CORRIDOR OF NOIR
VOL. 7, No. 19
WHERE DO YOU START
Jacques Tourneur's 1947
classic is a great place to start
...or try any film with Marie Windsor,
such as 'The Narrow Margin' (1952)
or 'The Killing' (1956)
This dark film genre has
lots of beckoning choices
By RON MILLER
Ever since I staked my claim as a disciple of the dark mystery genre known as noir, I've been bugged with requests from friends who want to know exactly what it is and where they can find it.
Of course, I'm always tempted to tell them, "You'll know it when you see it," but that only works for people who've been at it for awhile. So, I generally tell them it's a film genre that boomed in the 1940s and early 1950s and is best identified by its dark, shadowy style, haunted characters and sordid themes. But that's a broad brush that covers quite a few films that probably don't belong under the heading noir.
So, I prefer to give them the titles of several classic films noir and let them figure it out for themselves. After you've seen a few, you'll get the idea and can take it from there.
Here's a list of some personal favorites that you ought to enjoy, if you're tuned right for enjoyment of noir.
.OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and AGAINST ALL ODDS (1984) are two of my most reliable choices because they're two different versions of the same classic roman noir novel, Geoffrey Homes' 1946 "Build My Gallows High," and both were made by outstanding directors--Jacques Tourneur for the 1947 film and Taylor Hackford for the 1984 remake--with an excellent grasp of the genre. I dispute the often-heard theory that you can't do noir in color. Baloney! The 1984 color, widescreen remake is exceptional noir, even with those Mexican beach scenes in bright sunlight.
The story by Homes, the pen name for Dan Mainwaring , a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, has all the key noir ingredients: A man haunted by his past, seemingly cursed by the fates, who faces a bitter destiny when he crosses the path of a tempting femme fatale. The lead character--called "Red" Bailey in the book, "Jeff" Bailey in the 1947 film--is hiding out from his sordid past as a private eye who did dirty work for a sleazy gambler. He's using a new name, has found a decent girl who loves him, but is lured back to the dark side by his former associates.
The 1947 film stars the actor many noir fans believe was the ultimate hero figure for the genre: Robert Mitchum, who, in real life, seemed to live in the same deep shadows he frequented in so many classic noir films. It also has a sizzling performance by a great noir queen, actress Jane Greer, who in the 1984 remake played the mother of the character she played in the 1947 original. Finally, it has a searing performance by the young Kirk Douglas as the bete noir of the tale--a part played in the remake by the most intense heavy of modern cinema, James Woods.
If you understand why these two films are great, then you're a candidate for much more noir. I'd say you're then ready for:
. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), two great films adapted from the short novels of James M. Cain, whose dark, cyncial writings about criminals in the 1930s inspired the mostly European film directors who helped create the distinctive style the French film criticslater hailed as noir.
The hero of the 1944 film is an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) who's easy prey for the screen's greatest noir queen, Barbara Stanwyck, as she seeks his help in murdering her husband and collecting on his insurance policy. This poor sap doesn't account for the turns things take when Stanwyck's soul grows even darker and insurance investigator Edward G. Robinson begins to sniff up clues. The opening sequence of this brilliant film by director Billy Wilder, in which a dying MacMurray starts his confession to a dictograph machine, is one you'll never forget.
Equally stunning is the 1946 "Postman Always Rings Twice" with drifter John Garfield, the most intense actor of the 1940s, turning up at the roadside diner where HIS femme fatale waits behind the counter in the person of sexy Lana Turner, hoping to find some hunky guy who'll help her murder HER husband, so she can clean out his bank account and run that diner the way she wants to run it. Turner was also a quintessential noir babe, a libidinous lady who liked to hang out with mob guys in real life. She gives her steamiest performance and if Garfield seems to be panting a lot, it isn't always the Southern California heat to blame. (The 1981 remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange isn't too shabby either!)
Drifters like Garfield were popular characters in films noir and one of the best of them turns up in...
. DETOUR (1945), the low budget classic by another Euro-refugee, Edgar Ullmer, who creates a mood of absolute fatalism as we follow drifter Tom Neal on his highway journey to California and his inevitable encounter with a femme fatale, played by "B" movie sizzler Ann Savage. This is a guy that the Fates seem to dump on from great heights. The scene you'll never forget is the one in which Neal wants to get the telephone away from the woman who has taken it into an adjoining room, tugs desperately on the line that's snaked under the door--and doesn't realize he's strangling her. Tom Neal himself was a real-life noir character--a drunken brawler whose most infamous escapade was his fight with actor Franchot Tone over the "B" movie sexpot Barbara Payton, who ended her days as a common street whore on Hollywood Boulevard.
. THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) is another classic low-budget noir, starring Charles McGraw, almost always a supporting player in other pictures, is the tough cop assigned to transport a gangster's woman (Marie Windsor) across the country by train to testify at a gangland trial, dodging hit men all the way. Directed with crisp style by a young Richard Fleischer, this is one of the darkest, grittiest and most suspenseful crime films of all time. McGraw looks authentic--did they bust his nose just for this picture or what?--and Windsor in this film--and in Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing"--staked her challenge to Stanwyck for the title of "queen of noir." The film has a very satisfying twist ending and never grows old. Avoid the 1990 remake with Gene Hackman, which can't bear comparison with the original.
. PHANTOM LADY (1944) combines the talents of two great engineers of dark suspense: Author Cornell Woolrich, who wrote the original novel and dozens of other classics of the genre, and director Robert Siodmak, whose darkest films, including "The Spiral Staircase" and "The Killers," already have niches in the Noir Hall of Fame.
Alan Curtis plays a man who's framed for the murder of his wife. His alibi ought to be good because he went out with a beautiful "other woman" that night, but nobody else seems to remember her and she seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth. This is an Alfred Hitchcockian sort of thriller about an innocent man "caught up" in events out of his control, which is probably why Hitchcock loved Woolrich's stories so much and turned one of them into one of his greatest films--"Rear Window."
This film is all about shadows and dark alley decor. You'll also never forget the "drumming scene" featuring a frenzied Elisha Cook, Jr. (Remember him from the 1941 "Maltese Falcon"?)
. DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952) and NIAGARA (1953) are two of the best films the late Marilyn Monroe ever made--featuring two of her best dramatic performances. In the earlier film, based on the Charlotte Armstrong novel "Mischief," Monroe is a demented babysitter that slick hotel guest Richard Widmark wants to make time with while she's minding the child of a couple attending a ballroom event at the hotel. When he starts to realize she's a head case, he starts forgetting her body and worrying about how to stop her psycho ways.
The 1953 film, another example of noir in full color, casts Marilyn as the victim for a change. She's sexy, all right, but her jealous--and psychotic--husband (Joseph Cotten) wants to put a stop to her adulterous ways on the brink of what was then the honeymoon capital of the U.S., Niagara Falls. The bell tower murder sequence is unforgettable.
. THE THIRD MAN (1949) is one of the greatest films of all time, noir or not. Based on the novella by Graham Greene, it's about a paperback writer (Joseph Cotten) who comes to post-World War II Vienna to do some work for his old friend Harry Lime, only to discover that Harry was run down and killed by a speeding motorist just a few days earlier. The more he digs into the details of Harry's death--and his sordid life as a black marketeer--the deeper the writer gets into trouble with the military police of the four nations then governing the divided city. An intellectual thriller, this classic by director Carol Reed exposes the sort of darkness that quickly absorbs all the light anyone attempts to turn on it. You can even close your eyes and enjoy this film with its legendary zither score by Anton Karas.
Once you've made your way through these 10 films, you'll either know and love the whole concept of film noir--or you'll know enough to never ask me anything about it again.
©2006 by Ron Miller. This column first posted May 29, 2006.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.
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