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July 31, 2004

Film Noir 101, Plus Many Self-Indulgent Musings

Dear Vanessa --

How easy do you find it as an adult to sustain your culture interests? What with life, family, job (and of course my many and deep character flaws), I find it's all I can do to make it through an individual book, movie, or art show. Setting myself grander goals than that -- hey, I think I'll spend the next two months reading Ibsen!-- always seems to lead to frustration and disappointment. I squirm; my attention fragments; I finally crap out ... Making grand resolutions seems to be my chosen way to guarantee that I'll fail to follow through.

(My interest in yoga -- now a year old -- is a rare exception to this rule. Why I'm able to remain fascinated by yoga fascinates me, of course. And -- scary thought! -- I'm likely to bore everyone by blogging about it someday.)

My culture interests generally seem to flit about. On-the-downslope middle-ager that I am, I do my best to say "Well, OK" to that. What's cheering is that interests do sometimes emerge out of the ditziness -- but they become apparent only after the fact. I might spend weeks playing with this and poking around that -- only to wake up and discover that all along I'd been pursuing an interest in something-or-other I hadn't really noticed. I just didn't know it.

Recently, for example, I had no idea that I was going to delve into the history of teenagehood. It dawned on me one day that I was doing so. And, as is often the case, taking note of what was on my mind (and blogging about it, here) had the result of semi-ending my interest in that line of inquiry. A month ago, I was deep into the subject; my attitude today towards the history of the teenager is, Been there, done that.

Meditation seems to me a useful comparison. You try to keep the conscious mind focused on something simple, but clouds of this 'n' that will roll by and distract you -- it's inevitable. How to contend? My meditation teachers have said: when you wake up to the fact that, hey, I seem to be drifting off, just take note of it, let it go, and return to your modest, close-in focus. It occurs to me that my blog postings are like manifestations of those meditation moments when, having drifted off, you take note and let go. I don't work at these postings, at least not in the usual "let's pull ourselves together and accomplish something" way. No, it's more like noticing a cloud passing by and then having the writing be the "letting it go" step. (Then the fussy writer in me takes over and starts tweaking like mad, hoping to make what's dropped into my lap semi-amusing to other people.) The Wife says that I'm a healthier, calmer person when I meditate and do yoga. She also says I'm happier and calmer when I blog regularly. Hmm.

So I find myself trying to take this attitude: "keep active and focused without being too neurotic about it; let the distractions happen, whatever they are, because they will anyway; step back from time to time to take note of what's floating by; let yourself do a little sifting and sorting if that seems possible and appealing; don't worry about it too much if it doesn't; and then let it go and re-enter the process whereever you can." Self-indulgent lazybones that I am, I also try to add a soupcon of this: "Do your best to be appreciative towards yourself, and towards whatever comes up, as well as appreciative towards the effort you're making. But keep active too."

And I seem happier if I add into the mix one last loose rule: "If tasks need or want to be set, make 'em modest." After all, do I really think that, at the end of a grownup day, I'll be bursting at the seams to execute yet another task? Unlikely, to say the least. If I saw The Wife assigning herself overambitious after-work tasks the way I sometime assign myself overambitious after-work tasks, why, I'd do my best to knock some sense into her.

Is this the wisdom of age? Probably not; probably it's just me getting a little better at faking my way by, given my innumerable deficits. In short, we can't all be Friedrich von Blowhard, who has an amazing ability to take on heavy intellectual loads and then lustily lug them uphill.

Something I woke up to recently was the fact that I'd been watching a lot of crime movies ... and reading here and there about crime movies ... and that most of these crime movies were American ... and that nearly all of these crime movies were made in the '40s and early '50s ...

What I woke up to, in other words, was the fact that I was having myself a film noir phase. I wonder why I was ready for a film noir phase. It's not like I didn't already know the film noir thing pretty well; serious film buffs -- even aging ones who are losing their credentials -- know film noir. And I certainly didn't set out to have myself a film noir moment.

Well, what can I say? One's arts interests move in mysterious ways. Incidentally, the echo of "God moves in mysterious ways" here is quite deliberate. One of these days, I hope to get around to making the case that our arts interests and pleasures -- what moves us, fascinates us, and draws us in -- is related to, or has some connection to, our feelings about the divine. But, as you might guess, I've come to be wary of making promises about things like this. Better to leave the inspiration to the Big Guy Upstairs than to force it.

But enough with the self-absorption, eh?

Do you go for film noir? You certainly don't have to, and I've found that many civilians (ie., non-hardcore filmbuffs) don't. Either they aren't aware of the film noir thang, or they find the films mannered. Or maybe they're just annoyed by the way film nerds carry on about the joys of film noir. But I do love many film noirs, in a fairly bigtime (and, I hope, straightforward) way, though I'm no scholar of the form -- heaven forbid! And, boy, did I have a good time over the last month with all these little crime pix. So I thought it might be fun to pass some of the pleasure along.

Film noir, film noir ... Let's see: if I were explaining noir to someone completely unfamiliar with it, what would I say? ...

Well, what's drifting by at the moment is that there might be five helpful areas to cover ... Yeah, I think that'd do it ...

Michael Blowhard's EZ Introduction to Film Noir

1) Reasons to be wary.

It's probably best to get this out of the way first. The main reason to be wary of film noir, to my mind, is the way the tradition often appeals to literary intellectuals. (And I mean you, Geoffrey O'Brien.) Spare me the highbrow attention, please; a lit'ry case is not what these films need made for them. When O'Brien and his ilk write about film noir, they remind me of the worst jazz critics, the ones who discuss the pleasures of jazz as though jazz is Mozart or Bach -- as though jazz's lowdown, growly, hip-swinging pleasures need dignifying and elevating. It's an annoying form of condescension, if one that we're probably all guilty of sometimes: "I love it, therefore I must put it up on a higher plane than it otherwise is thought to occupy." (The condescension comes from believing that what you love needs to be put on a higher plane.) And then these lofty types start in with the writin', and then the writin' never relents ... It's as though these writers are determined to impose their standards on the form, and then compete with, or maybe take part in, their own idea of what the style is. Down, boys!

But there are other reasons to be wary of noir too. One is the phenomenon of what's known as neonoir -- the conscious recreation of the film noir style. Good god, these films are often overdeliberate pains in the neck. (If I were more mature, I'd grant that "neonoir" has become a genre unto itself, to be savored for its own overdeliberate pleasures. But I'm not feeling like that generous a person today.) "LA Confidential," "Body Heat," the many recent Jim Thompson adaptations ... Even when nicely-done, they usually strike me as wooden. Even "Chinatown," superb as it is, has always struck me as being too aware of itself for its own good. (Do we really need all those metaphors, or all that significance?) Of the neonoirs, my own favorite is "The Grifters" -- script by Donald Westlake from a Jim Thompson novel. Now there's a film that combines guts, heartlessness, humor, and psychological savagery in just the right proportions, and that never seems frozen in the amber of its ambition and nostalgia.

As I mentioned before, a very good reason to distrust noir is the way it appeals to cinema geeks. Noir is at the top of the list of those art-things that encourage intellectuals to launch themselves rhapsodically into deepest innerspace. The further these maniacs peer into the form, the more they get lost in their psychic halls of mirrors, in their own tormented, knotted-up, yearning souls. It's a kind of delirium -- critical-masturbatory bliss for the intellectuals, but often a pain for the rest of us. It's a little unseemly the way film nerds sometimes carry on, don't you find?

The noir tropes can often seem to have become overfamiliar -- the mean, wet streets; the cigarette-smoking, depressive hero; the abandoned warehouse; the slinky and dangerous babe ... In these sliced-up, video-deconstructed days, noir iconography has gotten so cut off from its sources that it's become little but signifiers for Moody! Sexy! Urban! Dangerous! I often wish the ad-and-video worlds would declare a year-long moratorium on film-noir ripoffs.

Still, still, despite it all ... We're big enough to set these objections aside, stroll on in, and take a look around, aren't we?

2) What are film noirs anyway? And why do we love them?

double indeminty 01.jpg

Are you familiar with the basic background of film noir? In a general sense, film noir is just a name for American crime movies of the '40s and early '50s. But what most people really have in mind is something a little more specific: taut little crime dramas that are more downbeat than we're used to, and that have been filmed in strikingly moody ways. Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is probably the best-known and most familiar film noir, and it has many of noir's characteristics:

  • It's told via voice-over and flashback.
  • The hero thinks he's more of a hotshot than he really is.
  • The hero is more "compromised" than American movie heroes generally are. Hollywood has (notoriously) been so terrified that audiences might not like their protagonists that filmmakers usually make their heroes over-appealing. Noir guys are something else: insecure, disillusioned, brutal, they're often chumps, or maybe just susceptible to being lured into trying to get away with some slimey scheme. Your relationship with these guys is more sophisticated and objective -- colder -- than your relationship usually is with an American-film protagonist.
  • The female lead is a lure-'em-in spiderwoman, a femme fatale who uses sex to get what she really wants, which is money. Wake up, dude! She doesn't care about you.
  • The visuals are dramatic to the max. They're full of angles; sudden plunges into depth; harsh highlights, and Expressionist shadows. The staging is often as choreographed as theater-staging is -- you're aware of movement patterns. Many people find the usual noir visual scheme a little nightmarish, suggestive of paranoia, the labyrinth, of being trapped.
  • The music score is luridly melodramatic.
  • While the general mood is of tackily-sexy, defeatist melancholy, the film isn't devoid of surprises and suspense. Noir films are often harsh and cynical about sex and money, as well as about how people use each other to get what they want -- again, not virtues that American movies are known for.
  • It's unpretentious. No big statements, no philosophy, no City Hall-sized themes -- just characters trying to get away with something that isn't very admirable. Most noirs were pretty lowdown themselves: made on the cheap; written by pulp-fiction specialists; acted by stars who weren't A-list stars; and made by filmmakers who needed the work.

At their frequent best, these films cross Europe (artiness, sex, and cynicism) with America (dynamism, accessibility).

A tip: these are films that are best looked-to, I find, not for shoot-the-moon, transcend-or-die, high-Art experiences, let alone for deep, novel-style spend-a-lifetime-together engagement. If you want 3-D characters whose souls get unraveled over long periods of time while gigantic themes crisscross on multiple levels, best to turn elsewhere. Film noir's pleasures are terser, and both more formal and more lowdown. Film noir puts icons and archetypes into almost deterministic motion while using an action-and-sex shorthand. To my mind anyway, they're best experienced as semi-symbolic, audiovisual dramatic poetry -- "Beowulf," not Thomas Hardy.

3.) Where'd film noir come from?

The original noir period lasted from the early '40s through the mid-'50s.

Cinemahistorywise, there are usually said to be three main sources for noir: German expressionism, French poetic realism, and the hardboiled style of American mystery writing.

Practically speaking, the crucial elements that went into noir's creation were the existence of lowrent studios (Monogram and Republic turned out a lot of these films); the availability of writers schooled in the hardboiled style; and an influx of immigrant filmmakers before and during WWII. The studios had screens to fill. The writers brought plot and character skills that were in tight tune with public taste. The filmmakers brought with them an eagerness to find employment; fully developed filmmaking styles; and a comfort level with pessimism and doom.

The ecosystem that resulted from the coming-together of these elements was a-buzz with talent and energy, unafraid of art yet eager to get down to business, and completely lacking in self-importance. A terrific combo, needless to say.

(Popular-culture-history break. Those who haven't yet sampled German expressionism might want to start with M, buyable here and Netflixable here. Those who want to give French poetic realism a try might start with Quai des Brumes, buyable here and Netflixable here. And those who haven't yet read a hardboiled American mystery novel -- well, what the hell's wrong with you? Get off your asses and enjoy, for god's sake: this is great stuff. I dunno ... Start with The Maltese Falcon, here; or maybe The Long Goodbye, here. But get it in gear, wouldyaplease?)

As sometimes happens, the French got wise to what's great in American popular art before we did. (The word "noir" in the term "film noir" was lifted from Serie Noire, the name a French publisher gave to a line of dark-toned crime novels he was peddling.) The French started taking note of these films and discussing them as "films noir" in the '40s. It's amusing to note that Americans didn't register the phenomenon until it was already over; American critics and historians didn't start talking about noir as "noir" until the 1960s. One thing this means, of course, is that no one who made these films -- the films from the original cycle -- ever said, "Hey, let's go make a film noir!" They just went ahead and did it.

4.) Where's noir at these days?

Sometimes it seems like it's everywhere. These days, you can spot the influence of film noir not just in films that are flat-out semi-recreations, but in many other kinds of films too. Any film with a drizzly, doomy, heavy-on-the-shadows look is indebted to noir, from the cyberpunk of "Blade Runner" (and its zillions of imitators) to the serial-killer horror of "Se7ven." Cyberpunk generally -- whether on the movie screen, the videogame screen, or the page -- is one of noir's major offshoots. Hmm, what else? Well, there's a neonoir trend in straight mystery novels. Frank Miller's brilliant "Sin City" graphic novels are pure noir. (I blogged about one of them here.) But I think it's ads and videos that have mined the form most promiscuously. Grizzled urban guys; shallacked and dangerous dames; cigarette smoke curling up from lonely ashtrays ... It's been one of the most influential and longest-lasting of all movie styles, come to think of it.

5.) Where do I start?

This Foster Hirsch book here is better than pretty good. No need to read every word, of course -- there seldom is with a film book. But Hirsch is down-to-earth and helpful; he launches himself into fewer absurd rhapsodies than do most writers about film noir; and he has a perceptive, canny appreciation of the pleasures of these movies. People with bigger plans for looking into film noir might enjoy eyeballing this Amazon Reader's List here. Too much for me!

As for the movies themselves ... Of the film noirs I've seen and enjoyed, the following strike me as both fun and representative. (In other words, they're good intros.) Watch 'em, or even some of them, and you'll quickly develop a feel for what film noir is, and maybe even a taste for it. Forgive me for not providing links.

  • The Killing. A moody, high-strung heist movie directed by a very young Stanley Kubrick. It's full of unusually pungent character bits, and it has a loop-the-loop approach to time that anticipates and outdoes "Pulp Fiction." Interesting to see that all of Kubrick is already present in this early film: the weirdo intellectuality, the maniacal tracking shots, the wide-angle lenses, the overhead flourescents. (What were those flourescents about anyway? Just a lighting effect he liked?) All of it delivered in a compact, fast-moving package. The script was adapted for Kubrick by crime-fiction great Jim Thompson from a novel by Lionel White. Blog-ages ago, FvB and I swapped some thoughts about Kubrick here, here, here, here, and (good lord!) here.
  • Out of the Past. Jacques Tourneur directs Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. An archetypal noir, this is one of the movies that made Mitchum a star. Tense, witty, and stylish: Tourneur was a great B-movie director. Here, his French sense of the decorative meshed nicely with the usual noir doominess. Fabulous shadows!
  • Criss Cross and The Killing. [CORRECTION: Make that "The Killers," not "The Killing." Where was my fact-checker?] Stunning Robert Siodmak pictures that star a young Burt Lancaster, who was never better. Siodmak, a German immigrant, was very influenced by Fritz Lang, and the geometrical precision of his staging and lighting is a sight to behold.
  • Double Indemnity. Definitive, classy noir, and (although fully formed) one of the very earliest in the cycle. Billy Wilder directs Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson; adapted by Raymond Chandler from the novel by James M. Cain.
  • Laura. Otto Preminger directs Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb in a small-scale murder-mystery. Like "Double Indeminity," "Laura" is one of those perfect movies that make you want to study them over and over. Preminger later directed Mitchum and the phenomenal young Jean Simmons in "Angel Face" -- not up to "Laura" and not available on DVD, but terrific anyway and well worth seeking out on TCM.
  • Raw Deal and T-Men. Tough, hard-hitting Anthony Mann projects that are such complete artworks that they're like miniature expressionist operas. Yet they're also accessible and punchy; they deliver in a popular way.
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. This is my quirkiest suggestion, a Lewis Milestone/Barbara Stanwyck melodrama that I love. Stanwyck is at her most scheming -- that's saying a lot. It's fun to see a woman at the center of a noir, and Stanwyck's acting here is nicely partnered by a fine story and wonderfully cold-blooded writing.
  • Night and the City. Richard Widmark and Googie Withers in a London-set pursuit film directed by Jules Dassin. Striking for many things, and famous for its documentary approach to using the city, which becomes a major character in the film.
  • The Big Heat. Hot, mean stuff from one of the cinema's great originals, Fritz Lang himself -- a favorite of FvBlowhard's. (FvB blogged about Lang here.) Glenn Ford tries to track down the thugs who killed his wife. With Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, and movie history's most memorable pot of hot coffee. Brutal, fast, and effective, to understate matters by a lot.
  • The Big Clock. A man-wrongly-accused-races-the-clock story set in the NYC magazine world, with beyond-fab performances by Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. Immaculately directed by John Farrow (Mia's dad); adapted from a semi-legendary novel by Kenneth Fearing.

But the easiest one-shot way to get started in noir might be to treat yourself to this amazing deal here. It's a five-DVD boxed set -- five DVDs for not much more than the price of renting them, or about the price of three-and-a-half NYC movie-theater tickets. All five movies included are first-class.

New Yorkers might want to check out the Anthony Mann festival that's being presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at Walter Reade Theater from August 11 to August 29. (More info here.) I'll certainly be stopping by for a few of the films. Mann was an amazing filmmaker. During the '40s, he was one of the very best of the noir directors; in the early '50s, he was responsible for some of the most unusual and engrossing Westerns ever made. (As usual: IMHO.) His Westerns, most of them starring Jimmy Stewart, package heightened dramatic expressiveness in swift-moving stories. Method expressionism, of course, usually tends towards sprawl and self-indulgence; while crisp stories are normally associated with telegraphic and terse performances. Mann's Westerns deliver what's best about both approaches: the juiciness of the Method (in both acting and visual terms), and the speed and dynamism of the best American storytelling.

Hmm: I notice this posting has developed half a theme. I'm going to indulge myself by poking around it some.

Perhaps there's a lot to be said for those moments when you, or me, or maybe Fritz Lang or Anthony Mann, manages to slip by self-consciousness. Self-consciousness can turn into self-importance awfully fast, at which point it starts to weigh us down; those big-goal things we ask ourselves to live up to don't always result in our best work. Did Tourneur or Milestone aspire to make low-rent, low-profile crime films? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Yet when the chance came along, these filmmakers were able to take advantage of flying under the radar. The filmmakers may (or may not) have thought of themselves as slumming, but they certainly didn't hold their talents back, and they let themselves deliver substantial art-fun.

What to do about self-consciousness, eh? It can be a puzzle. Sometimes there's no way of escaping it. But sometimes all you have to do is duck, and the self-consciousness will fly on by. And maybe, in the calm left behind, you run into something of worth -- some energy, some inspiration, something genuine ... Perhaps nothing comes of this opportunity but a nice moment -- anything wrong with that? But perhaps something else results: perhaps (on a forgettable mini-micro level) a blog posting. But also (on a macro, and very-worth-paying-attention-to level) perhaps something as great as the film noir era.

Hmm: gettin' caught up in my own hall of mirrors here, I notice -- I certainly haven't escaped the self-indulgence trap where writing about film noir goes, that's for sure. So I'll stop now.

How do you manage to sustain longterm culture interests? What are your secrets for keeping these interests alive? And, hey girl, which are your favorite film noirs?



UPDATE: Thanks to Stumax, who rightly points out what a first-rate film the neonoir Devil in a Blue Dress was. Thanks to James Russell, who rightly points out how absurd it is to run a posting about noir that doesn't mention Rudolph Mate's D.O.A., which has one of the best noir premises ever. And thanks to Brian, who points out how super-absurd it is to run a posting about noir that doesn't mention the great noir cinematographer John Alton.

posted by Michael at July 31, 2004


Devil In A Blue Dress with Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals is another fine modern noir. Don Cheadle's performance as Mouse is itself worth the price of a rental.

Posted by: Stumax on July 31, 2004 10:17 PM

Stumax -- That's a good point, thanks. I love "Devil." OK, so a few of the neonoirs are darned good. Any others you're fond of?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2004 12:06 AM

I was a film noir buff when I was a little kid and didn't know that I had locked into a genre the French intellectuals identified as film noir. I think adults thought I was strange to be so obsessed with old b&w crime movies, especially being as I'm a girl. I don't know how it happened, but from the time I first watched Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, I was hooked, and I used to think to myself that these adults just don't know what they're missing.

In later years, when I grew up, I found a friend who was as into film noir as I was and we watched and talked about them constantly. This started a more intellectual phase... but that's another story.

I still love film noir and always will, though I'm not currently in that phase.

Great post. I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject.

Posted by: Diana on August 1, 2004 02:11 AM

btw, the title of the film with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino was "On Dangerous Ground."

Posted by: Diana on August 1, 2004 02:16 AM

How can you do such an extended post on film noir and not mention Rudolph Maté's D.O.A. once? You don't get much more "noir" than a man walking into a police station to report his own murder...

And as for neonoir, what did you make of the Coens' Man Who Wasn't There? I thought it was fantastically beautiful to watch but the style vastly outweighed the substance... like they were too busy trying to nail the "noir" mannerisms to actually make a film, if you know what I mean.

Posted by: James Russell on August 1, 2004 04:51 AM

if blogging subjects are clouds on your mental horizon, what is the main thing you focus on?

Hopefully, you wouldn't keep it to yourself when the process is complete. We'll wait.

James Russel -thank you. I immediately thought about that film when Michael was talking about neonoir and with my disappearing memory couldn't remember the title of it.

I think it's a wicked joke, that movie. Sort of like getting rid of the favorite and long (may be too long) doll from your childhood. You've loved and cheriched it so long, you've wondered what the enigma was and you took it apart - twist by twist of plots, angle by camera angle - and finally you're disillusioned and all you want is to show you could do it as well. So Koens did it, but mystery still there and they only showed they tried too hard.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 1, 2004 10:05 AM

Of course, movies are a dream state to begin with. But noir is the dream state squared. Not necessarily total nightmare but definitely that dark state we can get stuck in for long periods (or what feel like long periods) when we're dreaming. That doomed feeling, which - at least as spectators - draws us in.
It's also - as in music - the appeal of the minor key, which always moves us more deeply than the major.

As far as not having enough energy to seriously pursue culture: there's a kind of wisdom in coming to understand that there will be lulls in our ability to keep up; periods when we sag. The important thing to keep in mind is that they are just that: lulls. The energy and appetite will come back. In other words: don't despair. It's a sin, you know (winkwink).

Posted by: ricpic on August 1, 2004 12:04 PM

The big name missing from your very good post is John Alton.

He was the cameraman on T-Men and Raw Deal, which you mentioned, and also He Walked By Night, Big Combo, and lesser known stuff like The Crooked Way and Hollow Triumph. The noir style is in a lot of ways the John Alton style. Click the link for lots of stills.

Civilians watch movies for the actors, film buffs watch them for the director, but real lunatics watch them for the cameraman.

I wonder when noir really began. Isn't Fury basically a film noir from 1935? Aren't the "social problem" films of the early thirties - stuff like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, for instance - film noir, or at least noirish? They're certainly dark, nightmarish, nihilistic... Isn't Dr. Mabuse The Gambler a film noir from 1922?

Did you catch TCM's "crime spree" a few weeks ago? Good eats.

Posted by: Brian on August 1, 2004 01:40 PM


'Djou know Robert Rodriguez is currently filming SIN CITY with a whole slew of A-list talent? Too bad he thinks film is dead and HD is the shiznit.

Were you referring to Siodmak's THE KILLERS in your point about him, or did he also make a movie called THE KILLING that I'm unaware of?

Posted by: Dick on August 1, 2004 05:51 PM

Isn't the plural "films noirs" (or maybe "films noir" for fence-sitters)?

Posted by: Toby on August 2, 2004 03:05 AM

I'm not sure you're on target with "the French got wise to what's great in American popular art before we did". The French had their own separate and vibrant noir tradition contemporaneous with, or perhaps earlier than, the American scene: including such iconic films as Bob Le Flambeur, Rififi, Les Cousins, etc. (I will leave it to true cinéastes to flesh out the rest.)

Posted by: Toby on August 2, 2004 06:58 AM

"A dream-state squared" -- that's really good. It'd make a good title for a book or essay about film noir too. Pretty much sums the appeal of film noir up entirely -- and in four words. Talk about economical.

Ooops, of course it's "The Killers," thanks. My mind was evidently off in Kubrick-land when I typed "Killing." Will correct shortly.

Alton was a great and definitely deserves a hearty nod, thanks for the reminder.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2004 02:29 PM

As does "DOA," too. Not one of my faves, but you don't get much more noir than "DOA." Talk about a premise ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2004 02:30 PM

I've seen it cited in a few places that "Stranger on the Third Floor" (1940) is considered the first film noir. It certainly does contain nearly all of the elements that have come to be recognized as standards of the genre - the story told with a voice-over, a hero who finds himself suddenly thrust into a menacing situation, a surreal dream sequence... The only element missing is the presence of a femme fatale.
I highly recommend it to noir fans. Besides, it's got Peter Lorre in it. Any movie with Peter Lorre in a pivotal role is always well worth seeking out.

Posted by: nsp on August 2, 2004 02:52 PM


Nice post on film noir. But I'm actually more interested in a different subject brought up by this post. Not exactly film noir, but, er, you...

After listening to you and reading your stuff for some 30 years, it finally dawned on me that your ultimate subject is your own mental process; you love to catch a glimpse of how your brain works.

I don't think you're really afraid of a "hall of mirrors" effect, but as a practical matter falling into an endlessly regressive situation undoubtedly makes an already tricky piece of introspective observation more difficult. Hence your need to "look away" from yourself and focus on other subjects in order to, with luck, catch your own mind in action. I notice you don't pair your observations about blogging with an incident at work, or from your past, or whatever, but with an art experience. May I conjecture that you use an "art example" because art provides a highly structured, relatively slow, non-overwhelming experience of "looking away" that makes it easier to observe your own reactions? (I mean, I doubt it's an accident that you rarely blog about how you experience, say, rollercoaster rides--too intense an experience to watch your own cogitation in action.)

What do you think?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 2, 2004 09:21 PM


Nope, Kubrick's film is The Killing. He also did a film called Killer's Kiss. It's also a noir about a washed up boxer who falls in love with a ballerina and it ends with a fight in a manniquin factory. Awesomely surreal stuff.

Posted by: nushustu on August 2, 2004 10:10 PM

I think you are missing some key film noir movies from your list, namely:

The Maltese Falcon (the classic hardboiled detective story)

Bladerunner (the initial "directors cut", with voiceover). Alas, this version of the movie will mostl likely never be available on DVD. Ridley Scott hates this version, but you can still find it on VHS.

Many movies made by Clint Eastwood: Pale Rider, Mystic River are two that come immediately to mind.

Just a comment on film noir in general: A voiceover isn't really a characteristic of film noir itself, rather a characteristic of a subgenre of flim noir: which is sometimes described as the "Hardboiled Detective" genre.

Another note: I think why so many modern filmnoir movies fail is because they are in color. Achieving film noir effects in color is technically more difficult than doing it in black and white.

Posted by: Ted on August 3, 2004 03:38 AM

I've read Rodriguez is apparently no longer doing Sin City because he wanted to hire Frank Miller to co-direct, and the Director's Guild wouldn't let him, so he said he'd resign from the guild, which meant he then couldn't direct the film at all because Paramount won't employ non-Guild directors. Or something.

Posted by: James Russell on August 3, 2004 05:45 AM

Thank you, Friedrich, for answering my questions. (Even if I didn't formulate them clearly)

There are two great books on the subject by another introspect, Michail Zoshchenko, who was considered the greatest humor writer of the Soviet literature of the 30's and whose real object of interest was observation of his own inner life.
I'm not sure if the first one, "Golubaya kniga" (Light-blue book) was ever translated. The other, an easier read, was: Youth restored.
Highly recommend.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 3, 2004 10:31 AM

I saw Mickey Rooney in Killer McCoy ( for the first time the other night. It is in no way film noir, more of a standard sports drama, but there were a number of noirish flourishes. (Say that five times quickly) One shot you can add to your list of visual cues is the tight close-up reaction shot of faces in the crowd. You never see the face before or after, but its given the full expressionistic lighting drama and two or three seconds and then back to the story.

Posted by: Mike Hill on August 3, 2004 12:06 PM

It is in no way film noir, more of a standard sports drama, but there were a number of noirish flourishes.

After noir, the next level of fun is the noir subgenres, boxing noir being one of the best of them: The Set Up, The Harder They Fall, Body and Soul, Golden Boy, and the aforementioned Killer's Kiss.

(The Set Up is being remade by Sidney Lumet even as we type.)

Then there's Noir Westerns: Pursued, Colorado Territory (remake of High Sierra, 3:10 to Yuma, Rancho Notorius, etc.

And let's not forget bowling noir.

Posted by: Brian on August 3, 2004 01:59 PM

Great neo-noir flick: One False Move. Screenply by Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Carl something or other, crap, his last name escapes me at the moment.

Posted by: sac on August 3, 2004 04:34 PM


Rodriguez is still doing Sin City. He's co-directing it with Frank Miller, and had to drop his DGA membership to do so, but it's still his. (Also, Tarantino did a scene for the film as well. Everybody is working on that project.) He had to drop out of Princess of Mars due to his DGA resignation.

Posted by: nushustu on August 4, 2004 12:21 AM

Noir nuts to the left, noir nuts to the right, noir nuts everywhere!

How do all you noir nuts react to writers like Geoffrey O'Brien when he writes about noir, anyway? Am I alone in feeling that he's condescending, or something like it, to movies?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 4, 2004 03:01 AM

I don't pay too much attention to film critics. I learned to love films in a new way after taking an art of film class to satisfy some "artistic forms" elective. The professor was the opposite of elite, yet showed us a new way to look at films from the artistic perspective.

Elites usually just blow smoke to make themselves sound important.

Posted by: Ted on August 4, 2004 06:14 AM

"At their frequent best, these films cross Europe (artiness, sex, and cynicism) with America (dynamism, accessibility)."

And I can't leave this thread without mentioning Godard's "Breathless" which is the Ironic film noir? Anti-film noir?

And of course the Coen Bros mentioned above started with "Blood Simple"

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 4, 2004 09:50 PM

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