“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
So ends The Maltese Falcon and begins Film Noir. The term brings to mind flawed detectives, back-room criminals, shadowy street thugs, crooked cops, and sensual femme fatales. Some of the truly great films are categorized as Film Noir, yet it is next to impossible to get any three people to agree on what the expression means.
“Film Noir” has become one of those “I know it when I see it” terms, which makes it difficult to use in a quick conversation about film. That’s not surprising as the definition has always been vague and has shifted over the years.
One camp sees Film Noir as a movement (like French New Wave or German Expressionism). A film movement is the output of a group of filmmakers all working at a specific time and often at a specific place, and sharing some point of view with regard to style or technique. For Film Noir, that gives us:
- A film made (approximately) between 1941 and 1958 in the United States
- Filmed in b&w, employing twisting camera movement, and dark, high contrast imagery with deep shadows, similar to the style of the German Expressionists
- Containing a story of a disillusioned anti-hero lost in the present world of crime and vice.
However, this tells us more about the filmmakers and the environment they worked in then about the films. I prefer to define Film Noir as a genre, grouping films more on content then on historical context. Yet even those who join me in the genre camp can’t agree on what counts. Some will insist that the films must be black & white (calling a similar style of film shot in color a Neo-Noir), but when the French critics first applied the word “noir” to these films, it was not because the color black was on screen–it was the darkness of the story; dark stories can be told in color as well as b&w. Additionally, requiring the film techniques to be derived from the German films of the ’20s misses the point. Those techniques were important because they brought out the bleakness of the Noir world, not because they happened to be made by Germans. What I do consider important is some combination of:
- Stories based on, or similar to, the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane or James M. Cain.
- A flawed anti-hero struggling to survive in a threatening environment
- A world filled with violent, greedy, near-sociopathic criminals, corrupt officials, and traitorous beauties
- Techniques in filming and lighting that emphasize the sinister nature of life/the world–normally dimly lit, high contrast scenes with low angle shots
- The narrative told in flashbacks or with a voice-over to indicate that the events are inevitable.
- Witty dialog with many memorable lines
- A cynical philosophy–life is filled with betrayal and defeat and you are trapped.
This is a genre that often says a lot about what it means to live. It is a slightly deformed mirror reflecting an image that is almost reality. Our world may not match the Noirworld, but the difference is more in degree than kind.
It is not uncommon to hear someone claim that all Film Noirs share the same two or three plots. While this is a massive simplification, there are three very broad stories that have appeared multiple times in important Film Noirs (and a few not so important ones).
- A morally questionable, but highly skilled, detective takes on what appears to be a simple case which turns out to be convoluted and filled with corruption, leading to a basic truth of life. (The Maltese Falcon, Blade Runner)
- A flawed everyman gives in to temptation, destroying himself morally, and eventually, physically. (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body Heat)
- A good, but imperfect man is in the wrong place at the wrong time, framed for a crime and hunted, but unlike in most Film Noir, he ends up winning. (The Big Clock, Dark City)
The best way to understand Film Noir is to watch Film Noir. The Internet Movie Data Base lists 412 titles, but I’ll narrow that down. I’ve listed and reviewed what I consider to be the ten most important Noir films. These aren’t necessarily the best; two of them are certainly sub-par. But these are the films that show where Noir started and how it has developed:
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While those are the Ten Film Noirs to see, I can’t help but add a few honorable mentions:
The Thin Man (1934)
A murder, a detective, dim and law-breaking cops, criminals everywhere, memorable dialog, and a story based on a book by Dashiell Hammett—it sure sounds like Film Noir, but it’s not. It’s missing the philosophy. Predating the genre by seven years, The Thin Man is happy Noir. Sure there are criminals everywhere, but criminals are rather nice folks that you want to have over for dinner. William Powell and Myrna Loy play husband and wife team Nick and Nora Charles with a combination of humor and dignity that’s never been rivaled. Five sequels followed, and while the plots were forgettable after the second, the interaction between Powell & Loy made all six films worth catching.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Based on a story by Noir author, James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice is yet another spin on the “femme fatale tempts flawed man into killing her husband” plot, and is far weaker than his other version, Double Indemnity, or the far superior Body Heat. The film is hopelessly mired in ’40s production code morality and over the top sentimentality. Sure our “hero” killed someone in cold blood, but he learned an important lesson so is happy to be punished for his crimes. Hmmmm. The directing is plodding as our main characters talk and talk about their feelings, without ever giving a reason to believe them. There is little grit here, just the implication of the book’s sex and cruelty, here sanitized for your protection. The film is important for its place in film history, and for painting Lana Turner as a sexy seductress, not for its quality. It was re-made in 1981 with Jack Nicholson.
Angel Heart (1987)
Perhaps most famous for Cosby Kid Lisa Bonet’s graphic sex scenes, Angel Heart adds the supernatural to Film Noir and creates a surprisingly compelling tale. In all good Noir atmosphere is vital, but in Angel Heart, it’s everything. There is a marvelous richness to the depravity that soaks through every frame. Micky Rourke makes an effective slob of a detective who should have run home when his missing persons investigation gets twisted into the world of New Orleans voodoo. It runs a bit slow in the middle, and the fact that it all makes sense in the end doesn’t help the flashbacks and hallucinations while viewing. Still, the end makes up for any flaws, even if it is predictable.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
“And like that…he’s gone.” Count this as number 11 on my list (and I may be mistaken for not ranking it higher). The Usual Suspects is proof that Film Noir is alive and well. Besides being a flawlessly directed and well acted film, it has one of the cleverest screenplays ever to make it to the screen. I knew I was deep into Film Noir in the first scene, where the main character, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is shot on the flaming deck of a drug ship. Verbal Kint (in a star making performance by Kevin Spacey) then tells the story of what led to Keaton’s death. But all is not what it seems. Yes, the twist ending is a beauty, but it all works even when you know the twist. There’s a lot being said about the nature of reality and it takes several viewing to digest it, which is fine as it gives you the opportunity to enjoy the nuances of Spacey’s performance a few extra times. The Usual Suspects also added a new phrase to the language: who is Keyser Soze?
L.A. Confidential (1997)
The most important representative of Retro-Noir—modern films set in the era and locations of the golden age Noirs—L. A. Confidential is a film about corruption. The corruption of the police are a given in this world. More important is dim, violent, Bud White’s attempt to escape the decay and Edmund Exley’s slip into it as the only way to survive. Kevin Spacey puts in another superb performance.
Dark City (1998)
The second of the major Future Noir films, Dark City merges Film Noir and Science Fiction far differently than Blade Runner. Blade Runner presents the world of a failed future, while Dark City gives us the world of our nightmares. Few films have offered up such pure paranoia. There’s a lot to like about this film and art direction has to be at the top of the list. It also suffers from the miscasting of Keifer Sutherland, who plays his scientist as if he’s eighty and German, which is quite odd as Sutherland doesn’t pull off either. There is also an unfortunate voiceover, required by the production company, that explains the first hour of the film in a minute. However, that’s easy to avoid; turn the sound down for the first 60 seconds of the movie.