Legendary cinematographer John Alton composed the final iconic image of The Big Combo (1955) as Susan (Jean Wallace) and Detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) walk out of an airplane hangar into the fog. 1955 Allied Artists / TASCHEN

Into The Noir

20th June 2014

Film Noir:100 All-Time Favorites, a lavish and beautifully illustrated new publication from Taschen, promises a veritable ‘feast of noir worship’. Jack Watkins tucks in…

The solitary sleuth, tie loosened, a glass of bourbon in hand, sitting in his empty office as night falls and the neon lights of the city flicker beyond the window. The deadpan voiceover, loaded with pessimism and self-doubt. Rain beating hard on the pavement, as a mysterious figure in a trenchcoat scurries off down a dark side alley, or a big, chrome-plated car gliding noiselessly along a sunny, high-class suburban boulevard. A bold brassy female, with seen-it-all-before eyes, trading insults over a piano in a sleazy nightclub…

Anyone who has relished watching old movies for pleasure will instinctively recognise these as familiar settings of film noir, a type of movie which has been described as not so much a genre, in the manner of the western, musical, or horror film, as a stylistic narrative approach.
Most of us would also, I think, be clear in a placing the classics examples in a distinct period of 1940s Hollywood, though, as the Taschen book points out, the classic time scale runs from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Yet Film Noir:100 All-Time Favorites draws its selection from a much wider timescale. The earliest entry is from the silent era, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), and the most recent is Drive, released in 2011. Each film is accompanied by an insightful description, and the photos are as gorgeous to look at as you’d expect.
Films noirs have always seemed to me to come as close as anything to representing ‘total cinema’. Photography, lighting, camera angles and musical scores all work to create a feeling of the film’s protagonists being caught up in a nightmare world where the usual moral codes are suspended. Unsurprisingly, some of the most style-conscious directors, including Otto Preminger, Max Ophuls, Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmark, worked in film noir. And if the acting wasn’t always the greatest – mood and attitude were always more important than ‘good’ acting in its strictest, most theatrical sense – the merest mention of the names of the stars – Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer –still has an uncanny ability to make the pulse race a little faster.

I was going to say that all the above factors make films noirs a highly visual experience, but the films are often literary in a quite subtle way. It’s no surprise that many of the best Hollywood examples either had scripts written by, or were adapted from, the novels of thriller writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Raymond Chandler. Yet it’s the moody chiaroscuro effects, adapted from German Expressionism – ‘noir’, of course, means black or dark, and implies gloominess – that truly make the films what they are.

The Taschen book republishes Paul Schraders’s brilliant, much sourced essay Notes on Film Noir (Schrader is a noted director in his own right, and his Taxi Driver, released in 1976 and starring Robert De Niro, features in Taschen’s selected 100). Schrader’s piece has never been surpassed as an exposition of what film noir is and is warmly recommended. It’s a reminder that scholarly writing on film needn’t be the impenetrable guff that is so often churned out by academia.

Schrader points out an apparent contradiction at the heart of the film noir. Their cynicism and grittiness was more ‘realistic’ than, say, romantic MGM melodramas, for instance, and certainly less artificial than the gangster movies of the 1930s which, however violent the action, always had to end on a moralistic note. At the same time, the unusual lighting, oblique camera angles and use of exaggerated close-ups of film noir create a dream-like atmosphere. Schrader calls it ‘an uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and expressionism’. He also thinks that the films reached their creative high point in in the late 1940s, which might surprise many who would reckon that to be the mid-40s Bogart-Bacall era.

The beauty of Taschen’s book is that it doesn’t matter. You can just leaf your way through to find your own particular favourites, and there’s almost certainly something for everyone, from Hitchcock fans (The Lodger, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho) to Quentin Tarentino (Pulp Fiction). Also here is Blue Velvet – released in 1986, with Dennis Hopper at his manic peak – and the excellent Black Swan, made as recently as 2010, which compellingly reworked some of the themes of The Red Shoes in a noirish get-up.

When I saw what was included in the top 100 list, it had me digging out a few old favourites I hadn’t watched in years. First up was The Maltese Falcon (1941) which, for many of us, is really where noir, Hollywood-style, first started. It’s the film that set the template for the hard-boiled, sardonic, yet romantically inclined private-detective. Adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, it starred Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, pitting his wits against doe-eyed Mary Astor, the rotund, garrulously charming Sydney Greenstreet (“By Gad, sir, you’re a character, you are indeed”) and Peter Lorre, with his twirling walking cane and gardenia-scented calling cards.

The great John Huston directed The Maltese Falcon, but it’s shot in quite a ‘straight’ manner, and if you are after something with more visual panache, I’d recommend jumping forward three years to Murder, My Sweet and Double Indemnity, both released in 1944.

Murder, My Sweet – released as Farewell, My Lovely in Britain – had Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, the creation of the Dulwich College schoolboy Raymond Chandler, a man who looked like an accountant but who, after taking to writing in middle age, became the greatest writer of detective fiction ever known. Now Powell was no Bogart. As an ex-hoofer, he was dapper and good natured where Bogart was all snarls and minor key romanticism. Even when drugged by his villains, he retained a dancer’s gait. But his wisecracking was up there with the best and, in any case, Murder My Sweet, directed by Edward Dymtryk, is as delicious film to look at as you’ll ever see –and packed with poetic lines, as well as atmosphere.

A lot of folk might plump for Double Indemnity as the best of the lot, however. Chandler actually wrote the screenplay for this along with director Billy Wilder, but it was based on a James M Cain novel. Fred MacMurray was cast opposite the formidable Barbara Stanwick here, though Edward G Robinson stole every scene he was in, as was his wont. For once, the plot was comprehensible, though as Paul Schrader said, in film noir it was seldom about the what but the how. An oppressive air of foreboding and gloom, much owing to the MacMurray character’s voiceover – hangs over Double Indemnity, a film of unhappy people locked in a dark, lonely world.

Film Noir:100 All-Time Favorites may be coffee-table good to look at, but it’s also refreshingly thorough. It even includes a piece by Douglas Keesey on ‘neo-noir’ which looks at how the boundaries of noir –not all have to contain a detective hero or a femme fatale –has stretched over time. Schrader reckoned the best films noirs were works of art. You probably don’t need to read this book to agree on that one, but once you’ve finished, there will certainly be, if you’ll excuse the pun, no shadow of a doubt about it.

Film Noir:100 All-Time Favorites: Paul Duncan, Jürgen Müller • Published by Taschen
Hardcover, 688 pages, £34.99 • www.taschen.com

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