Masters of the dark arts
Our critic picks his favourite films noir
A recent poll on the best films noir in The Guardian newspaper included a Roman Polanski film made in the mid-1970s and a violent Coen brothers movie from the mid-1980s, both of them shot in colour. It got me thinking, how does one define a film noir exactly, and is it right to include colour movies and not made in the 1940s and 1950s?
First things first. Though there's been some dispute about all this, the term film noir was probably first used in earnest by an influential French critic called Nino Frank, a cultivated writer and acquaintance of James Joyce. In 1945 and 1946, Parisian cinemas were flooded with a new kind of hardboiled thriller pumped out in Hollywood during the war.
Nino Frank was greatly taken with movies like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, with their gloomy aesthetic and wise-cracking, dead-eyed anti-heroes. He wrote about their intoxicating obsession with sex and death, their rejection of classic Hollywood sentimentalism in favour of a more cynical and realistic world view, and their fearlessly unhappy endings.
Though they'd sprung mainly from the detective genre, these new "dark films" were psychological dramas that took a dim view of human nature. Directors such as Huston, Wilder, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger had been heavily influenced by the German expressionist movement, and used diffused light and long shadows to emphasise their gloomy themes.
The heyday of film noir was the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, and by the end of the 1950s the world-weary post-war mood had begun to fundamentally change. But the noirs continued to exert a strong influence, and their distinctive style would be returned to by successive generations of filmmakers, leading to the creation of the subgenre, 'colour noir'.
The films I've chosen, however, are classic, original films noir, grim but timeless classics that reflect the dark and dangerous times in which they were made. Every one is worth watching if you've never done so.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
John Huston's directorial debut was one of the best of the early films noir and helped turn character actor Humphrey Bogart into a bona fide star. He played Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett's no-nonsense San Francisco private investigator, who gets dragged into the hunt for a priceless Mediterranean antique.
Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet were wonderful as the villains, and audiences were shocked by the film's ending, in which Spade refused to take the fall for Mary Astor's treacherous femme fatale.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder was a film noir genius, and two of his movies make my list. Many classic films noir had voiceovers, and in this one, laconic insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) takes a rueful look back at a sexual obsession that landed him in all sorts of trouble. He called to the home of a client called Dietrichson only to be greeted by the man's beautiful young wife (Barbara Stanwyck). She wants her husband dead, and Neff gets dragged into a murder plot that will destroy him.
McMurray and Stanwyck were very good as the doomed lovers, but Edward G Robinson stole the show as Walter's cigar-chewing boss.
Dana Andrews is not much remembered now, but in the 1940s he starred in some of the finest films noir ever made. Otto Preminger's delightful murder mystery Laura starred Andrews as Mark McPherson, a New York cop who becomes obsessed with the woman whose death he's investigating. Laura (Gene Tierney) was a glamorous and sophisticated ad executive until someone burst into her apartment and pumped both barrels of a shotgun into her face.
McPherson finds no shortage of suspects, from an oily newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb) to Laura's creepy boyfriend (Vincent Price), but the truth is stranger than he could possibly have imagined. A classic.
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
This tortuous thriller from George Marshall explores the dark side of post-war American life. Naval pilot and war hero Johnny Morrison returns from the Pacific campaign to find that his feckless wife Helen has taken up with a lounge lizard called Harwood. When Helen is later found dead, Johnny becomes the prime suspect in her murder. But an unlikely ally appears in the shapely form of Joyce (Veronica Lake), Harwood's ex-wife, who helps him find the real killer.
Raymond Chandler's screenplay is sparkling and witty, and Marshall's film oozes menace and style.
The Big Sleep (1946)
If any actor epitomises the film noir period it's Humphrey Bogart, and he's at his swaggering best in this superb Howard Hawks thriller based on a novel by Raymond Chandler.
Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is called to the Los Angeles mansion of a retired army general called Sternwood, who asks the private eye to pay off the dodgy bookmaker who's plaguing his unstable youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Lauren Bacall co-stars as Carmen's beautiful and sphinx-like older sister Vivian, and the plot of The Big Sleep is so famously complicated that even some of the actors weren't sure who the killer was at the end. But who cares -- it's a fabulous film.
Out of the Past (1947)
Jacques Tourneur made a lot of fine movies, including the brilliant low-budget shocker Cat People, but possibly none finer than this devilishly complicated crime thriller based on a novel by James M Cain.
Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a former Manhattan private eye who is trying to start a new life in California when his past catches up with him. In flashback, he tells his young girlfriend of his past involvement with one Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), a ruthless femme fatale who'll resort to anything -- including murder -- to get exactly what she wants.
The Third Man (1949)
Written by Graham Greene and set against the stern backdrop of a war-torn Vienna, Carol Reed's dancing psychological thriller is high noir, and a masterpiece.
Joseph Cotton plays Holly Martens, an American hack novelist who arrives in postwar Vienna to meet an old friend called Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When he gets there, he's told that Harry is dead, and as he starts to investigate what happened he's given conflicting reports by the authorities and Harry's devastated girlfriend. Welles only appears in the film for 10 or 15 minutes but his looming shadow dominates the story, and he's superb as the charming but utterly corrupted Lime.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder's peerless gothic drama is an unforgettably original and inventive film. William Holden plays Jake Gillis, a struggling screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood whose car breaks down in the driveway of a Sunset Boulevard mansion that has clearly seen better days.
Inside he finds Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a long forgotten silent movie actress who was once among the biggest stars in the world. Norma takes a shine to the writer, and engages him to work on a script that she fondly imagines will drive her comeback. But Gillis finds himself morally compromised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the crumbling mansion. A withering commentary on Hollywood's shallowness, and a very classy film.
The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang's hardboiled crime drama stars Glenn Ford as Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, an honest cop who begins to suspect some of his colleagues are in the pay of the local mob boss. When he gets too close to the truth, the hoodlums plant a bomb under his car but it kills his wife and not him. After that, Bannion becomes a vengeful maniac, and joins forces with an embittered moll called Debby (Gloria Grahame) to bring his enemies down.
A young Lee Marvin made his mark playing a brutal thug, and in one notorious scene he throws boiling hot coffee into poor old Gloria Grahame's face. A dark but very entertaining film.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Films noir don't come much blacker than Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, a grandly cynical and almost despairing thriller based on a nasty little pulp novel by Mickey Spillane. Loutish and unscrupulous Los Angeles private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) stops to give a lift to a young female hitchhiker called Christina. Turns out she's escaped from an asylum and, after they're attacked by hoodlums, the girl is tortured and killed and Hammer's left for dead. But he survives, and wades through the scum of LA's underworld to find out who murdered her.
Aldrich's brilliant but brutal film captured the paranoia of the Eisenhower era, and ends on the ultimate gloomy note.