Sunday, June 14, 2015

5 Films I'd Recommend to a Noir Newbie

I'm not sure what it is about film noir that appeals to me so much. But I love almost everything about it--the stark black-and-white lighting, the characters who try to get themselves out of trouble but just get pulled in deeper and deeper, the adoration of Venetian blinds and cigarette smoke and neon lights glinting off rain-slicked city streets. Plus, behind some 40s slang, the dialogue is often snappy and witty, razor-tongued.

The Third Man

The tricky thing about starting to watch noir, though, is all the drama revolving around what technically constitutes film noir. Some academics argue it's a genre; others insist it's only a style. Some scholars limit the genre to a few handfuls of films, while others insist there are hundreds.

At the end of the day, everyone can agree on this: during the 40s, the tone of many American films suddenly took a darker, more cynical turn. Instead of patriotism, optimism, and a go-for-it attitude, cinema reflected a jaded, gritty outlook--the effects of war and modernism were catching up to Hollywood. The films emphasized the natural rottenness of humanity, replacing chiseled heroes with antiheroes, many of them criminals or private eyes on the fringes of society. When French critics watched American films and noticed the darker trend, they said, "Jeez, these films are all black."

But when you're approaching a group of movies that all look pretty similar upon first glance, it raises the question: Where to start?


That's where this post comes in. It isn't even a little bit comprehensive, but it offers a range of selections that all show off different sides of film noir--and a place to start watching.

1: The Maltese Falcon

When people hear the words "film noir," this is probably the first film that comes to mind for many. The first movie to successfully translate a hardboiled detective novel of the time to the big screen, it follows Sam Spade: a street-wise, world-weary private investigator (to be fair, this could describe a ton of noir protagonists).

When a woman named Miss Wonderly approaches Spade and his partner, Archer, to help her find her sister, Spade gets tugged into a case that gets more and more complicated by the minute. Hounded by the police and a group of high-class criminals, he finds himself in a web of drama over a priceless statuette that everyone's fighting to get their hands on: the Maltese falcon.
Humphrey Bogart makes the antihero spade admirable and relatable, and his delivery of the snappy-but-cynical one-liners is perfect.

2: Double Indemnity

This film is one of the most critically acclaimed noir movies, and for good reason. The story has twists, turns, double-crosses--and one of the most noir endings out there.

When insurance agent Walter Neff becomes involved with a woman named Phyllis, she explains all about her abusive husband--and how she's afraid he'll kill her someday if she doesn't kill him first. Neff initially refuses to helping her, but once she convinces him otherwise, it's up to him to cover their trail from dogged insurance guys investigating her husband's murder.

3. Out of the Past

This was actually the first noir film I ever saw, and I'm glad for that. It set my expectations for other movies in the genre/style, and does a great job of establishing the tone, ambiguous morals, and complicated plots you'll find in these films.

Ages ago, private investigator Jeff Bailey took on a case from a slick, morally ambiguous guy named Whit: to find Whit's girlfriend, Kathie, who he claims shot him and stole $40,000 from him before running away. When Whit insists he doesn't want to hurt Kathie, just find her, Jeff goes off in search of her. But he quickly finds himself personally and emotionally entangled in the case. He tries to slip away quietly and move on with his life--but when his past catches up with him, he quickly realizes that's not an option.

4. Murder, My Sweet

In a lot of noir films centering around private eyes, a case starts out small and turns out to the loose thread that unravels into a huge, messy crime. In Murder, My Sweet, things do start small and quickly get complicated, but it goes about this in a different way: several of Philip Marlowe's small, seemingly unrelated cases turn out to be hopelessly interwoven, and quickly get out of hand.

It all starts when Marlowe agrees to help a mountain of a man named Moose find a former girlfriend. Separately, another guy hires Marlowe to act as a bodyguard when the guy attends a late-night meeting to pay up a ransom for the return of some jewels. What ends up connecting the two cases? Murder, a false identity, and some family drama. Though it deals with a lot of the same issues, Murder somehow feels much lighter than other noirs, and that and Marlowe's character are refreshing because of that.

5. Sunset Boulevard

This film doesn't deal with private detectives or petty crooks like most of its kind, but that doesn't keep it from fitting in with the rest. Instead, this story is a critical--even satirical--look at the Hollywood system and all of its moving parts, from actors to screenwriters.

When down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis meets Norma Desmond, a silent film star who was pushed out of work and forgotten after talking pictures rolled around, he doesn't think anything of it. But the deluded Norma insists she's going to stage a comeback--by starring in a film about Salome that she's writing herself. The catch? She can't actually write. At all. So she hires Gillis to revise her mess of a script, giving him free housing in return. But after a while, his outside life begins to clash with the lavish isolation of Norma's mansion. In the end, it's going to be much harder to unravel the two than Joe bargained for.

Of course, this is just a tiny handful of noir greats--there are plenty others out there. Detour, The Killing, and Laura are a few of my favorites. Do you have any favorites? Or maybe something noir-influenced that you like, like Blade Runner or Batman: The Animated Series? Any recommendations?


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