The Big Sleep (1946)
“Somebody’s always giving me guns.” Philip Marlowe
What makes a film noir a film noir? The lead character with a few flaws, cinematography chock full of dark shadows and thrown-out morals. And the 1946 classic The Big Sleep has all those things.
Here, Bogart is detective Philip Marlowe, possibly fiction’s most famous private eye (alongside Sam Spade). He is called in to investigate about a man one of a prominent family’s daughters has fallen for. As he goes deeper into the case, bodies start to drop.
Boy, this has one dizzying plot. Even if you pay really close attention, you still don’t know who killed who. But that’s what makes it more appealing to watch. Even Raymond Chandler, who wrote the original novel, didn’t know who killed who.
Of course, the studio heads wanted The Big Sleep to have Bogart and Lauren Bacall in each other’s arms at the end, which they got. It’s the build up to that point that makes it too irresistible to avoid.
Out of the Past (1947)
“Build my gallows high, baby.” Jeff Bailey
Wherever there lurks a femme fatale with a hidden agenda and a dynamite pair of getaway sticks, a cynical gumshoe is never far behind. Think of it as The Law of Detective Noir; one cannot exist without the other. They feed each other – the femme fatale delights in escaping, and the detective cannot resist the chase. Somewhere in the chase, genuine emotions get involved. And emotions, in detective noir, are the great undoing. They have a way of making sure the past doesn’t stay where it should.
In “Out of the Past,” private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) sees this coming. “How big a chump can you get to be?” he muses, finding himself besotted with Kathie (Jane Greer), the woman he was hired to find. “I was finding out.” Jeff purposely botched the job, hoodwinked his client Whit (Kirk Douglas), Kathie’s spurned ex-lover, and fell hard for the doe-eyed dame. But that’s not where Jacques Tourneur’s film begins. Actually, it’s the dirty past that blindsides Jeff, now the unassuming owner of a small Bridgeport gas station who’s engaged to a pretty local girl (Virginia Huston) completely unaware of his history. This intermingling, and then brutal collision, of past and present – told in flashbacks narrated laconically by Mitchum – marks “Out of the Past” as one of the standouts of detective noir.
There is more to “Out of the Past” than flashbacks and wisecracks, though. Noir doesn’t come more classic than Tourneur’s iconic film, which boasts shadowy cinematography that’s by turns romantic and sinister, revealing and furtive. There’s a protagonist who is not at all what he seems, who is deeply conflicted and frozen, who can’t go back but can’t quite move forward, either. There’s a woman of many faces, all of them bewitching. Most important, there’s a pervading sense of resignation, the ultimate acceptance of fate’s cruel inevitability. Jeff, in the end, accepts that his past has decided his future. But his decision to go down doing what’s right is something of an inspiration. For that’s what the best detective noir does: shows us that even if our fate is sealed, that does not mean we cannot rage against it.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
“You’re so bright working on your own, you penny-ante gumshoe. You thought you saw something big and you tried to horn in” Lt. Pat Murphy (to Mike Hammer)
If you thought Marlowe and Spade were hardboiled detectives you haven’t seen Mike Hammer! Driving home late at night, Los Angeles private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) encounters Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive but troubled (they always are in this genre) hitchhiker wearing nothing under her trench coat. After being accosted by a group of unknown thugs Christina is tortured to death and placed in Hammers car where the pair are left for dead in a staged wreck. After surviving the crash Hammer is put under considerable pressure to let the matter drop he isn’t one to let things drop, especially when he can see a payday in it.
Film Noir was born during wartime with early examples appearing in 1940. The fear, paranoia, suspicion and bleakness of the time is echoed in the stories and their characters. It stands to reason that the genre began to die out (before the neo-noir of the 70s and beyond) in the hope and prosperity of post-war America in the 50‘s. But as the “Cold War” began to heat up it was a time with its own paranoia and fear and it produced a few great noir movies, Robert Aldrich’s film based on Mickey Spillane’s novel is one of, if not the best example of this. It is no coincidence that the that the MacGuffin or “The great whatsit” as it is referred to in the movie is a box, Pandora’s Box! The comparison is even made in the movie.
Held together by a great performance by Meeker as the charismatic but amoral Hammer and adorned by a superb supporting cast including Maxine Cooper as Hammer’s assistant/lover, Velda. It doesn’t do any harm that they are given razor-sharp dialogue to aid their performances. For a film made half a century ago it is surprisingly modern with its fast paced editing and a photography/soundtrack combination designed to unsettle the viewer. It comes as no surprise that the movies influence is still felt to this day with references in Repo Man and Pulp Fiction. Containing some brutal violence, at the time of its release it was sighted by the federal government as a corrupting influences and “1955′s number one menace to American youth”, what more reason do you need to see it?
L.A. Confidential (1997)
“Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.” Captain Dudley
A journey into the genre of film Noir in a modern time where audiences could truly embrace what crime thrillers were meant to be. The story circulates itself around a shooting at an all night diner. Three different cops are after the truth, which only unveils the depth of police corruption and the sleaze of Hollywood. The result of writers, directors, art designers, and actors at their very best was a masterpiece that will last and linger in the minds of movie goers forever. The impact this film had on modern film is still prevalent in conversation today. Not only in it’s decade, but the decade since it remains the poster child for reviving and paying homage to Noir films. Characters dark and moody, sexy and sultry vixens, smarmy two-faced villains, and a tale woven so immaculately it’s impossible not to completely engross yourself in the incredible plot. In spite of the sultry feel to the crime caper there is also something very gritty to it’s feel and it’s not just limited to the context. With a run-time of over two hours the film barely feels like any time has passed. It’s truly an exquisite addition to cinema and the revitalization of film Noir.
By Heather from Movie Mobsters
“I’m looking to find this big game the Pin’s played, not to gum it, but just so when its tail jams in my back I’ll know who to bill for the embalming” – Brendan Frye
It’s no secret that, while I love films, I don’t watch a ton of older films. So the classics for this genre, like The Maltese Falcon or any Bogart film, are pretty much lost on me. So, when I was asked to contribute to this piece, I had to go with a Neo-Noir for my choice. Luckily, I knew of a great one that manages to deliver a classic 50′s Noir in a contemporary setting. Here’s the basic idea behind the film BRICK: A teenage loner pushes his way into the underworld of a high school crime ring to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.
While that sounds cool, it does the film zero justice. What’s brilliant about brick is while the story is an unravelling murder mystery and the dialogue is completely authentic to the Noirs of old, the film takes place in a modern-day high school. It’s, honestly, a crossing of genres that could have gone horribly wrong but manages to succeed by its utter loyalty to its premise. I will admit, the first time I watched the film, I had to watch it with the sub-titles on because the heavily stylized dialogue (including the slang used) can be hard to follow but it’s well worth the investment.
A few other things worth noting about this film… One thing that amazes me is the fact that it got distributed at all. Which probably only happened because of its modest budget (around 500 thousand). That number is another thing that amazes in that a film of this quality could be produced for pennies by Hollywood standards. This is also the film, in my opinion, that proved Jo-Go (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had the makings of a star. If you follow his resume, you’ll see Hollywood mirrored my opinion. Finally, I’d just like to mention the director: Rian Johnson. When I appeared on The (late, great) Film Cynics radio show a few months back, they asked me who I had my eye on out there as far as directors. I told them Rian Johnson who followed up Brick with The Brothers Bloom and is in production with Looper, a time travel Sci-Fi Action film starring Bruce Willis. His career looks very promising right now and this is where it all started… by reinventing a classic film genre.
By Kai from The List
Winter’s Bone (2010)
“What are we ever gonna do with you, baby girl?”
My interest in WINTER’S BONE was sparked the first time I heard a fellow blogger discuss the film in the early summer of 2010. It was the term he used to describe it that caught my attention – he called it “Hillbilly Noir”.
On the surface, Debra Granik’s film might not seem to have much in common with tales like CHINATOWN or THE MALTESE FALCON. But even without the fedoras or femme fatales, one can’t help but notice a lot of elements of noir in The Ballad of Ree Dolly.
The biggest difference where the film is concerned is the motive. Ree sets off on her investigation into Jessup’s disappearance out of self-preservation. Usually in noir, the quest begins because the protagonist is hired to solve the story, or has the mystery fall in their lap. In this instance, the puzzle must be solved by Ree because even if she could find someone to put the pieces together, she sure-as-shit can’t afford that person.
Thus Ree turns into an Ozark Nancy Drew and goes in search of answers by herself. Where the story goes noir, is with the surprising amount of resistance she gets. She lives in a tiny community, and the doors she’s knocking on aren’t just her neighbors – they’re often those of her relatives. But the family ties may as well be bound with twine, and the way of life is far too valuable. So over and over, she’s told to stop nosing.
Just like any great noir, there’s a morally compromised character to help our protagonist along, and in this case it’s Teardrop – a violent man who just so happens to be Ree’s uncle. He can see the trouble coming, and doesn’t feel like he owes Ree a thing, so even though she and her siblings have next to nothing, he begins the tale not wanting to help our hero solve the mystery. But in a noir, no character is completely black or white…thus Teardrop steps in a Guy Friday for Ree.
WINTER’S BONE sends Ree down a very dark and dangerous path, the sort of path where question after question is answered with a cold “Don’t ask”. She puts her own life in jeopardy, needs to work outside of the law, and has to decide for herself which unsavoury people can be trusted long enough to uncover the truth.
The only thing that would make it more noir is if Jennifer Lawrence’s weary voice narrated the whole grizzly tale.
By The Mad Hatter from The Dark of The Matinee