The Big Combo (1955)

The walls and floors are streaked in shadows and there's a noisy boxing match roaring in the city.

Behind the scenes, a girl is pursued down darkly expressionist corridors, with only the self-gratified roar of the crowd as backdrop.

As The Big Combo starts we’re right in there at the heart of the caper, although the real story of The Big Combo is that of Cornel Wilde’s cop, and his obsession with catching the cooly menacing crime lord, Mr Brown, played brilliantly by Richard Conte.

To fulfil its film noir promise, The Big Combo is also hot with slick dialogue, the sort they just don't write no more:

Joe McClure: I guess I'm getting too old to handle a gun.

Mr. Brown: Yeah, maybe you're just getting too old, Joe.

This Gun for Hire (1942)

This Gun For Hire (1942) — one of the finest of the early film noirs — and the first to profile the mutual talents of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd — is a film noir to the core.

This classic film noir features a troubled protagonist, a strange mix of genres, and a mean streak that has you questioning the picture's cruelty from the off.

This Gun for Hire might be the title, in fact, but I would on occasion simply like to refer to it as Psychopaths of 1942 — because that is what it is like at times.

There are a handful of foreign agent films to refer to when trying to place This Gun for Hire in a firm historical context.

These are pictures that either concentrate on or combine the idea of war-effort with their criminal thrust — such as Foreign Correspondent (1940) — Foreign Agent (1942) — Saboteur (1942) — Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) — Invisible Agent (1942) — The Fallen Sparrow (1943) — and Ministry of Fear (1944).

Classic French Film Noir #5

Tirez Sur La Pianiste (1960)

Tirez Sur La Pianiste (1960) and better known as Shoot the Piano Player, is surefire French film noir, from none other than Francois Truffaut.

Francois Truffaut was a film critic for the magazine Cahiers du cinéma. 

After his debut, Les Quatre Cents Coups, which was a coming of age tale, Truffaut took a completely different subject matter for this second feature. 

The source novel is Down There, a US pulp fiction production by David Goodis. Its a tale of crime set in seedy locations with a graceless kind of plot, but the way the filmmakers use this source makes Tirez Sur Le Pianiste the film it is.

Charles Aznavour is the passive, indifferent anti-hero, ineffective in either solving or preventing crime. The heart of the film goes back to his character Charlie's past where he was a classical concert pianist. A vignette explains to us why Charlie is in the pits now. 

Nicole Berger as Thérèse Saroyan, Charlie's wife owns this part of the film. This section also features a beautiful sequence where the camera chooses to follow a female violinist from the door of an apartment and out into the courtyard. Why? There is no answer.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

A woman’s place in film noir is evilly clear — she’s the seductress who tempts the man into his own destruction — although often she plays a stronger role as the heroine, the seeker hero of her own, solving a crime on behalf of an imprisoned or incapacitated male.

Even if they are irresistibly destructive, the women of noir are never static symbols of male repression — they’re intelligent, powerful, and overly-sexual.

The File on Thelma Jordon is Double Indemnity meets Pitfall — disguised as a well-presented story of marital infidelity. 

And it has Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, bidding for film noir immortality.

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

Although the propagadnda is blunt, it’s easy to overlook how enormously popular I Was a Communist for the FBI was in its day.

That day was 1951 and I Was a Communist for the FBI spoon fed the anti-Communist prejudice of its era so hard and fast that you'd be forgiven now for thinking that it was a parody — but it’s not. 

The slimy backstabbing Communists in Gordon Douglas’ film may not be real, but the fear of them was real.

As was the hero — Matt Cvetic — although this isn’t a true portrayal of him. 

Cvetic wasn’t of the greates use to the real Feds, but wholly came into his own as a media personality, and one who could be relied upon to play it nice for the crowds.  What a heel.

The Playland Crazy House in The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
If you're a romantic, you're going to see Orson Welles as a visionary artist, subdued by the wicked forces of the studios, and you're going to treat all his idiosyncrasies of technique as ahead of their time, and signs that he's the greatest director there ever was.

If you're a realist, you're going to see Orson Welles as someone who treated the cinema as a toybox, and failed to realise the needs of viewers, a non-commercial experimentalist who struggled against studios who were only trying to recoup their investment in him, when they cut and changed his films.

There's no doubt that in terms of innovation, Welles got away with plenty. In The Lady from Shanghai, as in a few of his other productions, there are beautiful crane shots, unusual close ups and many plot non-sequiturs for which you must simply suspended disbelief.  His sudden close ups in The Lady From Shanghai can be confusing, simply because the close up is a way of telling the audience that someone or something is important.

This isn't always the case however . . .

The Naked City (1948)

This time yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl.  But now she’s the marmalade on 10,000 pieces of toast. 

In this fashion — by being murdered — this young model becomes one of the stories of The Naked City (1948) which was not just a seminal film noir, but a new departure in many different screen-crafts. 

If you were looking for brave film making in 1948, this was it — cutting edge — innovative and yet sticking to some familiar aspects and techniques, as seen its police procedural and final chase and shoot out.  

It was all the inspiration of Mark Hellinger, who was one of the most ground-breaking producers of the time. And directed by Jules Dassin, whose film noirs always appear in critic's top tens.

French Film Noir #1

A Bout de Souffle (1960)

A Bout de Souffle (1960) (Breathless) is a classic of something, but not everybody can agree what exactly it is a classic example of.

It is New Wave for sure, and although is too postmodern by far to be a genuine film noir, the French (and in this case Jean-Luc Godard, a Suisse) appropriated film noir for their own, and made a virtue of its every trope.

And film noir's every trope is stated in A Bout de Souffle. Trouble is that to appreciate Breathless, and see what is going on, a viewer has to see the picture from a historical context, which requires studying the French New Wave, film theory as a whole, and the lives and attitudes of its contemporaries.

Destination Murder (1950)

For devilish double-crossing and deceit, Destination Murder makes a decent stab. 

The central wise-ass is a total scuzzball, a murderer and two-timer who takes up blackmail and loves to think he’s in charge. 

His boss is Armitage, an evil nightclub owner, who has a player piano which plays the Moonlight Sonata every time he throttles someone to death.

Weirdly, when he kills his fiancée in the apartment of his right-hand man, the player piano is present, begging the question — did Armitage actually bring the piano with him to the murder scene?  

This and many other stupid questions trip quickly offa da brain while watching this low grade film noir, which both perlexes and pleases in equivalent degrees.

Angels Over Broadway (1940)

Angels Over Broadway (1940) is a pretty little film noir B-picture, with elements of comedy and farce tagged on to some more usual elements, which include a suicidal male lead and some hoods playing a crooked game of poker.

The 'angels' of the title ultimately gather around an insecure and insignificant little man who is about to kill himself, due to  mis-appropriated $3,000. These three unlikely characters are grifter and street-dwelling shark-about town Douglas Fairbanks Jnr; confident and innocent girl-on-the-up Rita Hayworth, and playwright and bombastic drunk, Thomas Mitchell.

What starts as a scam against the suicidal man is transformed by this unusual crew into more of a long con, when the four conspire to cheat some very bad gang-members out of money in a seedy high stakes game. The mark, in effect turns the tables and becomes the conman, although this high risk strategy of course doesn't play out as expected.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Eddie Robson, who is one of the world’s most thorough-going experts on film noir, is determined that Stranger on the Third Floor is the world’s first film noir. 

Not that one should spend a lot of time on this debate, but still it’s discussed. And he might even be right!

Despite being heavy on the expressionist shadows and the hapless hero, Stranger on the Third Floor lacks a few key noir elements, notably the femme fatale or bad girl — of which there is none.

But Stranger more than makes up for that in shadows and the psychological blurring of dream and reality.

The Enforcer (1951)

Who is The Enforcer?  Is it Humphrey Bogart who plays District Attorney Martin Ferguson, the guy who enforces the law, slapping hoods where necessary, an enforcer of morals in a sick crime game?

Is The Enforcer Everett Sloane as Moriarty-like mastermind Albert Mendoza, a man so feared in the city that even the mention of his name enforces a certain silence, an absolute fear, the inevitability of a violent death? 

Or is The Enforcer tough guy turned snivelling snitch, Rico, played by Ted De Corsia, whose king-pin status keeps the whole racket going; Rico who enforces the deadly conviction of the mysterious boss man, until his own nasty death?

It is not possible to keep track of the flashback-cum-story within a story structure of The Enforcer.  The first ten minutes take place near the end of the story, and from thence the editor dives to the start, periodically dipping further into the past as hood and victims tell their stories, generally to Ferguson, the character played by Bogart. 

The Origins of Film Noir #1

Man in a maze of mirrors? Here comes Film Noir.
The origins of the film noir movement may be complex, but they are not beyond the scope of a few simple blog posts. Yes, the answers lie within a byzantine can of worms, but we can still sketch out what those origins are.

If you know the history of the 1930s, both in Europe and in the States, that's a start. Because from those places and most particularly, their politics, a shift towards a more paranoid state of mind began to infiltrate our lives.

We became aware of crime on a new scale, for a start, as inspired by the knowledge we gained of organized crime in the US, and on another level altogether, the political crimes of the Nazis and other fascist groups in Europe.

The paranoia was real as well, and as a final piece in the puzzle, it became embedded and hot-wired in every man woman and child, through the growth of Freudian imagery and analysis, something the movies were able to express perfectly.

The results cannot be denied, and however we define it, there sprang up around 1940 a strain of movies that later critics could identify as belonging to that wonderful category we now call film noir.

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Kansas City Confidential isn’t the slickest show in the film noir canon — but it has plenty of malice crammed into the close ups of its prolific baddies’ sweaty, greedy faces.

Director Phil Karlson made some pretty smart crime flicks in his time, such as 99 River Street and Scandal Sheet, but this one isn’t quite up to those giddy heights, and has some clumsy moments, as some poorly scripted and cheap-looking scenes. 

On the plus side, Kansas City Confidential may be the sweatiest of all film noirs, with several gallons of perspiration being shown on the flow in each act.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly is also known for its weird credits
which back up the screen instead of descend
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is a typically depraved hardboiled film noir story, with an uncaring and sleazy anti-hero.

There are complex plot threads that form an overall labyrinth that has to be ignored if you are to enjoy the story, and Cold War and nuclear paranoia grow like rampant weeds through this, eventually and dramatically engulfing everything.

Kiss Me Deadly has many of the elements of film noir — a stark opening sequence, several destructive femme fatales, a clutch of low-life gangsters, and many expressionistic lit night-time scenes. 

There is also within this mess of noir, a vengeful quest, and a constant dark mood of hopelessness, which shows that the patterns of film noir had by this late stage in the canon been refined into a high art in themselves.

It is also the closing point of the canon, the last ever film noir — so everything after May 18, 1955 — the day that Kiss Me Deadly was released — can officially be known as ‘neo-noir’.

That's what they say, anyhow.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, always turns up pretty high in those lists of classic film noirs.  

This probably has more to do with its adoption by the French New Wave than it does with true noir credentials, and the fact that it is one of Hollywood’s periodic flashes of its own underbelly.  

But Bogart is slick, wise-ass and selfish and so is the movie, which doesn't offer up a hero but instead presents a bitter and depressed cynic anti-hero incapable of heroism.  

It's a comment on the 1950s, when screenwriters were accused of communism and their friends often turned against them, and Humphrey Bogart plays it dark, often amoral, insisting that a girl find her own cab, refusing to show empathy for a murdered woman, remorseless when shown photos of a crime scene and sexually aroused when given the chance to re-enact a violent murder.

French Film Noir #4

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le Fou was booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and shortly afterwards, it was similarly unsuccessful at the box office when it was released in Paris in 1966.

With hindsight, the film now looks like Jean-Luc Godard’s farewell blast to the part of his career whcih was madcap and romantic. 

Symbol-oriented and more surreal than any crime film should be, Pierrot le Fou does however rely on many of the tropes of film noir to cut its path. If you think the neo-noir genre is big enough to absorb these idiosyncracies, then add this to your list of essential French Film Noir.

It might be comedy, it might be high art, and it might just be purely libertine film-making, but either way it has to be high on any list of French neo-noir, because it tips its hat to just about everything, in as silly a fashion as it can. 

Laura vs Gilda

Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth
Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth
Laura (1944) and Gilda (1946) are women-in-waiting at the edge of cinema history and you'll find them in any of several critical lists of Top Film Noirs or Film Noir Favorites and Film Noir Classics.

I should perhaps retract that crap right now, because leading film historian and the boss of noir Eddie Muller has included neither of these two films in his '25 Film Noir that will stand the test of time'.

However, the Internet ain't short of alternate lists and you'll find Charles Vidor's Gilda at #13 in Paste Magazine's 100 Best Film Noirs, with Otto Preminger's Laura sitting pretty at #9.

The British Film Institute (BFI), a well-trusted source for cinephiles and buffs of all stamp, has both Laura and Gilda rocking into its Top Ten of the best film noirs.

And film critic Tim Robey, writing at The Telegraph, includes Laura on his best film noirs of all time list.

Quicksand (1950)

The greatest tale of moral degradation in film noir is Quicksand (1950) — with Mickey RooneyJeanne Cagney and Peter Lorre.  

It’s standard issue for a film noir to ship with a weak male lead, but often these guys have issues to begin with — their moral compasses have been spun to point to Palookaville — sometimes by war, by crime, suburbia or a dilemma that’s placed in their path.  It ain’t so with Mickey Rooney as Dan Brady.

Dan Brady in Quicksand isn’t crooked — not like his boss — and he ain’t a heel. He’s a happy-go-lucky hard blue collar worker who winds up on a an epic moral descent, which begins after he successfully chats up femme fatale Jeanne Cagney but then needs twenty dollars to take her on a  date.

The Dream Nazis of Ministry of Fear (1944)

The Nazis in Fritz Lang's film noir mid-war favourite Ministry of Fear aren't presented in the typical style of the day.

The Nazis in this film noir classic don't wear swastika armbands and nor do they make fascist speeches about the benefits of the Reich's new order, a sight common enough from other mid-War propaganda.

There were many films made about WWII, during WWII. The movie Nazis that made the most impact at the time were in the style of the pompous evil-doers of films like Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (1942); or Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943).

But Fritz Lang had been tormenting Nazis on screen for quite a long time before this, and Lang's 1933 film The Testament of Dr Mabuse was the first of his to genuinely get under the skin of the Master Race.

In this second Mabuse film, Mabuse's amazing looking ghost, (a creature rarely bettered in cinema) seems to partially quote some Nazi slogans in a speech which promotes a warped political anarcho-tyranny, as follows:

"Humanity's soul must be shaken to the very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crime.  Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to' inspire fear and terror, because the only ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the empire of crime—a state of complete insecurity and anarchy, founded upon the tainted ideals of a world doomed to annihilation.  When humanity subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law—then the time will come for the empire of crime."