In film noir men were desperate, women were dangerous, the milieu was seedy, and the streets and back alleys were always dark with just the harsh glare of neon to interrupt the shadows.
It was a stark, gritty, cynical, and often sexually charged film genre, and while not the only game in Hollywood from the mid 1940s to the late 1950s, practically defined the era.
It is said that film noir just `happened’, that it wasn’t planned. The term film noir wasn’t even coined until 1946, several years after the genre took hold.
Like pornography, defining film noir is difficult. But you know it when you see it.
The characters are usually drawn into a nightmarish world, with no way out. Happy endings, as in life, are a rarity.
The stories often leapt from the pages of pulp magazines and authors of hard boiled detective novels. Names like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich.
I’ve select 6 examples of film noir to fill your hot summer nights. All are available on The Internet Archive.
First stop, The Amazing Mr. X (1948)
A little film with a lot of cinematic style, this B movie is far better than the title suggests.
In the UK it was released as `The Spiritualist’, and that better describes it, as this films takes us into the dark and seedy world of phony mystics. At 78 minutes, this film doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Terhan Bey gives a terrific performance.
The Crooked Way (1949) Starring John Payne
Take one war hero with a silver star, but suffering from amnesia, and send him home only to discover that he had a criminal past and is wanted by the cops for crimes he cannot remember . . . and you have the ingredients for this classic little noir.
In short order he is pursued by the cops, beaten by the mob, and framed for murder. Welcome to his nightmare . . .
Robert Cummings, better known for his light comedies of the 1930s through the 1950s, occasionally took a turn in dramatic roles. Here he plays (another) returning veteran from WWII, who is hired as a chauffeur for a gangster, and ends up on the run with the gangster’s wife.
Please Murder Me (1956) Starring Raymond Burr and Angela Landsbury.
A year before he personified Perry Mason on TV, Raymond Burr played a different attorney in Please Murder Me. He gets his client off, only to discover she really was a murderess.
Wracked with guilt, he then plots how to bring her to justice . . . . I won’t give away the ending.
Stranger, The Starring Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, and Loretta Young.
Perhaps the best of the movies presented today, particularly when you consider the star power involved, and the direction by `boy genious’ Orson Welles.
This is a tense cat-and-mouse game between a war crimes investigator (Robinson) and an infamous Nazi living in disguise after the war in Connecticut.
The Big Combo (1955) Cornel WIlde, Richard Conte
Another gem, well remembered for its stylish cinematography, musical score, and dark and violent themes.
The Big Combo revolves around a mob boss (Conte), and the detective (Wilde) who is doggedly trying to bring him down, despite a lack of support from his superiors. Look for Lee Van Cleef and a young Earl Holliman as a pair of torpedoes.
You’ll find some additional film noir selections in my essay from last year, entitled Classic Film Noir.