Last week I found myself with little free time and an abudance of work. Nonetheless, I enjoy money, so I put together an article about film noir aimed squarely at the general college audience, i.e. people who may be completely unfamiliar with it. Although the article was bumped in favor of something not written by me, I am publishing it here as an excuse to put up lots of cool pictures. Although the tone isn't one that would likely appeal to the average reader of this blog (cinephiles will instantly notice that I'm being fairly liberal with the term "film noir"), I think it's a worthy enough read:
In the end, those we love will betray us, we’ll answer for our sins, and we’ll pay with our lives. There’s something comforting about the reliable bleakness of film noir, those shadowy, sultry movies that wallow in humanity’s dark side. Teeming with seedy detectives and lit aflame by smoldering femme fatales, the best film noirs speak directly to greater emotional truths as they indulge in the mysterious and the lurid.
Here are some of the better film noirs, with a few more recent films emphasized to make the list more accessible.
Body Heat (1981) – Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir raises both the temperature and the stakes. William Hurt is the sleazy small-town lawyer, Kathleen Turner the sensuous femme fatale who drives him to murder. The sexiness is equal parts visual and verbal, the performances star-making, the results deviously appropriate.
The Big Heat (1953) – The hero of Fritz Lang’s “The Big Sleep” pursues justice to the end, costs be damned. The police detective played by Glenn Ford pursues a vile mob boss to the end, the women around him paying with their lives. The hero might get his man, but was it worth it, and has the question ever crossed his mind? Check it out and make up yours.
Blood Simple (1985) – The Coen Brothers’ debut feature introduced them as one of cinema’s most important talents, men with an uncanny ear for dialogue and a judicious awareness of the medium’s strengths. When a dive bar owner hires degenerate detective M. Emmet Walsh to murder his wife and lover, a series of double-crosses and calamitous misunderstandings spell doom for all concerned.
Double Indemnity (1944) – Billy Wilder’s masterpiece is perhaps the greatest of all film noirs. When insurance salesman Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck decide to murder her wealthy husband, their most morbid desires are unlocked and put to sinful use. The dialogue is legendary; they speak as acrobats balance on tightropes, bold and enthusiastic. To listen is to participate in a sublime celebration of the power of words, to watch is to witness an enthralling trip through the hearts of those who commit wanton, tragic violence in pursuit of macabre satisfaction.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel is a startling idiosyncrasy in more ways than one. Its hero is a misogynistic, brutal thug, a scofflaw whose body count and myriad of lovers seems shocking in the supposedly serene 1950’s. The ending is a curveball that nearly changes the film’s genre, a fiery, fatalistic shocker certain to leave you radioactive.
Memento (2001) – A noir, you ask? You bet: its hero is a man on a mission, sulking through the criminal underworld in pursuit of his wife’s murderer. The twist, of course, is that Guy Pearce has no short term memory, causing the world to reset to the moment of his wife’s death over and over. His rewards are temporary, his torture eternal, the mystery rendered unsolvable. It’s grim and exciting, mind-bending and heartbreaking.
Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975) – Two sides of the same coin, both of these films are an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel of the latter’s name. Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum each play Philip Marlowe, novelist Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, this time working for a hulking thug searching for an old girlfriend. Both films feature great performances, and each makes the source material its own, yet remain simultaneously edgy but with a kind soul.
Strangers on a Train (1951) – Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest film director that has ever lived, should be exempted from a list such as this, as his work should be its own genre. But it’s hard to ignore “Strangers on a Train,” one of his most eerie and sexually provocative films. When blockheaded tennis champ Farley Granger meets psychopathic Robert Walker during a long train trip, he unwittingly signs himself up for a plot to exchange murders. Walker’s performance borders on iconic while Hitchcock’s direction never fails to wring perversion and suspense from even the seemingly mundane.