Noir: Where Fiction and Film Meet
One of the most popular questions in my mystery bookshop is “Who’s your favourite author?” Clients are always surprised when I respond, “I have two: Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. My dog’s name is Dashiell so you know I’m a serious noir fan.”
And guess what?
Noir fiction is back with a vengeance. There is a resurgence of these edgy crime writers with an entirely new audience. 18 to 35-year olds are discovering this wealth of literature and their films for the first time. Intrigued by the depth of character and presentation of an earlier American lan dscape, my clients are passing around their copies of the novels, having friends over for impromptu film nights, and even holding weddings where friends and family are to go as their favorite characters from specific films like The Thin Man (1934). And they are interested in learning more all the time.
Noir fiction of the 1930s and ‘40s featured flawed heroes, alienation from the morals that guided society, greed, and twisted endings. It’s where the dark streets of everyday life and gritty plot lines are rife with murder, beatings, thievery, pessimism, and lust. These novels were a far cry from the golden age of mystery where main characters floated through high society, sleuths and detectives, private or police, sought the truth at all cost and moral good prevailed.
The American film industry followed suit. Films showed people who had spit in the face of their societal constraints, smoking, drinking, gambling, and doing harm. Justice was crooked, the coppers weren’t who they were supposed to be, and women vied for controlling their own lives even if it meant murder. Things were topsy-turvy in a world that was upside down. French film critics wrote about the black cinema or Film Noir that had come to Europe via the United States.
Several of these films were based on the hard boiled crime writers’ novels that reflected the darker side of human nature. They featured gangsters, crooked cops, and characters in it for themselves or just plain down on their luck. Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon hit the big screen featuring Sam Spade in 1941, crime novel Once Off Guard (1942) by J. H. Wallis was filmed as The Woman in the Window (1944), and Vera Caspary’s 1942, Laura, was released in 1944. Of course not all of the films were based on crime novels but over the years, great noir writers like Dorthy B. Hughes, David Goodis, Chester Himes, Richard Stark, Jim Thomson, and James Ellroy have had their literary works turned into noir films.
Gary Deane is a Film Noir buff, reader, blogger, and a friend who has introduced me to many wonderful examples of the genre. I had a chance to chat with him recently about one of his favourite topics. His blog can be found at http://noirworthwatching.blogspot.ca/ and trust me, it’s noir worth reading as well.
- Your blog postings are not your run of the mill postings talking about film. You have delved into interesting aspects of Noir Film. For instance, you have blogged about particular films and actors, Rural and International Noir films. How do you go about choosing the topics and films you write about?
Good question. My involvement in the world of film noir goes deep and I’m forever finding different things to write about. For example, I’d seen a few 1950’s British crime thrillers starring Lawrence Harvey, probably best known for Room at the Top and The Manchurian Candidate. The earlier crime movies were a mixed bag but Harvey stood out as a noir protagonist, fated by greed or arrogance. So I went looking for more films and eventually came up with ten or so which came close to filling the bill as noir and, as it turns out, titles in which he’d given some of his best performances. Those and the story around Harvey himself became the stuff of the article.
For me, the story often can be the most interesting thing. I recently put up a piece on one of (Sir) Richard Attenborough’s first movies, Dancing with Crime. It was released before Brighton Rock, which was a much better-known title even though Dancing with Crime was bigger at the box office. It was the first film to portray the black market as it existed in post-war Britain. It’s a good film with an even a better story. If I got it right, then hopefully anyone with even a passing interest is going to want to keep reading and learn something more about noir along the way.
- In my mystery bookshop, Chronicles of Crime, I have noticed that younger and younger people are becoming interested in noir books and film. What do you think has brought this about?
It’s true. Each year I go to several of the big classic film noir festivals in the United States and lately, audiences have been getting much younger. Historically, film noir took root during the depression, then blossomed during the war years and following. As things improved, film noir went into decline and all but went away – with the exception of movies such as retro-noirs like Chinatown (1974) and neo-noirs like Body Heat (1981). But these days, everything is showing up noir. Look at television drama like Luther, The Killing, or Justified, most of which of which are pretty dark. Again, it’s a reflection of the times. But that said, I also think younger people are more empathetic in outlook and behaviour and these noir narratives are often based in feelings of empathy for people like the Walter Whites and Jesse Pinkmans (Breaking Bad) of the world. If nothing else, at least it’s them and not us if we’re lucky.
Getting back to the classic noir, the younger audiences that I see are enjoying the films, delighting in everything from the clothes to the snappy dialogue. It’s a more innocent, often romantic world but still one with some very compelling stories. There are now classic film noir festivals being held in almost every major city in the U.S. I don’t know of any similar events headlining classic musicals or comedies.
- In your experience, which female and male actor best encompass noir? Why?
That’s a tough one. There were so many great actors in classic film noir – which lasted roughly from 1940 to 1960. But if it has to come down to two, I would say Robert Mitchum and Barbara Stanwyck. Mitchum is the personification of the film noir hero – or better, anti-hero. He’s cool; a guy who’s got it all going on beneath that calm exterior and who never appears to be ‘acting’. If you’ve seen him in Out of the Past (1947), you’ve seen the best performance by an actor in noir. Barbara Stanwyck holds the property rights to the noir woman, a mixture of toughness and sentiment who’s going to make her way in a man’s world no matter what the cost. All this plays out wonderfully but in different ways in Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Marth Ivers (1946), The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), and Crime of Passion (1957).
- What new frontiers are opening up for you in your exploration of Noir Film?
Well, if you cast your net wide enough there’s no end of films and subject matter when it comes to noir. I contribute to a quarterly on-line publication called Noir City that comes out of the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation. They also program and host most of the festivals, which underwrite the film preservation work they do. Make a one-time donation and the publication’s yours forever. I’m always amazed at the breadth of the content in each issue. I think the next one is a special edition on television and noir. I do a regular feature called Under Surveillance: A Closer Look at Forgotten Film Noir in which I highlight little known or under-rated movies, mostly from the classic period.
This usually takes some investigative work which can lead in interesting directions. I did an article a while ago on Robert Altman’s first studio film, Nightmare in Chicago, made in 1962, about a serial killer. The film was a whole ‘new frontier’ at the time.
Right now, I’m working on a couple of projects that involve looking at numbers of movies collectively. One involves recent Indian crime films and police thrillers, many are deeply fatalistic at any number of levels – personal, social, political. They’re also incredibly well-made and more meaningful that the standard Bollywood fare. No singing and dancing this time ‘round. You also mentioned ‘Rural Noir’, a cycle of some of the most timely and genuinely felt films of the last decade. A friend of mine likes to call them “American inequality post-neo noirs”. I’ve got a piece up on the blog.
- If you had to pick three films as must-sees for a person who wants to try Noir Film for the first time, what would you recommend? Why?
Okay. We’ll stick here with the classics here, which I think most people associate with the term ‘film noir’. Assuming that everyone who’s interested has seen The Maltese Falcon (1941) – which is often thought of as the first film noir – my three ‘essentials’ would be Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Double Indemnity, based on the book by James M. Cain, is probably the film that most defines film noir, narratively, thematically and visually. Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the script, Wilder directed, and it stars Barbara Stanwyck as a treacherous spider-woman and Fred MacMurray as her prey and patsy. It’s a perfect film and one of the most influential in Hollywood history.
Out of the Past is another tale of deceit and murder but this one’s much more complex – which is characteristic of a lot of film noir storylines. The movie has a more subtle, dreamlike quality, which can be unsettling and even threatening in its own way. And it has terrific performances from Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. It’s the full noir experience.
The third ‘must see’ is The Asphalt Jungle, directed by John Huston who also did The Maltese Falcon. The Asphalt Jungle set the mold for the noir heist movie in which a gang of criminals, each with his speciality, are brought together to pull a job, then end up double-crossing and betraying each other. A sense of impending doom hangs over every frame in this movie which again is beautifully photographed although with greater realism. It features Marilyn Monroe in her first starring role and that alone is worth the price of admission.
- For a die-hard Noir fan what do you suggest viewing? Why?
Well, a die-hard fan has probably seen a lot of film noirs. It might be the case that many or most of them have been American productions. Which is fair enough but it gives me a chance to talk up Animal Kingdom, one of my favorite movies, period. It’s an Australian noir from 2010 featuring a cast that includes Jackie Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton and Ben Mendelsohn, all of whom have since shown up in Hollywood. Guy Pierce is also in it and Jackie Weaver got an Oscar nomination for her performance. The movie’s at around 100% on Rotten Tomatoes so I’d take it from there.
- What is your favourite noir film at the moment? Why?
Best movie of late is Hell or High Water, a sizzling rural noir starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster that I hope will get plenty of Oscar nods. It screened in theaters a couple of months ago but didn’t hang around for long. It is the kind that will find its audience once it starts streaming and word of mouth takes hold. It’s also at around 100% on the Tomato meter, both critics and audiences, who aren’t always on the same page. Look out for it for sure.
F. G. Thorsen is the owner of Chronicles of Crime, your mystery bookshop in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Aside from running the shop, she teaches crime writing classes, writes book reviews for the Library Journal, edits crime fiction for a Canadian publisher, meets with her writing group every two weeks, and has her first manuscript of the Frankie Stark series with an agent. You can visit the shop at www.chroniclesofcrime.com.