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By Martin Keady · April 20, 2020
In a new series, Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, examines a particular cinematic genre each month, exploring what makes a great film in that particular genre and then suggesting a Top 10 for that genre. This month: Noir.
Noir is the darkest and deadliest of all cinematic and indeed all story-telling genres. The word “noir” is, of course, the French for “black” and is a single-word testament to both the dark beauty of the genre and the influence upon it of the French, who first identified it and then named it. Noir began in literature with the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles in the 1930s, before crossing over into cinema. For a brief period in the 1940s and early 1950s, it effectively took cinema over, becoming the dominant genre of its day, before fading from view. Ever since, however, it has reappeared sporadically to deadly effect, exactly like a virus or a particularly virulent meme. And in our increasingly troubled and frightened 21st century, in which the ultimate disaster of global ecological collapse threatens to engulf us, the time is surely ripe for the return of noir in a new and deadly form.
A Brief History of Noir
Noir existed before it was named, in the form of the original American detective novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler that became enormously popular in America and then the world in the late 1920s and early 1930s, specifically after the 1929 Wall Street Crash had devastated the US and other western economies. At this time, the world did indeed appear to have been cast into darkness, a darkness that would reach its fullest and most evil realisation with the rise of the Nazis during the rest of the 1930s.
In these novels, the original Sherlock Holmes-ian model of the modern detective was thrillingly updated to 20th Century America, in the form of private detectives, like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, who often appeared to be every bit as morally circumspect, if not downright Machiavellian or even villainous, as the criminals they were supposedly trying to catch. Naturally, their success soon attracted the interest of Hollywood, with the first film noir (certainly the first great film noir) being John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), an adaptation by Huston himself of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel of the same name, which remains arguably the greatest ever noir novel.
The critical and commercial success of the film of The Maltese Falcon, which included Huston being nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, soon led to a wave of detective films being made in the 1940s, including such classics as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). The mood and subject matter of these films obviously resonated enormously with American cinema audiences, who may not have been as directly involved in the war as their European counterparts but who none the less were deeply affected by it, especially after America entered the war in late 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
As The Onion famously put it in its parodic rewrite of FDR’s famous inaugural speech: “We have nothing to fear but a decade-long depression followed by a devastating World War!” With the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression being followed so soon afterwards by a war that was even greater and more terrible than the Great War of 1914 to 1918, it is, frankly, little wonder that depressing and at times even dispiriting subject matter and characters could finally find the widespread – indeed, near-universal – audience that they have largely been denied both before and since.
As the BBC presenter and documentary-maker Matthew Sweet explained in his excellent film on the genre, The Rules of Film Noir (2009), the 1930s and 1940s were the one period in American history when audiences appeared to be happy to accept unhappy endings, in a way that they were never really prepared to either before or since, because anything else would have been effectively a betrayal of the reality that they were increasingly being exposed to.
The first great period of film noir was given a second wind – indeed, almost a second life – by the French rediscovery of these classic detective films after the end of World War Two. American cinema had been almost completely banned during the Nazi occupation of France, but once that occupation ended all those dark, savage films suddenly flooded into Europe in general and into France in particular. They found a hugely receptive audience in a country and continent that was still reeling from the disaster of war and, particularly in France’s case, coming to terms with the betrayal of their own countrymen and women by so many French people.
If 1930s and 1940s America had been the birthplace of noir, first in literature and then in cinema, in 1950s France it was reborn, to the extent that many of the great French film-makers of the new wave or nouvelle vague often made their own distinctly French noirs, such as Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) (1958), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and indeed virtually the entire cinematic output of the great Jean-Pierre Melville.
Although nobody appears to know exactly who was responsible, at some point in the late 1940s/early 1950s the French christened this genre that they had taken to their hearts and made their own, calling it “noir” or “dark” cinema, because it was so different to so much of the cinema – both American and French – that had come before it. The name stuck to the genre like a good detective to his task, so much so that the term “film noir” has now been completely assimilated into the English language.
The final great period of noir so far, after the first wave of American detective films in the 1940s and the new wave of French films in the 1950s and 1960s, was the “neo-noir” of the 1970s, as epitomised by such masterpieces as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and above all Roman Polanski’s film of Robert Towne’s classic screenplay, Chinatown (1974). To an extent, that period continues to this day, with more modern additions such as The Usual Suspects (1995). In neo-noir, the classic noirian themes of betrayal, duplicity and above all uncertainty are expanded and amplified, escaping their original criminal or police setting and virtually painting the whole world black.
Perhaps the single biggest reason that noir became so popular after World War Two and has continued (albeit with long gaps in between) to re-emerge ever since is because of the original dark shadow that was cast across the world by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This was the ultimate shadow to fall across the world in the 21st century, one even deadlier than economic catastrophe or conventional global conflict. Famously, that obsession with impending nuclear apocalypse was captured in one classic noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), in which an ordinary suitcase houses an atomic bomb.
Now, in the early 21st century, the shadow that falls upon us is different but no less deadly. It is not so much the possibility of Islamic (or other) terrorists using nuclear material to create a “dirty bomb” that could wipe out, or at least permanently contaminate, a major city, but the threat of complete environmental collapse, which is growing faster and realer with every passing day. Shadowy, even dark times, such as those of the 1940s and now again in the early 21st century, seem to provoke, even require, an equally shadowy or dark response. That is why noir initially seemed to disappear completely from cinema at the end of the 1950s, especially in America, with the rise of consumerism and a relative period of global political stability, before re-emerging so often since to deadly effect.
Noir: A Very Brief Definition (And a Tentative Guide to Future Noir)
The person who coined the most famous definition of film noir is, perhaps appropriately, as unknown as the person who coined the term “film noir”. That definition is: “A story in which a man with no future meets a woman with a past”. It is a typically succinct, even pithy, definition of a genre that is intimately concerned with succinctness and brevity, precisely because its creators and characters know how little time there is left. Classic examples of noir that absolutely embody this definition are Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
However, that definition also betrays the sexist roots of much noir, which are based on the age-old idea that, from Eve onwards, it is women who have somehow made men commit crime. In the #MeToo era, where such sexist attitudes are rightly being challenged, the time is surely right for a complete and comprehensive reimagining of noir, whereby women with no future fall for men with a past, or there is even “LGBTQ noir”, in which the supposed unity of the LGBT community might be challenged by the actions of a gay-hating antagonist, or even a gay antagonist who is self-hating.
This possible extension of noir as a genre would be completely in keeping with the history of the genre. After all, the very use of the term “noir”, or “dark”, makes it endlessly adaptable, so that noir can cross-fertilise with other cinematic genres, such as with the high school movie in Brick (2005) or, most famously, with sci-fi in Blade Runner (1982), which is literally a portrait of a permanently darkened world.
This cross-fertilisation will surely continue in the 21st century, with other possible extensions of noir into other genres including “femi-noir”, an example of which is the British-based American writer Sarah Sigel’s re-examination (in both cinema and opera) of the origins and founding mythology of the famous/infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, and “enviro-noir”, in which Pinkerton-type detectives try either to resist climate change or profit from it. The Ur-text of “enviro-noir” might be the 2013 remake of the 1975 neo-noir, Night Moves, in which three young environmental protesters try to destroy a dam that threatens to flood its surrounding environment.
Personally, I cannot help wondering whether future noir or “sci-fi noir” might eventually extend to the biggest cinematic story/franchise of them all, namely Star Wars. In the wake of the Disnification of the original brand, whereby the very concept of death seems to have been regarded as almost entirely unpalatable for 21st century audiences (which, of course, is a betrayal of George Lucas’s original vision of the story, whereby the dark and light sides of life must be permanently balanced), perhaps it would be possible to restore the original dark majesty of Star Wars by reintroducing some of the darkness or “noir” of the original series. Noir Wars, as it would inevitably be called, would represent the ultimate extension of the noir genre, from this universe to a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away…
And finally, The Top 10 Noirs…
Unlike its creators and protagonists, noir will never die. Here, in my humble opinion, are the 10 most immortal noirs to be made so far.
10. OUT OF THE PAST (1947) (Written by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his own novel, Build My Gallows High)
This is a noir so good that, like many of the criminals depicted in the genre, it has two names: Out of the Past (the original American screen title); and Build My Gallows High (the title of the original novel and of the film in the UK). Its hero, played by Robert Mitchum in one of his greatest screen roles, is similarly Janus-faced, having abandoned his noisy, complicated life as a private detective after becoming involved with one of his clients to try and live a quiet life as a garage-owner. Of course, in noir such an ambition is always doomed to failure, and Mitchum is sucked back into the life he had fled by Kirk Douglas’s crime boss. And Jane Greer completes the love triangle (more accurately the love-sex-death triangle) as one of the finest femmes fatales of them all, who is as stunningly beautiful as she is utterly amoral.
9. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) (Written by Christopher McQuarrie)
Kevin Spacey’s own spectacular fall from grace, whereby the finest film actor of the 1990s has become a virtual pariah from cinema, is of course completely noirian, but it has also obscured, if not completely concealed, the brilliance of his best performances and best films. There is no finer Spaceyan performance or film than The Usual Suspects, Christopher McQuarrie’s Oscar-winning rewrite of noir and indeed of narrative cinema as a whole. Legendarily concocted by McQuarrie while he was nervously waiting to see a producer, The Usual Suspects probably did more to popularise the idea of “the untrustworthy narrator” than the complete works of Barthes and Derrida. Even more intriguingly, given Spacey’s pitch-perfect portrayal of a man who is not remotely what he seems, it can now be seen as providing the first evidence of the actor’s own troubled, even tortured, self-image.
8. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) (Written by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler)
The Long Goodbye, one of the key films of Robert Altman’s sublime early 1970s phase, is generally regarded as the first great neo-noir, pre-dating the similarly revisionist Chinatown by a year. It is certainly the first and greatest “stoner noir”, as Altman updated Philip Marlowe to the Los Angeles of the counter-culture. To help bridge the gap between the 1950s (the period in which the novel is set) and the early 1970s, Altman fittingly hired a Hollywood veteran, Leigh Brackett (https://thescriptlab.com/features/main/3462-the-great-screenwriters-part-3-leigh-brackett/), who had been one of the co-screenwriters on The Big Sleep (1946), to write the screenplay. The result is a marvellous updating of Marlowe, who now smokes pot but is still capable of sniffing out danger at a thousand yards.
7. ASCENSEUR POUR L’ÉCHAFAUD (LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD) (1958) (Written by Louis Malle and Roger Nimier, based on the novel of the same name by Noël Calef)
Given the seminal influence of French cinema and France in general on the evolution of film noir (above all, naming it as such), it would be impossible to compile a Top 10 of the genre without including at least one French noir. Indeed, there are so many great French noirs, from Bresson to Melville to Godard, that it would perhaps be easier to compile a Top 10 of great French film noirs. For now, however, deeper analysis of that sub-genre will have to wait, and Louis Malle’s stunning Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) will stand as the great “foreign language noir”. The tale of two lovers’ plot to kill a husband, it made a star of Jeanne Moreau, enabled Miles Davis to reinvent film soundtracks, and above all created the ultimate “noir and blanc” (black and white) world in which everyone’s motives appear to be equally dubious.
6. BLADE RUNNER (1982) (Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, Based on the novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick)
The fact that Blade Runner also merits a place in the Top 10 sci-fi films ever made is the ultimate testament to the success of its combination of sci-fi and noir, such that it effectively created its own genre of “future noir”. The only shame is that there have been so few other successful “future noirs” since, with Strange Days (1995) perhaps being the best of a very mixed bunch. However, that is often the lot of the true original, or pioneer, and no-one now can deny the seminal influence of Blade Runner on cinema as a whole, let alone upon the genres of sci-fi and noir. And the endless fascination over the supposed “real” identity of the “Blade Runner” (or android hunter) Deckard, is itself an entirely novel version of the age-old question of noir. The fundamental issue is not “Whodunnit?” but “Who am I?”
5. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) (Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D. M. Marshman Jr.)
Sunset Boulevard fits the classic definition of noir as “a man with no future meets a woman with a past”. In this case, it is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, played by William Holden, who meets a silent movie star, played by Gloria Swanson, who is desperate for another crack at fame, long after she seems to have been forgotten by the once-adoring millions. As such, Sunset Boulevard is the embodiment and perhaps the only truly great example of another noir sub-genre, namely “Hollywood Noir”. It was fitting that, in the home of the global film industry, the sights of noir were finally fixed on the film industry itself, exposing how it was just as money-orientated, even venal, as any other industry.
4. THE BIG SLEEP (1946) (Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler)
Famously, Raymond Chandler, the author of the original novel, was asked by the director of the film adaptation, Howard Hawks, who had killed the chauffeur (one of the minor characters) and equally famously Chandler had to admit that he didn’t know (and, worse, hadn’t really considered the question before). However, audiences didn’t really care who the killer was, and not just because The Big Sleep was probably the finest film in which cinema’s first couple, Bogey and Bacall, appeared alongside each other. They also didn’t care because the atmosphere, the mood and indeed the ambience of the whole film, which provide the template for the perfect film noir, were ultimately more important than even seemingly important details such as a killer’s identity. Exactly like The Long Goodbye, “The Big Sleep” is, of course, a term for death, and just like The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep is one of the most deathless noirs.
3. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) (Written by John Huston, based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett)
Some modern crime or noir writers prefer Dashiell Hammett and his fictional detective, Sam Spade, to the other great noir writer, Raymond Chandler, and his fictional “private dick”, Philip Marlowe, partly because Hammett/Spade came first and partly because Hammett had once been a Pinkerton detective himself, giving his writing a sheer realism that the more stylised writing of Chandler (who had been a drunk banker before becoming a crime writer) lacks. Of course, both fictional private detectives were played by Humphrey Bogart and at some point in the future of cinema – a future in which genres are increasingly blurred and original source material often completely rewritten – it is possible to envisage a meta-noir in which Spade and Marlowe team up together to investigate a crime, perhaps even one committed by one (or even both) of their creators. Until then, it is still possible to enjoy the sheer monochrome majesty of the original and Ur-noir, in which the stories and myths of European history (including the Crusades, during which the titular gold bird is created) are reimagined and retold on the mean streets of Los Angeles.
2. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) (Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel of the same name by James M. Cain)
For all his own undoubted genius (his five finest films, including Double Indemnity, might just be the finest handful of films by the same director in the history of cinema), Billy Wilder also benefited immensely by working with some of the finest co-writers in film history. In addition to Charles Brackett (with whom he wrote the great dramas Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend) and I.A.L. Diamond (with whom he wrote the unsurpassable comedies Some Like It Hot and The Apartment), he also worked alongside several other playwrights and novelists. Perhaps foremost among those co-writers was Raymond Chandler, who helped Wilder to adapt James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity for the screen. The story of an insurance agent (Fred McMurray) who is duped into committing murder by a beautiful woman (Barbara Stanwyck in her stand-out screen role), Double Indemnity is Wilder’s second entry on this list and what is fascinating is the similarity of the storytelling structure in both Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. In both films, not only is the narrator of the story proven to be untrustworthy (a lesson that Christopher McQuarrie clearly learned before writing The Usual Suspects) but the narration itself plays wonderfully disorientating tricks with time and place. By playing around with time in this manner, Wilder provides a new spin on the classic definition of noir – “A man with no future meets a woman with a past” – by showing that in a story, especially a film, the past and future themselves are not nearly as fixed as they appear to be in reality.
1. CHINATOWN (1974) (Written by Robert Towne)
Chinatown is not just the finest neo-noir but arguably the finest noir of them all. In part that is because it combines the best elements of both types of noir: the extremely dark, even depraved, subject matter (and there is surely no darker nor depraved subject matter than incest) of neo-noir; and the “classic” setting of the original noir stories, i.e. 1930s LA. Unlike The Last Goodbye, the other great neo-noir of the early 1970s, screenwriter Robert Towne did not update his noir to the period in which it was written but instead went back to the original era of noir in the 1930s and re-examined it with a forensic detail that was impossible at the time.
The result is similar to that achieved by the other great screenplay of 1974, that for The Godfather Part 2 (and the fact that they were both written in the same year arguably makes 1974 the greatest ever year for screenwriting), in that the past and the present seem not just interlinked but virtually indistinguishable. The Godfather Part 2 is literally a sequel that is also a prequel, but Chinatown, although ostensibly set in a single time period, is no less fascinating in its commingling of the past and the present. The traditional view of the 1930s and of noir (the film genre that defined the period) is completely revised when seen through the prism of the early 1970s. It is that brilliant approach to screenwriting – the past re-seen through the eyes of the present, thus changing how it will be seen in the future – that makes Chinatown the greatest of all noirs and its script arguably the greatest of all screenplays.
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/