French Film Noir #3


Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes (1955)

After he was blacklisted from Hollywood, Jules Dassin made his way to France where he was asked to direct Rififi.

He shot Rififi with a low budget, without a star cast, and with the production staff working for low wages. And the film earned Dassin the award for Best Direcor at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival and is still acclaimed by all in the know as one of the greatest works in French film noir.

An entire quarter of the film's running time is spent on the most memorable and the most silent heist in all of movie history.

Although this robbery only took up 10 pages of the 150 page novel Dassin was directing, Dassin was so disgusted by the novel's racist themes, and not knowing how to shoot the necrophilia, he opted to make a virtue of the long heist scene and made a thing of beauty, as well as cinema history.

Jean Servais as Tony "le Stéphanois" - a gangster who recently returned from serving five years in prison for jewel theft. The eldest member in on the heist, in Jules Dassin's Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes (1955)

La Grande Illusion (1937)

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a film about class issues, that doesn't take sides. 

It's an intreresting take, and pretty unusual when you think about it. But La Grande Illusion doesn't present nor admit to a bias and sees everybody as sympathetic, including the tragic aristocrats at the heart of the problems.

La Grande Illusion does at the same pretend to a strange vision of trench warfare.  In the first scene Jean Gabin is in his shoddily built mess, which has a well-stocked bar and waiter.  

The very next scene shows the actor Eric Von Stroheim and the Germans in their own similarly shack-like officers' mess, with an even better bar, again with its own proud barkeep.

Maybe that was what it was like.  I don't know, but the German bar certainly seems to have a hell of a lot of liquor as well as a cocktail shaker.

Gangsters in Pyjamas in French Film Noir

It's a little known fact, but if you look carefully through the history of French Film Noir, you do find a certain strain of imagery, based on the gangster figures  ... wearing pyjamas.

Film Noir fake news? 

Or a real happening thing?

It's an odd trope, but not entirely a coincidence, and the reason for it lies somewhere within the grey area which separates the idea of comedy, as it's understood in France, as opposed to America.

The French did manage to take the gangsters home. Americna gangsters as seen in da movies lived and breathed the city streets, and were to be found in bars, boxing halls and arenas, prisons, behind ornate desks and racing along in cars. Sometimes they were hold up in hideouts, or running through the alleys and tunnels of the underworld.

Film Noir Comedy

Noir isn't a genre, at least it wasn't in the 1940s and 1950s. 


No studio exec had to hear a pitch that began with the lines: 


"This is a film noir about ..."

Film noir is more of a style, or a mood. And it refers to the fact that certain films of the 40s or 50s started exhibiting these strange styles and tones.

These movies made a virtue of the losers, the femmes fatales, and of unhappy endings. There were lost men, strong women, sharp lighting and themes of jealousy, passion and fate playing a hard hand. Psychopaths were common, as were conmen and the alienation created by the city,.

These remain the markers of noir, and they cut through every genre.

But those two words. Comedy and noir. They don't automatically segue.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Many of the elements most common to film noir are absent from The Reckless Moment and so much so that one must squint hard into the screen in order to find any film noir aspects at all.

What we primarily find in The Reckless Moment is a variation on the so-called woman's picture of the day, in which a mother in a suburban setting finds the respectability and polite autonomy of her family threatened — you'll think immediately of Mildred Pierce.

But there are plenty of films in which women are forcibly ejected from their marital, suburban comforts, and obliged to hit the streets in serach of dangerous truths.

Max Ophüls (here billed as Max Opuls) was known for making films which take a female point of view, or films that had a female protagonist.

The Reckless Moment is certainly one of these, and it looks at the idea of resepctability head-on, basically stating in Joan Bennet's character that the way to be respectable is not to associate with people of a lower class, who are unrespectable.

Joan Bennet's own reckless moment comes when she disposes of the body of her daughter's lover, when he is accidentally killed.  This is a desperate attempt to avoid scandal, and it is the point at which the paranoia begins to ramp up, the moment when the tension pumps, and when shame blooms into criminality.

As we can see in Pitfall, and other examples as simple as Phantom Lady, the paranoid woman in the bud of suburbia is a common film noir subject ...

Act of Violence (1949)

A former prisoner of war, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is hailed as a hero in his California town.

However, Frank actually aided his Nazi captors, and he closely guards this secret!

Frank's shameful past comes back to visit him when fellow survivor Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) emerges, intent on making the turncoat pay for his betrayal. 

As Joe closes in on Frank, the traitor goes into hiding, abandoning his wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), who has no clue about her husband's wartime transgressions. When Frank begins to truly fear his nemesis, played by the relentlessly limping Robert Ryan, he begins to speak of him as if he were speaking of the stalking figure of death itself. 

And his paranoia is total:

"You don't know what made him the way he is - I do!"

The Chase (1946)

The opening shot of The Chase (1946) is straight out of a mad god's dictionary of crazy Americana - a burger being flipped, watched by a hungry ex-military man.

This is Chuck Scott, hapless heel about town and nervous pill-popper, a guy scarred into insecurity and down on his luck as a result of World War 2.

And The Chase is not quite what you suspect. It's firmly film noir because of the psychology and the dream like quality of much of the story. 

Watch out for spoilers from this point on, because the dreamlike results of PTSD, which is what is being suggested in this film, make for a mad and paranoid set of circumstances.

At the centre of this dream too, is a version of the femme fatale, here cast as Michèle Morgan. She is a nervous and paranoid wife, another film noir favourite character type. And although she is not bad, she is still the pit that the hapless hero and weakened male of the lead, is going to fall within.

Detour (1945)

Detour (1945) is high noir, low budget and endlessly fascinating.  

Like many of Edgar G. Ulmer’s films it was shot in 6 days.

"Just visualise it," said Ulmer, "eighty set-ups a day."  It’s hard to visualise, but it sure is heroic.  

Normally, this approach would produce a clunky and directionless mess, but occasionally as here, it can still produce a gem. 

It's what they used to call a 'poverty row quicky', for the high-speed and low-expense of its production ... and there is something about this format that really lets the subversive implications of film noir rise to the surface.

French Film Noir #2

Le Corbeau (1943)

Le Corbeau (1943), in English known as The Raven is set in a paranoid French village called St. Robin, and is malicious and twisted fun.

A series of poison-pen letters, all signed "The Raven"– has activated the villagers' most wicked and weakened sides into spying, whispering and finger-pointing.

Worse, when Le Corbeau was released in Nazi occupied France in 1943 , and done so by a German production company, it wasn't welcomed that warmly. Its unflattering portrait of the French bourgeoisie, in fact, was considered by many as being virtually treasonous.

At first sight, the movie which depicts the malign minds lurking in the French provinces, seems like a simple whodunit. But the true colours of this French film noir, are black, black and black again. Misanthropy is the ultimate flavour here.

Were Alfred Hitchcock Films Film Noir? #1

Are the films of Alfred Hitchcock to be considered as Film Noir?

At the risk of offending the many film students, film noir fans, Hitchcockians, Wellesians, noirists and all the other afficianados the globe over ... we'd hazard the answer to the question Were Alfred Hitchcock Films Film Noir? is NOPE.

This is because Alfred Hitchcock's films inhabit a place of their own, and are broader in style and type than film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock's films could be described as crime, thriller, suspense, drama, gothic horror, psychological thriller, and a bunch of other definitions on top of those. And it is this breadth of styles that suggests that while Hitchcock may have made many film noirs, this wasn't an essential part of his style.

Hitchcock is there and he is not. He's represented well in all the Halls of Noir, but none of his films ever come into the category of true classic all-time favourite noir.

Or do they?

The Dark Corner (1946)

Classic film noir — deceitful people at work — a private dick with a dicky past — a murderous art dealer with an obsession about a woman in a painting — sluggings in the dark — frame ups — a cheating wife — crosses — double crosses.
The Dark Corner (1946), directed by Henry Hathaway, presents full-on film noir in the shape of an ex-con detective willing to bend the rules at every point, with the most wholesome role going to an angelic Lucille Ball — though even dear sweet Lucille is up to her elbows in it.

Up to her neck in fact, in blood, lying, is conspiracy to conceal evidence, washing murder weapons and immediately opting to cover up a crime rather than report it . . .

Welcome to the Dark Corner of Film Noir!

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.