For many a new year is a time to resolve to make positive changes in their lives. A savings account sees a few extra bucks at the end of January, a treadmill racks up a few extra miles. Those are fine and dandy resolutions for those who choose them and I applaud those who make them. My classic movie resolve for 2017, however, is to watch more film noir flicks from Hollywood’s golden era. Film noir is a movie genre that is popular by many who love classic movies and in some cases has a cult following. I have watched and enjoyed dozens from this dark and brooding category but there are a multitude which I have still to catch and it is going to be a fun and ferocious ride.
Defining film noir with words is easy. The style of film has been aptly described as a movie marked by a mood of menace. Generally, the term is associated with the Hollywood thriller or detective pictures produced from the early 1940s through the mid-1950s. To define the term cinematically is more complex. Literally it translates as “black film” or “dark film” and was coined in 1946 by a French critic. The characteristics? The detectives are boiled harder than a twenty minute egg. The dames (and they are dames) are brazen and know their way around the block so well they created a map. Liquor and cigarettes are aplenty and colorful dialogue is shot as quickly and loudly as the revolver that shows itself in the following frame. Directors who made their mark in the genre and even became synonymous with it include but are definitely not limited to Robert Siodmik, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger. Noir thrillers were a complete 180 degree turn from the colorful optimism of Hollywood’s crayon-coated Technicolor musicals and light comedies.
When these films started appearing on movie screens during and immediately following World War II, American audiences were drawn to the adult-oriented type of film and movie makers responded, enthusiastic to produce a more mature kind of picture for post-war viewers. With the success of such offerings as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Lang’s Woman in the Window, the studios began cranking out crime thrillers and murder dramas with a darker view than pre-war audiences had experienced.
At the core of many of these movies was a bad woman, better known as the femme fatale. She was mysterious, distant, sultry, double-crossing and beautiful. She would just as easily cause the downfall of the man of her choice as she would wash out her silk stockings at the end of a long day, probably even more easily. Her lip-sticked mouth could form a disgusted snarl or a half-open come-hither kiss for her masculine prey, and it rarely opened to a smile or hearty laugh unless it was to mock her unsuspecting target. The sap who gets caught in her clutches, or at the very least gets a whiff of her intoxicating perfume, was usually a corrupt character himself, maybe a private dick, petty crook or passing schmuck who couldn’t say no. He was a disillusioned male who got caught up in a web of intrigue, mystery and murder.
This new style was strongly urban, with the big city as backdrop, backstreets and alleyways dimly lit by oncoming headlights serving as the main stage. Noirs were filmed with hard shadows and unique camera angles by top cinematographers of the day. By their standards, the higher the drama, the lower the light. The stories were based on the best in hard-edged murder mysteries that the 1930s had to offer written by masters of hard-boiled detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Classic film noirs had titles that reflected the mood and themes of these pictures with tough-talkers, dark dames and nocturnal nemeses. This Gun for Hire, Dark Passage, Scarlet Street, Kiss Me Deadly and Murder, My Sweet leave little doubt as to the grim and dangerous nature showcased between their opening credits and The End. Over the decades since film noir made a strong impression on movie audiences, it has remained a durable and popular installment in Hollywood history.