Greer, and a steely Kirk Douglas. At the same time, it contains some very un-noir-like elements, notably its beginning in the idyllic countryside. Out of the Past is one of the great film noirs, but I also have to admit that I like for its use of the geography of California, moving from the eastern side of the Sierras, up to Lake Tahoe, over to San Francisco, and then back again.
I chose to pair Angel Face with Out of the Past because it turned up as a suggestion when I was googling similar films. The obvious link is that they both star Robert Mitchum; the less obvious link is the two femme fatales, who enter (or re-enter) Mitchum’s life when he is already dating and happy with another woman. Both seem to think they can bully Mitchum into sharing their life, much to the dismay of everyone involved. In Angel Face, Jean Simmon’s plays the oddest character in the oddest way. I can’t decide if I like her interpretation or not, but she is really quite chilling. I know I liked the character of Mary, played by Mona Freeman; it was nice to see an independent, practical woman for once. Note: This film has perhaps the most shocking ending of any film noir I’ve seen.
Double Agent: Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder) and Pitfall (1948, Andre de Toth)
Double Indemnity is one of the few film noirs I own, which is odd since it is not one of my favorites. Why do I own this and not Laura? or Gilda? Perhaps because it is one of the best, even though I think it is a little too in love with its clever dialogue. It has one of the best femme fatales in Barbara Stanwyck (who plays a young housewife all too eager to get rid of her wealthy husband), a fantastic score by Miklós Rózsa, and sets the standard for noir in its clever use of both the flashback as narrative frame and the urban landscape of Los Angeles. The one trope it avoids is the private detective, choosing instead the intrepid insurance investigator.
And so we get to why I paired Double Indemnity with Pitfall, a Los Angeles noir that doesn’t really fit the traditional noir mold. In Pitfall, Dick Powell plays a regular guy who feels trapped by his “man in the gray flannel suit” insurance agent existence. As he puts it to his wife, played by Jane Wyatt, “sometimes I get to feeling like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.” And so, when in the course of an insurance investigation, Powell meets a lovely model played by Lizabeth Scott, he gets in over his head. This femme isn’t particularly fatale, and in fact calls off their affair as soon as she learns Powell has a wife and kid at home, but it’s too late—her involvement with a minor crook and a crooked investigator/stalker played by Raymond Burr, seals their fate.
Double-Dealing: The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston) and Murder, My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk)
The Maltese Falcon was probably one of the first noir films I ever watched and remains a favorite. Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, it is a classic hard-boiled detective story, with Humphrey Bogart playing the role of detective Sam Spade, Mary Astor playing an unrepentant femme fatale, and Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. playing their usual versions of shady ne’er-do-wells along with Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. The cinematography by Arthur Edeson is superb and the plot is slightly less convoluted than some others (I’m looking at you, The Big Sleep) and so it makes a good first step into noir. I have a real fondness for Effie, the secretary, played by Lee Patrick.
Murder, My Sweet was adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and stars Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle, Anne Shirley as Ann Grayle, Helen’s stepdaughter, and Mike Muzurki as Moose Malloy. This film was one of the reasons I wanted to participate in Noirvember this year as it is one of those noirs I knew was very good but I just hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. While Dick Powell as Marlowe doesn’t quite work for me, I was delighted to discover Anne Shirley here. So I was sad to learn that she retired from acting after this picture—at the ripe old age of 26—which I guess makes sense when you know she was a child actress. Remember those crazy plots I was talking about? This is one of those. It doesn’t quite make sense, but I don’t care. It really is one of the lovelier, sweeter noirs.
Double Occupancy: The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)
These two films form a natural pairing as they both open with someone picking up a hitchhiker. And, because I was sure I had seen one and not the other, I thought the pairing also worked for my one seen–one unseen plan. However, the odd thing is, I was convinced I had seen The Hitch-Hiker (but now I’m pretty sure I hadn’t) and not Kiss Me Deadly (but now I’m pretty sure I had).
In any case, The Hitch-Hiker is a taut thriller based on a true story. We jump right into the action, seeing the feet of an unknown man catching a ride with an unsuspecting couple and then killing them, all behind the initial credits. And then our story truly begins, with an escaped convict getting into the car of two men who have told their wives they are going on a fishing trip. It falls down somewhat at the end, but is otherwise completely gripping. As the only film noir from the classic period directed by a woman, it is hard to view it today and not think that it is some kind of statement about sexual harassment. I’m not sure a man could have made this movie about the emasculation of two victims by an incredibly creepy William Talman. The vulnerable performance Lupino elicits from Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien as the victims is truly extraordinary.
Kiss Me Deadly also revolves around masculinity, in this case, the hyper-masculine detective Mike Hammer (settle down, people, I’m sure that name is just a coincidence), created by Mickey Spillane and played by Ralph Meeker. But women, including a young Cloris Leachman who sets the plot in motion by flagging down Mr. Hammer late at night, are less the focus of our cast of characters than the mysterious glowing box that has echoed throughout pop culture, most notably in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. An exceedingly dark portrayal of Los Angeles, this film somehow feels incredibly modern, even if it is mostly an ode to the long-since-vanished neighborhood of Bunker Hill.
Double Your Money: The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) and Kansas City Confidential (1952, Phil Karlson)
I love a good heist film and The Asphalt Jungle is one of the best. What I didn’t know is that Kansas City Confidential is even better. No really, I’m serious. While it doesn’t have the polish of The Asphalt Jungle, the heist and, more importantly, the fallout from the heist and the revenge twist, is just so much cleverer than I anticipated. It really made The Asphalt Jungle seem slow and staid in comparison. I wasn’t surprised to learn it served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, although the film plots really don’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about projects like this—I’m sure I never would have sought this film out if I wasn’t trying to actively seek out new noir films. But really, if you like a good caper, you can’t go wrong with either of these.
But no dames… Understand? No dames.
Tune in next time when I take on such classics as The Big Sleep and Laura, as well as new-to-me selections like The Big Heat and Fallen Angel. In the meantime, if you have a lesser-known classic film noir that you would like to recommend, please do so in the comments below.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Out of the Past (1947)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Kansas City Confidential (1952)
Angel Face (1953)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)