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The delights of film noir


I fell under the spell of film noir by accident.

A touch of insomnia helps because you'll get noirish films on the TV very late at night if you are conscious and housebound.

But I guess the penny dropped for me when I did my homework and realized that the films I like -- I mean really like  to an obsessive level -- are coincidentally classified as noir.

Then when I saw The Big Combo (1955) for the first time I was aware that I was being hooked on what I now saw as "a genre" (and I knew straightaway why I had been  so long enamored with High Sierra (1941).

I'm not going to go down the anal retentive route and try to define "film noir" such that it ticks a classification box that will rule me. Indeed, after notching up so many movies I still cannot draw together all the themes and styles that aggregate under anyone's customized heading.

But I will say this: film noir feeds you with unexpected delights.

For instance I've been watching a couple of noirs starring Vince Edwards  --  Murder by Contract (1958) and City of Fear (1959) -- and despite everything that is wrong with these films  --  very B grade, low budget with obviously limited rehearsal input -- there is some snippets of delight. 

At least in my eyes....

That even  the most B-gradable noir --and Edwards did C grade -- has some merit is a conundrum. What's the deal, the hook -- that despite  film making like this on the cheap, why do these films work? 

I think the answer lies in part with the freedom with which they were often made which fostered a keen experimentation and ready indulgence in the graphic quirks of  (particularly German) Expressionism . It's all neurotic angst, threat and violence often packaged with an intense sensuality. 

Even if the story sucks, the camera work is gonna be worth the viewing.

Here's an off hand list of classic film noirs in no particular order:
...and you'd be hard put to draw them all together by strict ruling. While some are more melodramatic than others,  I guess I respond to the drama and the characters, often especially in the case of Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Combo -- to the woman characters. Two of these films    Kiss Me Deadly  and  The Sweet Smell of Success  have political themes, and one -- Kiss Me Deadly -- verges on science fiction. The Third Man and Rififi are probably my two favorite films of all time because...

...because they are almost perfect. They don't drop the cinematic ball once in all their 100 minutes plus.

Nonetheless, aside from my aesthetic penchant, what really gets me about noirness is that these films were engaged in the world from which they sprung -- the forties and fifties in the post war epoch -- and suggest a very different environment than the standard cultural narrative. They are as much Gothic  Beat Generation  and Bebop as they are pulp crime fiction.

In many of these films, such as the three metropolis classics of Jules Dassin  -- The Naked City (New York)Night and the City (London), and Rififi (Paris)  -- the city and its inhabitants rule by documentary as the star of the movie. It's the deity. The host. 
The Naked City ending titles says it all : " There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them. "
Unlike the standard reading of noir -- that it has to be in a sort of Los Angeles mode, hard boiled and very machismo with fags hanging from bottom lips -- what takes off in many noirs, like Dassin's -- is a fascination with the environments we live and work  in --and within which we are sentenced to irk out an existence by crime or other means. In noir, it seems to me, more often than not, actions make sense as they flow  from real need and motivation. 

They are survival exercises -- especially, I should add, for women.

So they are often Shakespearean tragic and fueled by overwhelming passion and yearning. If anything they are a protest against the decades in which they were made despite their seeming complicity with the status quo. 

To that end, noirs will often risk not having a happy ending. It's Hamlet and MacBeth for the 20th century but this time around the tragedians aren't playing aristocrats.


A good example is Pickup on South Street (1953) -- which is, of all things, a crash piece of anti communist  McCarthyism.  The bogeymen are Reds -- devious, murderous, well funded and insidious. But the irony is that  for those who ain't commie prone -- all they really have going for themselves is their patriotism -- their chapter and verse dedication to the mantra My Country 'Tis of Thee ... and little else.

And that's their tragedy -- that the characters can only redeem themselves through "the last refuge of the scoundrel".

Similarly the very working class noirs like the trucker tales, They Drive By Night (1940)and Thieves Highway (1949) -- make you want to scream: "what you guys need is not more melodrama in your lives but a darn good trade union!"

The Horatio Alger American Dream sucks -- it did not matter if you try it on in the garb of film noir or social realism the times were not a'changing much for the better.

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