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Friday, October 7, 2011

Six Reasons I Love Film Noir

     My theater room is covered in movie posters and movie stills, most of which have to do with Film Noir.  I have no idea how I came to this obsession.  I love all sorts of movies.  But Film Noir is just the bomb to me.  Those dark, shadowed scenes with bumbling heroes and sharp-witted femme fatales always knock me over.  With all manners of oddball character actors peppered throughout every movie, it is a delight to see these dark, twisted worlds.  Time and again these movies are parodied and held up for ridicule over their melodramatic atmospheres.  Well, I don't care.  For me, it just doesn't get any better than this.
     The usual lists of great Film Noir contain the well known movies Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, Laura, and The Asphalt Jungle.  I don't agree that all of those are the better ones, though I will undoubtedly add a few of them to a few more lists later on.  These six reasons should not be considered the only six reasons I love Film Noir.  There are plenty more where this list came from.  
(You can click on the titles to see more about these movies at

1.  Pushover (1954)
There's almost nothing about this movie that isn't done perfectly.  The femme fatale is the spell-binding Kim Novak.  The spell-bound detective that stumbles knowingly to his doom is the big lug MacMurray.  There is remarkable cinematography and lighting, with the ever important play of shadows throughout.  Dorothy Malone plays a nice supporting role.  This movie gets little credit, but it is a personal favorite of mine.  Well worth the time. 

"Money isn't dirty, only people."  Priceless.  She should have gone home.

     This little gem stars one of my favorite actresses; Gloria Grahame.  Her co-star is the sensitive Italian Vittorio Gassman.  This is a different sort of Noir, with a villain that is not the usual suspect.  What gets my attention here is the great location shots of New York City, especially as a search is conducted through the bright lights of Times Square.  (That's my guess, anyway.  Let me know if I'm wrong.)  I love the little vending machine lunch room.  All very techno/space age looking.
     There's a bit part with Jerry Paris (later appearing regularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), and a delightful performance by Robin Raymond as an aging stripper who saves the day. 
     The highlight of this is, of course, Grahame's scene in her tiny apartment as she describes how a girl ends up stealing a coat.
     It is interesting to note that during a lengthy scene, it is obvious that the street scenes that were shot at night in New York City and at the United Nations were shot with a double for Gloria Grahame.  These are mixed in with shots of Grahame in studio shots.  I'm terribly curious why she couldn't get to the location shots, but Gassman obviously could.  This kind of thing doesn't ruin a movie for me.  It just adds to the mystery of the filming process.

     I love this movie for the solid (and not overplayed) role of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson.  His measured, relentless trailing of MacMurray's character is fun to watch.  I have never been a big fan of Stanwyck, but she shines in this perfectly icky role.  This movie, however, is really worth it for the final scene, which I won't spoil for you if you've never seen it.  It is just one of the more perfect Noir endings. 
     MacMurray has a sublime line as Walter Neff when he says of Stanwyck; "I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us."

     I just don't know where to begin here.  Maybe at the scene where Bogart pulls that little stunt on Elisha Cook Jr. when he disarms him.  Or maybe the wonderfully insane plot that is rather dizzying to follow.  Sydney Greenstreet is magnificent as the large and sinister Kaspar Gutman.  He is only outdone by the unmatchable Peter Lorre in one of his greatest roles ever, second only to his disturbingly horrific role in Fritz Lang's M.

Here's one of the best scenes of the movie.  Bogart and Lorre at their best.  This was John Huston's directorial debut, and Bogart was offered the role when George Raft said he didn't want to work with a first-time director.  Fool.  And thank you George Raft.

     Here's yet another overlooked gem that gets practically no airtime.  What a shame that is, since you can see great performances by Richard Widmark (one of the toughest banty-roosters ever caught on film), Jack Palance as a thoroughly wicked guy, Barbara Bel Geddes in the sweet-hearted wife's role, and a surprising little appearance by Zero Mostel.
     The real treat here is the location work in New Orleans.  I know this city pretty well, and I can tell you that this is great location work.  There are even a few little roles played by locals.  The French Quarter bar/cafe has some real charm and had to be real.  You can see them pass in and out of it right on the streets of the Quarter.  The climax down at the waterfront warehouse is just magical, since these scenes are no longer visible in New Orleans, the warehouses having all been torn down to make way for the tourists on the river.
     Elia Kazan, far more famous for his other films, crafted a great movie.  Incredibly, at least for now, the whole movie is available on youtube.  (  Don't miss the oddball scene when a man on a stretcher is dumped down a staircase.

     I have, you might have guessed, saved the best for last.  This dark movie is full of humour, the better to offset the intensity of the dark character played by Humphrey Bogart.  In this thriller, Bogart is Dixon Steele, a cold-hearted writer with a red-hot temper.  He meets his match in Gloria Grahame, as Laurel Gray, the shrewd next-door-neighbor who sees the good in Steele.  When Steele declares they will have dinner together that night, she retorts "We'll have dinner tonight.  Just not together."
     But two detectives let her know right away that Steele might just be a murderer.  And so the story begins to tighten.  As their passion heats up, so does Steele's temper in response to the dogged persistence of the police.  If he is the murderer, doesn't that mean Laurel is in danger?
     Watch for two great supporting roles.  The first is a small role by the actress Jeff Donnell (who I would swear is the same actress in the Dorothy Malone role in Pushover).  Her perky, chatty portrayal of a cop's wife is not only fun, but she has a pivotal role in turning the screws on Bogart to begin to ratchet up the tension.  The other supporting role worth mentioning is Steele's agent Mel Lippman, played by Art Smith.  This guy is golden from start to finish.
     There is a priceless scene near the beginning where a hat-check-girl gives Bogey a book report on a novel he doesn't want to read.  A genuinely funny scene.
     Here's a quick clip with Bogart and Grahame together.  I can watch them over and over again.

     This was directed by Nicholas Ray, Grahame's husband at the time.  They were, however, going through a rather nasty divorce even as they were filming.  Now that's dedication to your craft.  I can't imagine how they did that. 
     And to top it all off, this has that great line that only Bogart could deliver--"You annoy me."  The clip can be seen in the Steve Martin Noir send-up "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".

     Can you believe those last two came out the same year?  Oh to have been able to see them as a double feature!
     The best way to watch these intense movies is to take them seriously, sit back with some popcorn, and enjoy the melodrama.  My daughter, a faithful companion who does not shy away from watching these classics with me, can tell you that I have shed a tear more than once during these tragic masterpieces.  I would deny it, of course, but she would tell you anyway.

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