Color Film Noirs

color film noir
Niagara is a full color film noir
There is no rule of criticism which states that a film noir has to be in color.  

The fact that most film noirs are in black and white is probably down to their budget, and the times in which they were made. 

We all agree today that film noir is properly associated with black and white, but since nobody was saying: "Hey let's make a film noir!" in the 1950s the use of black and white was probably not a deliberate and conscious decision.  I'll deal with colorisation elsewhere, bub.

The first thing that you'll notice about this list of color film noirs is that it is pretty much confined to the later period of film noir.  This is for technological reasons as much as anything.  There are also some bankable names on the list, two of the films being directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  The Hitchcock films are interesting, because they often come up in discussions regarding their credentials. Generally Alfred Hitchcock is held to be not a film noir director, but for the purposes of this page, he's in the canon.

So you bums, here is a short list of a few of the color films noirs out there.  Take up your arguments with the boss.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her To Heaven is not just a color film noir, but it is a femme-noir, or a woman's noir, call it what you will. There are some pretty dark things going on in Leave Her To Heaven, and I can't think of many films of the period that deal with the murder of a child.  It's one of Gene Tierney's best roles, outside of Laura. Tightly plotted, tolerably-well acted and above all, beautifully photographed Leave Her To Heaven splits the critics on whether it is a film noir, but all of that aside it's still much darker than most things that were made in 1945, despite the Technicolor brilliance, vibrant music, moral ambiguities and a cold and jealous story.  It also features Vincent Price, and can be seen for free on YouTube. Always a bonus.

Rope (1948)

Rope is sometimes overlooked and viewed by folks as an interesting experiment in technique, and likewise doesn't appear in every list of what is and what isn't film noir.   It's about two gay men, played by John Dall and Farley Granger, who strangle a friend for the thrill of it and hide the body in a big trunk just before a dinner party.  At the party are some of the victim's family and friends, and they also serve the food on the trunk that contains the body.  It doesn't sound like typical film noir but Rope is not typical of anything at all!  Rope gets on to this list therefore, by being a renegade, as well being dark, perverse and offering only the most catastrophic fates for its characters. Perhaps it's more of a crime thriller?  If it is, it's one which will make you squirm, while also trying its damndest to have you sympathise with its villainous leads.

Niagara (1953)

An unhappy couple and an illicit love and an ample share of shadows and stylistic camera work give Niagara (1953) its film noir credentials.  A morbid and lustful journey into murder, Niagara is a slightly strange crossover for film noir fans, who are used to black and white in urban settings.  Here of course they are regaled not just by a unique acting turn from Marilyn Monroe, who is largely known for comedy, but by scenery and full-on Technicolor. Sex and its destructiveness is a common film noir theme, and this is played out in Niagara to the max.  Rose is a femme fatale, seductively dressed, hypocritical, and scornful, while George her troubled husband, has just been discharged from an army mental hospital.  In fact, George is a classic film noir damaged-goods type of ex-soldier.  We also see in the Cutlers of course, full-on American conventionality, and this contrast between a discordant sexual relationship and the sanctity of the family unit is important to the mood of film noir.

Hell's Island (1955)

After 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential, both of which pack a hefty noir-filled punch, bruiser John Payne teamed up with director Phil Karlson for Hell's Island . . . this time in VistaVision!   John Payne was by this stage already stumbling into the latter portion of his career, and he doesn't seem to cut it as the hero here, and in fact he was probably better when he was an angry dude, as he was in the two above-mentioned thrillers  The plot of Hell's Island is pretty ropey, and also somewhat familiar.  Think of The Maltese Falcon set in Mexico, and you'll begin to grasp the basics.  Decent prints of this widescreen-wonder seem hard to come by, but if you still need a fix of color-noir it'll tick the boxes for you.

I Died a Thousand Times (1955)


I Died a Thousand Times, which features Jack Palance and Shelley Winters, certainly has a film noir title.  Behind that title, the story is good enough although it is basically a remake of High Sierra: Mad Dog Earle is fresh out of the joint and he drives west to get involved in a heist masterminded by fading kingpin Lon Chaney, Jr. En route, he meets a family of Oakies and is smitten with their granddaughter.  Arriving at the cabins where the rest of gang are holed up, Mad Dog gets involved in a few hotheaded rows, much in the fashion of High Sierra, and a love triangle. The widescreen does offer panoramic views of the mountains and the desolate surroundings, and so yes, the scenery comes off pretty good.  But it's  a shame for guys like Lee Marvin, who don't really get to shine, and instead of claustrophobia (High Sierra) we have cinematography, which is not much of a substitute.

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

James M. Cain  gave film noir some of its most memorable hits, with Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice all adapted from his books.  In the mid-50s he had a second wind with Serenade, Love's Lovely Counterfeit, and this full color production, Allen Dwan's Slightly Scarlet. Legendary noir director of photography John Alton brings his black and white talents to bear in bright colors here, and John Payne does what he does best, and plays a touchy and sullen sullen mobster besieged by twin flame-topped temptations Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, who has just got out of prison and plays a pretty crazy man-eater.  This is late film noir in chintzy and lurid overdrive, with a hefty dose of psychology and action, making it a true color film noir with a deal of light and dark, and a few tepid moments which have secured its place in the forgotten bin of 50s film.

A Kiss before Dying (1956)

A Kiss Before Dying stars Robert Wagner as an ambitious student who is courting Joanne Woodward so he can access her father's mining fortune. When he discovers that she's pregnant he realizes she is quite likely to be disinherited - and so he murders her. Then, in classic scuzzball film noir fashion, he reaches out to her sister, played by Virginia Leith, and tries to marry her in order to get his hands on the loot. Mary Astor makes an appearance as the girls' mother, and despite CinemaScope and Deluxe Color, this is a treat of a film noir, and probably one of the best on this list.  Robert Wagner was rarely better as the psychopathic killer, and many say there are similarities between A Kiss before Dying and Psycho, which came four years later.  The color lends everything to the sumptuous mid-50's all-American feel, with the open-top cars, drug stores, shiny, well-oiled hair and the girls in big skirts. Don't be fooled by the surface however - this is a twist-laden thriller with a dark and brooding side.

Accused of Murder (1956)

This hard-to-find film noir of the mid-fifteis was one of a handful made using Republic Pictures  widescreen process, NATURAMA. The reason that Accused of Murder was made in color at all and indeed, in fabulous Naturama, was that it was intended as a star vehicle for Vera Ralston.  They should definitely have offered Vera better material than this, which is included here only because it has the bare bones of a film noir attitude.  Vera Ralston was married to the boss of Republic Pictures however, and Accused of Murder rolls out of the projection room as a straight forward crime thriller. Even though Accused of Murder was written by W.R. Burnett of The Asphalt Jungle fame and features Lee Van Cleef, it blunders along without really generating much interest to an eventual and much needed denouement at about the 78 minute mark.

Vertigo (1958)

Before anyone gets off their seat and starts throwing cigars at the screen I gotta admit that — OK! — Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock is not a film noir.  By the exacting standards of those of us that blog incessantly about these things, Vertigo is perhaps the first neo-noir — that which came after film noir.  This is because Vertigo used the conventions of noir to different ends.  It's true that the dark, angular city of film noir is not present in Vertigo, and it is replaced with a golden-lit sequoia forest and shining white apartments.  Even the night scenes in Vertigo are not black, but appear tinted with spectral blues.  Indeed, Vertigo is a feast of color, and what Alfred Hitchcock seems to be proving here is that film noir isn't all about the surface stuff — the shadows and the limitations of scene — but that the essence of film noir is in the dread which arises from characters lost in a world that is sometimes unjust, sad and violent.


There it is folks: film noir in color. We had a good crack at it, but now however, it's time to get back to what we know best: the world in black and white.

1 comment:

  1. I actually did a piece on the subject of breaking down what it means for a movie to be considered "film noir" back in September. I looked at a lot of the patterns I seemed to notice and I'll agree that black and white imagery is not required for a movie to be true film noir. That was, like most other aspects of the genre, used out of necessity. In those days, it was much cheaper to shoot in black and white than in color (ironically, by the time David Lynch made "The Elephant Man", things had completely turned around and it had actually became much harder and more expensive to find black and white film stock). Because of the war effort, movies of the time had to work with much lower budgets and had to conserve their resources. That, and it was an unintended by-product of studios relaxing the production code for combat films. The conclusion

    I ended up reaching was that film noir was not so much a genre as an approach to filmmaking that could be applied to a variety of different genres, not all of which require black and white cinematography. Of course I also make a case against the idea of "neo-noir" and argue that anything made after the 50's that has the right elements is still film noir but that's a whole other debate. Here's the article if it's any interest:

    Naturally of course, the only ones on this list I seem to know are the Hitchcock movies. I almost saw Rope on the big screen during the summer, but something went wrong and I got the dates mixed up. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see that one at some point because it sounds interesting.