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:
- The Third Man (1949)
- Rififi (1955)
- Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
- The Big Combo (1955)
- The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
...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 -- Rififi (Paris) --
There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them. "
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.