Historical Dictionary of Film Noir
Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts
Jon Woronoff, Series Editor
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Science Fiction Literature, by Brian Stableford, 2004.
Hong Kong Cinema, by Lisa Odham Stokes, 2007.
American Radio Soap Operas, by Jim Cox, 2005.
Japanese Traditional Theatre, by Samuel L. Leiter, 2006.
Fantasy Literature, by Brian Stableford, 2005.
Australian and New Zealand Cinema, by Albert Moran and Errol
Vieth, 2006.
African-American Television, by Kathleen Fearn-Banks, 2006.
Lesbian Literature, by Meredith Miller, 2006.
Scandinavian Literature and Theater, by Jan Sjåvik, 2006.
British Radio, by Seán Street, 2006.
German Theater, by William Grange, 2006.
African American Cinema, by S. Torriano Berry and Venise Berry,
2006.
Sacred Music, by Joseph P. Swain, 2006.
Russian Theater, by Laurence Senelick, 2007.
French Cinema, by Dayna Oscherwitz and MaryEllen Higgins,
2007.
Postmodernist Literature and Theater, by Fran Mason, 2007.
Irish Cinema, by Roderick Flynn and Pat Brereton, 2007.
Australian Radio and Television, by Albert Moran and Chris
Keating, 2007.
Polish Cinema, by Marek Haltof, 2007.
Old Time Radio, by Robert C. Reinehr and Jon D. Swartz, 2008.
Renaissance Art, by Lilian H. Zirpolo, 2008.
Broadway Musical, by William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird, 2008.
American Theater: Modernism, by James Fisher and Felicia
Hardison Londré, 2008.
German Cinema, by Robert C. Reimer and Carol J. Reimer, 2008.
Horror Cinema, by Peter Hutchings, 2008.
Westerns in Cinema, by Paul Varner, 2008.
Chinese Theater, by Tan Ye, 2008.
Italian Cinema, by Gino Moliterno, 2008.
Architecture, by Allison Lee Palmer, 2008.
Russian and Soviet Cinema, by Peter Rollberg, 2008.
African American Theater, by Anthony D. Hill, 2009.
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Postwar German Literature, by William Grange, 2009.
Modern Japanese Literature and Theater, by J. Scott Miller, 2009.
Animation and Cartoons, by Nichola Dobson, 2009.
Modern Chinese Literature, by Li-hua Ying, 2010.
Middle Eastern Cinema, by Terri Ginsberg and Chris Lippard, 2010.
Spanish Cinema, by Alberto Mira, 2010.
Film Noir, by Andrew Spicer, 2010.
Historical Dictionary
of Film Noir
Andrew Spicer
Historical Dictionaries of
Literature and the Arts, No. 38
The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lanham • Toronto • Plymouth, UK
2010
Published by Scarecrow Press, Inc.
A wholly owned subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706
http://www.scarecrowpress.com
Estover Road, Plymouth PL6 7PY, United Kingdom
Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Spicer
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any
electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems,
without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote
passages in a review.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Spicer, Andrew, 1953–
Historical dictionary of film noir / Andrew Spicer.
p. cm. — (Historical dictionaries of literature and the arts ; no. 38)
Includes bibliographical references and filmography.
ISBN 978-0-8108-5960-9 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-8108-7378-0 (ebook)
1. Film noir—Dictionaries. I. Title. PN1995.9.F54S685 2010
791.43'6556—dc22
2009041150
⬁ ™ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of
American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper
for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.
Printed in the United States of America
For Brian McFarlane
Contents
Editor’s Foreword
Jon Woronoff
ix
Preface
xi
Acknowledgments
xiii
Reader’s Note
xv
Chronology
xvii
Introduction
xxxvii
THE DICTIONARY
1
Bibliography
335
Filmography
401
About the Author
473
vii
Editor’s Foreword
While much of cinema tends toward the brighter hues of glorious
Technicolor, a major segment is gray or black. This is partly because
the subjects are themselves darker, with devious or violent drives and
motivations, black moods, and tendencies toward a tragic ending. Even
comedies can be black. In addition, many movies in the film noir genre
are shot in black-and-white with chiaroscuro lighting, jarring music, and
enervating subthemes. Although noir is the French word for black, the
term film noir was applied to American films exclusively for much of its
history until it was exported to many other countries and cultures with
equal success: Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Hong Kong—and
more all the time, since the human condition is similar everywhere.
Thus, while the first of these films appeared during and just after World
War II, they are still being produced today, although most are now called
neo-noir. While the range of topics was once rather narrow, there are
now categories such as boxing noirs, troubled veteran noirs, and even
science fiction noirs, along with the earlier gangster and detective noirs.
Perhaps this is not the drawback it seems, however, since there is no
agreed definition and filmmakers have been free to develop the genre as
they see fit over more than half a century.
This Historical Dictionary of Film Noir provides a broad coverage of
the topic. The dictionary section includes entries on the various categories
and subcategories that presently compose film noir, focusing particularly
on those who have created the films. After considering the wide range of
writers, directors, producers, actors, and others involved in these movies,
readers will understand why it has become one of the most lively and
popular fields of cinema. Equally important, perhaps even more so, are
the numerous entries on notable films, which impart a more palpable feel
by describing the topics and themes. The introduction and chronology
trace a tradition many decades in the making and still going strong. For
those who want to know more, the bibliography includes nearly all serious
ix
x •
EDITOR’S FOREWORD
writing on the subject. And for those who want to see more, the filmography is equally helpful—while reminding most of us how many films noir
we have already seen and enjoyed.
This volume was written by Andrew Spicer, one of the leading specialists in the field. He is a reader in cultural history in the Faculty of Creative
Arts at the University of the West of England. He has written widely on
cinema: British, European, and world, including works on gangster movies
and masculinity. But his focus is clearly film noir, on which he has written
numerous articles, essays, and contributions to books and reference works.
He is also the author of Film Noir and editor for European Film Noir. All
this and much more have been combined into one handy volume, which
will be extremely useful for teachers, students, and the general public.
Jon Woronoff
Series Editor
Preface
It is no longer possible to regard film noir as encompassed by black-andwhite American films produced between 1940 and 1959. As discussed
later in the introduction, these films are one element, albeit the most
important one, in any attempt to provide an overview of the diverse cultural phenomenon that the term designates. Therefore, readers will find
that dictionary entries include “classic” American film noir (1940–59),
American neo-noir, and film noirs from other countries, including Australia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, and Mexico.
Entries also present noir in other forms: comics and graphic novels, posters, radio, television, and video games. In order to keep the dictionary
within reasonable limits, noir fiction has not been included, but there are
entries on important writers, including James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, and Cornell Woolrich, whose
work was extensively adapted for films noir. There are entries on major
cultural and philosophical influences on film noir, including existentialism, expressionism, Freudianism, hard-boiled fiction, poetic realism, and
Universal horror films. There are also entries on films that anticipated film
noir (precursors) and influential cultural practitioners in other forms, such
as those of Edward Hopper and Weegee (Arthur H. Fellig). For reasons of
space, entries on noir personnel (actors, cinematographers, composers, directors, producers, and screenwriters) are confined to those who have been
closely associated with the development of film noir and who have been
involved in at least half a dozen noirs. There are a few exceptions, such as
Rita Hayworth and Fred MacMurray, whose roles were sufficiently iconic
to merit inclusion.
Although inevitably, given the genre’s size and longevity, entries are
mainly about personnel involved in American noir and neo-noir, there
are also entries on émigré directors, composers, cinematographers, and
set designers, and on non-American writers and directors such as Claude
Chabrol, Graham Greene, Mike Hodges, Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges
xi
xii •
PREFACE
Simenon, and François Truffaut, whose work is essential to understanding
film noir. Other entries range more widely over distinctive aspects of film
noir: gender, narrative, music, representation of the city, and visual style;
subcycles (amnesiac, boxing, hit man, outlaw couple, and prison noirs);
left-wing and right-wing cycles; the blacklist that had such a profound
effect on noir personnel; and entries on retro-noirs, remakes, and hybrids
that are important aspects of the “noir phenomenon.”
Also for reasons of space, only seminal films crucial to the development
of film noir and neo-noir—e.g., Double Indemnity (1944), Kiss Me Deadly
(1955), Point Blank (1967), and Body Heat (1981)—have been included,
and ones that have attracted a great deal of commentary, e.g., The Third
Man (1949), The Big Heat (1953), Rififi (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), Le
Samouraï (1967), Chinatown (1974), and L.A. Confidential (1997).
The bibliography is divided into five general sections that include a selection of the most important contextual studies, but the sections that list the
literature directly discussing film noir are as comprehensive as possible. The
filmography, similarly, includes all films that could reasonably be regarded
as noir (but not hybrids) and encompasses those countries where film noir
has a significant presence (and therefore an entry in the dictionary).
Acknowledgments
The Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of the West of England assisted the preparation of this volume with a small grant for the purchase
of a number of rare film noir titles. It is a pleasure to acknowledge my
indebtedness to several people. I would like to thank Jon Woronoff at
Scarecrow Press for his careful guidance, his prompt responses to queries,
and his forbearance as the book slipped behind its deadline. Alex Ballinger
read through the entire manuscript with great thoroughness and saved me
from many embarrassing errors as well as helping with points of detail and
style. I am, of course, responsible for any errors that remain. My partner,
Dr. Joyce Woolridge, has supported me throughout the entire project,
advising and commenting on all the entries and compiling the filmography. Dr. Brian McFarlane encouraged me to undertake the daunting task
of compiling a dictionary and made judicious comments on a number of
entries; his own work, The Encyclopedia of British Film, has remained a
constant source of inspiration. This book is dedicated to Brian in friendship and affection.
xiii
Reader’s Note
There is no consensus as to the English plural of film noir. The form films
noir has been used throughout this book. The term film noirs, on the other
hand, indicates the existence of several bodies of films, e.g., Mexican and
Spanish film noirs.
The date given for a film in the entries and in the filmography is the year
of its first release. For foreign language films, the original language title
has been given followed by the American title (in parentheses). The titles
of Hong Kong films noir are Mandarin Chinese transliterations. Where
alternative titles exist, these have been given and the filmography contains
an entry under both titles. The filmography does not list noir hybrids as
this would be confusing.
Terms in bold, as well as see and see also references, indicate entries
elsewhere in the dictionary.
xv
Chronology
1794 Great Britain: Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is published, the distant origins of Gothic noir.
1915 United States: Alias Jimmy Valentine is released, the first significant American crime film, remade in 1920 and 1928. Publication of Detective Story Magazine, the first cheap magazine devoted to crime fiction.
1919 Germany: The release of Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr.
Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) marks the beginning of expressionism in film.
1922 United States: Inception of Black Mask edited by Joseph T. Shaw,
the most influential of popular crime magazines. Germany: Fritz Lang’s
first crime film, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit (Dr. Mabuse,
the Gambler) released.
1923 United States: Dashiell Hammett’s private detective Continental
Op first appears in print. Germany: Karl Grune’s Die Strasse (The Street)
inaugurates the cycle of Strassenfilm (street film) in which respectable,
middle class protagonists descend into a murky underworld.
1924 Germany: Expressionist cinema established with the release of
Robert Weine’s Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac) and Paul Leni’s Das
Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks).
1925 Germany: G. W. Pabst’s Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street)
released, the most influential of the Strassenfilm.
1926 Germany: Release of Henrik Galeen’s Der Student von Prag (The
Student of Prague), the first expressionist treatment of this famous tale,
and the birth of the cinematic Doppelgänger, the protagonist’s dark self
or double. Great Britain: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, a dark, atmospheric thriller, anticipates film noir.
xvii
xviii •
CHRONOLOGY
1927 United States: In Underworld, Josef von Sternberg’s shadowy atmospheric direction and Ben Hecht’s script focuses on the criminal milieu,
which prefigures film noir.
1928 United States: Release of von Sternberg’s The Docks of New
York, another American precursor of film noir. Germany: Release of Fritz
Lang’s Metropolis, the origin of the sci-fi/noir hybrid.
1929 United States: Hammett’s first novel, The Red Harvest, is published; release of von Sternberg’s third noir precursor, Thunderbolt.
France: First Maigret story by Georges Simenon. Great Britain: Hitchcock’s crime thriller Blackmail is released.
1930 United States: Publication of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon;
Hammett’s The Red Harvest adapted as Roadhouse Nights. Germany: Release of von Sternberg’s Strassenfilm, Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel)
with Marlene Dietrich as the nightclub singer Lola Lola, the archetypal
femme fatale. Great Britain: Publication of Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot:
Violence and Murder in Chicago.
1931 United States: Little Caesar, written by W. R. Burnett and starring Edward G. Robinson, and The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney,
are the first modern gangster films; first adaptation of The Maltese Falcon
directed by Roy Del Ruth and the release of further noir precursors City
Streets and Quick Millions; publication of Hammett’s novel The Glass
Key. France: Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (The Bitch) marks the beginnings of film noir. Germany: Lang’s M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder
(M: A City Searches for a Murderer) is the first urban crime thriller; Robert
Siodmak’s Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man Who Searched
for His Own Murderer), Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion), and
Voruntersuchung (Inquest) are noir precursors.
1932 United States: Universal continues its cycle of horror films with
the crime-horror hybrids, Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Old Dark
House; release of Scarface, the third seminal gangster film and further noir
precursors: Beast of the City, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Night
World, Payment Deferred, and Two Seconds. France: Renoir’s La Nuit
du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads), Julien Duvivier’s La Tête d’un
homme (A Man’s Neck), and Jean Tarride’s Le Chien jaune (The Yellow
Dog), all based on Simenon novels, establish noir in France. Great Britain: Publication of Wallace’s When the Gangs Came to London.
CHRONOLOGY
• xix
1933 United States: Publication of Raymond Chandler’s first short
story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” Germany: Adolf Hitler comes to
power (January); many film personnel flee, including Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak, usually to Paris then on to the United States.
1934 United States: Publication of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and the first Cornell Woolrich story, “Death Sits in the
Dentist’s Chair.” Universal releases The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G.
Ulmer; noir precursors Crime without Passion and Manhattan Melodrama
released. Mexico: Release of the first noir—La Mujer del puerto (The
Woman of the Port).
1935 United States: First adaptation of The Glass Key; Universal releases The Bride of Frankenstein.
1936 United States: Cain’s Double Indemnity serialized in Liberty
magazine; Lang’s Fury is an important noir precursor. Weegee’s photograph “Corpse with a Revolver” is published, as is Detective Picture Stories, the first crime fiction comic. France: Major phase of poetic realism
begins with Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths) starring Jean Gabin. Great
Britain: Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale establishes him as an important
crime writer.
1937 United States: Lang’s You Only Live Once is the first outlaw
couple thriller; Detective Comics published. France: Release of Pépé le
Moko starring Gabin as the charismatic criminal. Great Britain: First full
noir, The Green Cockatoo (U.S. title: Four Dark Hours) completed, based
on a Greene story.
1938 Finland: First noir—Nyrki Tapiovaara’s Varastettu kuolema
(Stolen Death). France: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (Port of
Shadows), starring Gabin, is released. Great Britain: Arthur Wood’s They
Drive by Night released.
1939 United States: Publication of Chandler’s The Big Sleep and David
Goodis’s first novel, Retreat from Oblivion; release of further noir precursors: Blind Alley, Dust Be My Destiny, Each Dawn I Die, and They Made
Me a Fugitive. France: Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se léve (Daybreak) starring Gabin is released, as is Robert Siodmak’s Pièges (Traps) and Pierre
Chenal’s Le Dernier tournant (The Last Turn), the first adaptation of The
Postman Always Rings Twice. Great Britain: On the Night of the Fire,
xx •
CHRONOLOGY
directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and the Edgar Wallace “shocker” The
Dark Eyes of London, starring Bela Lugosi, are released.
1940 United States: Stranger on the Third Floor, directed by Boris
Ingster, is the first “true” noir; Hitchcock’s Rebecca is the first Gothic
noir. Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and his seminal essay, “The
Simple Art of Murder,” are published, as is Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride
Wore Black; Weegee’s photographs “On the Spot” and “One Way Ride”
appear in print. Great Britain: Publication of Eric Ambler’s noir spy
novel Journey into Fear and the release of Thorold Dickinson’s Gothic
noir, Gaslight.
1941 United States: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey
Bogart as Sam Spade is the first noir to replicate the cynical tone and atmosphere of hard-boiled fiction; Bogart also stars in Huston’s High Sierra
as a troubled gangster. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane shows the potential
of expressionist techniques. Other early noirs include: Among the Living,
I Wake Up Screaming, Ladies in Retirement, and Out of the Fog, starring
John Garfield; von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture; and Hitchcock’s
Suspicion. Publication of Weegee’s “Murder on the Roof ” and “Rocco
Finds His Pal Stabbed.” Denmark: Release of the first noir, En Forbryder
(A Criminal).
1942 United States: Release of Street of Chance, the first Cornell Woolrich adaptation and the second and darker adaptation of The Glass Key,
starring Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, and Alan Ladd; Ladd also stars
in the first hit man noir, This Gun for Hire, based on Greene’s novel. Val
Lewton’s “B” Unit at RKO releases a cycle of psychological horror films
beginning with Cat People. First publication of the Crime Does Not Pay
comic that continues to 1955; first broadcast of Suspense, a radio noir that
continues until 1962. Hopper’s painting Nighthawks first exhibited at the
Art Institute of Chicago. Great Britain: Release of The Night Has Eyes
with James Mason as a troubled Spanish Civil War veteran. Italy: Luchino
Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) is an unauthorized adaptation of The
Postman Always Rings Twice.
1943 United States: Release of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt starring
Joseph Cotten as a plausible serial killer and Orson Welles’s first noir
Journey into Fear, also starring and cowritten by Cotten, based on Ambler’s novel; three further Lewton horror-noirs—I Walked with a Zombie,
The Leopard Man (both directed by Jacques Tourneur), and The Seventh
CHRONOLOGY
• xxi
Victim—are released. France: Release of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le
Corbeau (The Raven). Mexico: Emergence of a sustained production cycle
of film noir with Fernando de Fuentes’ Doña Bárbara and La mujer sin
alma (The Woman without a Soul).
1944 United States: Release of Double Indemnity, adapted by Chandler
and Billy Wilder (who also directed) from Cain’s novella; Murder, My
Sweet, based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, directed by Edward
Dmytryk with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe; and Otto Preminger’s Laura,
from Vera Caspary’s novel, three hugely influential noirs; Lang’s Woman
in the Window and Siodmak’s first noir, Phantom Lady, adapted from a
Woolrich story, are also important releases. Several Gothic noirs released,
including Dark Waters, Experiment Perilous, Gaslight (MGM’s version)
and The Lodger (John Brahm’s remake of the Hitchcock original).
1945 United States: The House on 92nd Street, directed by Henry Hathaway and produced by Louis de Rochemont, is the first semidocumentary
noir that shows the major impact of Italian neo-realism. Release of Lang’s
Scarlet Street, an adaptation of Renoir’s La Chienne; Ulmer’s Detour; Mildred Pierce, based on the Cain novel; Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which deals
with amnesia and psychological confusion; Edward Dmytryk’s Cornered,
starring Dick Powell as a troubled veteran; and Leave Her to Heaven, the
first color noir, with Gene Tierney as a psychotic femme fatale. France:
Publication of the first Série Noire titles by Gallimard.
1946 United States: Production of film noir is now well established;
major releases include: Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, based on Chandler’s novel and starring Bogart as Marlowe; The Blue Dahlia, the only
original Chandler screenplay addressing the topical issue of the troubled
veteran, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake; Gilda, starring Glenn
Ford and Rita Hayworth; the first American adaptation of The Postman
Always Rings Twice, starring John Garfield and Lana Turner; Siodmak’s
The Killers, starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, and his Gothic
noir The Spiral Staircase; three Woolrich adaptations: Black Angel, The
Chase, and Deadline at Dawn. Howard Duff stars in The Adventures of
Sam Spade, a radio serial that continues until 1951. France: First use of
the term film noir by reviewers to describe the new type of American crime
thriller; production of noirs well established, including Les Portes de la
nuit (The Gates of the Night). (East) Germany: Die Mörder sind unter uns
(The Murderers Are Among Us) launches the brief cycle of Trümmerfilme
xxii •
CHRONOLOGY
(rubble films). Great Britain: Wanted for Murder, starring Eric Portman,
is released. Italy: Release of Alberto Lattuada’s Il bandito (The Bandit),
which focuses on a troubled veteran.
1947 United States: Production of films noir continues to increase,
including: Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum
and Jane Greer; Robert Rossen’s boxing noir, Body and Soul, starring John
Garfield; Crossfire, Dead Reckoning, and Ride the Pink Horse focus on
the troubled veteran; Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, a blending of the
semidocumentary and the noir thriller; Robert Montgomery’s Chandler
adaptation Lady in the Lake, in which the camera becomes the eyes of
Philip Marlowe; and three further low-budget Woolrich adaptations: Fall
Guy, Fear in the Night, and The Guilty. Enterprise Productions is formed
to nurture left-wing social noirs, but the investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) result in the production of a
blacklist (in force until 1962) that wrecks the careers of many left-inclined
noir personnel. I, the Jury, the first Mickey Spillane story featuring Mike
Hammer, is published. The Adventures of Philip Marlowe begins on
radio (continuing until 1950) with Van Heflin, then Gerald Mohr, playing Chandler’s gumshoe. France: Release of Quai des orfèvres (Jenny
Lamour) and Duvivier’s Panique (Panic). Great Britain: A large number
of noirs are released, including: Odd Man Out directed by Carol Reed and
starring James Mason; Dear Murderer starring Eric Portman; They Made
Me a Fugitive; and Temptation Harbour, adapted from a Georges Simenon
novella. Italy: Release of several noirs including Tombolo, paradiso nero
(Tombolo, Black Paradise), and Caccia tragica (Tragic Pursuit), directed
by Giuseppe de Santis.
1948 United States: Large numbers of films noir continue to be produced. Dore Schary takes over as head of production at MGM and encourages the making of modestly budgeted noirs. Releases include: T-Men,
a semidocumentary thriller, the first of five directed by Anthony Mann
and photographed by John Alton that also included Raw Deal, with its
rare sympathetic female protagonist (Claire Trevor); Orson Welles’s The
Lady from Shanghai; Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, produced by Mark
Hellinger, the definitive semidocumentary noir set in New York; Dassin
also directed Brute Force, a grueling prison noir; Nicholas Ray’s They
Live by Night, the quintessential outlaw couple noir; Abraham Polonsky’s
Force of Evil, starring John Garfield; Siodmak’s Cry of the City; John
Farrow’s The Big Clock, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton;
CHRONOLOGY
• xxiii
Night Has a Thousand Eyes, adapted from a Woolrich story; The Dark
Past, a remake of the noir precursor Blind Alley; and Pitfall, starring Dick
Powell as the archetypal beleaguered suburbanite. France: Release of
Dédée d’Anvers (Woman of Antwerp), directed by Yves Allégret. Great
Britain: A number of noirs are released, including: Daybreak, a bleak,
Gallic tale starring Eric Portman; Mine Own Executioner and Silent Dust,
which feature troubled veterans; and the adaptation of Greene’s prewar
novel Brighton Rock. Italy: Release of Lattuada’s Senza pietà (Without
Pity) and de Santis’s Riso amaro (Bitter Rice). Japan: Akira Kurosawa’s
Yo dire tensi (Drunken Angel) is the first postwar Japanese noir.
1949 United States: Production of film noir remains high. Notable
titles include: Siodmak’s Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordon;
Mann’s Reign of Terror, set in France during the revolution; Max Ophüls’s
Caught; Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, a boxing noir starring Robert Ryan;
Dassin’s Thieves Highway; two troubled veteran noirs, The Clay Pigeon
and The Crooked Way; and White Heat with James Cagney as a psychotic
gangster. Nothing More Than Murder, Jim Thompson’s first major crime
novel, is published. France: Release of several bleak noirs, including
Allégret’s Une si jolie petite plage (Riptide) and Manèges (The Cheat).
Great Britain: Production of films noir continues apace, including:
Ambler’s story about amnesia, The October Man; Obsession, directed by
the exiled Dmytryk; and Michael Powell’s The Small Back Room, which
all explore psychological disturbance, as well as Carol Reed’s The Third
Man, an Anglo-American coproduction set in Vienna. Japan: Kurosawa’s
Nora inu (Stray Dog) explores postwar tensions. Mexico: Production of
noir continues with a number of films featuring la devoradora (the devouring woman); the most famous and successful was Aventurera (The Adventuress) starring the Cuban singer-actress Ninón Sevilla. Norway: First true
noir released: Døden er et kjærtegn (Death Is a Caress).
1950 United States: The most prolific year for the release of noirs. Notable titles include: Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the father of the caper/
heist film; Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A., one of the great existential noirs, starring Edmond O’Brien as the ordinary Everyman caught in a malevolent
world; Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female), an
unromantic outlaw couple film; Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place with
Bogart as an unstable troubled veteran and disillusioned Hollywood
writer; Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, starring Dana Andrews,
indicates that attention is now shifting to the corrupt cop; Wilder’s Sunset
xxiv •
CHRONOLOGY
Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson as a faded silent film star, is the definitive Hollywood noir. Publication of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on
a Train. Great Britain: Night and the City is an Anglo-American production filmed in London so that Dassin can continue directing despite being
blacklisted. Cage of Gold, starring David Farrar, continues to explore the
psychological and social legacy of the war. Italy: Michelangelo Antonioni
directs Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of a Love), an intense story of
doomed passion and guilt. Mexico: Release of Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones).
1951 United States: The pace of releases of American noir slackens, but
notable examples include: Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival),
a coruscating account of an amoral journalist played by Kirk Douglas; Joseph Losey remakes M, and his The Prowler critiques America’s obsession
with ambition and money. Argentina: Film noir emerges with El pendiente (The Earring), adapted from a Woolrich story. Germany: Release of
Der Verlorene (The Lost One), directed by and starring Peter Lorre. Great
Britain: Release of Pool of London, “Britain’s Naked City.”
1952 United States: Captive City is the first of the cycle of city exposé
noirs that take their cue from the 1950 Senate hearings on municipal
corruption chaired by Estes Kefauver. Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous
Ground, starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, is an exploration of the
troubled cop and a moving love story. Phil Karlson’s first noir, Scandal
Sheet, is based on Samuel Fuller’s novel, The Dark Page. The first noir
television series, China Smith, is broadcast, starring Dan Duryea as a faded
American gumshoe working in Singapore. Publication of Thompson’s
The Killer Inside Me. Argentina: Two further Woolrich adaptations, both
directed by Carlos Hugo Christensen: No abras nunca esa puerta (Don’t
Ever Open That Door), and Si muero antes de despertar (If I Should Die
before I Wake).
1953 United States: Production of noir begins to decline noticeably and
becomes predominantly second features. Release of Samuel Fuller’s Pickup
on South Street, his first noir as a director, starring Richard Widmark;
Ida Lupino directs and stars in The Bigamist opposite Edmond O’Brien,
and she also directs him in The Hitch-Hiker; Lang’s The Big Heat shows,
like the city exposé noirs, the shift from individual concerns to a focus on
widespread corruption and criminal organizations. Release of the first Mike
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Hammer film, I, the Jury. Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon contains a
clever parody of the noir style in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence.
1954 United States: Release of Riot in Cell Block 11, a violent and
powerful prison noir directed by Don Siegel. France: Touchez pas au
Grisbi (Honor Among Thieves), starring Jean Gabin, is the first of a series
of French gangster noirs. Great Britain: Release of Cy Endfield’s Impulse
and The Good Die Young, with a mixed Anglo-American cast.
1955 United States: Release of Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s radical
reworking of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer thriller; The Night of the
Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum as a Christian fundamentalist and serial
killer; Lang’s While the City Sleeps; Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo, a
brooding Doppelgänger story; New York Confidential and Karlson’s The
Phenix City Story, brutal city exposés. Publication of Highsmith’s The
Talented Mr. Ripley. France: Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s
Panorama du film noir americáin (1941–1953) is the first book-length
study of noir. Dassin’s Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi) is the definitive
heist noir. Spain: Juan Antonio Bardem’s Muerte de un ciclista (Death of
a Cyclist) is the first noir.
1956 United States: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is another intelligent
heist noir; Slightly Scarlet, photographed by John Alton, and Fuller’s
House of Bamboo are color noirs, the latter depicting a criminal gang
of ex-soldiers. Nightmare, directed by Maxwell Shane, is a remake of
his own 1947 film Fear in the Night, based on the Woolrich short story;
Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, starring Henry Fonda, is one of the bleakest films noir; The Harder They Fall is Bogart’s last noir; Lang’s Beyond
a Reasonable Doubt is his final American noir; Siegel’s Invasion of the
Body Snatchers is a paranoid, sci-fi noir hybrid. France: Bob le Flambeur
(Bob the Gambler), starring Roger Duchesne, is Jean-Pierre Melville’s
first significant noir. Great Britain: Roy Ward Baker’s Tiger in the Smoke
is a powerful troubled-veteran story.
1957 United States: Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success;
Karlson’s The Brothers Rico, based on the Simenon novel; Tourneur’s
Nightfall; and Paul Wendkos’s The Burglar, also adapted from a Goodis
novel, are distinctive noirs in a period when production is declining.
Shift of noir from film production to television series includes Richard
Diamond, starring David Janssen as a private eye, continuing to 1960.
Germany: Siodmak’s Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (The Devil Strikes
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at Night) explores the Nazi past. Great Britain: Release of Endfield’s
Hell Drivers.
1958 United States: Two late noir masterpieces are released: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a study in obsession, and Orson Welles’s expressionist
Touch of Evil. Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract is an intelligent exploration of the hit man. Great Britain: Seth Holt’s Nowhere to Go is a
powerful, existential crime thriller.
1959 United States: Release of Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow,
a heist noir that foregrounds racial tensions, is often cited as the “last” classic film noir. Production of noir now shifting decisively to television series: Johnny Staccato starring John Cassavetes; Peter Gunn starring Craig
Stevens; and The Man with a Camera starring Charles Bronson. France:
Robert Bresson’s influential Pickpocket is released. Great Britain: Release of Siodmak’s last noir, The Rough and the Smooth, and Losey’s
Blind Date.
1960 United States: Release of The 3rd Voice starring Edmond O’Brien
as a man hired to impersonate a businessman who has been murdered
shows that noir production did not cease in 1959; it remains sporadic
throughout the 1960s. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a new type of horror-noir.
First episodes of the sci-fi noir television series Twilight Zone, which continues until 1964. France: Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless), scripted by François Truffaut and dedicated to Monogram, shows the
influence of American noir on the French New Wave directors, as does
Truffaut’s own Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player), adapted
from a David Goodis novel, the action shifted from Philadelphia to Paris.
René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) stars Alain Delon as Ripley,
Highsmith’s amoral protagonist. Germany: Die tausend Augen des Dr
Mabuse (The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse) is Lang’s final film. Great
Britain: Joseph Losey’s The Criminal and Val Guest’s Hell Is a City,
both starring Stanley Baker, are harsh, brutal crime thrillers. Japan: Akira
Kurosawa’s Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well) focuses
on corporate corruption.
1961 United States: Release of the “late noirs,” Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, which has many similarities with his Body and Soul (1947). Great Britain: Release of The Naked
Edge starring Gary Cooper and Eric Portman. Italy: Francesco Rosi’s
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Salvatore Giuliano, the story of a Sicilian bandit in the immediate postwar
years, is his first giallo politico, “political thriller.”
1962 United States: Release of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian
Candidate, from Richard Condon’s novel, a Cold War psychological
thriller about the Communist threat. Poland: Roman Polanski’s first noir
released, Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water).
1963 United States: Further late noirs: Fuller’s Shock Corridor, a
disturbing tale of a journalist in a mental hospital investigating who
committed a murder that has been hushed up; The Girl Hunters, an adaptation of a Spillane story, with Spillane himself as Mike Hammer. First
broadcast of The Fugitive starring David Janssen, a long-running noir
television series (through 1967) that is one continuous story. France:
Melville’s Le Doulos (The Finger Man) is one of his most powerful and
influential noirs; Claude Chabrol’s L’Œil du matin (The Third Lover),
indebted to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is his first noir. Great Britain: Release
of Michael Winner’s West 11 starring Eric Portman and Alfred Lynch.
Japan: Kurosawa’s Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low), adapted from an
Ed McBain “87th Precinct” novel, depicts a stark moral choice faced by
a rich businessman after a kidnapping.
1964 United States: Release of Hitchcock’s Marnie starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren; Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty,
an art-house American noir indebted to the French New Wave; Siegel’s
The Killers, a radical remake of Siodmak’s film; Fuller’s The Naked Kiss,
a brutal but compelling noir about a reformed prostitute; Frankenheimer’s
Seven Days in May, another Cold War political thriller. Great Britain:
John Moxey’s Face of a Stranger is one of the best of over 40 updates of
Edgar Wallace thrillers.
1965 United States: Release of the two sci-fi/noir hybrids: Dmytryk’s
Mirage and William Conrad’s Brainstorm; release of Who Killed Teddy
Bear? and Angel’s Flight, two late films noir. Great Britain: The Spy Who
Came in from the Cold is the first adaptation of John le Carré’s dark spy
fiction that focuses on corruption and betrayal. Spain: Carlos Saura’s La
caza (The Hunt) revisits Civil War conflicts.
1966 United States: Frankenheimer’s Seconds, starring Rock Hudson,
is the third part of his “paranoia trilogy”; Harper, starring Paul Newman, is
a late private eye film. Great Britain: Release of Polanski’s Cul-de-sac.
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1967 United States: John Boorman’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin
as an implacable revenger, is the first neo-noir. Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde
conflates 1930s criminals with counter-cultural rebels; Truman Capote’s
influential novel In Cold Blood is filmed, directed by Richard Brooks as a
late semidocumentary noir. Great Britain: Polanski’s Repulsion, a compelling psychological drama starring Catherine Deneuve, is released. Japan: Seijun Suzuki’s Koroshi no rakuin (Branded to Kill) is an art-house
existential thriller about a paranoid hit man.
1968 United States: Release of Mann’s political thriller, A Dandy in
Aspic, Siegel’s Madigan starring Richard Widmark, and The Detective
starring Frank Sinatra. France: Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir (The
Bride Wore Black) is adapted from a Woolrich story; Chabrol’s La Femme
infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife) is the first of his “Hélène” cycle. Great
Britain: The Strange Affair, starring Michael York, is the first British film
to deal with police corruption.
1969 France: Release of Melville’s Le Samouraï starring Alain Delon
as an existential and tragic hit man; Truffaut’s La Sirène du Mississippi
(Mississippi Mermaid) from a Woolrich story; further Chabrol noirs:
Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die aka Killer!) and Le Boucher (The
Butcher); Constantin Costa-Gavras’s political thriller, Z.
1970 United States: Huston’s The Kremlin Letter is a dark political
thriller about corruption and betrayal. France: release of Chabrol’s La
Rupture (The Break), and Melville’s Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle)
starring Delon. Great Britain: Performance, portraying the clash of the
underworld with the rock music counterculture, is finally released after
a delay of two years. Italy: Release of two political thrillers: Bernardo
Bertolucci’s Il conformista (The Conformist), which revisits the fascist period, and Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto
(Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion).
1971 United States: Shaft is the first “blaxploitation” film providing a
space for the representation of aspects of the African American experience; Siegel’s Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood as Detective Harry
Callahan, is an influential corrupt cop neo-noir; The French Connection also focuses on an unstable cop, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman);
Klute is one of the few neo-noirs thus far to have a woman as the main
protagonist. France: Chabrol’s Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall)
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completes his “Hélène” cycle. Great Britain: Mike Hodges’s Get Carter
is as brutal and violent as American crime thrillers.
1972 United States: Publication of Paul Schrader’s seminal “Notes on
Film Noir” to accompany a major retrospective of films in Los Angeles
that identifies film noir as an important cultural phenomenon. Important
releases: Hickey and Boggs, focusing on two world-weary private eyes in a
rundown Los Angeles; Across 110th Street, a powerful African American
neo-noir; Cool Breeze, a black remake of The Asphalt Jungle; and Sam
Peckinpah’s The Getaway, an outlaw couple film. France: Un flic (Dirty
Money) is the third and final Melville-Delon crime film. Great Britain:
Sidney Lumet’s The Offence stars Sean Connery as a beleaguered policeman on the verge of breakdown; Hitchcock’s Frenzy is a brutal serial
killer film. Italy: Rosi’s Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair) is a hard-hitting
political thriller.
1973 United States: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a sustained
critique of the Chandler myth of the private eye; Coffy, an African American noir with a feisty woman protagonist, played by Pam Grier, is the
first of several such films; release of Martin Scorsese’s first noir, Mean
Streets; Karlson’s Walking Tall is his most violent, and successful, noir;
Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is a new take on police corruption. Italy: Release
of Rosi’s gangster noir Lucky Luciano.
1974 United States: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, set in 1930s Los Angeles with Jack Nicholson as a private eye out of his depth in the pervasive
civic corruption, is a radical reworking of noir paradigms. Francis Ford
Coppola’s superbly crafted The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman,
and The Parallax View, starring Warren Beatty, expose the paranoia rampant in American society; Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us remakes They
Live by Night (1948), but, although in color and CinemaScope, presents a
bleaker delineation of the Depression era. France: Claude Chabrol’s Nada
(The Nada Gang) explores the morality of terrorism. Japan: Yoshitaro
Nomura’s Suna no utsuwa (The Castle of Sand) is a moving and distinctive
noir focusing on outcasts and moral responsibility.
1975 United States: Release of two powerful neo-noirs starring Hackman—Frankenheimer’s French Connection II and Arthur Penn’s Night
Moves; Robert Aldrich’s Hustle stars Burt Reynolds as a disillusioned
police lieutenant. Great Britain: Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely,
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starring Robert Mitchum, is one of the first retro-noirs that attempts to recreate the style, mood, and atmosphere of the 1940s. Italy: Release of Dario
Argento’s Profondo rosso (Deep Red), starring David Hemmings, and
Rosi’s Cadaveri eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses). Antonioni’s Professione
reporter (The Passenger) starring Jack Nicholson as a disaffected journalist
who tries to switch his identity, is an Italian-American coproduction.
1976 United States: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, scripted by Schrader and
starring Robert De Niro, updates the noir veteran; The Killer Inside Me is
the first adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel; All the President’s Men is
another probing political noir.
1977 United States: The Domino Principle and Twilight’s Last Gleaming continue the cycle of political noirs; The Late Show starring Art Carney
is a further demolition of the private eye myth. Germany: Wim Wenders’s
Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend), an adaptation of the
Highsmith novel, Ripley’s Game, is the first serious engagement by a German New Wave director with American noir.
1978 United States: Release of Walter Hill’s The Driver, a bleakly existential neo-noir; Capricorn One continues the cycle of political thrillers.
1979 United States: Publication of Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s
Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, which
establishes a canon of noir films. France: Release of the bleak Série
Noire, adapted from Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1954). Germany:
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of
Maria Braun) is the first of a trilogy of neo-noirs that explores recent
German history.
1980 United States: Release of Raging Bull, Scorsese’s boxing noir
with De Niro as Jake La Motta; and Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster
and directed by Louis Malle. Great Britain: Release of John Mackenzie’s
The Long Good Friday, a brutal crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins as an
East End gangster.
1981 United States: Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, a loose remake
of Double Indemnity, inaugurates a new phase of neo-noir, the shift from
radical revisionism to a more modulated development of noir’s mood
with a recognizable and reproducible style and tone. Bob Rafelson’s The
Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange,
is one of the first neo-noir remakes of a 1940s “classic.” France: Jean-
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Jacques Beineix’s Diva inaugurates a new phase of French neo-noir as an
adjunct of the cinéma du look—stylish, sophisticated, and street-smart.
1982 United States: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, an influential blending of sci-fi and noir, depicts a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019. France:
Bob Swaim’s La Balance (The Nark), is another stylish thriller; Vivement
dimanche! (Confidentially Yours), an adaptation of Charles Williams’s
hard-boiled thriller The Long Saturday Night, is Truffaut’s final film.
Germany: Wenders’s Hammett is a highly self-reflexive noir that blends
fiction and reality on several levels.
1983 United States: Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor is a blackly comic neonoir starring Jack Nicholson as a stolid hit man. Brian De Palma’s Scarface is an ultraviolent remake of the 1932 film. Australia: Goodbye Paradise, indebted to Chandler, blends American and Australian sensibilities.
France: Beineix’s La Lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter) is
an art house French neo-noir based on the Goodis novel.
1984 United States: Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ first neo-noir, is
a “country noir” set in Texas but rooted in hard-boiled fiction (Hammett
and Cain). Release of Against All Odds, a remake of Out of the Past; De
Palma’s Obsession, a loose remake of Vertigo; and Tightrope, starring
Clint Eastwood, a powerful Doppelgänger neo-noir. First broadcast of
Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (continues until 1989), whose pace, style, and
high production values set new standards for television noir series. Denmark: Lars Von Trier’s Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime) is
a complex European art house noir.
1985 France: Luc Besson’s Subway, his first noir, is a stylish thriller
set in Paris.
1986 United States: David Lynch’s first noir Blue Velvet exposes the
corruption beneath small-town America. First broadcast of Mann’s television series Crime Story, set in Chicago in the 1960s; Abel Ferrara directs
the pilot episode. Publication of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The
Dark Knight Returns makes the noir elements in this character explicit.
Hong Kong: John Woo’s Ying xiong ben se (A Better Tomorrow) establishes noir as a productive genre.
1987 United States: Release of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, starring
Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, a supernatural noir. Great Britain:
Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa is a powerful, hallucinogenic neo-noir. Hong
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Kong: Ringo Lam’s Long hu feng yun (City on Fire) becomes one of the
first noirs to be influential internationally.
1988 United States: The Dead Pool is another outing for Eastwood’s
“Dirty” Harry Callahan; Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Betrayed explores the
terrorist threat on American soil.
1989 United States: John Dahl’s debut neo-noir Kill Me Again is visually
stylish. France: Remake of Panique as Monsieur Hire. Hong Kong: John
Woo’s Die xue shuang xi (The Killer) starring Chow Yun-Fat as a hit man,
helps cement Hong Kong cinema’s international reputation. Japan: Sono
otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki (Violent Cop), directed by and starring Takeshi Kitano,
is both homage to Dirty Harry and the emergence of a distinctive sensibility.
1990 United States: Production of films noir increases, becoming
more mainstream and commercial, including many erotic thrillers that go
straight to cable release. Stephen Frears’s The Grifters and James Foley’s
After Dark, My Sweet are intelligent adaptations of Thompson novels.
Other notable releases: Dennis Hopper’s Hot Spot, starring Don Johnson;
Internal Affairs, starring Richard Gere and Andy Garcia; Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a woman cop; and Sidney
Lumet’s Q & A, where Nick Nolte plays a particularly loathsome corrupt
cop. David Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks, a surreal noir, becomes
cult viewing. South Korea: Noir begins to emerge with Kwon-taek Im’s
Janggunui adeul (Son of a General) and its two sequels (1991 and 1992),
an expansive and slow-moving gangster saga. Spain: Release of Vicente
Aranda’s celebrated political allegory Amantes (Lovers).
1991 United States: Return of African American noir as an important
element in American filmmaking, including Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem. Spain: Todo por la pasta (All for the Dough) and Beltenebros help to
establish an internationally recognized neo-noir.
1992 United States: Reservoir Dogs establishes Quentin Tarantino as an
important new filmmaker; Peter Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct makes a star
of Sharon Stone, who reconfigures the femme fatale; Carl Franklin’s One
False Move is a powerful African American neo-noir exploring interracial
tensions; Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel, is an extreme
exploration of the corrupt cop.
1993 United States: Notable releases include: Peter Medak’s Romeo
Is Bleeding, an extreme version of the unreliable, self-deluding narrator;
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Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy reworks the outlaw couple paradigm, through
remaking Gun Crazy (1950); Carlito’s Way, starring Pacino as a criminal
who attempts to reform; and Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as
“D-Fens,” an unemployed defense worker who wages a one-man psychotic war against the world. First broadcast of the sci-fi noir television
series The X-Files, which continues through to 2002. Italy: Revival of
the giallo politico: Il lungo silenzio (The Long Silence), La scorta (The
Escort), and Il giudice ragazzino (The Young Judge).
1994 United States: Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with its episodic, nonchronological construction and profusion of allusions to an eclectic range
of world cinema, cements his cult reputation; in Dahl’s The Last Seduction, Linda Fiorentino plays a successful contemporary femme fatale—duplicitous, cruel, but unpunished.
1995 United States: Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel
Washington, is a retro-noir that explores the postwar period through African American eyes; Se7en is a horror-noir hybrid, one of the most disturbing of the spate of serial killer films; Mann’s Heat is an epic crime thriller
with the first onscreen meeting of Pacino and De Niro; Steven Soderbergh’s Underneath, starring Peter Gallagher, is an intelligent remake and
updating of Criss Cross; Scorsese’s Casino is an epic gangster-noir based
on a true story, starring De Niro and Stone. France: Release of La Haine
(Hate), representative of a return to social themes; Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (Judgement in Stone) continues his excoriation of the bourgeoisie.
1996 Denmark: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher is the first internationally successful Danish noir with two sequels (in 2004 and 2005).
1997 United States: Release of the retro-noir L.A. Confidential, an adaptation of the third novel in James Ellroy’s celebrated LA quartet, set in the
1950s; Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel and
starring Pam Grier; Lynch’s The Lost Highway, a surreal noir that remains
ultimately mysterious; This World, Then the Fireworks also uses a surrealistic, Gothic style to render the strange, distorted, and self-destructive world of
Thompson’s novels. Japan: Kitano directs and stars in Hana-Bi (Fireworks)
as a retired, psychologically damaged policeman. Norway: Release of Erik
Skjoldbjerg’s Insomnia, a powerful thriller set in northern Norway. Spain:
Pedro Almodóvar’s Carne Trémula (Live Flesh), based on a Ruth Rendell
novel, employs a complex flashback structure, shifting between the 1970s
and the present in order to examine Francoism.
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1998 United States: Schrader’s Affliction stars Nick Nolte as a smalltown sheriff irreparably damaged by his father’s abuse; Dark City is a
powerfully dystopian sci-fi noir. Germany: Release of Tom Tykwer’s
highly successful Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run). Great Britain: Mike Hodges’s Croupier, scripted by Paul Mayersberg and starring Clive Owen, is a
compelling story of greed and corruption.
1999 United States: The Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix is the first in
what became a trilogy (2002/2003) of existentialist future noirs starring
Keanu Reeves as a warrior cyber-hacker. Polanski’s The Ninth Gate is a
supernatural noir hybrid.
2000 United States: Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a radical take on
the amnesiac noir with a reverse chronology. The first episodes of the
highly successful and long-running television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are broadcast. France: Release of Chabrol’s late masterpiece,
Merci pour la chocolat (Nightcap). Great Britain: Sexy Beast stars Ray
Winstone as a criminal retired to Spain but drawn back into the London
underworld.
2001 United States: Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is driven by the surreal
logic of dreams where identities shift and transfer; the Coen Brothers’
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a black-and-white retro noir set in 1949;
Training Day stars Denzel Washington as a highly decorated but corrupt
black cop. Max Payne, the first successful noir video game, is released.
Beginning of the noir television series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as a
Los Angeles counterterrorist agent.
2002 United States: Nolan’s Insomnia, starring Al Pacino, is a remake
of the 1997 Norwegian film; Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, starring
Tom Cruise, is an intelligent future-noir; The Bourne Identity in the first
of a trilogy of films in which Matt Damon plays an amnesiac Central Intelligence Agency assassin. Argentina: Release of the highly successful
Nueve reinas (Nine Queens), directed by Fabián Bielinsky. Brazil: Cidade
de Deus (City of God), based on a true story set in the favela (slums) of Rio
de Janeiro, is nominated for four Academy Awards. Hong Kong: Wu jian
dao (Infernal Affairs) depicted the blurred boundaries between police and
criminal. Italy: Liliana Cavani’s Il gioco di Ripley (Ripley’s Game)—an
Anglo-Italian co-production—is another Highsmith adaptation.
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2003 United States: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a powerful study
of three damaged men set in Boston; release of the video game sequel Max
Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Great Britain: Mike Hodges’s I’ll Sleep
When I’m Dead is a bleakly existential noir starring Clive Owen. South
Korea: Oldboy, the second part of Chan-wook Park’s violent “revenge”
trilogy, wins the Grand Prix award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and
becomes South Korea’s best-known noir.
2004 United States: Release of Mann’s Collateral with Cruise as a hit
man, the latest in a line of self-destructive antiheroes; remake of The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington as a troubled Desert Storm
war veteran. Italy: Release of Paolo Sorrentino’s stylish Le conseguenze
dell’amore (The Consequences of Love).
2005 United States: Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, an adaptation of
Frank Miller’s graphic stories, attempts to be faithful to the look and style
of the original as the primary text; Nolan’s Batman Begins, also based on
Miller’s stories, depicts an existential Batman (Christian Bale) in a nightmare Gotham City; David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is a very
different adaptation of a graphic novel. The highly rated Brick is a hardboiled thriller set in a California high school. Argentina: Bielinsky’s El
aura (The Aura), in which a down-at-the-heel taxidermist gets involved in
a robbery that goes wrong, is another internationally successful neo-noir.
France: Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat
My Heart Skipped) reworks the 1978 American neo-noir Fingers; Michael
Haneke’s Caché (Hidden), taps into contemporary anxieties about surveillance, celebrity, and the price of affluence.
2006 United States: Release of Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of
Infernal Affairs but transferred to Boston; Mann’s Miami Vice movie,
based on his earlier television series; and De Palma’s retro-noir The Black
Dahlia. Finland: Release of Laitakaupungin valot (Lights in the Dusk),
the third film in Aki Kaurismäki’s loose trilogy of noirs.
2007 United States: The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, a
classic noir tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal, wins several Oscars;
Ridley Scott’s American Gangster stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin who smuggled heroin into the United States
on U.S. service planes returning from the Vietnam War.
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2008 United States: The new releases are dominated by noirs derived
from graphic novels: Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a further installment
of the Batman franchise, and Frank Miller’s The Spirit, based on Will
Eisner’s stories (1940–52), in which another near-invulnerable masked
hero confronts a gloomy noir world; Max Payne is based on the successful video games.
2009 United States: Release of Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity about corporate corruption and greed, starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen; Kevin
Macdonald’s State of Play (with a screenplay by Gilroy) stars Russell
Crowe as an investigative reporter on the trail of a corporate cover-up;
Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s period gangsternoir Public Enemies. Great Britain: The television/film trilogy Red
Riding, based on David Peace’s novels, is a bleak and compelling drama
of corruption and betrayal.
Introduction
What Is Film Noir?
Most people recognize the term film noir, but what does it mean? Which
films are included in this category, and which are excluded?
A few films often spring to mind—Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep,
The Third Man—but how many others are there, and what are the boundaries? Does a film noir have to be in black and white? Must it have been
produced in the 1940s or 1950s? Defining film noir has always been problematic because it is a retrospective category, not applied to the films when
they were being made, and it seems to refer to films whose characteristics
are not as obvious or clear cut as comedies or Westerns, or even crime
thrillers, with which film noir is sometimes conflated.
These problems have persisted not only because commentators cannot
agree on what constitutes the corpus of films noir—each new study and
website has its own filmography—but also because film noir has itself
developed and mutated over time. There is now another body of films,
neo-noirs, which constitutes a second disputed and ill-defined group.
When did neo-noir begin? What is the relationship between film noir and
neo-noir? Is Blade Runner, with its strange blending of the past and the
future, a neo-noir? If so, is this a category that has any usefulness or explanatory power?
A further complication has arisen because film noir was often defined and
written about as if it was a filmmaking practice exclusively confined to the
United States. Recent studies, albeit working with the same ill-defined terms,
have demonstrated that this was simply not the case, that other cinemas—in
Europe, Asia, Latin America, and also in Australasia—have developed
comparable bodies of films, at least in terms of style and subject matter
if not in quantity. These “other” film noirs developed at slightly different
times in somewhat different ways and have their own national variations and
xxxvii
xxxviii •
INTRODUCTION
specificities. However, sufficient shared characteristics for film noir are now
understood as a transnational phenomenon.
This introduction will attempt to explore briefly these issues and, if not
to settle the disputes, at least to explain why they have arisen and for what
reasons, beginning with the problem of the term itself. Film noir—literally
“black cinema”—is the label customarily given to a group of black-andwhite American films, mostly crime thrillers, made between 1940 and
1959. The term was first used in France by the film critic Nino Frank in
his review of four crime thrillers—The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double
Indemnity (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and Laura (1944)—released
in Paris in August 1946. Frank was struck, particularly because of the fiveyear absence of Hollywood films during the German Occupation, by what
he perceived as a new mode of crime film with a dark, brooding visual
style, complex narration with voice-overs and flashbacks, and a marked
interest in the characters’ “uncertain psychology.”1 He used the term film
noir to describe this new development through its analogy with Série
Noire, the name given in autumn 1945 by publisher Gaston Gallimard to a
series of French translations of American hard-boiled fiction from which
these films had been adapted. The term was taken up and developed by
critics and future filmmakers (including Claude Chabrol and François
Truffaut) writing for the film journals Cahiers du cinéma and Positif in the
1950s to identify what was perceived as an important aspect of American
popular cinema. This interest culminated in the first book-length study
published in 1955 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama
du film noir américain (1941–1953), which memorably characterized film
noir as “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.”2
By contrast, film noir was not a term that was understood or acknowledged in Anglo-American film criticism until the late 1960s and was not
widely known before the appearance of Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay “Notes
on Film Noir,” originally issued to accompany a major retrospective at the
Los Angeles Museum.3 Building on the French critics, Schrader provided
a definition, chronology, and list of important films, identifying film noir
as an important period of American film history. He argued that film noir
spoke to a new generation of Americans disillusioned by Vietnam and
should become part of the vocabulary and thinking of young American
filmmakers in order to critique the corruption and inequalities of American
society. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic
Reference to the American Style, first published in 1979, gave detailed
commentaries on over 250 films noir, thereby establishing an influential
INTRODUCTION
• xxxix
canon of films, along with tabulations of studio output, significant creative
personnel, and a yearly breakdown of releases that extended until 1959.4
Subsequent editions of Silver and Ward were enlarged to include discussion of “neo-noir”: films noir produced after the ending of the “classic” period (1940–59). The 1980s witnessed the inscription of film noir in
popular consciousness, becoming a widely used and accepted category in
habitual use by filmmakers, critics, reviewers, and the film industry itself
as a marketing label. It is therefore now impossible—in any meaningful
sense—to discuss film noir as a solely time-bound phenomenon, a period
of American filmmaking that finished with Odds Against Tomorrow in
1959. Neo-noir has become an object of study in its own right, and most
recent commentators discuss both film noir and neo-noir.
However, this habitual use of the term should not be taken to imply a
uniform consensus about what film noir actually is, and there is considerable dispute about what are the shared features that mark a noir film, and
therefore which films should be included in this category. These problems
are partly caused because film noir is a retrospective label that was not
used (in the 1940s or 1950s) by the film industry itself as a production
category and therefore its existence and features cannot be established
through reference to trade documents. Because filmmakers at this time
were unaware of the term and working, largely separately, for various studios, they did not form a cultural or intellectual movement, even a loose
or informal one. Indeed, some commentators have questioned the validity
of the category altogether, regarding film noir as a particular development
within the broader generic history of the crime/gangster film. However,
although the majority of noirs are crime thrillers, most critics, from Borde
and Chaumeton onward, see film noir operating transgenerically, across a
diverse group of films that span—in addition to crime thrillers and gangster films—Gothic melodramas, horror, science fiction, semidocumentaries, social-problem films, spy thrillers, and Westerns.
Lacking a generic framework, critics have frequently defined film noir
in terms of a particular look or visual style that habitually employs highcontrast (chiaroscuro) lighting, where deep, enveloping shadows are fractured by shafts of light from a single source, and where asymmetrical or
off-center compositions, unconventional camera angles and movements,
and distorting wide-angle lenses render an alienating and threatening sense
of space. However, these stylistic conventions are clearly used in other
types of film, and many films that are frequently referred to as films noir
do not exhibit these features. Similar problems occur if noir is defined
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INTRODUCTION
through its particular, and unusually complex, narrative devices including
voice-overs, multiple narrators, flashbacks, and ellipses that break with the
Hollywood convention of straightforward causality and lead to ambiguous
or inconclusive endings. Such devices characterize many noirs but are by
no means the majority. Most noirs take place in dark, nighttime cities, their
streets damp with rain that reflects the flashing neon signs where the alienated, often psychologically disturbed, male antihero encounters a deceitful
femme fatale leading to his doom. However, there are too many exceptions to make these features conclusive criteria. Some commentators have
sought to unify film noir through its prevailing mood or tone—its characteristically dark, malign, morally ambivalent, and unstable universe, where
existence is understood to be meaningless and absurd. This description fits
some examples (the darkest) but also fails to encompass the full range of
films noir, many of which have upbeat endings in which the forces of law
and order or romantic love are triumphant. Overall, attempting to define
film noir as a set of “essential” formal components—stylistic, narratological, or thematic—tends to be reductive or even misleading.
These considerations led James Naremore in More Than Night: Film
Noir in Its Contexts to classify film noir not as a body of films with “definitive traits” but as an evolving discursive construction, an imprecise but
necessary critical category whose use has become an indispensable part
of cultural history, one that helps to make sense of diverse but important
phenomena that encompass not only fiction and film but also other media
such as radio, television, graphic novels, and video games.5 Naremore
suggests that film noir designates both a body of American films from a
particular period (“classic noir,” 1940–59) and a determining discourse
that constantly redefines the meaning of those films through its use in
academic criticism and within the media.
THE ORIGINS OF FILM NOIR
Like any cultural phenomenon, film noir evolved gradually from a variety
of different influences. The most obvious and fundamental was indigenous
hard-boiled fiction. The works of influential writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich provided
the source for many films noir. Nearly 20 percent of noir crime thrillers
produced between 1941 and 1948 were direct adaptations of hard-boiled
novels or short stories, and far more were imitations or reworkings; Hol-
INTRODUCTION
• xli
lywood studios hired several hard-boiled authors as screenwriters with
varying degrees of success. The hard-boiled authors decisively shifted the
locale of crime from the country house drawing rooms of the “English
school” onto the “mean streets” of the fast-growing American city, providing film noir with its characteristic image of the city as a dark, corrupt,
threatening, and confusing labyrinth, populated by criminals, tough private
eyes, and duplicitous femme fatales. The new style—a terse, understated
vernacular idiom peppered with laconic wisecracks—provided noir with
its distinctive dialogue. The influence of hard-boiled writing was delayed
because films were subject to close censorship, which prose fiction escaped. It was John Huston’s prescient The Maltese Falcon (1941), adapted
from Hammett’s novel, that first reproduced the cynical, corrosive tone
and attitude of the hard-boiled tradition.
The other American vernacular tradition that directly influenced film
noir was the gangster film, also concerned with money, crime, and violence and set in the modern American city. Although the dominant 1930s
cycle beginning with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, both released
in 1931, was preoccupied with the rise and fall of the dynamic self-made
criminal, many others, including Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927)
or Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931), adapted from a Hammett
story, depicted a shadowy criminal milieu and explored themes of alienation, paranoia, betrayal, and revenge that directly presaged film noir. Like
hard-boiled fiction, the gangster film constituted a dissident tradition in
which the desires and frustrations of lower class or ethnically marginalized
Americans could find a voice during the Depression. This oppositional
aesthetic informs film noir.
There were equally important European influences on film noir, notably expressionism, whose origins went back to late-18th-century Gothic
novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. In Germany,
expressionist films—including the most famous and influential, Robert
Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,
1919)—formed part of an international artistic movement that attempted
to express the alienation and “irrationality” of modern life through the
presentation of protagonists who are tormented or unbalanced. The narratively complex expressionist films created an overall stimmung (mood)
and distinct visual style by using high-contrast, chiaroscuro lighting where
shafts of intense light contrast starkly with deep, black shadows and
where space is fractured into an assortment of unstable lines and surfaces,
often fragmented or twisted into odd angles. In addition, the Weimar
xlii •
INTRODUCTION
Strassenfilm (street film), a cycle of movies beginning with Karl Grune’s
Die Strasse (The Street, 1923), also presented a dark and unstable world,
as the respectable middle-class protagonist descends into the irresistible
but dangerous nighttime city, a proto-noir milieu of deep shadows, flashing lights, criminals, and femme fatales. Fritz Lang’s M: Eine Stadt sucht
einen Mörder (M: A City Searches for a Murderer, 1931) emerged from
this cycle as the first urban crime thriller, depicting the city as a dark labyrinth in which the pedophile Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is a tortured outsider caught between the rival forces of police and organized crime. Lorre
was one of many émigrés who fled from Nazi Germany to Hollywood
that included Lang and fellow directors Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak,
Edgar G. Ulmer, and Billy Wilder together with cinematographers John
Alton, Karl Freund, and Rudolph Maté, and various set designers, scriptwriters, and composers. Carrying with them knowledge and understanding
of expressionist cinema, these émigré personnel decisively influenced the
development of film noir.
Of almost equal importance, though less well-known, was the influence
of poetic realism (Réalisme Poétique), a cycle of dark films that flourished
in France during the 1930s. Poetic realism drew on an indigenous tradition of crime fiction, chiefly Georges Simenon, but also adapted from
hard-boiled American crime writers: Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant
(The Last Turn, 1939) was the first version of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Poetic realism was indebted to expressionism, but the
lighting was less extreme and more atmospheric, its depiction of an urban
milieu more realistic and specific. In the two most celebrated examples,
Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Le Jour
se lève (Daybreak, 1939), Jean Gabin starred as the romantic but doomed
hero, his character prefiguring the angst-ridden males of film noir. Because
poetic realism was not only successful in France but also widely admired
internationally, including in America, and because several Austro-German
émigrés worked in Paris before going on to Hollywood, it acted as bridge,
culturally and historically, between expressionism and film noir.
The influence of expressionism was evident in the cycle of horror films
produced by Universal Studios in the early 1930s. Several, including
Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), were overtly expressionist, displaying strong echoes of Caligari in the twisted streets, oddly
contorted houses that lean over the glistening cobblestones, and gloomy
shadows, all of which directly anticipate film noir. Various émigrés
worked on these horror films, including Ulmer, who directed The Black
INTRODUCTION
• xliii
Cat (1934). Universal’s second horror cycle, beginning in 1939, was less
aesthetically distinguished, but both cycles were a major influence on the
studio’s early experimentation with film noir, beginning with Hitchcock’s
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) that, in
turn, influenced the development of the whole noir cycle.
The other studio most associated with the inception of film noir was
RKO, mainly through the work of Val Lewton and Orson Welles. The
Russian-born Lewton started at RKO in 1942, running his own secondfeature unit to produce horror films that would compete with Universal’s.
However, Lewton’s horror films, including Leopard Man adapted from
Woolrich’s Black Alibi and The Seventh Victim, both released in 1943,
were highly distinctive, featuring ordinary men and women in atmospherically lit, mostly contemporary settings and emphasizing psychological disturbance. Lewton’s films acted as a training ground for cinematographer
Nicholas Musuraca, already known as a specialist in “mood lighting,” and
for directors Mark Robson, Jacques Tourneur, and Robert Wise, all of
whom went on to make distinguished films noir.
Orson Welles’s innovative Citizen Kane (1941) was a major influence
on film noir. Its expressionist set design, Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography, atmospheric lighting, and its creative use of wide-angle lenses
and low-angle compositions, its use of mirrors, superimpositions, and
distorted perspectives as well as its subjective narration and multiple flashbacks all prefigured noir techniques. Bernard Herrmann’s unconventional
score, which used unorthodox combinations of instruments, was the first
of many he would contribute to film noir. As the most celebrated example
of American expressionism, Citizen Kane acted as another bridge between
European modernism and film noir.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF FILM NOIR AND NEO-NOIR
The coming together of these various influences led to film noir, usually
dated from the appearance of Russian émigré Boris Ingster’s Stranger on
the Third Floor (1940), in which Lorre played the mysterious outsider.
An RKO second feature marketed as a horror film, Stranger had a highly
expressionist dream sequence with clear echoes of Caligari. Stranger began noir’s early “experimental” period (1940–43), with a wide variety of
styles and modes including hard-boiled adaptations—The Maltese Falcon
(1941) and Street of Chance (1942) from a Woolrich story—and numerous
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INTRODUCTION
Gothic melodramas including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Among the
Living, photographed by émigré cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl. As wartime restrictions on costs began to take a bite, almost all the major studios
encouraged the development of modestly budgeted crime thrillers whose
restricted sets could be disguised by “atmospheric” lighting and the use of
unusual camera angles. One influential example, Paramount’s This Gun
for Hire (1942) based on Graham Greene’s thriller, featured a new type of
antihero, a psychologically disturbed hit man (Alan Ladd). Early noirs also
included several spy thrillers, notably Welles’s Journey into Fear (1943),
adapted from one of Eric Ambler’s existentialist novels.
The release of Double Indemnity, Laura, and Murder, My Sweet in 1944
inaugurated the second phase of noir’s development, a major burst of energy and sustained production that stretched through to 1952. In contrast
to the earlier phase in which most films noir were second features, the
majority were now intermediate productions that fell somewhere between
first and second features. They commanded reasonable budgets but had
far less market hype on their launch than a full “A” production. Visually,
this period may be divided between a studio-bound “expressionist” period,
1944–1947, which focused on individual pathologies, and a “location”
period, 1947–1952, dominated by semidocumentaries and social-problem
films. The latter showed the influence of Italian neo-realism, the most
important European cinematic movement to have emerged during the
war, which emphasized the importance of taking the camera out onto the
streets and depicting the lives of ordinary people. Thematically, films noir
during this phase were preoccupied with the transition from war to peace,
depicting numerous troubled veterans experiencing the traumatic difficulties of readjustment to civilian life after the profound disruption of active
service. Politically, film noir displayed both left- and right-wing orientations, but the development of a left-leaning critique of American capitalism was truncated by the anti-Communist campaign led by Republican
senator Joseph McCarthy, conducted through the hearings of the House
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This led, in October 1947,
to the imprisonment of the “Hollywood Ten” (which included three important noir personnel: director Edward Dmytryk, writer-producer Adrian
Scott, and scriptwriter Albert Maltz) and the implementation of a blacklist
of unemployable artists that numbered over 200 and went unchallenged
until 1960. The blacklist had a profound effect on film noir, ending or
inhibiting many careers or pushing some (Jules Dassin, Cy Endfield, and
Joseph Losey) into exile.
INTRODUCTION
• xlv
After 1952, film noir went into a longer period of fragmentation, which
ended in 1959. The expressionism of the earlier periods had disappeared,
and this period was dominated by more brutal and violent crime films preoccupied with the threat of underworld “corporations” taking over American life, as in the cycle of city exposé films—beginning with The Captive
City (1952)—that depicted the supposedly ubiquitous threat of organized
crime syndicates. These thrillers were mainly second features, conventionally lit and shot, made either by small companies or the more costconscious majors: Columbia, RKO, Universal, and United Artists acting as
a distribution agency. There were significant exceptions: Robert Aldrich’s
terrifying Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its threat of nuclear destruction;
Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), a baroque expressionist masterpiece; and
Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a rare color noir that was a probing study of
guilt and obsession.
Although Odds Against Tomorrow, released in 1959, is the conventional
watershed that marks the end of film noir’s “classic” phase, the date is
an arbitrary and convenient fiction. As the chronology shows, films noir
were produced, sporadically, throughout the 1960s. The 3rd Voice (1960),
Angel’s Flight (1965), and In Cold Blood (1967) are unmistakably noir,
as is the work of Samuel Fuller: Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964). These films formed part of an
“underground” culture, including roman noir authors Patricia Highsmith,
Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford, who retained noir
as a critical mode even if their authors were isolated figures, lacking a
cultural climate that could make their work influential. The major energies of noir screen production went into the making of television series,
including Johnny Staccato (1959–60), Peter Gunn (1959–61), and The
Fugitive (1963–67), which drew heavily on the existentialist sensibility of
hard-boiled writer David Goodis.
Although, as discussed earlier, these films are often lumped under the
general label of neo-noir, films noir released in this period (1960–67)
may best be termed “late noirs”—ones that could have been made before
1959—in order to differentiate them from neo-noirs that may be dated
from the release of Point Blank in 1967. Neo-noirs are ones that selfconsciously allude to classic noir, either implicitly or explicitly, building
on what is now recognized and accepted as a distinct body of films. In
Point Blank, director John Boorman, drawing on the French New Wave,
explicitly and self-consciously revised the noir tradition in a contemporary
idiom, adapting Donald E. Westlake’s hard-boiled novel as the basis for
xlvi •
INTRODUCTION
a brutal revenge drama shot in 40 mm color Panavision that uses repetitions, doublings, and elliptical editing to create a story that hesitates
between dream and reality in order to explore the ambiguities of desire,
memory, and identity. Boorman’s film was the beginning of what may be
termed the neo-modernist phase of film noir (1967–80) that formed part
of the “Hollywood Renaissance,” in which a new generation of filmmakers, profoundly influenced by recent developments in European cinema,
attempted to transform American cinema. Robert Altman’s The Long
Goodbye (1973), an acerbic updating of Chandler; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974); Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975); and Martin Scorsese’s
Taxi Driver (1976) all engaged in a critique not only of American society
but also of noir myths such as the honorable, resourceful private eye. The
characteristic protagonist of the neo-modernist noirs is alienated and dysfunctional, adrift in a world where he has lost his bearings. In a separate
development, the work of black hard-boiled author Chester Himes finally
reached the screen in If He Hollers Let Him Go (1968) and Cotton Comes
to Harlem (1970). Shaft (1971) launched a cycle of “blaxploitation” films
that also used the noir crime thriller to open up a space in which the black
experience, suppressed in the overwhelmingly white orientation of classical noir, could find an expressive voice and explore the deep-seated racism
in American society.
The release of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat in 1981 marked a new
phase of neo-noir in which noir conventions were embraced rather than
critiqued. Kasdan’s film, a loose remake of Double Indemnity, evoked the
mood and atmosphere of classical noir through its use of chiaroscuro lighting, a jazz score, and the archetypal story of the victim-hero seduced by
a femme fatale, who, unlike her predecessors, is successful. The Postman
Always Rings Twice, released in the same year, was the first of a fairly constant line of remakes of noir classics. Released a year later, Ridley Scott’s
Blade Runner was a highly influential “future noir,” a complex melding of
the conventions of science fiction and film noir, and was the forerunner of
the hybridization that is so characteristic of many neo-noirs.
Gradually, neo-noir has established itself as an important contemporary
genre within a restabilized, expanding Hollywood cinema. Neo-noirs are
now a staple of cinema exhibition, cable television programming, and
video/DVD rental. Their production is no longer characterized, as it was in
the neo-modernist period, by sporadic releases, but by a continuous stream
of new films. The noir “look” has become part of a knowing postmodern
culture, with modern cineliterate audiences attuned to the multiple allu-
INTRODUCTION
• xlvii
sions of neo-noirs such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) or
Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), an example of a “retro-noir”
set during the classic period. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), with
its reverse chronology and amnesiac self-deluding narrator, is an example
of the extreme use of narratological devices that characterizes many neonoirs. Many neo-noirs are also stylistically extreme, using hypermobile
camerawork, rapid zooms, shock cuts, and ultrafast montage sequences to
create an intense, disruptive, often overwhelming sensory experience that
makes them very different from classic noir. A more recent development
is the frequent adaptation of graphic novels. Sin City (2005) exemplifies
this trend, with director Robert Rodriguez striving for a strict fidelity to the
particular noir look of Frank Miller’s original comic book creations.
Three other developments characterize the postmodern phase of film
noir. The first is an extension of the focus on the city to embrace “country
noir” set amidst the wide-open spaces of redneck America. Country noirs,
such as the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984), Peter Medak’s Romeo
Is Bleeding (1993), or John Dahl’s Red Rock West (1996), are antipastoral, the countryside a site of corruption, betrayal, and murderous hatreds.
The panoramic shots, often startlingly beautiful, serve only as an ironic
backdrop to the sordid dramas that unfold. The second was a renewed and
more wide-ranging development of African American noir that revealed
the complexity and heterogeneity of the black experience, beginning with
Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem (1991) and Deep Cover (1992) and including Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress
(1995) and Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995). Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel
(1990) and Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy (1992), a radical remake of the famous Joseph H. Lewis noir Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female, 1950),
exemplify the third development as important feminist interventions into
the overwhelmingly masculine world of film noir.
GLOBAL NOIR
One of the most striking aspects of recent work on film noir has been its
recognition as an international category—applied to European, Asian,
and Latin American cinemas—rather than a solely American phenomenon. This recognition has been slow in arriving because earlier studies
argued emphatically that film noir was a strictly American form. In their
1955 Panorama, Borde and Chaumeton described noir as a specifically
xlviii •
INTRODUCTION
American series that was “inimitable” and dismissed the possibility of
a French equivalent.6 Schrader argued that film noir was essentially the
inevitable development of the American gangster film that had been
delayed by the war, and Silver and Ward declared emphatically that noir
was “an indigenous American form . . . a unique example of a wholly
American film style.”7
Subsequently, sporadic essays challenged this entrenched view, and
gradually cycles of noir have been identified in a range of other cinemas.
Critics have located significant film noirs (and neo-noirs) in Europe, especially in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain,8 but also in
Denmark, Finland, and Norway. These European film noirs were often
fugitive forms, usually reviled by critics and reviewers and made only sporadically with little continuity of production. Each has different chronologies and displays distinctive national characteristics that reflect a particular
nation’s history, its political organization, its cultural traditions, the state
of its film industry, and the strength of its cinematic culture, leading to
marked variations in visual style, characterization, and in the representation of gender. Above all, although they often developed initially in the
1930s, each was profoundly affected by American noir in a complex, twoway dialogue displaying a reciprocal appropriation and reappropriation at
a number of different levels, including remakes and coproductions. Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002), for instance, is a remake of a Norwegian
film released in 1997.
Similar developments can be located in Latin America—in Argentina,
Brazil, and Mexico—and here too these noirs display particular national
characteristics, different trajectories, and intermittent cycles of production.9
The case with Asian noir is somewhat different. Although the film industry
in Japan was well established and film noir developed immediately after
World War II, cinema in Hong Kong and in South Korea is a more recent
development. Hong Kong noir did not achieve international recognition
until the mid-1980s through the work of John Woo; recognition of South
Korean noir came a decade later. However, there is again a mutual and
reciprocal relationship between these noirs and American neo-noir: John
Woo made Face/Off for Paramount in 1997; Siu Fai Mak’s Wu jian dao
(Infernal Affairs) was remade in 2002 as The Departed by Martin Scorsese;
and there are plans to remake the 2003 South Korean film Oldboy. Australia has produced a significant body of films noir, drawing extensively on
American noir; but, as in the case of the Chandleresque Goodbye Paradise
INTRODUCTION
• xlix
(1983), they have produced a rich mixture of noir themes and indigenous
“exactitude” to mount a scathing critique of Australian society.
Although film noir, as discussion of its origins has shown, was international from its inception, the breadth of noir’s global reach suggests that
it is best regarded as a transnational phenomenon, one that operates (commercially and conceptually) as part of various specific national cinemas
and of a wider cultural formation.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FILM NOIR
The global extent of film noir and its pervasive presence in a range of
interpenetrating media has made it an important part of the restlessly
circulating fabric of images that form contemporary postmodern culture.
Films noir straddle the entire range of contemporary filmmaking, from ultra low-budget independent productions such as Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998) through to his The Dark Knight (2008), whose budget has
been estimated at $185,000,000.10 However, noir’s significance rests not
so much on its extent as on its continued capacity to startle and provoke
audiences, to deal with difficult issues including psychological trauma,
dysfunctional relationships, existential dread, the lure of money, and the
power and indifference of huge corporations and governments.
From the start, the French espousal of film noir expressed a delight not
only in the discovery of popular cinema elevated to art but also as a popular art that was oppositional, exploring the dark underside of the American
dream. Because that dream forms the core mythology of global capitalism,
film noir, handled intelligently, is not merely a commodified style, but an
important and continuously evolving cultural phenomenon that, even if it
cannot be defined precisely, remains a crucial vehicle through which that
mythology can be critiqued and challenged.
NOTES
1. Nino Frank, “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: l’Aventure Criminelle,”
L’Ecran Français (28 August 1946). Translated as “A New Kind of Police Drama:
The Criminal Adventure,” by Alain Silver in Film Noir Reader 2, edited by Alain
Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight, 1999, p. 16.
l •
INTRODUCTION
2. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama du film noir américain
(1941–1953) (1955), translated by Paul Hammond as A Panorama of American
Film Noir 1941–1953. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002, p. 2.
3. Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment 8, no. 1; reprinted in
Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight,
1996, pp. 53–63.
4. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds.), Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1979.
5. James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, 2nd ed.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008 (1998).
6. Borde and Chaumeton, Panorama, p. 1.
7. Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” pp. 58–59; Silver and Ward, Film Noir,
p. 1.
8. See Andrew Spicer (ed.), European Film Noir. Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2007.
9. For a useful overview see David Desser, “Global Noir: Genre Film in the
Age of Transnationalism,” in Film Genre Reader III, edited by Barry Keith Grant.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, pp. 516–36.
10. Figure given by Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/title/
tt0468569/business (accessed 19 July 2009).
The Dictionary
–A–
AFRICAN AMERICAN FILM NOIR. Reflecting the racist limitations
of Hollywood cinema as a whole, film noir’s black characters were
marginal figures: servants, menials, or jazz musicians in hothouse dives.
The African American experience was only very occasionally broached,
as in No Way Out (1950), in which Sidney Poitier, in his film debut,
plays a young, idealistic intern at a metropolitan hospital whose encounter with a bigoted, racist crook (Richard Widmark) is seen as part
of a wider black-white confrontation. No Way Out is the only film noir
in which a black man is the hero, but Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
foregrounds racial tensions in its story of a bungled robbery in which
a sympathetic black criminal (Harry Belafonte) is eventually united in
death with his racist white partner (Robert Ryan).
A form of “black noir” cinema emerged in two adaptations of African
American hard-boiled author Chester Himes’s novels, If He Hollers
Let Him Go (1968) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). They were
followed by the “blaxploitation” films of the early 1970s consequent
upon the huge success of Shaft (1971). Richard Roundtree’s eponymous
hero, a resourceful and intelligent private eye, embodied in the wake of
civil rights activism the desire to represent black males as charismatic
and cool masters of the city streets. Other films in this cycle included:
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Across 110th Street (1972),
Cool Breeze (1972), Hit Man (1972), Super Fly (1972), Detroit 9000
(1973), and Friday Foster (1975). They were complemented by a series
of black noirs in which Pam Grier starred as an action heroine: Coffy
(1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Sheba, Baby (1975). The films noir in
this cycle celebrated the vibrancy of African American culture through
their prominent use of black popular music.
1
2 •
AFRICAN AMERICAN FILM NOIR
A second wave of African American filmmaking began in the late
1980s, forming part of a wider project to reveal the complexity and
heterogeneity of the black experience, exploring what has been labeled
“black rage” directed against the inequalities and racism of American
society. As a group, African American noirs have not only mapped
out a new terrain but also often offered hope for redemption and reconciliation conspicuously lacking in “white noir.” Bill Duke’s A Rage
in Harlem (1991), adapted from a Himes novel set in the 1950s, was
imbued with black rage but also depicts reconciliation between violent
and nonviolent blacks. Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995),
set in the immediate postwar period, explored those themes, while his
earlier One False Move (1992) portrayed the complexities of interracial relationships through the figure of Fantasia (Cynda Williams)
returning to her roots in Star City, Arkansas, and confronting the white
sheriff (Bill Paxton) whose son she bore. Several films deliberately
reverse central noir paradigms. Dead Presidents (1995)—produced
and directed by Allen and Albert Hughes—was the story of a troubled
(black Vietnam) veteran who cannot readjust to civilian life. Charles
Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1995) inverted the police procedural by
centering on an idealistic young black cop assigned to a corrupt division, a motif also tackled in Mario Van Peebles’s Gang in Blue (1996).
Duke’s Deep Cover (1992) used the device of the undercover agent to
probe racist attitudes. Laurence Fishburne is compelling as the divided
noir protagonist, whose assignment to infiltrate a black drugs cartel by
posing as a dealer brings out all contradictions of his situation. Duke’s
Hoodlum (1997) revised the gangster genre by focusing on the struggle
for control of the Harlem numbers racket in the 1930s between Bumpy
Johnson (Fishburne) and Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth).
There is now a greater crossover between African American and
“white” noir, although an emphasis on racism is retained, as in John
Singleton’s remake of Shaft (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson,
in which its hero pursues a racially motivated killer. Spike Lee,
whose earlier Clockers (1995) focused on a low-level drug dealer (or
“clocker”) attempting to escape the clutches of a drug boss, directed
the caper/heist neo-noir Inside Man (2006) as a deliberate updating of the gritty New York thrillers of the 1970s directed by white
filmmakers, including Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and Dog Day
Afternoon (1975). Lee introduces into the action several vignettes
that display the continuing casual racism of the police department in
ALDRICH, ROBERT
• 3
its handling of suspects and in its assumptions about black criminality. American Gangster (2007), directed by Ridley Scott, depicted
the career of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a real-life Harlem
crime lord who smuggled heroin into the United States on U.S. service
planes returning from the Vietnam War.
Other African American noirs include: Fatal Beauty (1987), Boyz
n the Hood (1991), New Jack City (1991), Straight out of Brooklyn
(1991), Juice (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Set It Off (1996), Ambushed (1998), and Out of Time (2003). See also NEO-NOIR.
ALDRICH, ROBERT (1918–1983). Director Robert Aldrich entered
the film industry in 1941, taking a variety of roles before becoming assistant director on a number of films that included several noirs—The
Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Body and Soul (1947), Force of
Evil (1948), and two with Joseph Losey, The Prowler (1951) and M
(1951)—all of which had a strong social and political agenda. Aldrich
was part of Enterprise Productions, briefly a haven for talented and
often radical left-wing artists, before directing two episodes of the noir
television series China Smith in 1953 starring Dan Duryea as a downat-heel gumshoe, Mike Callahan, plying his trade in Singapore. This led
to his first film noir as director, World for Ransom (1954), a spin-off
from that series. Not working on material he had chosen, Aldrich nevertheless encouraged cinematographer Joseph Biroc to shoot from “impossible” angles to forge the restless, dynamic style that was to become
Aldrich’s hallmark. This visual style was extended in Kiss Me Deadly
(1955), which radically reworked its Mickey Spillane source novel.
Aldrich also made a significant contribution to neo-noir, where his
social and political agenda could be made more explicit. In The Grissom Gang (1971), Aldrich again made far-reaching changes to his
source, James Hadley Chase’s infamous 1939 novel No Orchids for
Miss Blandish, which had been made into a British film noir in 1948.
His adaptation concentrated on the social context, the midwestern rural
poor during the Depression engaged in a desperate struggle for existence, together with the consequent moral ambivalence and emotional
underdevelopment of the central protagonists. Hustle (1975), with a
contemporary setting, focused on a conflicted protagonist, police lieutenant Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds), confused about his life and his relationship with the enigmatic high-class prostitute (Catherine Deneuve)
and repelled by the venality of Los Angeles where everyone is on the
4 •
ALTON, JOHN
hustle. Against studio pressure, Aldrich held out for the bleak ending
in which Gaines is shot in a futile attempt to prevent a liquor store
burglary. Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), one of a group of paranoid
thrillers that were noir hybrids, had a similarly disaffected and selfdestructive protagonist, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster), a highranking troubled veteran, who escapes from a military prison and takes
over a missile silo in Montana in order to force the president to reveal
the truth about the Vietnam War. It had an equally desolate ending, expressive of Aldrich’s consistent use of film noir to pose uncomfortable
questions about American society.
Aldrich’s other films noir are The Big Knife (1955), Autumn Leaves
(1956), The Garment Jungle (1957), where he was replaced as director
by Vincent Sherman, and The Choirboys (1977). See also LEFT-WING
CYCLE.
ALTON, JOHN (1901–1996). The Hungarian-born John Alton was the
most prolific—19 films in the space of nine years (1947–56)—and
the most influential of the great noir cinematographers. His polemical
“manual,” Painting with Light (1949), revealed a conscious craftsman
thoroughly versed in the techniques of “mystery lighting” that could
“heighten the atmosphere” and move films decisively away from the
“chocolate-coated photography of yesterday.” Alton noted the striking
effects of “passing automobile headlights on the ceiling of a dark interior” and “fluctuating neon or other electrical signs,” as well as the play
of light on “shiny, wet surfaces.” Fiercely independent, opinionated, and
highly innovative, Alton had to carve out a career in second features
but was able to forge a creative partnership with Anthony Mann, with
whom he made five films noir in the space of two years: T-Men (1947),
Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1949), Border Incident (1949),
and Reign of Terror (1949).
Working on a restricted budget, Alton displayed a visceral and inventive visual style that was a major element in his films’ emotional
and dramatic impact. Alton’s cinematography is powerful, occasionally baroque, with much recourse to unusual angles and high-contrast
chiaroscuro lighting with rich, deep blacks. His deep focus, unusual
compositions, and odd reflections added range and depth to what were
essentially semidocumentary noirs—T-Men, He Walked by Night, and
Border Incident—but was at its most graphic in Reign of Terror, an
extraordinary Cold War allegory set during the French Revolution in
AMBLER, ERIC
• 5
which virtually every frame is unconventionally composed. The odd
angles and intense shafts of light that cut through the perpetual murk
that invades each setting create an intensely dramatic and highly disorientating film.
Its success led to Alton’s “promotion” to higher-budgeted first features at MGM under the aegis of producer Dore Schary, which included
Mystery Street (1950) and The People Against O’Hara (1951) as well
as Border Incident. The Big Combo (1955) was Alton’s most accomplished later noir, using chiaroscuro cinematography to create a claustrophobic, dark, and oppressive world filled with repressed emotions
and overt violence. Alton also photographed one color noir, Slightly
Scarlet (1956), in which he continued to use extensive areas of dark
shadow as well as garish pinks, greens, and oranges in a typically bold
visual repertoire.
Alton’s other films noir are Bury Me Dead (1947), The Pretender
(1947), The Amazing Mr. X (aka The Spiritualist, 1948), Canon City
(1948), Hollow Triumph (1948), The Crooked Way (1949), I, the Jury
(1953), Count the Hours (1953), and Witness to Murder (1954). See also
VISUAL STYLE.
AMBLER, ERIC (1909–1998). Eric Ambler’s dark, paranoid spy novels
were an important influence on the early development of film noir. Like
his fellow Englishman Graham Greene, Ambler helped to redefine the
thriller, focusing on ordinary men who find themselves enmeshed in the
shadowy world of international intrigue where nothing is what it seems
and they lose their moral bearings. Journey into Fear (1943) was the
first of his novels to be adapted, by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten,
who were also the main stars. It was a dark, oppressive tale of Nazi
intrigue in which an anonymous hit man tries to kill Howard Graham
(Cotten), a naval engineer with important information. Background to
Danger (1943), adapted by W. R. Burnett from Ambler’s 1937 novel,
was a more orthodox spy thriller, but The Mask of Dimitrios (1944),
adapted (by Frank Gruber) from Ambler’s 1939 novel, was thoroughly
noir. At its center is the figure of Dimitrios himself (Zachary Scott), an
international criminal of polyglot nationality who, like Harry Lime in
Greene’s The Third Man (1949), fakes his own death.
Ambler wrote an original screenplay for and also produced the British noir The October Man (1947), the story of an amnesiac protagonist Jim Ackland (John Mills), an ordinary Everyman, who becomes
6 •
AMNESIAC FILMS NOIR
convinced that he has murdered a fashion model (Kay Walsh) staying at
the same boarding house. This disturbing noir, indebted to poetic realism, is infused with a strong sense of existential dread; Jim’s confession
to his girlfriend Jenny (Joan Greenwood) that there is “something in my
mind, a sort of fear, as if it’s dangerous to stay alive,” encapsulates the
Ambler universe.
AMNESIAC FILMS NOIR. Amnesiac films distill the central noir
elements of fear, paranoia, guilt about the past, and a sense of foreboding. They intensify the instabilities of identity, loss of control
and vulnerability, and the sense of alienation in a strange and hostile
world that characterize films noir as a whole. Amnesiac noirs are
often intertwined with troubled veteran noirs, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Crack-Up (1946), High Wall (1947), and
The Clay Pigeon (1949). In Somewhere in the Night (1946), directed
and coscripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Hodiak plays an exmarine who has lost his memory in a grenade blast and struggles to
understand what has happened to him and who he is. His fear is that
the man who has survived war and won a Purple Heart will turn out to
be a venal crook, perhaps a murderer; he dreams of a second chance
with a “blank score card.” The Crooked Way (1949) starring John
Payne explored similar themes. In High Wall (1947), ex-army pilot
Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), who has a blood clot pressing on his
brain resulting in violent headaches and amnesia, is manipulated into
assuming responsibility for his wife’s death.
Amnesia is also a key plot device in the adaptations of Cornell Woolrich—Street of Chance (1942), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Fall Guy
(1947), Fear in the Night (1947) and its remake Nightmare (1956)—in
which it heightens the paranoia of the central protagonist, an ordinary
man who comes to believe he is capable of murder. In Black Angel
(1946), also from a Woolrich novel, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), an alcoholic nightclub pianist, commits a murder and then blanks it from his
mind, eventually regaining his memory in time to save the man accused
of the crime. The Scarf (1951), written and directed by E. A. Dupont,
stars John Ireland, who escapes from a hospital for the criminally insane where he has been held for the supposed strangulation of a young
girl, of which he has no recollection. The Scarf is notable for its highly
wrought expressionist style that provides a visual correlative for the
protagonist’s fears.
ARGENTINIAN FILM NOIR
• 7
Other amnesiac noirs include: Crossroads (1942), Power of the
Whistler (1945), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Man in the Dark (1953), The
Long Wait (1954), Blackout (GB 1954, U.S. title Murder by Proxy), and
Memento (2000). See also TROUBLED VETERANS.
ANDREWS, DANA (1909–1992). Dana Andrews came to prominence
as the enigmatic, obsessive Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson in
Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Andrews was the ideal Preminger
actor because his minimalist style, subtle underplaying, and bland good
looks could project a fascinating ambiguity, a suggestion of powerful
depths and a deep confusion at the core of his identity. He was equally
effective in two further films for Preminger: Fallen Angel (1946), where
he played a gold digger masquerading as a bogus medium who is being
framed for a murder he did not commit, and as a conflicted rogue cop
in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Andrews’s suggestion of a darkness lurking within the average American male was also exploited by
another émigré director, Fritz Lang, in two late noirs, While the City
Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). In the former,
Andrews plays a television reporter who shows disturbing similarities to
the serial killer stalking New York; in the latter, having agreed to pose
as a murderer, he eventually reveals to his wife (Joan Fontaine) by accident that he was indeed the killer. These films are the culmination of
Andrews’s “postheroic” persona beneath whose apparent solidity lurk
repressed criminal desires.
Andrews’s other noirs are The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Boomerang!
(1947), Edge of Doom (1950), and Brainstorm (1965).
ARGENTINIAN FILM NOIR. There was a significant early development of film noir in Argentina during the unsettled period of the 1940s
and 1950s that was directly influenced by American noir and hardboiled fiction. Three were adapted from Cornell Woolrich stories: El
pendiente (The Earring, 1951), No abras nunca esa puerta (Don’t Ever
Open That Door, 1952), and Si muero antes de despertar (If I Should
Die before I Wake, 1952). All have the paranoid atmosphere typical
of Woolrich with an emphasis on distorted psychologies and the blurring of dream and reality. Pasaporte a Río (Passport to Rio, 1948),
and Rosaura a las diez (Rosaura at Ten O’Clock, 1958), written and
directed by Mario Soffici, were also psychological melodramas. In the
latter, which uses distorting wide-angle lenses and multiple voice-over
8 •
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE
narration, Camilo (Soffici), a timid restorer of paintings, sends himself
love letters from “Rosaura,” an imaginary woman he invents in order
to make himself more attractive to the landlady’s daughter. After she
materializes, he becomes ensnared by his own invention and accused of
her murder. El asalto (The Assault, 1960), about a group of delinquents
planning a bank robbery, and Alias Gardelito (1961), about the difficulty of living honestly in the face of unrelenting poverty, were more
socially orientated films noir. A hierro muere (Kill and Be Killed, 1962),
directed by Manuel Mur Oti, was clearly influenced by Double Indemnity (1944) in its portrayal of two amoral lovers intent on poisoning the
man’s lonely aunt and living abroad on the proceeds.
Neo-noir was slow to establish itself in a volatile, heavily censored
film industry. But in the 1980s several films dealing with political and
social corruption had noir elements: Tiempo de revancha (Time for
Revenge, 1981), Plata dulce (Sweet Money, 1982), Los enemigos (The
Enemies, 1983), and Fernando Ayala’s El arreglo (The Deal, 1983). A
more commercial, internationally orientated cinema developed during
the 1990s with several notable noir crime thrillers, including Asesinato a
distancia (Murdered at a Distance, 1998) and Fabián Bielinsky’s highly
successful Nueve reinas (Nine Queens, 2000), the story of two con men
who meet by chance and decide to cooperate in a scam, with a delightful
series of reversals at its conclusion. Bielinsky also directed El aura (The
Aura, 2005), in which a down-at-the-heel taxidermist gets involved in a
robbery that goes wrong. Both La fuga (The Escape, 2001) and La señal
(The Signal, 2007) were ambitious gangster thrillers told in flashback,
with multiple interconnecting stories involving numerous betrayals and
double-crosses.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). Highly successful at the box office,
John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle established the intricate caper/
heist, with its assembly of a variegated, complementary team undermined by the inevitable double-cross, as a standard noir plot device. John
Huston coscripted the film (with Ben Maddow) from W. R. Burnett’s
1949 novel, and although the adaptation stays faithful to the original, the
key change was to abandon its narration by a police lieutenant in favor
of a more inward and intimate focus on the criminal group. As in all of
Huston’s films, the characterization is rounded and carefully developed,
allowing an audience to sympathize with (if not condone) the criminals
who have complex lives, hopes, and aspirations as well as greed. The
AUSTRALIAN FILM NOIR
• 9
jewelry heist is masterminded by Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe),
undone by his fatal penchant for lubricious young women. He is loyally
assisted by petty criminal Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), seemingly
indifferent to the down-market night club hostess (Jean Hagen), who is
hopelessly in love with this taciturn, undemonstrative strongman. Even
the oleaginous lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who offers to
fence the jewels but plans a double-cross, is depicted with compassion.
Estranged from his ailing wife, squandering his resources on his mistress
(Marilyn Monroe), and facing bankruptcy, Emmerich shares the desperation of all the group for the big job that will secure their future.
Huston’s extensive location work in an anonymous midwestern city
lends a strong sense of realism and authenticity to the story. Photographer Harold Rosson’s shadowy lighting and low-angle shots create
claustrophobic interiors, whose oppressiveness is heightened by Miklós
Rózsa’s ominous score. In the memorable final sequence, the wounded
Dix drives desperately toward the beloved farm in Kentucky where he
was raised, only to collapse and die amid this idyllic pastoral scene,
uncorrupted by the degradation of the noir city.
The Asphalt Jungle was remade as a western, Badlanders (1958),
starring Alan Ladd; as a British noir, Cairo (1963), directed by Wolf
Rilla; and as a “blaxploitation” thriller, Cool Breeze (1972).
AUSTRALIAN FILM NOIR. Australian cinema experienced a strong,
government-funded revival from the 1970s onward and developed a
number of genres, including crime thrillers. Many of these show the
clear influence of American film noir and neo-noir, including Color Me
Dead (1969), a remake of D.O.A., and Money Movers (1979), a typical
caper/heist film. The better films use their American models to explore
indigenous themes and issues, as in Goodbye Paradise (1983), which
transposes Raymond Chandler’s decadent Los Angeles to the Australian Gold Coast. It depicts a disgraced policeman, played by Ray Barrett,
who, asked to locate the daughter of a prominent politician, uncovers a
right-wing secessionist coup and becomes embroiled in a typically noir
world of false appearances, corruption, and betrayal. The Empty Beach
(1985) was adapted from the fourth of Peter Corris’s series of hardboiled novels about a tough and cynical Sydney private eye played by
Bryan Brown. The Big Hurt (1986) and the complex and accomplished
Grievous Bodily Harm (1988) depicted a society that is corrupt and venal, but where redemption is possible on a personal level.
10 •
BACALL, LAUREN
Other Australian noirs were more overtly political, including Far East
(1982) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), set in postcolonial
Indonesia, and The Killing of Angel Street (1981) and Heatwave (1982),
both based on the death of an investigative reporter engaged in exposing civic corruption. Later examples include the much-admired Lantana
(2001), starring Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush, in which the
investigation of a suspected murder occasions a complex psychological character study; Risk (2000), in which Bryan Brown plays a corrupt
insurance investigator involved in an intricate swindle that unravels; and
Solo (2006), which took a fresh look at the standard trope of the hit man
(Colin Friels) who wants to get out of the business but who cannot leave
until he does one last job.
–B–
BACALL, LAUREN (1924– ). Tall, sultry, and sexy, Betty Perske, aged
only 19 and renamed Lauren Bacall, starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944), which launched her career and
their love affair (they married in 1945). They were teamed together in
three Warner Bros. films noir: The Big Sleep (1946), The Dark Passage
(1947), and Key Largo (1948), in each of which she plays a character
similar to her debut role—cool, laconic, and independent. Bacall and
Bogart became the most popular screen pairing, eclipsing Alan Ladd
and Veronica Lake, with audiences enjoying what one reviewer called
their “leisurely mating duels” where the exchange of witty wisecracks is
indicative of tenderness and genuine affection. Unlike the femme fatale,
Bacall’s characters, though sexually assured, are not duplicitous, and
she proves to be a resourceful and supportive companion for the hero.
After Key Largo, Bacall did not appear in any further noirs until her
cameo appearance in Harper (1966), in which she reprised her role in
The Big Sleep as a wealthy woman who hires a private eye (Paul Newman) to find her missing husband. In The Fan (1981), she played an
actress stalked by a psychotic admirer, and she appeared briefly in Paul
Schrader’s The Walker (2007).
BASEHART, RICHARD (1914–1984). Having been a success on
Broadway, Richard Basehart made his film debut in 1947 and starred
in Anthony Mann’s He Walked by Night in 1948, a semidocu-
BASIC INSTINCT
• 11
mentary film noir, as a psychopathic loner who seems, outwardly,
perfectly normal. It was the sense of something calculating under
the conventional good looks that allowed Basehart to play a range
of rather different roles. Memorable as the repulsive Robespierre in
Mann’s Reign of Terror (1948), “a fanatic with a powdered wig and
a twisted mind,” Basehart was equally effective in Tension (1949) as
the archetypal little man and hen-pecked suburbanite who is nevertheless capable of assuming a new identity and contemplating murder. He
played a troubled young man about to jump from the 15th floor of a
hotel in New York in Henry Hathaway’s Fourteen Hours (1951) but
played an homme fatal in the Gothic noir The House on Telegraph
Hill (1951), cold, calculating, and ruthless. In his two British films
noir, Basehart was more sympathetic, playing a decent ex-soldier in
the excellent The Good Die Young (1954) and a victim-hero in The
Intimate Stranger (U.S. title Finger of Guilt, 1956).
Basehart’s other films noir are Outside the Wall (1950) and Portrait
in Black (1960).
BASIC INSTINCT (1992). Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, which
made a star of Sharon Stone as the modern femme fatale Catherine
Tramell, was one of the most successful, widely discussed, and influential neo-noirs of the early 1990s. Catherine embodies both male
fantasies—blonde, beautiful, wealthy, and erotically uninhibited—and
also fears—bisexual (does she prefer women?), insatiable, highly
intelligent, and probably homicidal. She is strongly suspected of the
violent murder of a retired rock star with which the film begins. Like
Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Catherine is witty
and provocative, and, in the permissive 1990s, can talk directly about
sex in front of her police interrogators and flash her crotch provocatively. She dominates the unstable detective Nick Curran (Michael
Douglas), whom she seduces and controls, making him the subject
of her new novel. With the killer apparently apprehended, Nick lies
beside her musing about their future together. In the final scene the
camera closes in on the ice pick under their bed, the killer’s preferred
weapon, indicating that he is the next victim.
Basic Instinct was a controversial film. Verhoeven’s graphically explicit style for the frequent scenes of sex or horrific violence deliberately
pushed at what was permissible in mainstream cinema. It also generated
protests from gay and lesbian groups who objected to the association
12 •
BENDIX, WILLIAM
of bisexuality with psychotic violence. But Catherine was a potentially
attractive figure for female viewers—a strong character with wit and
style, enjoying sex and money but not punished for her appetites. A
sequel, Basic Instinct 2, set in London and directed by the Englishman
Michael Caton-Jones, was released in 2006, but it was poorly received
and unsuccessful. See also WOMEN.
BENDIX, WILLIAM (1906–1964). Burly, broken-nosed, and with a
strong Brooklyn accent, William Bendix was physically the archetypal
heavy, but this accomplished actor lent his characters a depth of interest
that made them memorable. In his first film noir, The Glass Key (1942),
he played Jeff, one of the thugs who surround the racketeer Nick Varna
(Joseph Calleia), and who shows a sadistic relish in beating up Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), calling him “sweetheart” and “baby” to emphasize
the homoerotic charge in their rivalry. He played supporting roles to
Ladd in two other films, The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Calcutta (1947),
in which he was a more sympathetic character. In the former he played
“Buzz” Wanchek, an amnesiac/troubled veteran accused of murdering the wife of Johnny Morrison (Ladd) while suffering from a blackout
caused by his war wound. In The Dark Corner (1946) he played another
thug, the anonymous “White Suit,” menacing yet also intelligent. His
subsequent roles were more routine: a police lieutenant in Race Street
(1948) and The Web (1947); an army officer in Don Siegel’s The Big
Steal (1949); an underworld boss in Gambling House (1951); and detectives in Detective Story (1951) and Macao (1952). After this Bendix
appeared mainly on television, but he costarred in the British film noir
The Rough and the Smooth (U.S. title Portrait of a Sinner, 1959), directed by Robert Siodmak. Bendix plays a sympathetic, almost wistful
role as the older man in love with the heartless femme fatale (Nadja
Tiller), who shoots himself when she deserts him, giving his character a
pathos and emotional range that belied his appearance.
BENNETT, JOAN (1910–1990). Joan Bennett, born into a New Jersey
acting family and who first appeared in films at the age of six, became
one of the most important film noir females, principally for her roles as
the seductive femme fatale in The Woman in the Window (1944) and
Scarlet Street (1945). Both were directed by Fritz Lang, with whom,
along with her third husband, the producer Walter Wanger, she had
formed Diana Productions in 1945. In The Woman in the Window, she
BERNHARDT, CURTIS
• 13
appears to be the archetypal seductress, materializing apparently out of
nowhere, the incarnation of the painting that Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) has been gazing at in the window. But after Wanley
has killed her boyfriend in a brief struggle, she helps him dispose of the
body and seems genuinely concerned about his welfare. By contrast, in
Scarlet Street, Bennett incarnates a duplicitous vamp as the slovenly
prostitute Kitty, “Lazy Legs,” who manipulates her middle-aged dupe
(Robinson again) into funding her luxurious lifestyle. Without remorse,
she humiliates him at every turn, precipitating her violent death and his
own destruction.
In her third film with Lang, The Secret beyond the Door (1948), a
Gothic noir, Bennett played a more unusual figure, an accomplished
older woman (who narrates the film) who has fallen in love with an
enigmatic and brooding man (Michael Redgrave) but who becomes
trapped in his mansion. Bennett shows her range as an actress by
skillfully conveying her longing—Mark is, as she admits, her “first
love”—as well as fear and confusion at what he might do. Her role in
Jean Renoir’s only American noir, The Woman on the Beach (1947),
was more conventional, the wife of a blind artist (Charles Bickford),
who has an affair with a troubled veteran (Robert Ryan) in what was
a beautifully photographed but indeterminate noir. In Max Ophüls’s
The Reckless Moment (1949), Bennett played a more satisfyingly complex role as Lucia Harper, an upper-middle-class mother whose quiet
existence is overturned as she attempts to protect her daughter, who
has accidentally killed the man with whom she has been having an
affair. Lucia is attracted to the blackmailer (James Mason) who falls
in love with her, but she knows she must keep the family together.
Bennett, one of the most versatile and accomplished of noir actresses,
also starred in Hollow Triumph (1948) and Highway Dragnet (1954).
See also WOMEN.
BERNHARDT, CURTIS (1899–1981). Having directed some crime and
mystery films including Der Mann, der den Mord beging (The Man
Who Committed the Murder, 1931), the Jewish Curtis Bernhardt fled
Germany to France in 1933. He left for America in 1939 after making
the highly successful Carrefour (1938), an amnesiac noir that was remade as Dead Man’s Shoes (1940) in Great Britain and as Crossroads
(1942) by MGM. Bernhardt made three highly melodramatic noirs for
Warner Bros., beginning with the atmospheric Conflict (1945), from a
14 •
BEZZERIDES, A. I.
story by Robert Siodmak, in which Richard Mason (Humphrey Bogart), trapped in a failing marriage, murders his wife after having fallen
in love with her younger sister. A Stolen Life (1946), itself a remake of
a 1939 British film, was a love triangle in which Bette Davis plays twin
sisters in love with the same man (Glenn Ford). Bernhardt, who always
collaborated closely with his screenwriter and cinematographers, had
a stronger story in Possessed (1946), in which he explored the psychological state of an unbalanced and obsessive woman (Joan Crawford). High Wall (1947), also characterized by Bernhardt’s innovative
handling of composition and lighting, was another story of a disturbed
psyche, an amnesiac troubled veteran (Robert Taylor). Bernhardt
was reunited with Bette Davis in Payment on Demand (1951), which he
also cowrote with Bruce Manning. It chronicles a marriage undermined
by the ruthless social ambitions of Joyce Ramsey (Davis) that drive her
husband, David (Barry Sullivan), away.
BEZZERIDES, A. I. (1908–2007). A Californian of Greek descent, Albert Isaac “Buzz” Bezzerides was a hard-boiled novelist turned screenwriter. A member of the left-wing Writers Guild, Bezzerides never
joined the Communist Party but was nevertheless temporarily placed on
the blacklist that hindered his career. His novels The Long Haul (1938)
and Thieves’ Market (1949) were both distinctive, based on firsthand
knowledge about independent truck drivers, their tough lives and their
exploitation by wholesalers. The first was adapted (by Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald) as They Drive by Night (1940), directed by Raoul
Walsh and starring George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, a typical
Warner Bros. action film that was a noir precursor. Bezzerides’s own
adaptation of Thieves’ Market as Thieves’ Highway (1949), directed by
Jules Dassin, had stronger noir elements in its depiction of the troubled
veteran (Richard Conte) determined to avenge his father’s crippling
by the racketeer Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) who dominates San Francisco’s
wholesale fruit market. Bezzerides wrote the screenplay, adapting Gerald Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart, for On Dangerous Ground
(1952), but he was very disappointed when producer John Houseman
and director Nicholas Ray replaced his downbeat ending in favor of
what Bezzerides felt was a sentimentalized coupling of policeman and
blind woman. He worked more harmoniously with Robert Aldrich on
Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the director encouraging him to rework comprehensively Mickey Spillane’s novel. Although French critics and the
THE BIG HEAT
• 15
New Wave directors admired its modernity, terrifying savagery, and satire of the private eye, all of which anticipated neo-noir themes, Kiss Me
Deadly also retained Bezzerides’s lifelong commitment to a left-liberal
critique of American values. He also wrote the screenplays for two other
films noir: Desert Fury (1947) and A Bullet for Joey (1955).
THE BIG COMBO (1955). Although not much appreciated on its initial
release, The Big Combo now has a deserved reputation as one of the
most important 1950s noirs. It was an ambitious film made by Allied
Artists trying to establish itself as an “A” feature studio, and it used
established stars, photography by John Alton, music by David Raksin,
and direction by Joseph H. Lewis. The Big Combo’s sadism, sexual
corruption, violence, and self-reflexive use of conventions mark it as
late in the cycle, and it shares the paranoid concern of many 1950s
noirs, notably the city exposé films that depict the fear that shadowy
criminal organizations are taking over America. Although Philip
Yordan’s script operates within this broad framework—the Combination runs the “largest pool of illegal money in the world”—it is more
centrally concerned with the moral and psychological duel between two
opposed men: Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the head of the Combination, and police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Brown is
amoral, predatory, and charismatic; Diamond, honorable but tormented
and brooding. Diamond’s desire for Brown’s mistress, the beautiful
socialite Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), becomes a fatal obsession, and
his pursuit of Brown is motivated more by sexual jealousy than justice
and leads to the death of his loving girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton),
gunned down by Brown’s homosexual hoods, Fante and Mingo. Susan
is an enigmatic character, neither femme fatale nor victim but weak and
confused, confessing that she lives in a “strange, blind, and backward
maze,” summing up the film’s general mood. Alton’s customary deep
black shadows and harsh pools of light, Lewis’s use of odd angles and
claustrophobic framing devices, and Raksin’s melancholic jazz score
create a downbeat mood, which the death of Brown and Susan’s rescue
do not fully alleviate. The most memorable scene is the chilling torture
and death of Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), the man Brown replaced
and whom he delights in humiliating.
THE BIG HEAT (1953). A second-tier Columbia release with a modest budget and tight shooting schedule whose box-office grosses were
16 •
THE BIG SLEEP
average, The Big Heat is now recognized as a key film noir. Adapted
by Sydney Boehm from William P. McGivern’s story and directed by
Fritz Lang, The Big Heat was typical of 1950s noirs in its depiction of
a “frightened city” in the grip of crime lord Mike Lagana (Alexander
Scourby), the new type of organized, outwardly respectable criminal. He
is the head of a syndicate and is aided by his sadistic henchman Vince
Stone (Lee Marvin). Charles B. Lang’s fluid and highly mobile cinematography effectively animates what was an almost entirely studiobound production that focuses on a complex presentation of the lone
avenger, Detective-Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), whom Lang
saw as “the eternal man trying to find justice.” Bannion, investigating
the sudden suicide of a police officer, is told by his superiors to cease
his enquiries, but when he persists, his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) is
blown up by a car bomb meant for him. He is dismissed from the force
when he accuses the commissioner of collusion. From this point, Bannion transforms into a fearless scourge, taking on a corrupt police force
and a vicious criminal organization single-handedly. But in the process
he loses his humanity, becoming as violent and brutal as the gangsters
he opposes, his actions causing the death of four women. Bannion’s
behavior recalls the expressionist Golem, beyond rational control or appeal and yet driven by an implacable logic. Only with the moving death
of Stone’s sympathetic mistress Debby (Gloria Grahame) can Bannion
regain contact with his tender emotions, including the memories of his
loving wife. Bannion is reinstated into the police force and justice prevails, but the ending is a muted triumph. See also MEN.
THE BIG SLEEP (1946). The Big Sleep, producer-director Howard
Hawks’s only film noir, is visually atypical, his economical direction
displaying none of noir’s characteristic visual conventions, though the
low-lit finale at the gangster’s Laurel Canyon bungalow has a suitably
atmospheric foggy pall. Although he sticks closely to Raymond Chandler’s novel, retaining much of Chandler’s witty dialogue, Hawks is far
less interested in clarifying the twists and turns of Chandler’s notoriously convoluted and impenetrable plot—there is no voice-over to guide
audiences—than in characterization and relationships. Indeed, a scene
in which Marlowe is interrogated by the district attorney, which added
crucial plot information, was cut in postproduction. Hawks was under
instruction from Warner Bros. to emphasize the pairing of Humphrey
BIROC, JOSEPH
• 17
Bogart and Lauren Bacall that had been so successful in To Have and
Have Not (1944). Bogart’s shrewd and wary Marlowe, armed with an
arsenal of cool one-liners, is matched by Bacall’s independent and sexually assured heiress Vivian Rutledge, who, while not duplicitous, hides
some facts in order to protect her blackmailed sister Carmen (Martha
Vickers). Hawks, risking censorship, does not compromise Chandler’s
subject matter, depicting a decadent and depraved world that encompasses murder, blackmail, gambling, pornography, nymphomania, drugtaking, and (albeit heavily veiled) homosexuality.
The Big Sleep was originally shown to American servicemen in August 1945 but was held up by Warner Bros. for a year while the studio
released its more time-bound films. It is now recognized as a seminal
noir, one of the most effective renditions of Chandler’s noir world and
containing a definitive performance from Bogart as the wary private
eye attempting to navigate its darkness.
BIROC, JOSEPH (1903–1996). A seasoned and versatile professional,
Biroc emerged in the 1950s as a cinematographer of moderately
budgeted films noir. Unencumbered by a commitment to the earlier
expressionist, studio-bound style, Biroc was adept at creating the flatter, quasi-documentary realism that characterized 1950s noir, as in The
Killer That Stalked New York (1951), the story of a smallpox carrier.
However, he could be overtly expressionist, as in Nightmare (1956), the
remake of the 1947 Fear in the Night adapted from a Cornell Woolrich
short story. Biroc photographed four films for Robert Aldrich: World
for Ransom (1954), The Garment Jungle (1957), and two neo-noirs:
The Grissom Gang (1971) and Hustle (1975). In the latter, Biroc used
high-contrast lighting and shot through dingy frosted glass to suggest
how even the bright California sunlight cannot dispel the shadows
created by the pervasive pornography and sexual exploitation. Biroc’s
cinematography for Kitten with a Whip (1964), a late noir, was highly
imaginative, as in the striking opening shots where Jody (Ann-Margret)
is escaping from reform school, a blonde figure backlit in her white
nightdress fleeing across a nighttime landscape. Biroc photographed
the underrated The Detective (1968) with his customary expertise, and
his final noir was Hammett (1982), Wim Wenders’s self-reflexive recreation of the world of the 1940s gumshoe that blurred the distinction
between creator and creation.
18 •
BLACKLIST
Biroc’s other noirs are Johnny Allegro (1949), Cry Danger (1951),
Without Warning (1952), Loan Shark (1952), Vice Squad (1953), and
The Organization (1971).
BLACKLIST. The Hollywood blacklist, which operated from 1947–62,
had a profound impact on the American film industry as a whole, but
particularly on film noir, as noir tended to attract left-wing writers and
directors seeking to use its conventions to critique American society.
The blacklist came about as the result of intense pressure from rightwing groups to a supposed Communist threat. This anti-Communist
campaign came to be referred to as “McCarthyism” after the Republican
senator Joseph McCarthy, who tirelessly rooted out the “enemy within,”
subversive elements supposedly undermining the fabric of American
society and values. The actual instrument was the House Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC) formed in 1938, but now given a vigorous new lease on life with the Republican resurgence after the war.
In May 1947 a HUAC subcommittee descended on Hollywood for
preliminary hearings into alleged “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.” In October, the committee conducted public
hearings in Washington to which various film personnel were summoned. “Friendly” witnesses were those who dutifully complained of
Communist infiltration in the film industry, but 11 “unfriendly” witnesses refused to cooperate. One, Bertolt Brecht, fled back to Europe,
but the remainder, who became known collectively as the “Hollywood
Ten”—including Edward Dmytryk, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, and
Dalton Trumbo, all of whom made several noirs—were imprisoned for
contempt of Congress.
The day after the citations for contempt were approved, 25 November
1947, a meeting of studio executives and members of the industry’s
regulating body, the Motion Pictures Producers Association, issued
what became known as the Waldorf Statement, in which they agreed to
fire the Ten and deny employment to anyone refusing to cooperate with
HUAC’s investigations. It effectively instituted a blacklist of unemployable artists, though this was always officially denied. Also “unofficial”
but almost equally damaging was the “graylist,” composed of those who
had not been named in the HUAC hearings but who appeared in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of persons suspected of harboring leftwing views. Often suspects did not know they had been listed. After a
second more protracted and virulent round of investigations, which hap-
BLADE RUNNER
• 19
pened intermittently during 1951–54, over 200 suspected Communists
had been blacklisted, including Leonard Bernstein, John Berry, Lee J.
Cobb, Howard Da Silva, Jules Dassin, Howard Duff, Hans Eisler, Cy
Endfield, John Garfield, Dashiell Hammett, Sterling Hayden, John
Ireland, Sam Jaffe, Elia Kazan, Howard Koch, Joseph Losey, Burgess
Meredith, Clifford Odets, Abraham Polonsky, Edward G. Robinson,
Robert Rossen, Paul Stewart, Bernard Vorhaus, Hannah Weinstein,
and Orson Welles. In 1952 the Screen Writers Guild, formerly a quite
radical group, capitulated, authorizing the studios to omit from the
screen names of any who had failed to clear themselves.
Some of those blacklisted, mainly writers, continued to work under
pseudonyms or used the names of others as “fronts,” but many, including Scott who never produced another film, could not find work in
either the film or television industries. The blacklist went unchallenged
until 1960 when Trumbo was re-employed, but Dmytryk reappeared
before the committee in 1951 and, because he had named 24 former
Communists, was reinstated. The existence of the blacklist promoted
a conservative ideology throughout the industry, effectively ending the
left-wing cycle of noirs.
BLADE RUNNER (1982). Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a noir hybrid
that melded noir and sci-fi to create future noir, has been an exceptionally influential film visually and thematically. It was loosely adapted,
by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, from Philip K. Dick’s 1968
novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the mesmerizing opening shot, a nightmare Los Angeles of 2019 is depicted as a vast industrial sprawl belching out huge fireballs of gaseous waste, while at street
level a crowded, polyglot community jostles for space in perpetual darkness beneath the unending acid rain. Blade Runner’s dystopian future
city is a heterogeneous environment of recycled objects, assorted architectural styles, and discontinuous spaces, full of decay and dereliction.
Scott and designer Lawrence G. Paull used actual locations, including
the rundown Bradley Building and Union Station, but integrated them
into Warner Bros.’ huge studio space that was “retrofitted” (putting new
add-ons to existing buildings) over the 1929 New York Street set used
for gangster movies and films noir such as The Maltese Falcon (1941)
and The Big Sleep (1946). This created a postmodern aesthetic both
retrospective and futuristic, “a film set forty years hence, presented in
the style of forty years ago,” as Scott put it. Blade Runner’s visual style
20 •
BLOOD SIMPLE
is densely textured. Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography uses low-key
lighting and blue filters to create a noirish gloom with particular objects,
including the twitching neon signs picked out in saturated color gels,
techniques that became standard elements in neo-noir’s visual style but
which this film pioneered. Much use is made of the handheld “steadicam” to track intricate movements throughout the set and slow-motion
photography, in which every detail of an event can be savored.
The plot concerns a group of “replicants”—genetically manufactured
beings that closely resemble humans employed to conduct dangerous
work on “off-world colonies”—that has revolted and is now hiding
in Los Angeles. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a semiretired “blade
runner”—the specialist squad trained to kill (“retire”) replicants—has
been reluctantly persuaded to hunt them down. Deckard is both futuristic law enforcer and archetypal 1940s private eye in his battered trench
coat. Fancher wrote the part with Robert Mitchum in mind, but Scott
was happy with the casting of Ford, whom he thought “possesses some
of the laconic dourness of [Humphrey Bogart], but he’s more ambivalent, more human.” Deckard’s ambivalence stems from his developing
sense that the replicants are not rogue automata but more human than
their creators, a confusion compounded by his love for Rachael (Sean
Young), a further stage in genetic evolution whose “life-span” is undefined and whose bobbed, swept-back hair recalls Joan Crawford.
Deckard’s final confrontation with the renegade replicants’ leader Roy
(Rutger Hauer) is also ambiguous. Roy recounts the marvelous sights
he has seen and the replicants’ dreams of prolonged life before dying
quietly in a moment of almost tragic stillness.
In all, seven versions of Blade Runner have been released. Some
are minor variations, but a rushed director’s cut, released in 1992, had
significant differences. Deckard’s studio-imposed voice-over was eliminated, as was the more upbeat conclusion; the new version had Deckard
and Rachael huddled in an elevator shaft hoping to escape rather than
flying off into the sunset. A 25th Anniversary Edition, over which Scott
had complete editorial control, was released in 2007.
BLOOD SIMPLE (1984). Blood Simple was the first film by the brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen and launched their highly successful career. Joel
Coen commented: “We’ve liked that type of story for a long while. . . .
It’s a genre that really gives us pleasure. And we also chose it for very
practical reasons. We knew we weren’t going to have much money.
BLOOD SIMPLE
• 21
Financing wouldn’t permit other things. We could depend on that type
of genre, on that kind of basic force.” Blood Simple was independently
financed and shot economically in eight weeks, but it was almost two
years in postproduction as the Coens sought a distributor for a film that
was “too bloody to be an art movie and too arty to be an exploitation
film.” It generated much interest on the festival circuit—winning the
Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival—and then a distribution
deal. The success of Blood Simple, costing only $1.5 million, demonstrated the potential of film noir for cash-strapped independent filmmakers who could use its conventions to make visually sophisticated films
with a subversive content on small budgets.
Blood Simple was also one of the first examples of country noir, its
memorable opening a montage of shots evoking a bleak, barren Texan
landscape, with its sleazy motels, sinister incinerators, and straight highways that seem to go nowhere. Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography,
with its extensive use of dirty greens, magentas, and sulphur yellows,
makes the visual style downbeat and tacky. Exaggerating noir conventions almost to the point of parody, the film has a peculiarly repulsive
and venal version of the private eye, the reptilian Visser (M. Emmet
Walsh) in his canary yellow suit and pockmarked Stetson, prepared to
do anything if the price is right. Inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s Red
Harvest—which contains the observation that after a murder a man
“goes soft in the head, blood-simple”—and James M. Cain, Blood
Simple is a highly complex tale of adultery, betrayal, but above all the
false suspicions and confusion that characterize this ingrown community where nothing seems to change, as registered by the Four Tops’
resonant “It’s the Same Old Song” that dominates the soundtrack. The
lugubrious Marty (Dan Hedaya), owner of the tawdry Neon Boots
roadhouse, employs Visser first to spy on and then kill his wife Abby
(Frances McDormand) and his employee Ray (John Getz), with whom
she is conducting a desultory affair, only to be double-crossed and shot
by Visser. Ray, finding Marty in his office and believing Abby shot him,
tries to dispose of the body in a deserted field. Visser, wrongly assuming
the couple knows about his deception, kills Ray but is finally killed by
Abby in a grotesquely violent and protracted scene where she imagines
it is Marty who is attacking her.
Blood Simple is a rich mixture of film noir, Greek tragedy, southern
Gothic, Grand Guignol, and the low-budget horrors on which Ethan
Coen had previously worked. It is shot in an intricate, allusive style
22 •
BODY HEAT
that provides sophisticated entertainment for a cineliterate audience,
combining the visceral pleasures of pulp fiction with an innovative use
of generic conventions. See also GOTHIC; NEO-NOIR.
BODY HEAT (1981). Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat is
frequently identified as the film that popularized neo-noir as a selfconscious mode of filmmaking, deliberately re-creating the ambience
of classical noir. There are strong resemblances to Double Indemnity
(1944) in this story of Ned Racine (William Hurt), whose passionate affair with a married woman, Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), leads to the
murder of her rich husband. Ned, a small-time and somewhat incompetent lawyer whose life is secure but unsatisfying, like his avatar, Walter
Neff, sees in this sordid affair a fantasy of sex and success that will restore his self-esteem. But, even more manipulative than her femme fatale
predecessor Phyllis Dietrichson, Matty escapes with the inheritance to an
idyllic tropical island, while Ned, the classic noir victim, is imprisoned
for the murder. Unencumbered by the restrictive censorship code of the
1940s, Kasdan was able to depict their affair much more explicitly in a
number of graphic sex scenes. Kasdan, and his veteran cinematographer
Richard H. Kline (who had assisted on The Lady from Shanghai [1948]
and was another deliberate link to classic noir) created a drowsy, oneiric visual style through slow, languid, tracking shots and lap dissolves,
and low-lit, mutedly chiaroscuro interiors. Body Heat’s color scheme is
carefully graded: the warmth of the yellows, browns, and reds gradually
gives way to cool blues and grays as Ned realizes he is the victim of
Matty’s wiles. John Barry’s sultry jazz score complemented this visual
re-creation of the classic noir atmosphere and mood.
Reviewers recognized Body Heat as a re-creation of a noir sensibility
they thought had been abandoned, but Kasdan’s film was also an attempt
to make this relevant to a new generation of baby boomers who grew up
in “the expectation that the world would be wonderful and it wasn’t,”
and whose feelings of disillusionment paralleled those returning from
World War II. For Kasdan, Ned represents “someone of my generation
who just happens to find himself in the film noir world.” Hence, the film
seems to hesitate between the two periods, captured in its setting in Miranda Beach, Florida, which is contemporary but without air conditioners, caught in an incomplete time shift, like Ned himself. Matty gives
him a 1940s snap-brim hat as a sign of his retro-modern status. Body
Heat’s deft and provocative combination of a classical and modern sen-
BOGART, HUMPHREY
• 23
sibility rekindled the possibilities of film noir for a new generation of
filmmakers and their audiences. See also MEN; WOMEN.
BOEHM, SYDNEY (1908–1990). Boehm began his career as a news
writer before moving on to screenwriting. Although a journeyman who
worked on a variety of films for all the major studios, Boehm tended to
specialize in hard-boiled noirs, beginning with High Wall (1947), an
amnesiac/troubled veteran noir, and The Undercover Man (1949), in
which a U.S. Treasury agent (Glenn Ford) takes on the mob. Boehm’s
original story and screenplay for Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1950)
was a compelling drama in which Everyman Farley Granger becomes
trapped in a hostile and predatory New York City that seems to close in
on him from every side. Mystery Street (1950), Union Station (1950),
and Second Chance (1953) were routine thrillers, but Boehm’s original
story and screenplay for Black Tuesday (1954), a taut gangster-on-therun noir starring Edward G. Robinson, had more punch. Boehm found
his greatest success in three William P. McGivern adaptations: The
Big Heat (1953), Rogue Cop (1954), and Hell on Frisco Bay (1955).
BOGART, HUMPHREY (1899–1957). Humphrey Bogart was the most
influential male actor appearing in film noir, attaining iconic status as
the epitome of hard-bitten, laconic, and world-weary masculinity. It derived principally from his definitive portrayals of the noir private eye:
Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Philip Marlowe in The
Big Sleep (1946), cigarette dangling from his mouth under the widebrimmed fedora, the figure hunched in a crumpled, belted trench coat.
Bogart’s nondescript physique and lived-in face expressed the nonheroic world of film noir as did his minimalist acting style, a stiff, tightlipped wariness, in which the eyes, knowing and sad, gave depth to his
tough guys. His rasping voice, with the famous slight lisp, was better at
conveying scornful cynicism and bemused irony than overt sentiment.
Bogart had had a moderately successful stage career before becoming a contract artist for Warner Bros., and his reputation in the 1930s
came from a succession of vicious tough-guy villains or heroes, as in the
noir precursors The Petrified Forest (1936) and They Drive by Night
(1940). High Sierra (1941), based on W. R. Burnett’s novel and coadapted by John Huston, established Bogart as a major star through his
compelling performance as the gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, whom
he made into a complex, sympathetic figure beneath whose toughness
24 •
BOXING NOIRS
lurks self-doubt, fallibility, and the need for love. Bogart worked again
with Huston in The Maltese Falcon after George Raft had been “persuaded” not to take the role of Sam Spade. Bogart’s Spade has a cynical,
wisecracking carapace and is prepared to act ruthlessly in his own interests, but there is also the engaging vulnerability and reluctant idealism
that were Bogart’s hallmark. These qualities were more prominent in
The Big Sleep as Marlowe is a more romantic character, falling in love
with Vivian Rutledge, played by Bogart’s fourth wife Lauren Bacall.
They were paired again in Dark Passage (1947), where she comes
to his aid as, on the run, he tries to prove his innocence. The film
is notable for its delayed revelation of Bogart’s face (his character
has undergone plastic surgery as a disguise) for over an hour. Bacall
played the widow of one of his comrades in Key Largo (1948) in
which Bogart is a troubled veteran who has lost his purpose and
self-respect, regaining it in his struggle with a ruthless gangster
(Edward G. Robinson). Bogart played a somewhat similar role in
Dead Reckoning (1947) in which he investigates the death of an excomrade, battling his way against gangsters and the seductive wiles of
his buddy’s girlfriend, the femme fatale Coral (Lizabeth Scott). He
again played a dysfunctional veteran in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely
Place (1950), as Dixon Steele, an alcoholic, self-destructive screenwriter who, although innocent of the murder charge for which he is
the prime suspect, is clearly capable of homicidal violence. Bogart’s
compelling performance was only rivaled by his role in The Treasure
of the Sierra Madre (1948), in which he was reunited with Huston, as
the ordinary Joe, down on his luck, who succumbs to gold fever, his
greed driving him almost to madness and murder.
Bogart could play the duplicitous homme fatal in Conflict (1945) and
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), or upright district attorneys in Knock on
Any Door (1949) and The Enforcer (1951), and a savage criminal terrorizing a suburban family in The Desperate Hours (1955). But his forte
was always uncertain, ambivalent characters caught up in the confusing
and threatening noir world, as in his final role as the weak sportswriter
turned promoter in The Harder They Fall (1956), a boxing noir. See
also MEN.
BOXING NOIRS. Like the gangster, the boxer embodies a distorted
version of the American success ethic; ambitious to break free from
working-class or ethnic poverty, his rise and fall exposes the moral and
BOXING NOIRS
• 25
emotional price of success. These thematic and ideological preoccupations meant that the boxing film could be assimilated into the concerns of
film noir, particularly to those of the left-wing cycle. Robert Rossen’s
Body and Soul (1947), with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky, was a
paradigmatic example, starring John Garfield as the ghetto-boy Charlie
Davis determined to escape poverty but whose success and material
wealth associate him with gangsters and alienate Charlie from his loved
ones. He eventually has the courage to defy the mobsters, rediscovering
his humanity. Champion (1949) had a similar storyline but lacked Rossen’s idealism; its central character (Kirk Douglas) is nastier, a ruthless
egomaniac intent on getting to the top, and the ending is bleaker.
The Set-Up (1949) abandoned the rise-and-fall narrative to concentrate on the misery and physical toll that boxing exacts. Robert Ryan
plays an aging prizefighter beaten up by two thugs after he refuses to
throw a fight. Retaining his integrity, he can return to his wife (Audrey Totter), but only now that he is finished with boxing. The theme
of corruption that runs through these films is the principal focus of
The Harder They Fall (1956). Humphrey Bogart, as fading sports
columnist Eddie Willis, is hired by a ruthless impresario (Rod Steiger)
to promote a talentless Argentinian boxer in a series of fixed fights so
that he is slaughtered in a championship decider. A disgusted, disillusioned Willis decides to write a series of exposés of the fight game,
whatever the cost.
John Huston’s ironically titled Fat City (1972) was one of the rare
boxing neo-noirs, set in a dreary small town and focusing on a contrasting pair of fighters. Stacy Keach plays Billy Tully, the battered pug who
cannot pull his life together and has become a seedy derelict in dingy
bars, the image of what Ernie Monger (Jeff Bridges), the 18-year-old
young pretender desperate for success, will become. The definitive boxing noir was Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), in which Robert
de Niro gives an extraordinary performance re-creating the various
phases of Jake La Motta’s career. Jake embodies all the hopes, dreams,
violence, and inarticulate rage of the fighter that make him unable to
form stable or enduring relationships and that lead to his own destruction. In a memorable scene, having alienated his family and friends and
thrown into a police cell for resisting arrest, Jake pounds his fists and
head against the unforgiving concrete, the image of despair.
Other boxing noirs include: City for Conquest (1940), The Killers
(1946), The Big Punch (1948), Whiplash (1948), Iron Man (1951),
26 •
BOYLE, ROBERT F.
Glory Alley (1952), 99 River Street (1953), The Crooked Circle (1958),
and The Champ (1979).
BOYLE, ROBERT F. (1909– ). Robert Boyle worked for a number of
studios before becoming a freelance art director. His designs for Shadow
of a Doubt (1943) evoked the prosaic ordinariness that Alfred Hitchcock desired, while the composer’s house in Nocturne (1946) had an
unsettling, decadent atmosphere, causing the detective (George Raft) to
doubt that the body he finds is a suicide, making him conduct his own
murder case. Boyle’s set for the old carousel in Ride the Pink Horse
(1947) contrasts effectively with the mournful uniformity of the rest of
the New Mexican town in which the film is set. Some of Boyle’s best
work was on Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (1957), in which the
modern, open-plan house and geometrically arranged office of Eddie
Rico (Richard Conte) evoke a world of successful, ordered modernity
as opposed to the squalid streets and apartments of New York, to which
his past compels him to return. For Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), Boyle’s imaginative designs depicting Japanese culture
complement the location shooting in Little Tokyo. Boyle also designed
They Won’t Believe Me (1947) and Abandoned (1949) and worked with
distinction on the late noir Cape Fear (1962) and the neo-noir Winter
Kills (1979).
BRACKETT, LEIGH (1915–1978). Leigh Brackett, one of the few
women screenwriters working in Hollywood, was a respected hardboiled writer, whose output included No Good from a Corpse (1944),
which Howard Hawks admired. Thinking the novel had been written
by a man, Hawks hired Brackett to contribute to the screenplay of The
Big Sleep (1946), working with William Faulkner. However, they wrote
separately, without consultation, Faulkner dividing the scenes between
them. Humphrey Bogart, who thought Faulkner’s contributions were
occasionally too genteel, went to Brackett for any dialogue he felt needed
“roughing up.” Brackett’s 1957 novel about juvenile delinquency, The
Tiger Among Us, which focused on the victims of crime and suburban
problems, became a late noir, filmed as 13 West Street in 1962 starring
Alan Ladd. Brackett returned to Raymond Chandler with The Long
Goodbye (1973). Her initial script was a compromise, retaining something of the earlier conception of Marlowe as a knight errant, but she
worked closely with director Robert Altman to produce a much harsher
BRAHM, JOHN
• 27
version in which Marlowe (Elliott Gould) becomes a loser, adrift in a
world he fails to comprehend. Brackett’s adaptation makes the ending
more violent as Marlowe murders the friend who has betrayed him.
Brackett also wrote for noir television series, including The Alfred
Hitchcock Hour in the 1960s and Archer (1975). See also PRIVATE
EYES.
BRADY, SCOTT (1924–1985). Born Gerard Tierney, the younger
brother of Lawrence Tierney, Scott Brady played more sympathetic
characters than his sibling. In Canon City (1948), he played the decent
member of a group of escaped convicts who is eventually recaptured,
while in Undertow (1949) he was an empathetic troubled veteran
framed for murder by his fiancée and her lover. In Port of New York
(1949), he was a narcotics agent battling a vicious gang who is killed in
his pursuit of its leader. None of his films noir, however, really stood
out and Brady never attained more than second-tier stardom, becoming
a television stalwart.
Brady’s other noirs are He Walked by Night (1949), Undercover
Girl (1950), and Three Steps to the Gallows (GB 1953, U.S. title White
Fire).
BRAHM, JOHN (1893–1982). John (originally Hans) Brahm had a high
reputation as a leading stage director in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, and
worked as an editor, screenwriter, and director in the British film industry before going to Hollywood in 1937 and directing the noir precursors Let Us Live (1939), a falsely accused crime thriller, and Rio (1939),
in which a crazed man (Basil Rathbone) escapes from prison to murder
his wife. Highly influenced by expressionism, Brahm’s finely wrought
style, with its pronounced chiaroscuro lighting, was particularly suited
to the two Gothic noirs he directed starring Laird Cregar: The Lodger
(1944) and Hangover Square (1945). Guest in the House (1944), also a
Gothic tale, in which a psychotic young woman (Anne Baxter) nearly
succeeds in destroying a middle-class American family, was another
modestly budgeted noir to which Brahm’s style lent a rich texture.
The Brasher Doubloon (1947), starring George Montgomery as
Marlowe, was the most expressionist Raymond Chandler adaptation,
focusing on the claustrophobic décor of the Victorian Murdoch mansion in Pasadena, surrounded by huge, gnarled trees and long shrubbery
that encircle the building, the interiors infiltrated by menacing shadows.
28 •
BRAZILIAN FILM NOIR
Brahm’s best-known film was The Locket (1947), a complex story with
flashbacks within flashbacks in which the central protagonist, Nancy
Blair (Laraine Day), suffers from destructive kleptomania resulting from
a childhood incident in which she was denied a locket she coveted.
Brahm’s final noir, Singapore (1947), was undistinguished, and he
migrated to television in the 1950s and 1960s, directing episodes of
several noir television series, including Johnny Staccato, The Twilight
Zone, and Suspicion as well as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He also
directed the German film noir, Die goldene Pest (The Golden Plague,
1954). See also VISUAL STYLE.
BRAZILIAN FILM NOIR. Brazil developed quite a strong tradition of
crime and detective fiction, adapting a foreign genre to portray Brazilian reality, but the instabilities of the Brazilian film industry meant that
there were only occasional films noir, including Maior Que o Ódio
(Greater Than the Hatred, 1951), the story of two friends growing up in
the same neighborhood who take different paths in adult life. Mulheres
e Milhões (Women and Millions, 1961) was a complex heist film with
significant similarities to The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1955).
Assassinato en Copacabana (Assassination in Copacabana, 1962) was
a fast-paced thriller. In the 1970s some of the “Boca do Lixo” (“Trash
Alley”) low-budget films had noir elements, including Patty, a Mulher
Proibida (Patty, the Forbidden Woman), and Os Depravados (The Depraved Ones), a police thriller, both released in 1979. A 1990 noir that
took Boca do Lixo as its title was a complex story of adulterous passion,
betrayal, and attempted embezzlement indebted to James M. Cain and
Body Heat (1981).
Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land, 1996), a Brazilian-Portuguese
coproduction directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, was shot
in black-and-white with evocative chiaroscuro lighting. It depicts a
destitute college student recruited in a smuggling operation that takes
him to Lisbon, where he becomes enmeshed in a violent and opportunistic underworld and encounters an enigmatic woman. O Que É Isso,
Companheiro? (Four Days in September, 1997), was a political thriller
based on true story of the abduction of the American ambassador
Charles Burke Elbrick in 1969 by the MR-8 terrorist group, while Bufo
and Spallanzani (2001) was an intricate murder mystery. The celebrated
Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002), directed by Fernando Meirelles
and Kàtia Lund, nominated for four Academy Awards, was based on a
BRITISH FILM NOIR
• 29
true story set in the favela (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. Its voice-over narration tells the story, over two decades, of a boy’s desperate attempts to
escape the drug abuse, gang rivalries, violent crime, and vicious poverty
that are endemic in that area. Sérgio Machado’s Cidade Baixa (Lower
City, 2005), set in the crime-ridden quarter of Salvador de Bahia on the
northeast coast of Brazil, had some similarities, but it was more picaresque, the story of two friends who become rivals when they meet a
sexy prostitute.
BREDELL, ELWOOD “WOODY” (1884–1976). The British-born
Woody Bredell was an accomplished cinematographer, based at Universal, who collaborated with Robert Siodmak on several noirs. Bredell’s
cinematography is characterized by its rich, contrastive chiaroscuro, a
silken texture and fluidity that helps create a sense of corruption running just below the surface in Phantom Lady (1944) and Christmas
Holiday (1944). In the latter, he shone the light through a five-gallon jar
of water, which gave this Southern Gothic noir its disturbing shimmer.
The Killers (1946), Bredell’s third film with Siodmak, has a memorably shot opening scene in which shafts of light from dark buildings
underline the disturbing isolation of the diner, creating a Hopperesque
mood of ominous menace. Bredell’s sophisticated low-key lighting full
of threatening shadows in The Unsuspected (1947), directed by Michael
Curtiz, was crucial in establishing the atmosphere of claustrophobia and
paranoia in this complex story of an unbalanced and obsessive murderer
(Claude Rains). Bredell also shot Lady on a Train (1945) and Female
Jungle (1955). See also VISUAL STYLE.
BRITISH FILM NOIR. British cinema is often accused of being a pale
reflection of American cinema, but although there are many similarities
between British and American film noirs, there are also several key
differences. British film noir, just like French film noir, began to
develop before the war, starting with The Green Cockatoo (U.S. title
Four Dark Hours, 1937), and it stretched to 1964 and the demise of the
second-feature crime film. As in America, British cinema was strongly
influenced by expressionism—partly through the influx of émigré
European talent, including set designer Alfred Junge and cinematographers Mutz Greenbaum (Max Greene), Otto Heller, Erwin Hillier,
Günther Krampf, and Wolfgang Suschitzky—and also poetic realism,
particularly in the immediate postwar period. Alfred Hitchcock’s early
30 •
BRITISH FILM NOIR
crime thrillers, The Lodger (1926) and Blackmail (1929), show expressionist influences, and his The 39 Steps (1935) and Young and Innocent
(1937) were also noir precursors in their depiction of falsely accused
men-on-the-run.
Great Britain also had its own tradition of hard-boiled fiction: Arthur la Bern, James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney, James Curtis, Robert
Westerby, and above all Graham Greene. But a key difference from
American noir was the strong influence of the Gothic/macabre tradition.
“Blood and thunder” Gothic melodrama was the staple of 19th-century
British popular culture, on stage, in music-hall sketches, in “penny
dreadfuls,” “sensation novels,” and of Charles Dickens’s novels. It was
adaptations of the prolific Edgar Wallace’s “shockers,” a combination
of fast-paced action and the macabre, which translated this tradition
onto the screen—50 British films were adapted from Wallace stories
between 1925 and 1939, including The Dark Eyes of London (U.S.
title The Human Monster, 1939) starring Bela Lugosi. It was Arthur
Woods’s They Drive by Night (1938) that showed the passage from the
macabre shocker to film noir, revealing a paranoid world of social and
sexual corruption, the dark underside to respectable British society. On
the Night of the Fire (U.S. title The Fugitive, 1939), adapted from F. L.
Green’s novel, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and expressionistically photographed by Krampf, was a riveting psychological study of
that favorite English victim, the disgraced petit bourgeois.
The development of British film noir was arrested at this point, displaced by a wartime cinema committed to consensual values and pulling
together, but it returned immediately after the war in a more prolific
and sustained cycle. There were numerous Gothic noirs: Blanche Fury
(1947), The Mark of Cain (1947), and So Evil My Love (1948), all based
on novels by Joseph Shearing, with their strong-willed independent
female protagonists and Byronic young men (homme fatals); and more
art house ones: Rudolph Cartier’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades (1949), adapted from Alexander
Pushkin and photographed by Heller, whose visual style was baroque.
British noir, like its American counterpart, showed a strong preoccupation with damaged men, often troubled veterans, beginning with
James Mason’s Spanish Civil War soldier in The Night Has Eyes (U.S.
title The Terror House, 1942). Mason also starred in The Upturned
Glass (1947) and Odd Man Out (1947), directed by Carol Reed and
adapted from another F. L. Green novel. His noir rivals were Eric Port-
BRITISH FILM NOIR
• 31
man in Great Day (1945), Wanted for Murder (1946), Dear Murderer
(1947), and Daybreak (1948), and Robert Newton in Temptation Harbour (1947), adapted from a Georges Simenon novella, and Edward
Dmytryk’s Obsession (U.S. title The Hidden Room, 1949).
The protagonists of Mine Own Executioner (1947), The Small Back
Room (1949), and the amnesiac story The October Man (1949), scripted
by Eric Ambler, were also dysfunctional men with varying degrees
of psychological neuroses who commanded a degree of sympathy and
understanding. Some veterans were venal and corrupt: Nigel Patrick in
Silent Dust (1949) and Uneasy Terms (1949), or David Farrar in Cage
of Gold (1950); others were adrift in a radically changed peacetime
society. In Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (U.S. title
I Became a Criminal, 1947), atmospherically photographed by Heller,
Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) is an ex-RAF pilot prepared to embrace
crime out of sheer frustrated boredom on the toss of a coin. Joining an
East End gang, he is quickly out of his depth and becomes framed for a
murder by gang leader Narcy (Griffith Jones), another product of social
dislocation, “not even a respectable crook, just cheap, rotten, after the
war trash.”
Narcy was representative of a cycle of spiv films that focused on the
well-dressed, opportunistic petty criminal and included Waterloo Road
(1945), Dancing with Crime (1947), Noose (U.S. title The Silk Noose,
1948), and the definitive example, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City
(1950). The more organized spiv graded into the low-level gangster, as
in Appointment with Crime (1946), Night Beat (1947), and the Boulting Brothers’ Brighton Rock (U.S. title Young Scarface, 1948), based
on Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, in which Richard Attenborough was
mesmerizing as the psychotic adolescent, Pinkie Brown. As in France,
British noirs typically intertwine noir conventions with social realism,
creating a cast of characters and a class-consciousness that are culturally specific, including semidocumentary noirs such as the three made
by Basil Dearden and Michael Relph: Frieda (1947), The Blue Lamp
(1950), and Pool of London (1951), promoted as “Britain’s Naked City.”
Something of an exception was The Third Man (1949), with an original
screenplay by Graham Greene, an international coproduction set in wartorn Vienna.
In the 1950s, British noirs tended to be almost exclusively secondfeature crime films. The influence of American noir was stronger, including the use of imported second division American leads as well as
32 •
BRITISH FILM NOIR
the presence of American directors, notably Cy Endfield and Joseph
Losey, fleeing the blacklist. Films such as The Flanagan Boy (U.S.
title Bad Blonde, 1953), Marilyn (U.S. title Roadhouse Girl, 1953), a
remake of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and
Impulse (1955) deliberately copied American models. However, most
British noirs retained an emphasis on ordinary people, not a detached
underworld, and melded the pace and action of American films with
the depiction of resonantly British milieux. This is exemplified in the
films of Ken Hughes, including Wide Boy (1952), The House Across
the Lake (U.S. title Heat Wave, 1954), and The Brain Machine (1955),
in which Maxwell Reed played a brain-damaged, psychopathic gangster moving through an evocative underworld of sleazy tenements and
seedy Soho nightclubs.
Hughes’s The Long Haul (1957), in which Victor Mature battles it
out among tough British truck drivers, was typical of the transformed
visual style, a bleak, chilling realism shot in a cold, hard, naturalistic
lighting that corresponded to the brutal violence of the action. Other
examples include Seth Holt’s Nowhere to Go (1958) and three films
starring Stanley Baker: Endfield’s Hell Drivers (1957), Losey’s The
Criminal (U.S. title Concrete Jungle, 1960), and Val Guest’s Hell Is a
City (1960). The last was set in Manchester, typical of a British “New
Wave” impulse to explore provincial cities: Liverpool in Violent Playground (1958), Beyond This Place (U.S. title Web of Evidence, 1959),
and In the Wake of a Stranger (1959), and Newcastle in Payroll (U.S.
title I Promised to Pay, 1961). There was a prolific series of hour-long
updates of Edgar Wallace’s fiction (1960–64) that minimized the macabre elements in favor of a brusque realism, as in Alan Bridges’s Act of
Murder (1964) and John Moxey’s Face of a Stranger (1964).
After the demise of the supporting feature and the replacement of
black-and-white by color, British noir went into abeyance until a cycle
of American-funded crime films emerged beginning with The Strange
Affair (1968), the first film to admit that the police could be other
than admirable. P. C. Strange (Michael York), whose story is told in
flashback after his arrest and conviction, gets caught up in a changing
London pervaded by drugs and pornography and where police can be
bribed or bend the rules. Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), starring Sean Connery, was an even more disturbing look at the modern
policeman. Villain (1971), Sitting Target (1972), Hitchcock’s Frenzy
(1972), and, above all, Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971) focused on
BRITISH FILM NOIR
• 33
criminals who, following the trial of the notorious Kray twins, were
depicted as just as ruthless, sadistic, and psychopathically violent as
their American counterparts. All had a bleak, uninflected modernist
style that registered a world of radically changing social and cultural
values. Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), filmed in 1968 but
whose release was held up for two years by outraged Warner Bros.
executives, was more mannered. Writer and codirector Donald Cammell depicted an extraordinary clash of lifestyles between the criminal
underworld and 1960s counterculture.
In the early 1980s, British neo-noir was influenced by European
art-house cinema. Stephen Frears’s The Hit (1981), in which a contract
killer (John Hurt) takes an informer (Terence Stamp) from his Spanish rural villa to Paris where he is to meet his fate, and Jim Goddard’s
Parker (1981), depicting the obsessive efforts of a toy salesman (Bryan
Brown) to prove that he did not imagine, or fake, his abduction and incarceration in a cellar, were indebted to the German New Wave. Chris
Petit’s low-budget neo-noirs—Radio On (1980), An Unsuitable Job for
a Woman (1982), adapted from best-selling crime writer P. D. James’s
novel, and Chinese Boxes (1984)—also show this European orientation.
Hidden City (1987), written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, and
Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1987) were more American-orientated, but
their depiction of a secret and corrupt London netherworld contained an
implied critique of Thatcherism. In Empire State (1987), Stormy Monday (1989), and The Long Good Friday (1980), this critique was made
explicit. In the last, East End gang boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins)
embodies the contradictory ideology of Thatcherism: its Little Englandism (a parochial veneration of British traditions) coupled with a belief
in unfettered international enterprise as Shand tries to form a partnership
with the American mafia, incarnated by Eddie Constantine, is shattered
by the Irish Republican Army. Hoskins’s memorable performance—
with its energy, charisma, bursts of uncontrolled violence, and moments
of vulnerability—was reminiscent of James Cagney in White Heat.
The more generically and commercially orientated British cinema of
the 1990s and beyond led to a proliferation of neo-noirs, many of which
are hybrids, including: Shopping (1994)—future noir; Shallow Grave
(1995), Darklands (1996), Dr. Sleep (2002), and Trauma (2004)—
horror/psychological horror; The Criminal (2000)—conspiracy thriller;
Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (2000)—black comedy; Miranda
(2003)—comedy thriller; and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)—revenge
34 •
BRODIE, STEVE
melodrama. There was a deliberate use of noir visual conventions, as in
the chiaroscuro lighting, unusual angles, and distorted compositions of
David Hayman’s The Near Room (1995), set in Glasgow, the Scottish
city that has a reputation for violent crime. Its alienated protagonist,
journalist Charlie Colquhoun (Adrian Dunbar), is the archetypal noir
antihero haunted by his past and plunging ever deeper into a morbid
world of pornography, child prostitution, and civic corruption.
Although Gangster No. 1 (2000) starring Paul Bettany was a classic story of the rise and fall of the eponymous gangster, British noirs
continued to concentrate on petty criminals on the fringes of professional crime, on would-bes and failures, those who wish to escape from
the underworld but cannot, and in which the violence is deliberately
deglamorized. Examples include: Antonia Bird’s Face (1997), Terry
Winsor’s Essex Boys (2000), Colin Teague’s Shooters (2002) and Spivs
(2004), Saul Dibbs’s Bullet Boy (2004), Paul Andrew Williams’s London to Brighton (2006), Nick Love’s Outlaw (2007) starring Sean Bean
as the leader of a motley vigilante group, and Noel Clarke’s Adulthood
(2008). In Sexy Beast (2000), retired gangster Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray
Winstone), sunning himself on Spain’s Costa del Sol, the nirvana of all
British gangsters, is wrenched back by psychotic hard man Don Logan
(Ben Kingsley) to London’s underworld, a world he no longer believes
in or wants. Mr. In-Between (2001), the tale of a tormented hit man
(Andrew Howard), and Mike Hodges’s two outstanding neo-noirs,
Croupier (1998) and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), were more explicitly existential, the last a bleak, circular tale of violence and betrayal
that is shown as ultimately pointless. See also MEN.
BRODIE, STEVE (1919–1992). With his indistinct features, Steve Brodie tended to be typecast as weak but malicious and corrupt characters
as in Out of the Past (1947), where he plays the venal former partner
of private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). As Bowers in Crossfire
(1947), he was one of the four army buddies who witnessed the killing
of a Jewish civilian by Montgomery (Robert Ryan), but he is too weak
to expose the crime and is killed in order to ensure his silence. Brodie
played unscrupulous villains in Armored Car Robbery (1950) and Kiss
Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), as James Cagney’s sidekick. He had one
starring role, in Anthony Mann’s “B” feature Desperate (1947), in
which he plays an ordinary truck driver framed for a murder he did not
commit and brutally beaten by the henchmen of gangster Walt Radak
BURNETT, W. R.
• 35
(Raymond Burr). Brodie was featured in numerous noir television series, including Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957–60).
Brodie’s other noirs are Criminal Court (1946), Bodyguard (1948),
I Cheated the Law (1949), Tough Assignment (1949), M (1951), The
Crooked Circle (1957), and Arson for Hire (1959).
BURNETT, W. R. (1899–1982). William Riley Burnett was a prolific,
successful, and highly influential novelist and screenwriter who specialized, if not exclusively, in crime fiction. Like Dashiell Hammett, Burnett pioneered a style of writing based on vernacular speech and maintained an equally skeptical take on American society and its institutions.
His stories and screenplays are characterized by their solid structure and
tight, linear trajectories; spare dialogue; and focus on criminals who are
nevertheless treated with understanding. He remains best known for his
gangster novel Little Caesar (1929), made into a film in 1931 starring
Edward G. Robinson, and he also coscripted Scarface (1932) with
Paul Muni as the eponymous gangster. Burnett had a direct influence on
the development of film noir beginning with the precursor The Beast of
the City (1932), adapted (by John Lee Mahin) from Burnett’s story. The
crusading policeman Captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) is a noir
figure whose obsessive pursuit of mobster Sam Belmonte makes him
blind to the corruption of his own brother (Wallace Ford).
Burnett wrote the novel High Sierra and cowrote the screenplay (with
John Huston) when it was filmed in 1941, directed by Raoul Walsh.
Its gangster figure, Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart), was
depicted with compassion and understanding. Earle is an outsider who
yearns for freedom but whose death has the bleak inexorability that
characterizes Burnett’s fiction, which the writer struggled to preserve
against the “sentimental” interventions of producer Mark Hellinger.
Burnett experienced less interference when it was remade in 1955 as
I Died a Thousand Times, but the casting of Jack Palance as Earle
and Shelley Winters rather than Ida Lupino as his girlfriend Marie was
less memorable. Burnett cowrote the screenplay (with Albert Maltz)
for another influential early noir, This Gun for Hire (1942), from the
Graham Greene novel.
Burnett wrote the story and screenplay for Nobody Lives Forever
(1946), another bleak tale in which the character cannot escape his
past. John Garfield starred as a troubled veteran who returns to find
his girlfriend and his gambling operation in New York has been taken
36 •
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over. Equally bleak but more compassionate was The Asphalt Jungle
(1950), adapted by Ben Maddow and director John Huston in 1950 from
Burnett’s 1949 novel, which redefined the heist film by its sympathetic
presentation of the criminal group. Burnett was hired to rewrite the
screenplay of The Racket (1951), a remake of a 1928 film, and its confrontation between an obsessive righteous cop (Robert Mitchum) and
an alienated, doomed mobster (Robert Ryan) has the Burnett hallmark.
See also HARD-BOILED FICTION.
BURR, RAYMOND (1917–1993). Raymond Burr is best remembered as
the omniscient television trial lawyer Perry Mason (1957–66) and his
wheelchair-bound detective Ironside (1967–75), but he contributed to
numerous films noir as one of the most effective “heavies,” his burly
frame and well-groomed but saturnine handsomeness exuding both
charm and menace. He played sadistic, calculating gangsters in Anthony Mann’s Desperate (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), often shot from
an extreme low-angle to exaggerate his bulk. His performance in Pitfall
(1948), where he played a grubby and psychotic private eye who stalks
a glamorous yet vulnerable woman (Lizabeth Scott), was a thoughtful
study in thwarted desire, a complexity that also characterizes his role in
Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953). In A Cry in the Night (1956),
Burr gave his most absorbing performance as a tormented, motherdominated loner, hunted down after kidnapping a police captain’s
daughter through fear and confused desire.
Burr’s other noirs are I Love Trouble (1948), Ruthless (1948), Sleep,
My Love (1948), Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), Abandoned (1949),
Borderline (1950), Red Light (1950), Unmasked (1950), His Kind of
Woman (1951), M (1951), Rear Window (1954), Please Murder Me
(1956), Crime of Passion (1957), and Affair in Havana (1957).
–C–
CAIN, JAMES M. (1892–1977). Along with Dashiell Hammett and
Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain was the most influential of the
popular hard-boiled crime writers, and three of his novels—Double
Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce—became seminal noirs. Cain’s work is rooted in the Depression, and his
distinctiveness was to focus on ordinary people who turn to crime. Cain
CAIN, JAMES M.
• 37
described his fiction as a form of American tragedy where “force of
circumstance” (money and sexual desire) drove individuals to the “commission of a dreadful act,” usually murder. Edmund Wilson dubbed
Cain the leading “poet of tabloid murder” because of his simple, direct
style and first-person narration, using the “confessional” mode beloved
of the popular press. His females are tougher, smarter, and more acquisitive than their male counterparts and usually take the lead in planning
the crime.
After a career as a journalist and teacher on the East Coast and briefly
editor of The New Yorker, Cain became a writer. His first story, “Pastorale,” published in the American Mercury in 1928, contained the quintessential Cain theme of a man who commits a crime but cannot live with
the consequences. Cain’s popularity came with the publication of the
hugely successful The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934. He worked
as a screenwriter intermittently for various studios from 1931–48 but
was unsuccessful; most of his scripts, for instance, his version of Out
of the Past (1947), did not reach the screen. However, he earned large
sums through the adaptation of his fiction by others.
Although an adaptation of his crime thriller Money and the Woman
was released by Warner Bros. in 1940, it was quite tame and sentimental. It took the war to loosen the censorship shackles sufficiently for
the Breen office—which had banned Paramount’s proposed adaptation of Double Indemnity in 1936, soon after it had been published in
serial form in Liberty magazine—to sanction its production in 1943.
Chandler cowrote the screenplay of the film Double Indemnity (1944)
with director Billy Wilder. Although they retained Walter’s first-person narration (Cain admired their neat strategy of having him confess
into a company Dictaphone), they made several significant changes
to the story. Keyes, the claims manager, no longer colludes in the
crime, and Walter and Phyllis do not escape justice through jumping
overboard while on a steamship bound for Mexico. The success of
Double Indemnity encouraged MGM to produce The Postman Always
Rings Twice (1946), which it had optioned in 1935. Both stories
were loosely based on the real-life story of Ruth Snyder and her lover
Judd Gray, the subject of a sensational trial in 1927–28. Although the
adaptation, by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, retained the essential
structure of Cain’s story and its first-person narration by a man about
to be executed, the language and explicit nature of the lovemaking had
to be toned down.
38 •
CAPER/HEIST NOIRS
In between these two productions, Warner Bros. had released Mildred
Pierce (1945), adapted by Ranald MacDougall from Cain’s 1941 novel.
Cain had always thought of Mildred Pierce as his first “serious” novel,
evoking the problems of the Depression through its tale of an ordinary
housewife who, saddled with a weak husband, has to keep the family
together. He therefore fought against producer Jerry Wald’s determination to make it into another noir murder mystery and the transformation of Mildred’s daughter from concert singer into a “cheap little tart,”
but he was unsuccessful. Cain was even more scornful of the adaptation
of his 1942 novel about corruption in a midwestern city, Love’s Lonely
Counterfeit as Slightly Scarlet (1956), which is distinguished only by
John Alton’s color cinematography.
Cain’s fiction continues to be adapted for neo-noirs, particularly The
Postman Always Rings Twice.
CAPER/HEIST NOIRS. The caper or heist film constitutes a subcategory of noir in which a group of professional criminals plan and execute
a daring but ultimately unsuccessful robbery, usually for jewels or cash.
Although there are elements of the heist film in Robert Siodmak’s
Criss Cross (1949), it was John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
that provided the defining template by focusing on the preparation,
execution, and aftermath of the heist itself. Its complex presentation
of a collection of variegated criminals and the drama of the inevitable
double-cross were memorable and set the mold for subsequent films.
Armored Car Robbery (1950), released in the same month, was also
thrilling but less innovative, concentrating on action rather than character and on the duel between the robbers and the police.
Jules Dassin’s French noir Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955),
with its 30-minute silent set-piece robbery and prolonged and complex
aftermath of betrayal ending in tragedy, extended and deepened the
heist film and was both popular and influential. Stanley Kubrick’s The
Killing (1956), starring Sterling Hayden, also focused on the drama of
the robbery—the racetrack heist itself is superbly orchestrated—and on
the psychology of the characters. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) was
less concerned with the mechanics of the heist itself than with the tensions between the criminals, including the racial confrontation between
Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) and Earl Slater (Robert Ryan).
After Odds, the caper film became much lighter in tone and often
comic, with Ocean’s Eleven (1960) marking the transition. Some neo-
CENSORSHIP
• 39
noirs returned to the heist formula, including The Friends of Eddie
Coyle (1973), Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Special Delivery (1976), The Brink’s Job (1978), Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir
Dogs (1991), Ronin (1998), Heist (2001), The Good Thief (2002), and
Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006).
Other caper/heist noirs include: Touchez pas au grisbi (Honor Among
Thieves, France 1954), 5 Against the House (1955), Violent Saturday
(1955), The Big Caper (1957), A Prize of Gold (GB 1955), The Burglar
(1957), Hell Bound (1957), Plunder Road (1957), and A Prize of Arms
(GB 1962).
CENSORSHIP. With their focus on sex, crime, and violence, films noir
were an obvious target for America’s notoriously puritanical and restrictive censorship regime. One of the Production Code’s three General
Principles, which attempted to ensure that films showed “correct standards of life,” insisted that crime must never go unpunished, while its
numerous Particular Applications closely regulated the ways in which
sex and violence might be depicted and excluded the detailed and explicit depiction of criminal methods. However, it was noir filmmakers’
often adroit circumventions of the Code through ellipses and suggestive
mise-en-scène and its emphasis on disturbed psychological states and
illicit relationships that was an important factor in the gradual liberalization of the Code.
This is well illustrated through the production of Double Indemnity
(1944). In October 1935 Paramount had been barred from adapting
James M. Cain’s controversial novel because it violated the Code’s
strictures about adulterous relationships and detailed murder plotting
and because it would “harden young and impressionable audiences
to the thought and fact of crime.” However, during World War II, attitudes were changing and Paramount was allowed to proceed with a
production in October 1943. The adaptation, by director Billy Wilder
and Raymond Chandler, made some obvious concessions: the protagonist does not commit suicide—instead he kills his accomplice but
dies after having confessed his crime into a Dictaphone—and his boss
no longer colludes in his crime. Double Indemnity was passed with
only minor quibbles about language and the way in which Barbara
Stanwyck was dressed in certain scenes. However, its “adult” treatment of sex and violence and the degree to which it creates sympathy
for the adulterous, murdering couple was seen by both audiences
40 •
CHABROL, CLAUDE
and the industry as a watershed film that allowed further, even more
challenging films to be developed, including MGM’s The Postman
Always Rings Twice, another Cain adaptation, which the studio had
optioned in 1935 but felt unable to produce until 1944, after Double
Indemnity had paved the way.
The Majors’ new-found boldness was also a signal to independents
to handle more controversial material. Ernst Lubitsch had attempted
to remake Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (The Bitch, 1931) before the war
without success. However, Fritz Lang’s adaptation, Scarlet Street
(1945), which clearly shows Kitty (Joan Bennett) as a prostitute living
with her pimp, was passed in 1944, only for a furor to break out with
several local censorship boards, including an outright ban in Atlanta,
Milwaukee, and New York. Producer Walter Wanger and Universal’s
executives had to work strenuously to get these bans lifted. Chandler
had problems with his only original screenplay, The Blue Dahlia (1946).
He had to tone down the violence and brutality, drop all reflections on
police incompetence, and promote its hero Johnny (Alan Ladd) in rank,
thus making him more respectably middle class. Even then, he had to
radically alter the ending because the navy objected to a naval officer
“Buzz” Wanchek (William Bendix) being the killer, even though the
crime was committed “under the stress of great and legitimate anger.”
Chandler had to substitute an old-fashioned and highly contrived
dénouement in which the least likely suspect, the house detective, is
revealed as the killer.
These battles over what was permissible became more sporadic in
the 1950s, especially after the Supreme Court’s decision in May 1952
that films were a “significant medium for the communication of ideas”
and therefore subject to the same safeguards as the press under the First
Amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed freedom. The Code was
increasingly recognized as outmoded and no longer easily enforceable,
nor was it a guide to what the general public would tolerate. Although
it gradually became redundant, it was not replaced by a ratings system
until 1968. See also BLACKLIST.
CHABROL, CLAUDE (1930– ). Profoundly indebted to Alfred Hitchcock, writer-director Chabrol has created another large body of films
that exist alongside rather than fully within the ambit of film noir. He
has worked with a small team of technicians throughout his career and
has tended to use the same actors, giving his films the sense of a tight,
CHABROL, CLAUDE
• 41
enclosed world that is instantly recognizable. Each has a sympathetic
predator, the victim of circumstances that make their actions at least
understandable. Chabrol’s great theme is the tensions and dark secrets
lying behind the facade of the respectable French bourgeoisie, beginning with L’Œil du matin (The Third Lover, 1963) indebted to Vertigo
(1958). It was the “Hélène” cycle—La Femme infidèle (The Unfaithful
Wife, 1968), Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die, aka Killer!, 1969),
Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1969), La Rupture (The Break, 1970), and
Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall; U.S. title The Vice, 1971)—
that established his reputation.
Each film starred his then wife Stéphane Audran as an inscrutable
protagonist and explored the instability of identity, the transference of
guilt and class tensions that derived from Hitchcock. They also demonstrated the influence of Fritz Lang in their poised and economical focus
on essentials and the use of mise-en-scène in an analytical and objective way. Le Boucher, set in a remote and enclosed village plagued by
a serial killer, remains Chabrol’s most celebrated film. It explores the
struggle between the culture, refinement, and repression of the schoolteacher Mademoiselle Hélène (Audran) and the barbarian violence and
sensuality of the butcher (Jean Yanne). Chabrol refuses easy moral
judgements and creates a genuinely shocking ending.
After a fallow period, notable only for the political thriller Nada (The
Nada Gang, 1974), Chabrol successfully relaunched his career with
Violette Nozière (1978), his first film with Isabelle Huppert, based on a
real-life crime in which a young woman murders her parents. Poulet au
vinaigre (Cop au vin, 1985) and its sequel Inspecteur Lavardin (1986),
starring Jean Poiret, were highly successful, more so than the Patricia
Highsmith adaptation Le Cri du hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987),
which was overly complex. However, La Cérémonie (Judgement in
Stone, 1995), based on a Ruth Rendell novel and starring Huppert and
Sandrine Bonnaire, was a masterful study of the murderous class tensions existing between a bourgeois family and its servants.
Chabrol’s other noirs are Les Noces rouges (Blood Wedding, 1973),
Les Innocents aux mains sales (Innocents with Dirty Hands, 1975), Les
Liens du sang (Blood Relatives, 1978), Au coeur du mensonge (The
Color of Lies, 1999), Merci pour le chocolat (Nightcap, 2000), La Fleur
du mal (The Flower of Evil, 2003), La Demoiselle d’Honneur (The
Bridesmaid, 2004), and La Fille coupée en deux (The Girl Cut in Two,
2009). See also FRENCH FILM NOIR.
42 •
CHANDLER, RAYMOND
CHANDLER, RAYMOND (1888–1959). Raymond Chandler was one
of the most influential writers of the 20th century and the most important source of film noir, principally through adaptations of his novels,
but also through his work as a screenwriter. He brought a complex,
cultured, and partly British (Chandler was educated in England) sensibility to crime fiction that contained the longing for a vanished age as
opposed to the cheap depravity of the present. His works were set in
and around Los Angeles, and Chandler is its great chronicler, regarding it as a decadent, tawdry city pervaded by a deep-seated cultural decline. Chandler’s strengths as a writer lay in description and dialogue,
not plotting and structure.
Chandler was 44 when his first short story, “Blackmailers Don’t
Shoot,” was published by Black Mask magazine in 1933. His first novel,
The Big Sleep, appeared in 1939 and redefined the private eye through
his detective Philip Marlowe. Although tough, hard-drinking, and good
with his fists, Marlowe, as his name connotes, has a quasi-English refinement, a man of honor who, if no saint, is incorruptible, summed up
in Chandler’s famous phrase from The Simple Art of Murder (1940):
“down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who
is neither tarnished nor afraid.” The Big Sleep was quickly followed by
Farewell, My Lovely (1940), the first of his works to be adapted. But
RKO’s version, The Falcon Takes Over (1942), the third film in its
“The Falcon” series, took little from Chandler except parts of the storyline, creating a lightweight confection—starring George Sanders as a
debonair amateur sleuth—that the series’ formula required. Chandler’s
third novel, The High Window (1942), was also extensively reworked
by Twentieth Century-Fox as Time to Kill (1942), the seventh and final film in its “Michael Shayne” series, where Lloyd Nolan plays the
brisk, no-nonsense private eye. Although more faithful to Chandler, it
was essentially a mystery story, lacking the atmosphere of betrayal and
menace that make him so congenial to film noir.
The first adaptation to retain those essential qualities was RKO’s
Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely,
directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Dick Powell as Marlowe.
John Paxton’s screenplay often uses Chandler’s descriptions wholesale
in Marlowe’s intermittent narration. Warner Bros.’ version of The Big
Sleep (1946) was equally faithful to Chandler’s voice and intentions
and even more successful, with Humphrey Bogart becoming the definitive incarnation of Philip Marlowe. Much less successful was Fox’s
CHANDLER, RAYMOND
• 43
second adaptation of The High Window as The Brasher Doubloon
(1947), adapted by Dorothy Hannah. Although imaginatively directed
by John Brahm, George Montgomery was, in most people’s estimation, including that of the actor himself, too young and lightweight to
play Marlowe. MGM’s version of Chandler’s 1943 novel, Lady in the
Lake, released in 1947, had the noir menace, but writer-star Robert
Montgomery’s decision to have the camera become Marlowe’s eyes
(we never see Marlowe unless in reflection) was too extreme an experiment in first-person narration.
Chandler was wary of working for Hollywood because such employment could “destroy the link between the writer and his subconscious.
After that what one does is merely a performance.” However, he was
attracted by the high salaries offered and began working at Paramount
in 1943. He combined with director Billy Wilder to adapt the James
M. Cain novel Double Indemnity for the screen in 1944. Although
he despised Cain as a “Proust in greasy overalls,” Chandler managed,
despite a tempestuous relationship with Wilder, to craft the film’s celebrated dialogue and its exactitude about Los Angeles locations. Being
on Paramount’s payroll disqualified Chandler from adapting film versions of his own fiction for RKO or Warner Bros., but he coadapted The
Unseen (1945). His only original screenplay, The Blue Dahlia (1946),
is one of the best of the troubled veteran group of noirs, starring Alan
Ladd and Veronica Lake. Chandler’s story captures the disillusionment and bewilderment of men returning to a changed world, and he
was very disappointed when its powerful ending was subverted by censorship. Chandler accepted an offer from Universal to write an original
screenplay, Playback, but it was never produced and was eventually
turned into a novel in 1957. He was hired to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s
novel, Strangers on a Train, for Alfred Hitchcock, but on this occasion
director and writer could not collaborate effectively and Chandler was
eventually fired; Czenzi Ormonde completed the final rewrite.
Chandler died in 1959, but his work continued to be adapted. MGM
made Marlowe (1969), adapted by Stirling Silliphant from Chandler’s
1949 novel The Little Sister. James Garner was generally considered too
lightweight for the role, and the adaptation strained to bring the character up-to-date and failed to capture the desolation of Chandler’s bleakest novel. The Long Goodbye (1973), filmed 20 years after the novel
had been published, was a thoroughly revisionist neo-noir directed by
Robert Altman and brought a modern sensibility to Chandler’s private
44 •
CHINATOWN
eye, whom Altman saw as “a real loser, not the false winner Chandler
made out of him. A loser all the way.” By contrast, the British remake
of Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was a retro-noir, faithful to Chandler
and set in the early 1940s, just before war was declared in America.
Director Dick Richards wanted to do “pure Chandler” and considered
Robert Mitchum, even at 57, perfect for the role. John Alonso’s
cinematography used warm, intense colors—deep reds, browns, and
yellows—to evoke photographs and advertising posters from the early
1940s. The follow-up, a remake of The Big Sleep (1978), adapted and
directed by Michael Winner and set in Home Counties Britain, missed
its mark. Bob Rafelson directed Poodle Springs (1998), a made-fortelevision film adapted by Tom Stoppard from Robert Parker’s completion of Chandler’s unfinished novel. James Caan starred as an over-thehill and out-of-date Marlowe who has just married a young heiress and
now lives quietly in Poodle Springs, a wealthy desert town in Nevada,
but gets dragged back into a sleazy and corrupt world.
Chandler’s work also provided material for radio noir, including
The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (1947) with Van Heflin, then Gerald
Mohr; and also noir television series, including Philip Marlowe, Detective (1958) with Philip Carey, and a second series in 1983 starring Powers Boothe. See also HARD-BOILED FICTION.
CHINATOWN (1974). Chinatown was one of the key films that redefined the potential of film noir and has become one of the definitive
representations of Los Angeles. Although set in 1937, director Roman
Polanski avoided any suggestion of a pastiche: “I saw Chinatown not
as a ‘retro’ piece or conscious imitation of classic movies shot in black
and white, but as a film about the thirties seen through the camera eye of
the seventies.” It was photographed by John Alonzo in Technicolor and
widescreen 40 mm Panavision/CinemaScope, but its surface beauty—
almost every scene is bathed in warm California sunlight—only serves
to emphasize the rottenness that lies at the heart of Robert Towne’s
screenplay, based on the true story of the Owens River Valley scandal
of 1908. Towne’s private eye, J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is no retread of Spade or Marlowe, but a new type, insolent and dandified. He is
drawn inexorably into a typically noir investigation where the mystery
continually deepens, the corruption becoming more profound. Its ruthless magnate, Noah Cross (John Huston), is quite prepared to destroy a
city and copulate with his own daughter in order to preserve his power
THE CITY
• 45
and dynastic aspirations. In the dénouement in Chinatown itself, Gittes
is powerless to prevent the death of the woman he loves, Cross’s daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), shot by a police officer as she
tries to drive away in a last attempt to get herself and her sister/daughter
clear of her father. Gittes is led away by one of his colleagues, who
tells him, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” which echoes the words he
used to hear from his superiors in the police force when they wanted his
investigations to cease. Towne wanted a redemptive ending in which
Evelyn kills her father, but Polanski was insistent that this bleak ending
was appropriate to a truly dark noir that relentlessly exposes how the
guilty can escape justice while the innocent suffer.
Towne intended Chinatown to be the first part of a trilogy that explored further moments in the “rape” of Los Angeles. The second part,
The Two Jakes, was released in 1990 starring Nicholson, who also
directed, but it was overlong and convoluted. Its tepid reception meant
that plans for the third film were abandoned. See also NEO-NOIR.
THE CITY. Although some films noir take place in small towns and there
is a disparate group of country noirs, the overwhelming majority are
set in major cities where the pressures and angst of modern life and the
sense of alienation, paranoia, and violence are intensified. In the noir
city there are no bonds and communities, but a world of aggressive and
threatening strangers, knowing no loyalties, its protagonists trapped and
fearful in the dark, wet nighttime streets that glisten with reflected neon
lights. Many noirs have “city” in their title: City of Fear (1959), City of
Shadows (1955), Cry of the City (1948), Dark City (1950), Night and the
City (1950), or While the City Sleeps (1956); many begin with an aerial
or skyline nighttime panorama, a synoptic overview of the city beneath:
Los Angeles in Criss Cross (1949) or New York in The Big Combo
(1955). In City That Never Sleeps (1953), the personified “spirit” of the
city of Chicago itself narrates the film.
Noir’s preoccupation with city life is derived from its principal
sources—German Strassenfilm (street film), poetic realism, and
gangster films—but also from Edward Hopper and the “Blood on
the Pavement” artists and the sensational photojournalism of Weegee,
as well as a plethora of journalistic and sociological accounts. Above
all, it derives from American hard-boiled fiction, whose focus on the
city is summed up in Raymond Chandler’s famous lines about the
“mean streets . . . which are dark with something more than night.”
46 •
THE CITY
The private eye often acts as the mediator of the corrupt, dangerous,
and violent noir city, which has a fundamental ambivalence—squalid
and corrupt, but also exciting and sophisticated, the place of opportunity and conspicuous consumption. Noirs, for instance, Kiss Me Deadly
(1955), often present a city of contrasts, sharply divided by wealth:
dingy rooming-houses, rundown tenement blocks, dark alleyways,
grimy diners, nondescript lunch counters, and squalid, smoke-filled
bars, but also bright, garish night clubs, spacious luxury apartments, and
imposing mansions. Because film noir deals with life-on-the-edge, the
noir city is symbolically homeless and impermanent, populated by drifting anomic loners who are outsiders, without a defined role or function.
There is a concentration on transient, liminal spaces: hotel lobbies, bus
terminals, train stations, markets, racetracks, and sports arenas; and on
the precarious: rooftops, walkways, bridges, high window ledges, unlit
alleys, railroad tracks, and cars.
Noir’s pervasive existentialism conceptualizes the city as an urban
jungle, a bewildering labyrinth and a trap. On one level there is the
actual physical maze of streets and alleyways, as in Scarlet Street
(1945), where each turning introduces a new threat. On another level,
this is expressed in the furtive motives, inner conflicts, and paranoia of
the noir protagonists, unsure of their identity, as in noirs deriving from
Cornell Woolrich’s fiction including Phantom Lady (1944) and The
Guilty (1947). On a third level, the city itself becomes a nightmare that
cannot be fathomed because it is ruled by chance and coincidence, a city
of fleeting shadows. Noir’s victims descend, metaphorically, into an underworld, a nether city or necropolis that exists below the surface. Here
the locales are emblematic: subway tunnels, underground car parks, the
storm drains of He Walked by Night (1949), or the Viennese sewers of
The Third Man (1949).
The noir city is both a metaphoric space and an authentic one. The
semidocumentary noirs, notably The Naked City (1948), prided themselves on their extensive location shooting, the particularity and authenticity of their depiction of specific cities and buildings, in this case,
New York. The cycle of city exposé noirs such as Chicago Confidential
(1957) also favored a palpable, solid realism in what are supposedly
genuine “revelations” about the vice and corruption permeating actual
American cities. The exposé films were also expressive of a significant
shift in the representation of the noir city between the 1940s and the
1950s. The early period showed an existentialist concern with the cen-
CITY EXPOSÉ FILMS
• 47
tripetal metropolitan inner city—densely populated, cramped, and built
vertically—whereas by the 1950s the focus is on the centrifugal town
with its spread-out, ribbon development. It was the shift from recognizable, monumental spaces to immaterial ones, as separation replaces
proximity and concentration and the highway becomes the main focus,
as in Plunder Road (1957).
Neo-noir has continued this preoccupation with the city, including
the central focus on Los Angeles and New York as the principal locations, but it also encompasses other American cities: New Orleans
in Tightrope (1984), Denver in Things to Do in Denver When You’re
Dead (1995), Miami in Miami Vice (2006), or Boston in The Departed
(2006). European film noirs have also shown a preoccupation with the
metropolitan city, be it Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, Copenhagen, or Helsinki. Asian film noir is also city-located, principally
Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Seoul. The metaphor of the nightmare city has
taken on a new dimension in the futuristic Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1982) or Strange Days (1995), a city controlled by aliens in Dark
City (1998) or the cyber-city in the Matrix trilogy (1999–2003). See
also L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.
CITY EXPOSÉ FILMS. City exposé films noir formed a distinct group
that was inspired, at least initially, by the televised Senate hearings on
municipal corruption and organized crime chaired by Senator Estes
Kefauver between 1950 and 1951. These films are also part of a longer
tradition of periodic urban exposés in American journalism and literature that purported to reveal the hidden truth of American urban life, but
which often focused on the more lurid and sensational aspects of their
material. The most influential example was the four books cowritten by
journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer that began with New York Confidential (1948). They popularized the term crime syndicate and preyed
on American fears of a ruthless, organized underground corporation
poised to take over.
Although anticipated by The Enforcer (1951), in which the tireless
District Attorney Martin Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart) battles a murder syndicate run by Mendoza (Everett Sloane), the city exposé cycle
began with The Captive City (1952), which ended with an investigative reporter (John Forsythe) giving evidence about the dark side of
his “small and friendly” town, Kennington, at the Kefauver hearings
in Washington; it had an epilogue spoken by Kefauver. Other exposés
48 •
CLARK, DANE
followed: Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Turning Point (1952),
The Miami Story (1954), Chicago Syndicate (1955), Inside Detroit
(1956), Chicago Confidential (1957), Las Vegas Shakedown (1955),
New Orleans Uncensored (1955), New York Confidential (1955), Phil
Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955), The Houston Story (1956),
Miami Exposé (1956), New Orleans After Dark (1957), and Portland
Exposé (1957). Typically, they deploy a quasi-documentary mode
and are often introduced, as in Harold Schuster’s Portland Exposé, by
an authoritarian voice-over. In this example, the anonymous narrator
contrasts the beauty and wholesomeness of this “modern family town”
with the dark forces of “crime and vice” that threaten it, highly organized protection rackets that seem to be a return to the dark days of the
Prohibition era. Like the semidocumentary noirs, the city exposé films
were photographed in an anonymous visual style with flat, naturalistic
lighting and conventional camerawork and were primarily filmed on
location—“in the same spots where it happened” as the poster for New
Orleans After Dark proclaimed—and sometimes used nonprofessionals,
including policemen, in minor roles. See also THE CITY.
CLARK, DANE (1913–1998). Clark worked under his birth name Bernard Zanville until 1943 when he changed it to Dane Clark. He appeared
in a number of “B” feature noirs in both America and Britain before
going into television. The first was Moonrise (1948), perhaps his best
role, in which he played a young man haunted by the knowledge that
his father was hanged, making him a social pariah and psychologically
crippled. Whiplash (1948) was a second-drawer version of Body and
Soul (1947), with Clark as an ambitious, working-class prizefighter,
typical of his “Joe Average” persona. In the first of Clark’s three British films noir, The Gambler and the Lady (U.S. title Blackout, 1952),
he was cast atypically as a gangster, but in Murder by Proxy (U.S. title
Blackout, 1954) and Five Days (U.S. title Paid to Kill, 1954), he again
played ordinary men trapped by circumstances.
Clark’s other noirs are The Glass Key (1942), A Stolen Life (1946),
Gunman in the Streets (1950), and The Man Is Armed (1956).
COBB, LEE J. (1911–1976). Leo Jacoby Cobb was an imposing, thickset
actor, tough and harsh-voiced, who played intelligent, hard-bitten characters on either side of the law. In his first noir, Johnny O’Clock (1947),
he played a case-hardened detective convinced that the title character
COCHRAN, STEVE
• 49
(Dick Powell) is redeemable. In The Dark Past (1948), Cobb had a
more substantial role as a police psychiatrist who, in flashback, tells
the story of his ultimate success in curing and rehabilitating a disturbed
young man (William Holden) of his psychopathic tendencies. He was a
blustering Chicago newspaper editor in Call Northside 777 (1948) who,
initially interested only in boosting circulation, ultimately supports the
crusade of his reporter (James Stewart) for justice. By contrast, Cobb’s
cynical and ruthless wholesaler in Thieves’ Highway (1949) will stop at
nothing in his exploitation of workers. Starring rather than supporting
roles came in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1951), where he played
a long-serving policeman who compromises his integrity in helping his
mistress, a married woman, cover up a murder, and The Garment Jungle
(1957), as a ruthless, self-made entrepreneur who refuses to allow unions into his clothing factory but who has, in the process, compromised
himself by using hoodlum muscle. Cobb returned to supporting roles in
Party Girl (1958) and The Trap (1959).
Cobb’s career was blighted by the blacklist. Although he initially
denied his Communist affiliations, he admitted to them in the second
round of trials in 1953 following intense pressure.
COCHRAN, STEVE (1917–1965). Steve Cochran, dark and powerfully
built, gave a genuinely menacing performance as the psychotic gangster Eddie Roman in his first noir The Chase (1946), adapted from a
Cornell Woolrich story. He played similar roles in The Damned Don’t
Cry (1950), starring Joan Crawford, and in Highway 301 (1950) as the
leader of a vicious gang of armed robbers on the run. In the underrated
Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951), he had a more complex role that
showed his range as an actor, playing a man who has served 18 years for
a crime he did not commit and who struggles to adjust after his release.
He becomes involved with a cheap dance-hall girl (Ruth Roman), and
when her protector is accidentally killed, they flee together as an illsorted outlaw couple. Cochran is superb as an emotionally adolescent
man trapped in a prizefighter’s body, groping toward an understanding
of the world and his own responsibilities.
His later roles played on this ambivalence. His corrupt cop in Don
Siegel’s Private Hell 36 (1954) was an emotionally remote loner who
illicitly pockets the proceeds of a robbery because he thinks it will make
him more attractive to nightclub singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino). In
Roger Corman’s I, Mobster (1958), told mainly in flashback, he plays
50 •
COEN, JOEL AND ETHAN
another gangster, intelligent and shrewd, but again emotionally underdeveloped, torn between the secure world of his loving Italian-American
parents and a life of crime. He gave another accomplished performance
in The Beat Generation (1959) as a troubled, alienated man, a policeman who cannot accept his wife after she has been raped by a serial
killer with whom he shares a similarly unstable misogyny.
Cochran went into television in the 1960s, appearing in The Twilight
Zone (1959) and Naked City (1960), but he died in 1965 aged only 48.
His other noirs are White Heat (1949), The Weapon (GB 1957), and The
Big Operator (1959).
COEN, JOEL (1954– ) AND ETHAN (1957– ). The brothers Joel and
Ethan Coen have shared the roles of producer, writer, director, and editor in a career that now spans 25 years, during which they have made
a number of distinctive neo-noirs that restlessly experiment with noir
conventions and subvert expectations. Their first film, Blood Simple
(1984), inspired by Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, was an
innovative country noir that transferred a familiar tale of corruption,
greed, and betrayal to a contemporary Texas landscape. Miller’s Crossing (1990), which reworked the gangster-noir hybrid in its unusual,
Prohibition-era story of rival Italian and Irish mobs struggling for
control of an unnamed small town, was indebted to Hammett’s The
Glass Key. The central figure, Tom (Gabriel Byrne), is an existentialist
antihero, trapped in a moral no-man’s-land where he is unsure of his
own motives and allegiances. Fargo (1996), which won the Coens an
Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, had a familiar plot of a kidnap that
goes wrong, but it has a highly unusual setting: rural Minnesota in midwinter. Roger Deakins’s accomplished cinematography creates a
desolate landscape of fused white sky and land, the tale’s bleakness redeemed by the warm humanity of heavily pregnant Police Chief Marge
Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar).
The Big Lebowski (1998), which makes reference to Raymond
Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946) in its wheelchair-bound businessman, was another change of tack, a hybrid noir comedy in which Jeff
“The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) blunders into a crime mystery he
is incapable of solving. It has become a cult hit. By contrast, The Man
Who Wasn’t There (2001) was a deeply serious retro-noir, set in 1949,
filmed in color and then reprocessed into lustrous black-and-white and
photographed by the Oscar-nominated Deakins. Replete with allu-
COLLATERAL
• 51
sions to Scarlet Street (1945), The Man is narrated by passive, chainsmoking Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a small-town California barber. In a series of cruel ironies, Ed, trapped in a life he hates, inadvertently kills the lover of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand), only for
Doris to be arrested for the crime and to hang herself in a cell. Ed’s is a
representative tragedy of anonymous modern man, unable to achieve the
life he desires in this powerful noir that delineates a spiritual malaise.
No Country for Old Men (2007), a return to the Texas of Blood Simple, was the Coens’ most critically applauded film, winning Oscars for
Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay for their adroit
adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The Coens use a familiar noir
story of greed and betrayal to explore the power of evil, represented by
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a sociopathic hit man who pursues
Everyman Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) after he takes a case of money
he accidently discovers in the aftermath of a drug-deal-turned-massacre.
Chigurh appears to be the instrument of a malign but inexorable fate,
one that the decent sheriff investigating the affair (Tommy Lee Jones),
bewildered and frightened, can neither stop nor comprehend.
COLLATERAL (2004). Michael Mann’s Collateral is, along with JeanPierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), the definitive portrait of the hit
man. Mann worked with screenwriter Stuart Beattie on fleshing out the
characters while retaining the “poetic intensity” and strong structure
of Beattie’s script, The Last Domino. Collateral was shot on highdefinition digital video, enabling Mann to photograph characters in
midshot or even in close-up without losing the sharpness of the background, thus creating a heightened realism, a three-dimensional space
even at night that is nevertheless ominous. Like Mann’s earlier Heat
(1995), Collateral concentrates on the confrontation between two men
with contrasting personalities. Vincent (Tom Cruise), the immaculately
groomed hit man, has the male beauty and cool elegance of Mann’s long
line of self-destructive antiheroes. He flies into Los Angeles from an
unspecified American town like an angel of death, with a tight schedule of multiple hits to be performed in a single night to kill potential
witnesses at a Grand Jury trial. By chance he chooses the cab of mild,
affable Max (Jamie Foxx), an indecisive dreamer who has ambitions to
run a fleet of limousines but lacks the drive to achieve it. Vincent takes
Max prisoner and forces him to drive to the various destinations and,
in a series of deftly orchestrated scenes, the two get to understand each
52 •
COMICS/GRAPHIC NOVELS
other’s lives and motivations, Vincent’s self-serving nihilism and Max’s
laid-back underachievement. Like Raven in This Gun for Hire (1942),
Vincent is psychologically damaged, beaten by his father, unable to
remember his mother, and exacting an obscure revenge on society. Max
embodies the values the hit man lacks: the capacity for love, friendship,
and tenderness. Max triumphs, rescuing the beautiful state prosecuting
lawyer (Jada Pinkett Smith) and killing Vincent in a subway gun battle.
However, it is the austere dignity of Vincent’s death, collapsing from
his wounds and dying quietly on an anonymous subway seat, that stays
in the mind.
COMICS/GRAPHIC NOVELS. Comic books emerged in the 1930s.
The first depicting crime stories was Detective Picture Stories in 1936,
followed swiftly by the highly successful Detective Comics in 1937.
Both were influenced by hard-boiled fiction and introduced a series
of tough investigators working at night in dark urban streets who encountered vicious gangsters and sexy femme fatales. A grittier, realistic
vein was pioneered by Crime Does Not Pay, which ran from 1942–55.
Many others followed, including Criminals on the Run, Lawbreakers
Always Lose, Inside Crime, Wanted, Fight Against Crime, and Murder
Incorporated, providing one of film noir’s neglected cultural contexts.
Mickey Spillane’s comic-strip hero Mike Danger was the prototype
for Mike Hammer, one of a number of private eyes that emerged,
including Johnny Danger and Johnny Dynamite. Other noirish comicstrip creations included sleuths that crossed the law enforcer with the
superhero, notably Bob Kane’s Batman, who first appeared in May
1939, patrolling the mean streets of a nocturnal Gotham City; Charles
Biro’s Steel Sterling, who threw himself into a vat of molten steel to
emerge as an invulnerable revenger under the guise of an ordinary
gumshoe; and Will Eisner’s blackly comic The Spirit (1940–52),
another near-invulnerable masked hero returned from the grave, who
roams Central City, a noir world of dilapidated tenements and dark,
labyrinthine, predatory streets.
Powerful protests were lodged against these crime comics on the
grounds that they glorified violence and corrupted juveniles. A Senate Subcommittee was convened in 1954, led by Estes Kefauver, that
focused on these misgivings, and the genre declined after this point. It
was, eventually, succeeded by the graphic novel, a term popularized by
Eisner after the late 1970s. Numerous noir graphic novels emerged in
CONTE, RICHARD
• 53
America and, in Japan, the more violent manga comics. The most influential author/artist was Frank Miller, an avid fan of hard-boiled fiction
and film noir. Miller reinvigorated the Batman franchise with Batman:
The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes
Again (2002), which portrayed a psychologically damaged, existentialist hero always uneasily poised on the brink of vigilantedom. Miller’s
visuals were expressionist and his Gotham City a place of terror and
dread. Miller also created a 13-part serial (April 1991 to June 1992)
under the general title Sin City that was even more thoroughly noir in
conception and execution.
Miller’s graphic novels have formed the basis for several neo-noirs:
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
(2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), and Roberto Rodriguez’s Sin City
(2005), which Miller codirected. He was sole director of The Spirit
(2008), with Gabriel Macht as Denny Colt/The Spirit taking on a range
of grotesque villains in this uneven excurse. Other notable neo-noirs
derived from graphic novels include Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition (2002), a gangster noir set in the 1930s; From Hell (2001) about
Jack the Ripper; the Wachowski Brothers’ V for Vendetta (2005), set
in a future dystopian, fascist Britain; and Constantine (2005), about
an occultist of dubious reputation, which derived from Alan Moore’s
work. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), based on John
Wagner’s graphic novel, depicts a hero (Viggo Mortensen), who cannot, in true noir fashion, escape his criminal past. See also HYBRIDS;
VISUAL STYLE.
CONTE, RICHARD (1910–1975). Richard Conte was one of the few
film noir male actors who could play, with equal conviction, both villains and heroes: a charming, ostensibly helpful nightclub owner who
is nevertheless a ruthless murderer in Somewhere in the Night (1946),
or an incorruptible homicide detective in The Sleeping City (1950). In
Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948), his quick-witted, charismatic
gangster, Martin Rome, is the perfect foil for the stolid, puritanical
policeman (Victor Mature), from the same intimate Italian-American
neighborhood. Indeed, it was Conte’s ability to project a moral ambiguity that gave his characters depth, as in his “two-sided” gangster in The
Raging Tide (1951) or his ruthless hit man in New York Confidential
(1955), harboring an existential conviction that, as the son of a gangster, he is fated to live the life he does and is powerless to save those he
54 •
COOK, ELISHA, JR.
cares for before he is himself “silenced.” Conte gave his most powerful
performance as the corporation boss in The Big Combo (1955), another
charming but vicious gangster who takes a sadistic pleasure in violence.
Conte’s moral ambiguity is perfect for his role as the elder brother Eddie in Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (1957), a man trying to escape
from the Italian ghetto in New York where he grew up and to become
a successful businessman but who knows he must return to the corrupt
urban world to try to protect his brothers. Conte’s iconic status was
used by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather (1972) as Don Vito
Corleone’s rival, Don Barzini.
Conte’s other noirs are The Spider (1945), House of Strangers (1949),
Whirlpool (1949), Hollywood Story (1951), Under the Gun (1951), The
Blue Gardenia (1953), Highway Dragnet (1954), and The Big Tip-Off
(1955).
COOK, ELISHA, JR. (1903–1995). Cook’s diminutive size, scrawny
appearance, woeful baby face, and the neurotic intensity of his performances meant that he was typecast in his numerous films noir as a victim
or as a would-be hoodlum desperate to prove himself. In Stranger on
the Third Floor (1940), he played a characteristic role as a hapless
taxi driver accused of murder, placed on trial, and committed to prison,
but who is eventually reprieved when the real killer (Peter Lorre) is
found. In I Wake Up Screaming (1941) he was a similarly nervous
loner who does indeed turn out to be the murderer, occupying a squalid
room papered with pictures of the showgirl he has killed. One of his
best roles came in The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the weaselly gunsel
Wilmer, always about to pull his trigger, but constantly abused by his
boss (Sydney Greenstreet) and humiliated by Sam Spade (Humphrey
Bogart). He had a memorable role, or at least sequence, in Phantom
Lady (1944), as a small-time band member who plays his drums orgasmically in order to impress the sleuthing secretary (Ella Raines). As
Lawrence Tierney’s sidekick in Born to Kill (1947), he was prepared to
go to any lengths to protect his psychopathic friend but is killed for his
pains: Cook, famously, rarely survived to the last reel. One of his best
later roles was as the weak, cuckolded husband of Marie Windsor in
The Killing (1956), who is eventually pushed beyond his limits and kills
her. Cook became a noir icon, reprising his Wilmer role in The Black
Bird (1975) and used symbolically as the taxi driver in Wim Wenders’s
Hammett (1982).
CORRUPT/ROGUE COPS
• 55
Cook also appeared in noir television series, including Johnny Staccato (1959–60) and Peter Gunn (1960). His other noirs are Dark Waters
(1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Fall Guy (1947), Born to Kill (1947),
The Gangster (1947), The Long Night (1947), Don’t Bother to Knock
(1952), I, the Jury (1953), Accused of Murder (1956), Chicago Confidential (1957), Plunder Road (1957), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The
Wrong Man (1956), and The Outfit (1973).
COREY, WENDELL (1914–1968). Wendell Corey played a number of
key supporting roles in various films noir; his characters are usually
weak, biddable creatures, easily manipulated. As the brother of the excon (Burt Lancaster) in I Walk Alone (1948), Corey gradually realizes
his weakness in helping his brother’s corrupt partner (Kirk Douglas)
succeed. In The Accused (1949) he was second lead to Robert Cummings, playing a stolid homicide detective reluctantly investigating the
guilt of a woman (Loretta Young) with whom both men are in love.
His best role came in The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), as an assistant district attorney (Cleve Marshall) whose involvement with femme
fatale Thelma (Barbara Stanwyck) shatters his marriage and his career.
Cleve, a sympathetic, even tragic figure, gradually becomes more and
more enmeshed as he lies and covers up for Thelma, even planning her
defense in the trial in which he is the prosecutor. In The Killer Is Loose
(1956), he played an unusual role as “Foggy” Poole, a myopic bank
clerk who colludes in a robbery but who blames the supervising officer,
Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten), for his wife’s accidental death when
they come to arrest him. Escaping from prison, he terrorizes Wagner
and his wife in their home before being shot.
Corey’s other noirs are Desert Fury (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number
(1948), Rear Window (1954), and The Big Knife (1955).
CORRUPT/ROGUE COPS. Police corruption is a major theme in film
noir both as an index of a more widespread social malaise and the
breakdown of law and order. The cop himself can, like the troubled
veteran, be depicted as a frightening figure, trained to kill, skilled in
covering up his tracks and possibly psychotic, as in Laird Cregar’s
Lieutenant Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming (1941). The rogue cop
may have a basic decency and try to redeem himself: Robert Taylor in
The Bribe (1949) and Rogue Cop (1954), and Gig Young in City That
Never Sleeps (1953); or he may be corrupted too far: Van Heflin in The
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CORRUPT/ROGUE COPS
Prowler (1951), Lee J. Cobb in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1951),
Fred MacMurray in Pushover (1954), Steve Cochran in Private Hell
36 (1954), or Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958). A third group,
the most complex, become violently unstable through their loathing of
the criminals with whom they have to deal: Dana Andrews in Where
the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Kirk Douglas in Detective Story (1951),
Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953), or Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1952), who is shown on the verge of breakdown as he
pummels a confession out of another small-time hoodlum. By contrast,
Edmond O’Brien in Shield for Murder (1954) is animated solely by
greed, the inverted image of the ambitious American professional, as he
murders to acquire his longed-for suburban home.
In neo-noir the corrupt cop has become the norm rather than the exception. In Tightrope (1984), detective Wes Block (Clint Eastwood)
shares many disturbing characteristics with the serial killer he pursues
relentlessly through the New Orleans demimonde. Mike Figgis’s Internal Affairs (1990) recalls Touch of Evil in its duel between a corrupt
cop (Richard Gere) and the arrow-straight but emotionally repressed
bureau of internal affairs investigator (Andy Garcia), insecure as an
Hispanic outsider in a white community. In Unlawful Entry (1992),
Ray Liotta played an outwardly charming and attractive cop who has
become violent and psychotic through his dealings with “scum.” In
Cop Land (1997), Sylvester Stallone plays the sheriff of a small New
Jersey town occupied exclusively by police officers from New York
City whom he gradually discovers are all on the take or involved in
cover-ups of serious crimes. The acclaimed L.A. Confidential (1997),
set in 1952, was a complex exploration of police corruption at various levels. Denzel Washington gave a commanding performance in
Training Day (2001) as a veteran narcotics officer who initiates a
young rookie in the grim realities of police intimidation and corruption before overreaching himself. Dark Blue (2002), set in the days
preceding the acquittal of four white officers for the beating of black
motorist Rodney King and the subsequent Los Angeles riots in April
1992, used a similar scenario.
Other corrupt cop noirs include: Night Editor (1946), Murder Is My
Beat (1955), The Strange Affair (GB 1968), The Offence (GB 1972), Q
& A (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996),
and The Black Dahlia (2006). See also MEN.
COUNTRY NOIR
• 57
COTTEN, JOSEPH (1905–1994). Cotten made his Broadway debut in
1930, but the formative moment in his career was when he joined Orson
Welles’s Mercury Theatre Company in 1937. He starred in both Citizen
Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and in Welles’s
early noir Journey into Fear (1943), which he adapted (with Welles)
from Eric Ambler’s wartime thriller. Cotten plays a naval engineer who
possesses life-threatening information. Cotten’s old-world charm, coupled with his deliberate movements and soft, southern drawl, allowed
him to play the conventional hero, as in Gaslight (1944) and Beyond the
Forest (1949), or the out-of-his-depth innocent Holly Martins opposite
Welles’s suave villain Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). His most
effective roles were ones in which this sense of stolid uprightness belied
a sinister undertone. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943),
he played the charming Uncle Charlie, the idol of his niece Young
Charlie (Teresa Wright), whose affability masks a deep corruption as
the “wealthy widows’ killer.” He played a similar role in Hitchcock’s
Under Capricorn (1949) and in the underrated Walk Softly, Stranger
(1950), as a gambler who returns to his hometown and falls in love
with a wheelchair-bound heiress (Alida Valli) but whose past catches
up with him.
Cotten’s career dipped in the 1950s, and he appeared in lessprestigious features. He played the beleaguered Everyman in The Steel
Trap (1952), A Blueprint for Murder (1953), and The Killer Is Loose
(1956), and he had a cameo role in Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). His
most interesting part came in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953). He
played a troubled veteran of the Korean War, George Loomis, who
is recently released from a psychiatric hospital. Unhappily married to
a much younger wife (Marilyn Monroe), Loomis proves resourceful
enough to foil the attempt of his wife’s lover to kill him and strangle her
before meeting his death on the falls. Cotten played a minor role in the
neo-noir Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).
COUNTRY NOIR. Although the overwhelming majority of films noir
have urban settings, a significant number of neo-noirs take place in the
wide-open spaces of the American South or West. This subgrouping
was created by the merging of film noir and the road movie, resulting
in a hybrid form that retained the themes and characterization of noir
but transposed them to a new milieu. Although there were precedents
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in classic noir, particularly in the outlaw couple films, and those such
as Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949), where the protagonists escape to
Mexico, the freedom of the open road in country noir is futile and meaningless where towns are “two bit shitholes in the middle of nowhere” as
the villain in Breakdown (1997) puts it, riven by incest and murderous
hatreds. Unlike the idyllic pastoral retreat depicted in classic noir—Out
of the Past (1947) or The Asphalt Jungle (1950)—there is no rural
hiding place untouched by the corruptions of city life. The panoramic
establishing shots, often arresting in their beauty, with which country
noirs frequently open, serve only as an ironic contrast to the sordid
dramas that unfold.
The pathbreaking neo-noir was the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple
(1984), set in redneck Texas. The Coens set Fargo (1996), with its
resonantly named town Brainerd, in rural Minnesota and returned to
Texas in their chilling No Country for Old Men (2007). Their influence was clearly felt in John Dahl’s Kill Me Again (1989) and Red
Rock West (1992), intricately plotted tales of double- and triple-cross
located in the expansive mountains and desert landscapes of Nevada
and Wyoming, respectively. Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997) took place
in the depths of Arizona, the tale of a drifter (Sean Penn) trapped in a
small town when his car breaks down and who is propositioned first
by a husband (Nick Nolte) to kill his faithless wife (Jennifer Lopez)
and then by the wife herself to kill her husband. Stone captures the
claustrophobic, murderous tensions of small-time, broken-down,
and isolated rural America. Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002)
transposed the Norwegian setting of the original to Alaska, adding the
burden of perpetual daylight to the problems that confront its worldweary investigator (Al Pacino), another example of the extreme locations that characterize this form of noir.
Other country noirs include: The Red House (1947), Siesta (1987),
Internal Affairs (1990), The Hot Spot (1990), Guncrazy (1992), White
Sands (1992), Flesh and Bone (1993), Kalifornia (1993), Romeo Is
Bleeding (1993), The Getaway (1994), The Way of the Gun (2000), and
Confidence (2003). See also THE CITY; REMAKES.
CRAWFORD, BRODERICK (1911–1986). The son of two vaudeville
performers, the burly, rough-hewn, and gravel-voiced Crawford was
best known for his Oscar-winning role as Governor Willie Stark in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949), an extraordinarily powerful
CRAWFORD, JOAN
• 59
performance depicting the gradual corruption of the people’s champion.
Crawford could play either menacing villains—as in the head of the
“Syndicate” Charlie Lupo in New York Confidential (1955)—or gruff
but decent law enforcement officials—as in his prison governor in Convicted (1950). In the underrated The Mob (1951), he played a cop who
goes undercover among the mobsters who are controlling New York’s
docks and proves to be as tough as the criminals with whom he mixes. A
richer, more ambivalent role came as Mark Chapman in Phil Karlson’s
Scandal Sheet (1952), the abrasive, bullying newspaper editor who
accidentally kills the wife whom he deserted after she threatens to expose him. He uses all his skills to try to prevent his ace reporter (John
Derek) from uncovering his guilt in what deepens into a near-classical
tragedy of nemesis. Crawford became a household name as Chief Dan
Matthews, the leading character in the long-running television series
Highway Patrol, appearing in 154 episodes from 1955–59. He remained
in television for the rest of his career.
Crawford’s other noirs are The Black Angel (1946), Human Desire (1954), Down Three Dark Streets (1954), and Big House, U.S.A.
(1955).
CRAWFORD, JOAN (1905–1977). Born Lucille Fay Le Sueur, Joan
Crawford was a major prewar star for Warner Bros., often playing
women who are stoical in adversity. This was the cornerstone of her
first and arguably best noir performance (for which she won an Oscar),
playing the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945). As the ambitious and
overprotective mother, Crawford combines strength, tenacity, and a
degree of vulnerability that lends her character depth and pathos. However, pressure from producer Jerry Wald meant that she had also to be
a glamorous seductress. The role revived her flagging career, and she
made several further noirs that also combine sexual attractiveness, ambition, and fallibility in differing degrees. In Possessed (1947) she plays
an obsessive woman who becomes psychologically disturbed when her
sexual desire is thwarted. In Flamingo Road (1949) she was an ambitious carnival dancer, trapped in a southern town run by a corrupt sheriff
(Sydney Greenstreet), who gradually regains control of her life.
The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) allowed her a more convincing role
as another strong, tough-minded woman who refuses to be shackled by
a drab, unfulfilling marriage. Although she becomes the mistress of a
ruthless gangster (Steve Cochran), who uses her in a power struggle
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with his rival, she retains her self-possession. Crawford received another Oscar nomination for her portrayal, in Sudden Fear (1952), of
a powerful but vulnerable playwright who becomes involved with
an homme fatal (Jack Palance) who tries to murder her, assisted by
femme fatale Gloria Grahame. She had a similar role in Female on
the Beach (1955), and in her final noir, Queen Bee (1955), she plays a
southern socialite whose ruthlessness ruins the lives of everyone around
her. Although this last role was a caricature version of her noir persona,
Crawford’s strong women are a distinctive presence in classic noir,
offering a counterpointed image of the independent woman in noir’s
masculinist world.
CREGAR, LAIRD (1916–1944). Although physically huge, Cregar had
a suave, urbane presence that was highly distinctive. In I Wake Up
Screaming (1941), he played the egregious detective Lieutenant Ed
Cornell, whose obsessive love for the woman whose murder he is investigating has made him psychopathic and corrupt. Cornell is a complex
creation, chilling, loathsome, and yet pitiable, with a silky, taunting
voice and sick smile as he relishes framing his rival Frankie Christopher
(Victor Mature) for the crime. In one memorable scene Frankie wakes
to find Cornell perched at the end of his bed, gloating over the evidence
he has collected, which also hints at a repressed homosexual desire. In
This Gun for Hire (1942), Cregar had another crucial supporting role
as unctuous, deceitful epicure Willard Gates, who hires Raven (Alan
Ladd) as a hit man.
Cregar starred in two Gothic films noir set in London, both written by Barré Lyndon and directed by John Brahm. The first was The
Lodger (1944), a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 film. Cregar’s
Jack the Ripper figure, whose precise diction and silken charm make
him pathetic as well as repellent, was another multilayered study of a
killer. He was even more effective in Hangover Square (1945), based on
Patrick Hamilton’s novel, as a young composer, George Harvey Bone,
a schizophrenic who commits brutal murders during periodic blackouts
and who kills his girlfriend (Linda Darnell) when he discovers her infidelity. Bone is in many ways a helpless, innocent figure, bewildered by
what is happening to him and who, when he realizes what he has done,
kills himself in a spectacular climax, wildly pounding out the concerto
he has composed while the room around him goes up in flames and the
ceiling crashes down on him.
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In an attempt to move away from being typecast as the “sympathetic
heavy,” Cregar went on a crash diet and died of a heart attack, aged
only 28.
CRISS CROSS (1949). One of the most plangent and haunting of films
noir, Criss Cross combines a keen depiction of everyday realities with
a sense of inexorable fate. The decision to adapt Don Tracy’s 1934 pulp
thriller was made by producer Mark Hellinger, but when he died before
the production was fully under way, director Robert Siodmak assumed
greater creative control. Jettisoning Anthony Veiller’s existing screenplay, Siodmak collaborated with Daniel Fuchs to fashion a story that
extensively reworked Tracy’s novel, making it less tough and downbeat
and centering much more fully on the doomed lovers, Steve Thompson
(Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). Siodmak borrowed
extensively from his own 1932 film Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of
Passion) and orchestrated the entire action—beginning with a beautiful
aerial shot that swoops down to reveal the furtive lovers in a car park
menaced by an unseen threat—in order to create a sense of impending
doom. Franz Planer’s accomplished camerawork creates a detailed
sense of the realities of their lives and uses an expressionist register in
the more melodramatic scenes.
Steve—a much more sympathetic figure in the screenplay, an ordinary guy from the working-class neighborhood of Bunker Hill in
Los Angeles—recounts his story with an air of tragic fatality: “From
the start it all went one way. It was in the cards. No way of stopping
it. . . .” Thus the renewal of his relationship with his ex-wife Anna, his
involvement with her husband, gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea),
and their robbery of the armored car firm for which Steve works, are all
stages that lead inevitably to the final scene in the beach house where
Steve and Anna confront each other. It is the clash between the romantic
and the realist, with Steve still dreaming of their future together, while
Anna, bags packed, prepares to leave the wounded man who will only
be a liability as she tries to escape. In a deeply ironic romantic finale, the
pair, shot by Dundee, die in each other’s arms, murmuring each other’s
names, as if they were lovers in a classical tragedy. Behind them lies
the moonlight ocean as Miklós Rózsa’s lush score swells to its peak,
penetrated by the police sirens that signify Dundee’s capture.
Criss Cross was intelligently reworked as Underneath (1995), directed by Steven Soderbergh. See also REMAKES.
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CROSSFIRE (1947). Crossfire was the most comprehensive of the group
of noirs that deal with the problems of the troubled veteran. It depicts
a group of soldiers waiting to be demobilized in Washington, D.C.,
in an atmosphere of intense instability and restlessness. The central
protagonist is the gentle, artistic, and oversensitive Mitchell (George
Cooper), nervous about returning to civilian life and being reunited
with his wife after so long away. He becomes innocently involved
with Samuels (Sam Levene), a Jew, who the aggressive Sergeant
Montgomery (Robert Ryan) thinks has had a soft, profitable war—in
fact he was honorably discharged after being wounded at Okinawa.
Fuelled by drink and racist hatred, the psychotic Montgomery kills
Samuels and tries to get Mitchell implicated. He also kills the witness
Private Floyd (Steve Brodie), but he is eventually cleverly trapped by
Detective Finlay (Robert Young), aided by the most levelheaded and
sympathetic veteran, Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum), who knows
that the “snakes are loose.”
Edward Dmytryk’s direction uses low-angles, distorted perspectives, and harsh chiaroscuro compositions (photographed by J. Roy
Hunt) to provide an appropriate mise-en-scène for this claustrophobic,
out-of-kilter world. The dramatic opening plunges the audience in media res with the murder of Samuels in a room illuminated by a single
lamp, knocked over in the struggle and by which we see the legs of
two soldiers retreating in shadow. The events leading up to this are
shown in several flashbacks, both Montgomery’s mendacious and selfserving one and Mitchell’s more extended recollection. In one of the
most memorable scenes, Mitchell encounters “the Man” (Paul Kelly)
who may or may not be the husband of Ginny (Gloria Grahame),
whom he has picked up at a nightclub. This enigmatic figure—who
emerges out of the shadows and talks about the meaningless posturings
of his life—constitutes a spectral presence or “lost soul,” which embodies Crossfire’s pervasive sense of a restless, dislocated society.
The film’s source, Richard Brooks’s critically admired 1946 novel
The Brick Foxhole, was transformed by screenwriter John Paxton into
an antiracist film, as the subject of the novel, a homophobic killing,
would not have been allowed by the Production Code. Producers Dore
Schary and Adrian Scott were keen to emphasize this message, and
thus Finlay’s homily about racist hatred is rather forced and indicates
the tension between an overt social message and the noir perspective.
However, it was a major element in the film’s enthusiastic reception. It
D’AGOSTINO, ALBERT
• 63
was nominated in five Academy Award categories in 1948: Best Supporting Actor, Ryan; Supporting Actress, Grahame; Best Screenplay;
Best Picture; and Best Director. It did not win, losing out for Best Picture award to Gentleman’s Agreement, also about anti-Semitism, but it
won Best Social Picture Award at Cannes in 1947 and an Edgar in the
1948 Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
–D–
DA SILVA, HOWARD (1909–1986). Howard Da Silva was a forceful
character actor who contributed to a half-dozen noirs, beginning with
Strange Alibi (1941), in which he played a callous prison officer. He
continued to portray menacing villains, notably in Nicholas Ray’s
They Live by Night (1948), in which he was the brutal, one-eyed convict Chickamaw. Although he could play slick villains, as in The Blue
Dahlia (1946), he was better suited to sadistic characters, including
his memorable depiction of Owen Parkson, a vicious, crooked rancher
who smuggles Mexicans with phony work permits over the border into
California in Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949). He was also
effective as the egregious gangster Carl Durham in The Underworld
Story (1950). After appearing in Fourteen Hours (1951) and Joseph
Losey’s M (1951), Da Silva was one of over 200 actors, writers, and
directors whose careers were blighted by the blacklist, and he found
roles difficult to come by.
D’AGOSTINO, ALBERT (1892–1970). Albert D’Agostino ran the Art
Department at RKO from 1939 until his retirement in 1958, collaborating on, or supervising, the art direction of every RKO film, including
over 40 films noir. His influence was important in the development of
the distinctive glossy but realistic RKO look, forged in collaboration
with Val Lewton on his series of low-budget psychological thrillers. It
was developed in RKO’s films noir, including Out of the Past (1947),
with its crisp location shooting and carefully contrasted interiors,
the Mexican café, the beach house in Acapulco, hotels, nightclubs,
and apartments, and the gangster’s luxurious Lake Tahoe mansion.
D’Agostino’s expressionist sets for the Gothic noirs Experiment Perilous (1944) and Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) help
to create a claustrophobic atmosphere dominated by the warped and
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DAHL, JOHN
destructive psychology of the principal male characters. D’Agostino’s
1950s sets show a characteristic tendency to shed expressive elements
in favor of a functional realism, as in Roadblock (1951). However, in
the late noir The Unholy Wife (1957), D’Agostino demonstrates his
ability to design expressively in color, creating another oppressive
mansion with deep threatening shadows, owned by the wealthy vintner
(Rod Steiger).
D’Agostino’s other noirs are Johnny Angel (1945), Cornered (1945),
Deadline at Dawn (1946), The Stranger (1946), Notorious (1946), The
Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Born to Kill (1947), Desperate (1947),
They Won’t Believe Me (1947), Crossfire (1947), They Live by Night
(1948), A Woman’s Secret (1949), The Set-Up (1949), The Clay Pigeon
(1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949), The Big Steal (1949), The Window
(1949), Strange Bargain (1949), I Married a Communist (aka The
Woman on Pier 13, 1949), The Threat (1949), A Dangerous Profession
(1949), The Secret Fury (1950), Armored Car Robbery (1950), Where
Danger Lives (1950), Born To Be Bad (1950), Walk Softly, Stranger
(1950), Gambling House (1951), The Racket (1951), On Dangerous
Ground (1952), Macao (1952), The Narrow Margin (1952), Clash by
Night (1952), Beware My Lovely (1952), Angel Face (1953), The HitchHiker (1953), Split Second (1953), Second Chance (1953), and Chicago
Confidential (1957). See also HYBRIDS.
DAHL, JOHN (1956– ). John Dahl, a storyboard artist then music video
director, wrote the screenplay for the neo-noir P.I. Private Investigations (1987), directed by Nigel Dick, in which a young architect is
stalked by a criminal gang. When he became a film director, Dahl
continued to make noirs, beginning with Kill Me Again (1989) and
Red Rock West (1992), which he also cowrote. Although made-forcable, they have a witty black humor and sophisticated visual style that
prompted a cinema release and established Dahl’s reputation. Both are
notable contributions to country noir, set in Nevada and Wyoming,
respectively. In Kill Me Again, second-class private eye Jack Andrews
(Val Kilmer) is outmaneuvered by femme fatale Fay Forrester (Joanne
Whalley Kilmer), who tries to escape with the money she stole with her
violent and vengeful boyfriend Vince (Michael Madsen). Red Rock
West, coscripted with brother Rick, starred Nicolas Cage as a sympathetic drifter who is mistaken by a local bar owner (J. T. Walsh) for
the hit man he’s hired to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). In
DANISH FILM NOIR
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another complex tale of bluff and betrayal, she then hires him to kill
her husband before the actual hit man, played by Dennis Hopper, appears. In the acclaimed The Last Seduction (1994), scripted by Steve
Barancik, the figure of the femme fatale (Linda Fiorentino) reached its
apotheosis as she destroys all the men who cross her path.
Dahl directed an episode of the television noir Fallen Angels before
his first high-budget noir Unforgettable (1996), a horror noir hybrid in
which Dr. David Krane (Ray Liotta), a police pathologist, relives the
experiences of the victims of a serial killer, including his wife, by injecting himself with a serum based on their spinal fluids in order to trap the
murderer and clear his own name. This variation on the Jekyll and Hyde
archetype is shot in a highly visceral style but was rather labored and unsuccessful, and Dahl’s career faltered. His road movie/noir hybrid Joy
Ride (2001), a clichéd tale of three young people who are pursued by a
psychotic truck driver, sat unreleased for over 18 months. You Kill Me
(2007) is another hybrid: a comedy thriller, about an alcoholic Polish hit
man (Ben Kingsley) trying to pull his life together and secure the family
business against a rival Irish gang. Despite occasional witty moments, it
was something of a misfire.
DANIELS, WILLIAM H. (1901–1970). Cinematographer William Daniels had a long and distinguished career, his most celebrated work being
the 21 films he shot with Greta Garbo. His noirs are characterized by
their realist style with extensive location shooting, as on Lured (1947),
Brute Force (1948), and The Naked City (1948), for which he won an
Oscar. However, ever an adaptable and versatile practitioner, Daniels
shot Abandoned (1949) with oblique, vertical chiaroscuro lighting,
where the low-key slick, damp streets imbue Los Angeles with a sinister
malevolence. After shooting the undistinguished Forbidden (1953), he
photographed one neo-noir, Marlowe (1969), in Metrocolor.
DANISH FILM NOIR. The German Occupation of Denmark (1940–45)
encouraged increased indigenous film production to compensate for
an import ban. This resulted in a wider generic mix of Danish movies,
including the development of film noir. The central influences were
poetic realism, expressionism, and also Alfred Hitchcock’s British
thrillers. The focus of early Danish noir was on ordinary people whose
crimes are seen as part of the fabric of everyday life. The first identifiable Danish noir is En Forbryder (A Criminal, 1941), inspired by Marcel
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DANISH FILM NOIR
Carné’s films, a fatalistic tale employing flashbacks, a voice-over, and
low-key lighting to create a dark and gloomy central Copenhagen where
two ordinary people, a clerk and a shop assistant, murder to escape the
clutches of a loan shark. Afsporet (Derailed, 1942) was a psychological
drama, a doomed love affair in which a wealthy married woman suffering from amnesia becomes embroiled in an intense affair with a petty
criminal from the notorious Nyhavn quarter of central Copenhagen. It
was directed by the famous actress Bodil Ipsen, who also made two
further noirs: Besættelse (Obsession, 1944), another erotic thriller, the
affair this time was between an older wealthy man and a femme fatale
who meet by chance, and Mordets Melodi (Melody of Murder, 1944)
about a sexually ambiguous serial killer.
After the war the Hollywood influence became more prominent. Kristinus Bergman (1948), set in a shadowy, rain-swept provincial town,
showed the continuing influence of poetic realism but also American
semidocumentary police procedurals. Although the visual style is international, this story of four boys whose ill treatment at an orphanage
led them into a life of crime had a pronounced social critique that was
specifically national. John og Irene (1949), an international coproduction with Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian actors, set in Stockholm and
America, was also based on an indigenous novel and focused on everyday life as a businessman and his wife try to escape poverty. There were
occasional noirs in the 1950s, including Blændværk (Delusion, 1955),
which also had ordinary people as protagonists.
Noir was revived in an extreme form by Lars Von Trier’s Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime, 1984), a complex and
densely allusive art film, made in English. It has several extraordinary
sets created by production designer Peter Høimark and was shot by
Tom Elling in sodium lighting (usually used on European autostrada)
that gives it a bilious black and yellow color. Michael Elphick stars as
Inspector Fisher, recalled from a 13-year exile in Cairo to investigate a
series of hideous murders in which young girls have been mutilated. In
his nightmare journey across a postapocalyptic northern Europe, Fisher
gradually takes on the character of the chief suspect, Harry Grey, his
Doppelgänger, and relives a sadistic relationship with Grey’s mistress
Kim (Me Me Lai).
Later neo-noirs were more commercial, notably the trilogy directed
by Nicolas Winding Refn—Pusher (1996), Pusher II: With Blood on
My Hands (2004), and Pusher III: I Am the Angel of Death (2005).
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These are fast-paced, violent, and visceral films (with much handheld
camerawork) about drug-dealing in the Copenhagen underworld. Nordkraft (Angels in Fast Motion, 2005) also dealt with drugs, but Kærlighed
på film (Just Another Love Story, 2007) and Kandidaten (2008) marked
a return to the concentration on ordinary people, the latter a classic noir
tale in which the protagonist’s attempt to prove his innocence opens up
difficult issues from his past. See also FINNISH FILM NOIR; NORWEGIAN FILM NOIR.
DASSIN, JULES (1911–2008). One of eight children of an AustrianJewish barber in Connecticut and a French mother, Jules Dassin made a
very significant contribution to film noir, though his contribution would
undoubtedly have been more substantial if he had not been placed on the
blacklist that forced him into exile.
Dassin’s first noir Brute Force (1947)—one of the definitive prison
noirs, in which the jail is depicted as a fascist state under the dictatorial
power of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn)—displays Dassin’s characteristic concern with rebels and outsiders who desperately seek to realize their aspirations for justice and a better life but whose desires are
inevitably crushed. The Naked City (1948), the quintessential semidocumentary noir, was more upbeat, but it acknowledged the wasted lives
and frustrated hopes of most New Yorkers. Thieves’ Highway (1949),
adapted from A. I. Bezzerides’s novel, displayed Dassin’s typical rugged realism in its depiction of San Francisco’s wholesale fruit market
riddled by corruption and violence. The Anglo-American coproduction
Night and the City (1950) was more expressionist, based on Englishman Gerald Kersh’s prewar thriller, a sordid and macabre tale of the
London underworld. The supporting cast was British, but the principals
American: Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) and his long-suffering
girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney). Fabian, a club tout attempting to break
into the wrestling circuit, is an over-reacher, an “artist without art”
whose scheme to better himself leads to his death.
Although Twentieth Century-Fox’s head of Production, Darryl F.
Zanuck, had deliberately sent Dassin off to London to shoot the film
in order to avoid being blacklisted, his comradely action merely postponed the inevitable. Dassin spent the rest of his career in Europe, but
even in exile he struggled to get work. He was fired from a French film
in 1953 because of pressure from the Hollywood studios, and the U.S.
Embassy in Rome prevented him from completing a project in Italy in
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1954. Dassin finally managed to make Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi)
in 1955. Dassin’s screenplay was a loose adaptation of Auguste Le
Breton’s novel, and he also acted in a minor role. Here too the criminals
are sympathetically viewed outsiders searching for a big break, but their
hopes are inevitably doomed. Rififi was a major influence on subsequent
caper/heist noirs and is Dassin’s best-remembered film. See also BRITISH FILM NOIR; ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL; FRENCH FILM NOIR;
LEFT-WING CYCLE.
DE NIRO, ROBERT (1943– ). The son of Italian-Irish American parents
and brought up in Little Italy, New York, Robert De Niro is a celebrated
and highly accomplished actor who has had a major impact on the development of neo-noir in a variety of roles, but particularly through
his close association with Martin Scorsese. De Niro starred in six
Scorsese neo-noirs: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging
Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995),
in each case portraying volatile, conflicted characters, uncertain of their
identity. His performance in Taxi Driver is one of the most striking, capturing the masochistic physicality as well as the damaged psychology of
the troubled veteran Travis Bickle. In a famous scene, Travis stares at
his mirror reflection as if it were his ultimate antagonist: “You talkin’ to
me? You talkin’ to me? Who the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to?”
It was an extraordinary image of the schizophrenic solipsist waging war
on himself, trying out various guns and postures. As in Mean Streets, De
Niro’s Method-inspired acting—at once intense, meticulously planned,
and apparently improvised and unpredictable—captures the unstable
identity of contemporary urban man whose masculinity has become a
succession of performances. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of the
unstable boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. The production was shut
down for several months so that De Niro could put on 60 pounds in
order to transform himself from a young, muscular boxer into the fat,
seedy wreck La Motta becomes.
Cape Fear gave further evidence of De Niro’s extraordinary ability
to mold his body to the demands of the part, playing a menacing Max
Cady, covered in garish tattoos, who plots his vengeance on the lawyer
(Nick Nolte) responsible for his incarceration. In Casino he played
a gangster based on the notorious Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal who ran
several Las Vegas casinos for the Chicago mob in the 1970s and 1980s,
giving a nuanced performance as a man whose acquisitive paradise
DE PALMA, BRIAN
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gradually crumbles along with his relationship with his wife and best
friend. In Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), De Niro gave another exceptional performance as master criminal Neil McCauley, an introverted
loner harboring a deep sadness, contrasted with the edgy volatility of
his pursuer, Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). McCauley’s relationships with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a bookstore clerk, and his
younger associate Chris (Val Kilmer), undermine his single-minded
professionalism and lead to his death, from Hanna’s bullet, which has a
near-tragic grandeur.
In the 1990s, De Niro set up his own production company, TriBeCa
productions, becoming a producer and director, making his debut with
the neo-noir A Bronx Tale (1993). Set in New York City during the
1960s, it depicts the struggle for a young man’s loyalties between his
natural father Lorenzo Anello (De Niro), a hard-working but impoverished bus driver, and the charismatic local mafia boss, Sonny, played by
Chazz Palminteri, who also wrote the film. De Niro’s direction is surefooted, and his own performance is quietly self-possessed in a more subdued role. He also directed the political noir The Good Shepherd (2006)
about the moral and emotional duplicity that were an inescapable part
of the Central Intelligence Agency’s formation. Matt Damon stars as
the rising star of the service, recruited by General Bill Sullivan, played
by De Niro in a minor role. De Niro returned to familiar ground in Jon
Avnet’s Righteous Kill (2008) as a volatile cop, Tom “Turk” Cowan,
suspected of killing suspects but actually framed by his devious partner
David “Rooster” Fisk (Al Pacino).
De Niro’s other noirs are True Confessions (1981), Angel Heart
(1987), Night and the City (1992), Cop Land (1997), Jackie Brown
(1997), Ronin (1998), and City by the Sea (2002).
DE PALMA, BRIAN (1940– ). Although his films vary in quality,
writer-director Brian De Palma has made a notable contribution to the
development of neo-noir through a series of films that are bleak, pessimistic, often surreal nightmares that exhibit a consistent preoccupation
with voyeurism, doubling, and conflicting identities in a single body.
Densely allusive, with spectacular, brilliantly orchestrated set pieces,
they often intensify techniques and scenarios borrowed from his cinematic inspiration Alfred Hitchcock. Bernard Herrmann, who wrote
the score for De Palma’s first two noirs, Sisters (1973) and Obsession
(1976), was an acoustic connection between the two directors.
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Sisters was a psychological thriller about the intense, murderous
rivalry between two sisters that makes liberal use of unusual pointof-view shots and split-screen effects to show two events happening
simultaneously from two separate viewpoints. Obsession, rewritten by
De Palma from Paul Schrader’s screenplay, was De Palma’s homage
to Vertigo (1958). Dressed to Kill (1980) was similarly an homage to
Psycho (1960), and Body Double (1984) to Rear Window (1954). However, the underrated Blow Out (1981) was more indebted to Coppola’s
The Conversation (1974) than Hitchcock. John Travolta starred as a
humdrum movie sound effects technician who stumbles upon evidence
of the possible assassination of the Pennsylvania governor and presidential hopeful. In a superbly choreographed chase through Philadelphia
on Liberty Day, he is pursued by the psychotic hired hit man (John
Lithgow). Lithgow played another psychotic in Raising Cain (1992),
his fractured, multiple personality the result of abuse and torture by his
mentally disturbed father, who, having faked his death, uses his son to
procure the young children he needs to continue his experiments.
De Palma’s ultraviolent remake of Scarface (1983) was less noir than
Carlito’s Way (1993), also starring Al Pacino as Carlito Brigante, the
classic noir protagonist who longs to escape a life of crime but is sucked
back through his corrupt lawyer, Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), who uses Carlito
as a pawn in his double-dealings with the mob. Femme Fatale (2002),
a Franco-American production, was another extended exploration of
doubling and multiple identities. It is De Palma’s most self-reflexive
noir—the film begins with Laure (Rebecca Romijn) watching the ending of Double Indemnity (1944), her reflection superimposed on that
of Phyllis Dietrichson’s—and his most surreal, consistently hesitating
between reality and dream. The Black Dahlia (2006), based on James
Ellroy’s 1987 novel, was De Palma’s first retro-noir, set in Los Angeles in 1946. It is also suffused with a sense of entrapment and of the
intermingling of past and present in its tale of two detectives—played
by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart—who become obsessed with a
murder, known as the “Black Dahlia” because of its brutal savagery,
which gradually consumes their lives. See also MEN.
DE ROCHEMONT, LOUIS (1899–1978). Sometimes known as the
“father of docu-drama,” Louis de Rochemont established his reputation
making the March of Time newsreels in the 1930s and early 1940s, earning plaudits for dealing with controversial subjects. He transferred this
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aesthetic and ideology to feature films, producing The House on 92nd
Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), both directed by Henry
Hathaway for Twentieth Century-Fox. They were highly influential in
the development of the semidocumentary noir. House was the detailed
reconstruction of an “actual case” depicting the destruction of a Nazi
spy ring that had infiltrated wartime America. As the typically stentorian voice-over announces, this reconstruction was “photographed in
the localities of the incidents depicted. . . . Wherever possible in the
actual places the original incidents occurred, using Federal Bureau of
Investigation employees, except for the principal players,” thereby giving an apparent authenticity to the material. De Rochemont had strong
links with the FBI’s director, J. Edgar Hoover. In Walk East on Beacon
(1952) the menace is now the Communist world, and George Murphy
plays an FBI agent on the trail of a Soviet spy ring. Boomerang! (1947),
directed by Elia Kazan, though again based on real-life events, included
more fictional elements, depicting a falsely accused troubled veteran
(Arthur Kennedy), brutalized by detectives into making a confession.
The District Attorney who believes him innocent (Dana Andrews)
is under pressure to convict by corrupt careerist politicians. See also
RIGHT-WING CYCLE.
DE TOTH, ANDRÉ (1912–2002). The Hungarian-born director André De
Toth worked in the British film industry before moving to Hollywood in
1942. His noirs are characteristically tense and spare, with the emphasis
on realism, action, and location work. Dark Waters (1944) was an exception, an atmospheric Southern Gothic film noir in which Merle Oberon
plays a shipwreck survivor whose relatives try to make her question her
sanity. Ramrod (1947) and The Man in the Saddle were noir hybrids,
tough, dark Westerns. Pitfall (1948) was the archetypal suburban noir
with Dick Powell as a respectable insurance agent, Johnny Forbes,
bored by his dull marriage, who has an affair with Mona (Lizabeth
Scott). Richard Widmark starred in Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) as a
troubled veteran involved in drug smuggling off the Florida coast, who
narrates his story in flashback as he flies through the eye of the storm.
Crime Wave (1954) and Hidden Fear (1957) were “B” crime features,
but De Toth showed his feel for noir by combining fast-paced action with
deft character touches and the occasional imaginative composition. His
final noir was The Two-Headed Spy (1958) made in Great Britain, a spy
thriller set during World War II and starring Jack Hawkins.
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DEADLY IS THE FEMALE. See GUN CRAZY.
DEKKER, ALBERT (1905–1968). Tall and heavily built, Albert Dekker
tended to play supporting villains rather than heroes, though in the early
Southern Gothic noir Among the Living (1941), he starred in the dual
role of respectable man and his insane, murderous twin brother. He was
effective as the double-crossing gang leader in Robert Siodmak’s The
Killers (1946), but The Pretender (1947) gave him a choicer role as a
middle-aged financial adviser trying to fleece his rich ward. Deciding
that the best method is to marry her, he hires a hit man to eliminate
his rival but becomes the target of the unknown assassin. Dekker’s
depiction of paranoia and fear gave his shabby character some depth.
In Destination Murder (1950) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), he played
world-weary aesthetes, lonely, scheming, and murderous, distinctive
portrayals of villainy that showed his accomplishment as an actor.
Dekker’s other noirs are Night in New Orleans (1942), Experiment
Perilous (1944), Suspense (1946), and Illegal (1955).
DELON, ALAIN (1935– ). Alain Delon was, after Jean Gabin—with
whom he appeared in Mélodie en sous-sol (Any Number Can Win, 1963),
Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan, 1969), and Deux hommes
dans la ville (Two Men in Town, 1973)—the most potent male actor in
French film noir, but his appeal was also international. Delon’s sensual
but cold, self-absorbed male beauty allowed him to play an homme fatal in two René Clément noirs: Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) as the
ruthless and predatory Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, and the
amoral but finally outmaneuvered con man in Les Félins (Joy House,
1964). He was more victim than villain in the late American noir Once
a Thief (1965) set in San Francisco, pursued by the vengeful cop (Van
Heflin) and manipulated by his brother (Jack Palance). Delon’s trilogy of films for Jean-Pierre Melville—Le Samouraï (1967), Le
Cercle rouge (The Red Circle, 1970), and Un flic (Dirty Money, 1972)—
deepened the Delon persona into a genuinely tragic figure, melancholy
and utterly alone, with the star’s performance distilled into a few exquisitely minimalist gestures. Delon continued to be strongly associated
with gangster and crime films—especially the hugely successful Borsalino (1970) with Jean-Paul Belmondo—in his subsequent career as
actor, director, writer, and producer, from Flic Story (Cop Story, 1975)
through to the television noir series Frank Riva (2003–04).
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
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Delon’s other noirs are Quand la femme s’en mêle (When a Woman
Meddles, 1957), La Veuve Couderc (The Widow Couderc, 1971), Le Gang
(1976), Mort d’un pourri (Death of a Corrupt Man, 1977), Pour la peau
d’un flic (For a Cop’s Hide, 1981), Le Choc (Contract in Blood, 1982),
Parole de flic (Cop’s Honor, 1985), Ne réveillez pas un flic qui dort (Let
Sleeping Cops Lie, 1988), and Un crime (1993). See also HIT MAN.
DETOUR (1945). Although Detour went largely unrecognized on its
release, it has subsequently attained cult status as the quintessential
“B” feature noir with a running time of 68 minutes. It was made on
a small budget for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) by Edgar
G. Ulmer, who shot the whole film in only six days and was limited
to filming within a 15-mile radius of PRC’s headquarters. However,
its minimal plot, sets, and décor, disguised by the extensive use of fog
and shadow—all designed to save costs—serve to create an existentialist nightmare in which its confused and guilt-ridden protagonist Al
Roberts (Tom Neal), who narrates the story in voice-over, becomes the
archetypal doom-laden Everyman. Al, another of noir’s frustrated artists, hitchhikes his way toward Los Angeles to rejoin his girlfriend Sue
(Claudia Drake), a singer trying to break into the movies. When the man
who offers him a lift, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald)—the
long sequence of their drive westward is created by shots of two people
in conversation against a rudimentary backdrop—dies accidentally, Al
immediately assumes he will be blamed. By malign chance, the hitchhiker he picks up, Vera (Ann Savage), knew Haskell and demands that
Al cooperate in her scheme to blackmail Haskell’s family. Vera is a
demonic, nightmare version of the femme fatale, cheap, vindictive, and
ruthless. After Al accidentally kills her in their hotel room, the story returns to its starting point, a shabby Hopperesque diner outside Reno, in
which Al anticipates the moment of his inevitable arrest, the police car
emerging out of the ubiquitous fog, intoning grimly: “Yes, fate or some
mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at
all.” Lost amidst the indeterminate gloom, Al incarnates noir man, going
nowhere, unable to escape his past and with no future.
A remake of Detour was released in 1992, directed by Wade Williams and starring Tom Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jr. See also MEN.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995). Devil in a Blue Dress was Carl
Franklin’s big budget adaptation of Walter Mosley’s best-selling novel
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DISKANT, GEORGE E.
set in 1948 Los Angeles, shot by Tak Fujimoto in lustrous widescreen
photography. It followed the success of Franklin’s One False Move
(1992) and marked the re-emergence of African American noir, created by black filmmakers and featuring black protagonists. “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington), the archetypal veteran down on his luck and
out of work, innocently accepts a job to find a white woman, Daphne
Monet (Jennifer Beals), the fiancée of a wealthy mayoral candidate, assumed to be hiding somewhere in the black community. Easy’s search
takes him into a netherworld as corrupt and threatening as anything in
Raymond Chandler, filled with crooked cops, ruthless politicians, and
vicious hoodlums. However, the presence of a black protagonist forces
an audience to understand familiar scenes from a new perspective, to
observe how his color creates barriers and threats at every turn. Daphne,
despite appearances, is no femme fatale but a black woman passing as
white, itself a comment on segregation. The film omits her confession of
incest and also her lovemaking with Easy, softening the novel’s subject
matter in order to provide a more optimistic conclusion in which Easy
returns to his suburban bungalow in a black neighborhood that is an
uncontaminated haven of peace and security. His utopian perspective,
not subject to irony, is very different from the unstable, fragmented
perspectives of “white” noir. See also NEO-NOIR.
DISKANT, GEORGE E. (1907–1965). Diskant was principal cinematographer at RKO, where he developed a style of unforced realism with
intermittent expressionist moments. In his first film noir, Anthony
Mann’s Desperate (1947), in the scene in which the hero is brutally
beaten in a squalid basement hideout, Diskant lit the scene with a
single electric light bulb that illuminates odd areas of the action as it
swings about violently under the force of the blows. His most distinguished films are the pair he made with Nicholas Ray, They Live by
Night (1948) and On Dangerous Ground (1952). In the latter Diskant
precisely evokes both the squalid claustrophobia of the city and the
contrasting pure, snow-clad landscapes of the countryside. His work
on The Narrow Margin (1952) was also accomplished, imparting an air
of threat to the glistening corridors of the train carriages in which the
majority of the film is set. After photographing the brutally realistic city
exposé Kansas City Confidential (1952), Diskant worked in noir television series, including Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957–60),
until his untimely death.
DMYTRYK, EDWARD
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Diskant’s other noirs are A Woman’s Secret (1949), Port of New York
(1949), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), The Racket (1951), and
Beware My Lovely (1952). See also VISUAL STYLE.
DMYTRYK, EDWARD (1908–1999). Born in Canada to Ukrainian
parents, Edward Dmytryk worked his way through the studio system,
becoming an editor for Paramount in the 1930s and a director by the
end of the decade. He directed the Universal horror film Captive Wild
Woman (1943) before joining RKO, where Dmytryk created three influential noirs in collaboration with producer Adrian Scott and screenwriter John Paxton: Murder, My Sweet (1944), Cornered (1945), and
Crossfire (1947). Murder, My Sweet was the first noir to incorporate the
essence of Raymond Chandler—the acerbic dialogue, the honorable
but beleaguered private eye (Dick Powell) and a decadent and venal
Los Angeles—as well as developing the expressionist lighting, disorientating compositions, and subjective camera work that Orson Welles
had pioneered on RKO’s Citizen Kane (1941). The studio owned the
rights to Farewell, My Lovely, but its earlier adaptation, The Falcon
Takes Over (1942), had jettisoned most of Chandler’s novel; therefore,
as Dmytryk commented in his 1978 autobiography, It’s a Hell of a Life
But Not a Bad Living, no one would spot that they were remaking it.
Cornered and Crossfire were two of the most important troubled
veteran films. In both, Dmytryk was able to explore an important issue
that reflected his left-liberal social concerns as well as his existentialism, a combination that characterized this period. In Cornered, Powell
plays a Canadian pilot recently released from a prisoner-of-war camp
intent on avenging the death of his French war bride. He eventually
beats the perpetrator to death in one of the brief “trances” that have afflicted him since his incarceration. Although Dmytryk directs with his
characteristic economy, he creates several occasions, as in Murder, My
Sweet, in which Powell’s bewilderment and disorientation is manifested
strongly. In Crossfire, for which Dmytryk received an Oscar nomination, the social themes take greater precedence in this synoptic view of
the problem of the transition to peace, but Dmytryk’s treatment retains
a strong existential element.
Despite this success, Dmytryk, who had very briefly been a member
of the Communist Party, was investigated by the House Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC) and then imprisoned as one of the “Hollywood Ten” for refusing to cooperate. After several months in prison,
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D.O.A.
he went to Great Britain and directed three films, including Obsession
(U.S. title The Hidden Room, 1949), a powerful noir in which a respectable English doctor (Robert Newton) locks up his wife’s American
lover, tormenting him with the intricacies of the slow and undetectable
murder he has planned. Dmytryk returned to the United States in April
1951 and appeared before HUAC for a second time. He denounced
several colleagues, including Scott and Albert Maltz, which caused
bitter resentment but allowed him to work again in America. He then
directed The Sniper (1952) about a mentally disturbed young man (Arthur Franz) who feels compelled to kill women but whose actions are
treated sympathetically as an unrecognized social problem. Dmytryk
also directed the noir hybrid Mirage (1965), a surrealistic sci-fi thriller
starring Gregory Peck as an eminent scientist unsure if he is a killer. See
also BLACKLIST; REMAKES.
D.O.A. (1950). Although little remarked upon when released, Rudolph
Maté’s D.O.A. is now recognized as the quintessential existentialist
noir. Russell Rouse and Clarence Green’s screenplay is indebted to
Robert Siodmak’s Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man Who
Searched for His Own Murderer, 1931) but constructs a remarkable and
startling opening scene in which Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien)
marches through the seemingly endless double doors of a police station
in Los Angeles and announces, to the bemused captain, that he wishes
to report his own murder. In flashback, Bigelow recounts his story, a
certified public accountant leading a dull life in Banning, California,
who, on vacation in San Francisco, is diagnosed with radiation poisoning and given 48 hours to live. When the doctor explains that it must
have been deliberate and that he has been murdered, Bigelow runs furiously out through the sunlit streets amid the jostling crowds of indifferent citizens in a desperate attempt to escape his fate.
Determined to find his killers, Bigelow plunges into the noir “chaos
world” of corrupt businessmen and psychotic killers, including Chester
(Neville Brand), who enjoys inflicting pain. Ernest Laszlo’s accomplished cinematography combines location shooting with claustrophobic, threatening interiors, including the sleazy waterfront dive where
Bigelow was poisoned. Although Maté keeps the action at a relentless
pace, he also establishes Bigelow as the sympathetic Everyman desperate to protect his home-loving fiancée Paula (Pamela Britton) from the
truth: that he has been murdered because he innocently notarized a bill
DOUBLE INDEMNITY
• 77
of sale for what was stolen iridium and therefore can be a witness to the
crime. At the end of his story, Bigelow collapses and the captain tells his
subordinates to mark the case “DOA: Dead on Arrival,” thus rendering
his story pointless, a chilling climax to this dark noir that infuses ordinary life with a sense of dread.
D.O.A. was remade as an Australian film noir, Color Me Dead
(1969), set in Sydney, and as an American neo-noir in 1988 starring
Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. See also EXISTENTIALISM; NARRATIVE PATTERNS; REMAKES.
DONLEVY, BRIAN (1901–1972). Brian Donlevy was an underrated actor who could be highly effective either as a leading man or in supporting roles. He starred as the politician Paul Madvig in the early noir The
Glass Key (1942), a complex portrayal that combined ruthlessness with
a certain softness and vulnerability. He was highly effective as the sympathetic lead in Impact (1949), playing a successful businessman who
survives an attempt on his life by his scheming wife and her lover and
settles down into a new life with Marsha (Ella Raines). In supporting
roles he could be either an honest official—the arrow-straight district
attorney in Kiss of Death (1947), a senator in Hoodlum Empire (1952),
and an honest cop in A Cry in the Night (1956)—or villain: the vicious
gangster in Shakedown (1950). Donlevy commanded sympathy as an
aging mobster complete with hearing aid in The Big Combo (1955),
supplanted and humiliated by the new breed of corporate gangster, Mr.
Brown (Richard Conte).
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). One of the most influential films ever
made, Double Indemnity has become the film that most defines noir,
forging its dominant mode narratively, thematically, and visually. It
was very successful at the box office and encouraged other filmmakers
to attempt similar stories and treatments. The James M. Cain novella
on which it was based had first been published in 1935, but censorship
restrictions meant that Paramount had to wait until 1943 before being
allowed to make an adaptation—Double Indemnity was a pivotal film
in weakening the rigidity of the Production Code. Director Billy Wilder
cowrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, an adversarial but
also highly productive collaboration, Chandler infusing Cain’s “unplayable” dialogue with his trademark crackling wit. They retained the
novella’s main structure—a clever but superficial insurance salesman
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DOUBLE INDEMNITY
(Walter Neff) becomes infatuated with an attractive married woman
(Phyllis Dietrichson) and helps her concoct a lucrative scheme to murder
her wealthy husband and collect the insurance payout—but framed this
within a confessional flashback in which the dying protagonist reflects
on his own downfall and that of his mistress. This creates a strong bond
with audiences but also circumvented the problems of Cain’s ending
where the couple commit suicide on a boat bound for Mexico. Wilder
had originally shot a scene detailing Neff’s execution in a gas chamber,
but this was discarded after adverse reaction from preview audiences.
Even the censors considered it heavy-handed.
Wilder’s casting seems precisely right, but he had to pursue Fred
MacMurray relentlessly until he agreed to depart from his usual comedy
roles and play Neff, portraying perfectly a slick but shallow man whose
clever scheme ministers to his vanity: “one night you get to thinking you
could rook the house yourself, and do it smart, because you’ve got the
wheel under your hand, you know every notch in it by heart.” Wilder
showed similar persistence in convincing Barbara Stanwyck that she
would be effective as Phyllis, a callous, ruthlessly manipulative femme
fatale—it is strongly implied that neither her husband nor Neff are her
first victims. Chandler and Wilder also greatly enlarged and altered the
role of claims manager Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose
hard-bitten integrity (in the novel he colludes in the scheme) provides
a foil against the venality of the central pair. In the rewritten ending,
Keyes lights a cigarette for the dying Neff, the reversal of the gesture
that has symbolized their close bond now strengthened in the moment of
death, a homoerotic subtext that offers some form of redemption.
John F. Seitz’s expert cinematography was important in developing the modulated expressionism that became the dominant noir style.
In the superb opening sequence the wounded Neff speeds recklessly
through the nighttime traffic before his stooped, shadowy figure enters
the cavernous Pacific All-Risk Insurance building, expertly designed by
Hans Dreier and Hal Pereira, which glints sinisterly. Miklós Rózsa’s
score is ominous and unnerving, superbly complementing the visual
style. Strongly indebted to Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Wilder’s film is
fast-paced, dynamic, and realistic in the modern American idiom but
draws on expressionism to evoke a deep and ominous threat amid everyday Los Angeles, in which the streets seem to swallow Neff as he
walks home after the murder: “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was
the walk of a dead man.” In its combination of inexorable fatalism and
DOUGLAS, MICHAEL
• 79
complex characterization, Double Indemnity is perhaps the greatest film
noir. See also MEN; NARRATIVE PATTERNS; VISUAL STYLE.
DOUGLAS, KIRK (1916– ). One of the great Hollywood superstars, Kirk
Douglas made several films noir that revealed his versatility. In The
Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), he created an absorbing study in
estrangement and paranoia as the weak, alcoholic husband of Martha
(Barbara Stanwyck), a small town District Attorney complicit in his
wife’s guilty secret. In Out of the Past (1947) and I Walk Alone (1948),
he played oleaginous, inveigling, but utterly ruthless criminals, the foil
to the sympathetic antiheroes played by Robert Mitchum and Burt
Lancaster, respectively. Champion (1949), a key boxing noir, offered
a more substantial part that allowed Douglas to project the energetic
virility that became his trademark. He played a boxer whose ruthless
ambition to escape poverty alienates his family and friends and who
dies having been beaten up after refusing to throw a fight. Though bleak,
Douglas’s portrayal of the lead slightly softens the harsh contours of the
Ring Lardner original.
Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951) gave
Douglas the opportunity to play an utterly repellent character, a rampantly egotistical journalist, cheap and slick, who is responsible for the
death of an innocent man in his desperation to prolong the sensational
story of his entrapment. Detective Story (1951), from Sidney Kingsley’s
Broadway play about a single day in a detective’s life, was Douglas’s
most complex characterization as Jim McLeod—an unstable, sadistic,
and self-righteous New York policeman, whose crusade to stamp out
lawbreaking verges on vigilantism with its instant diagnoses and summary “justice.” The warring tensions in his life between his love for his
wife and his refusal to forgive her for having an abortion lead him to
deliberately take the bullet from a hoodlum’s gun, a man who is trying
to escape from the police station. He dies in her arms reciting the Act
of Contrition.
DOUGLAS, MICHAEL (1944– ). The son of Kirk Douglas, Michael
Douglas has made a distinctive contribution to neo-noir, usually
playing high-ranking professionals who are unstable, edgy characters
experiencing major difficulties in their relationships. His roles attract
attention and comment because they often reflect disturbing modern
phenomena: addiction, stalking, and female sexual harassment. In
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LE DOULOS
Fatal Attraction (1987) he played a happily married New York attorney
whose weekend affair with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) threatens his
existence when she obsessively refuses to allow the relationship to end.
He had a similar role in Disclosure (1994) as an executive sexually
harassed by his new female boss (Demi Moore). In The Game (1997),
he is a wealthy investment banker whom success has destroyed and
who is persuaded by his wayward younger brother (Sean Penn) to take
part in an addictive live-action game that starts to consume his life. In
Don’t Say a Word (2001), Douglas plays a psychiatrist whose wife and
daughter are held hostage and will only be released if he can find the
whereabouts of a hidden fortune by unlocking the memory of young
mental patient (Brittany Murphy).
Douglas made his early reputation playing Inspector Steve Keller
in the popular television crime drama, The Streets of San Francisco
(1972–76), and he continued to play tough cops: a veteran New York
City police officer facing possible criminal charges in Ridley Scott’s
Black Rain (1989) and the unstable detective known as “The Shooter”
because of his hair-trigger in the highly successful Basic Instinct
(1992). Douglas’s most distinctive role came in Falling Down (1993)
as William “D-Fens” Foster, an unemployed defense worker who wages
a one-man psychotic war against the world. Douglas also starred in the
remake of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (2009).
LE DOULOS (1963). Along with Le Samouraï (1967), Le Doulos (The
Finger Man) is the finest of the long series of French films noir made
by writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. In the unforgettable opening
scene, an unidentified figure, in a fedora and tightly belted raincoat,
moves through an indeterminate, drab, but menacing nighttime landscape on the edge of a town, lit by single street lamps. He enters a
nondescript house for a prearranged meeting with a fence, whom he
kills after a brief exchange in an act that appears to be half-planned,
half-extemporized. The electric light continues to swing on its cable in
the aftermath, bathing the figure first in light then shadow, who checks
his reflection in a mirror before departing and burying a suitcase. This
scene, stylized but ambiguous, shrouded in obscurity and uncertain motivation, characterizes a film that extends the lineaments of American
noir into a more abstract, generic space where archetypal characters,
conscious of their own appearance, act out ritual roles. Although based
DREIER, HANS
• 81
on American models, Nicolas Hayer’s photography prefers dark grays
rather than heavy blacks, enhancing the drabness and obfuscation.
Adapted from the 1957 Série Noire novel by Pierre Lesou, Le Doulos stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien—“le doul”—literally the man
who puts on the hat, but connoting a “Finger Man” or police informer.
Silien’s motives often appear ambiguous as he negotiates the tense
and uncomfortable space between the professional underworld and
the authorities. Silien has a close relationship with the man in the first
scene, Maurice (Serge Reggiani)—both men dress identically—who
trusts Silien, but then mistakenly believes he has betrayed him, tipping the police off about a burglary in which Maurice’s partner dies
and he is wounded. Realizing his mistake, Maurice is killed trying to
save Silien from the hit man he has contracted. Silien shoots the assassin but is mortally wounded, adjusting his appearance in the mirror
one final time before collapsing. The corrosive ironies of Le Doulos—
Silien is innocent and about to retire—and its exploration of the complex bonds of loyalty and betrayal that exist among criminals, have
their roots in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which Melville so admired,
but the ambiguity of action and motive, the fractured identities, deep
existentialist fatalism, and the self-reflexivity distance it from American noir and make Le Doulos unequivocally French. It was a highly
influential film in France, and in America it was admired by Quentin
Tarantino, among many others.
DREIER, HANS (1885–1966). Hans Dreier had a significant career in
the German film industry in the 1920s before going to Hollywood in
1923. He designed three noir precursors: Underworld (1927), The
Docks of New York (1928), and Thunderbolt (1929). Dreier became
supervising art director at Paramount in 1932, a position he held until
his retirement in 1950. His work lent a European elegance and sophistication to American set design, and he had an important influence
on film noir through his own designs and through those he trained at
“Dreier College,” notably Hal Pereira. Dreier’s firsthand knowledge
of expressionism was instrumental in shaping Paramount’s aesthetic
design during the formative wartime period, including This Gun for
Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and Street of Chance (1942). To
accommodate wartime restrictions on expenditure, Dreier devised an
economical style in which sets were atmospheric and suggestive rather
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than elaborately dressed, and he promoted the early introduction of dark
and mysterious surroundings, dramatically lit, to create atmosphere.
Dreier found Billy Wilder, another European, simpatico and created
some of his most effective designs for Double Indemnity (1944) and
also Sunset Boulevard (1950), for which he received an Oscar. The
latter allowed Dreier the opportunity to design elaborate interiors in
the decaying Gothic mansion in Beverly Hills of the silent screen star
(Gloria Swanson), where every available surface was densely cluttered
with film memorabilia, the décor expressing her petrified mental state.
Dreier’s sets for The Big Clock (1948) were also memorable, creating
oppressively labyrinthine designs for the Janoth magazine headquarters, expressive of its owner’s egomania.
Dreier’s other noirs are Ministry of Fear (1945), The Unseen (1945),
The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Calcutta (1947), I Walk Alone (1948), Saigon (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), The Accused (1949),
Chicago Deadline (1949), The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), Union
Station (1950), Appointment with Danger (1951), and The Desperate
Hours (1955). See also ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL; VISUAL STYLE.
DUFF, HOWARD (1913–1990). Howard Duff, who could play, equally
effectively, tough-guy heroes and slippery, venal characters, first came
to prominence as Sam Spade on radio noir; indeed, in his first film
noir, Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947), he was billed as “Radio’s Sam
Spade.” Duff played “Soldier,” a decent man imprisoned for helping a
family with “diverted” army supplies during the Liberation of Italy. He
had a more prominent role in The Naked City (1948) as the mendacious
Frank Niles, a college boy who has failed to make anything of his life
and, posing as a businessman and war hero, slipped into crime while
retaining a plausible respectability. In Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) he
portrayed an undercover narcotics policeman who enters into an uneasy partnership with an ex-con (Dan Duryea) in order to crack an
international drug ring. In Shakedown (1950), he had a more morally
ambiguous role as a cynical photographer who will stop at nothing,
manipulating both the rival crime bosses (Brian Donlevy and Lawrence Tierney) to act against each other. He gets his comeuppance in
a highly melodramatic finale where he photographs his own murderer.
In Woman in Hiding (1950) and Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 (1954),
DURYEA, DAN
• 83
he played opposite his wife, Ida Lupino. The latter contained one of
his best roles as Los Angeles detective Jack Farnham, a decent family
man, who becomes, like his partner (Steve Cochran), corrupted by the
thought of easy money.
After further minor roles in Women’s Prison (1955) and While the
City Sleeps (1956), Duff moved into noir television series, including a
long stint (26 episodes, 1960–61) in the series Dante as Willi Dante, a
gambler with a shady past who now owns a legitimate gambling nightclub. Duff starred in the neo-noir Panic in the City (1968) and made
cameo appearances in The Late Show (1977), Double Negative (1980),
and No Way Out (1987).
DURYEA, DAN (1907–1968). Dan Duryea was able to play both leading man and villain, but his flaccid good looks and rakish charm made
him more memorable as rogues. He played louche, scheming lowlifes
in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street
(1945), and the slimy gangster Slim Dundee in Robert Siodmak’s
Criss Cross (1949). In the “B” feature, Black Angel (1946), based on
a Cornell Woolrich story, Duryea had a starring role as an alcoholic
nightclub pianist and songwriter who, despite being revealed as the
murderer, is a sympathetic figure, haunted by desires and aspirations
that can never be fulfilled. He played a sleazy and corrupt private eye
in the undistinguished Manhandled (1949) and a more complex one
in Robert Aldrich’s World for Ransom (1954). Duryea reprised the
part he had played in a successful noir television series, China Smith
(1952–55), as world-weary Irish gumshoe Mike Callahan, adrift in the
Singapore underworld, who clings to an old-world chivalry in trying to
protect the husband of an old flame. His most complex role came in Paul
Wendkos’s The Burglar (1957), adapted from a David Goodis novel,
as a cheap crook, Nat Harbin, who gradually becomes a tragic figure
in his determination to protect Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) and so keep
his pledge to the dying wish of his mentor and surrogate father figure.
Harbin’s chivalrousness is at odds with his own sexual impulses and the
squalid world he inhabits.
Duryea’s other noirs are The Great Flamarion (1945), Lady on a
Train (1945), Ministry of Fear (1945), Too Late for Tears (1949), One
Way Street (1950), The Underworld Story (1950), and Storm Fear
(1956).
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EASTWOOD, CLINT
–E–
EASTWOOD, CLINT (1930– ). Clint Eastwood has had an important
influence on the development of neo-noir as an actor, director, and
producer, working through his own company, Malpaso, formed in
1968. In the influential Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Don Siegel,
Eastwood played tough San Francisco policeman Inspector “Dirty”
Harry Callahan, a laconic, unstable loner, barely able to contain and
control the often sadistic violence that wells up within him. The rightwing Harry believes his unorthodox methods are justified in his pursuit
of a sadistic and psychopathic killer, Scorpio—whose long hair and
peace symbol belt buckle announce his countercultural affiliations—but
the film repeatedly suggests disturbing similarities between these two
opposed figures, both damaged men separated by a thin divide. Dirty
Harry was a very influential film, but its four sequels—Magnum Force
(1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool
(1988)—were more routine thrillers.
By contrast, Tightrope (1984) also suggested unnerving similarities
between Eastwood’s New Orleans detective Wes Bloch and the serial
killer he pursues. This rich motif also informed In the Line of Fire
(1993), in which Eastwood plays another abrasive loner, veteran Federal
Bureau of Investigation agent Frank Horrigan, haunted by his failure to
prevent Kennedy’s assassination and who is tormented and targeted by
his Doppelgänger, an ex-Central Intelligence Agency now rogue hit
man Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a monster created by the same
society that produced Frank; their chase across the rooftops has echoes
of Vertigo (1958).
Somewhat different is the character Eastwood plays in three Westerns
that are noir hybrids, High Plains Drifter (1973), Pale Rider (1985), and
Unforgiven (1992), all variations of the man-with-no-name he played in
Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy (1964–66). In these films Eastwood’s
character is no longer a bounty hunter who works for money but an
inexorable, existential force, seeking a form of justice that will give
meaning to his existence and rights the wrongs that have occurred.
As a director, Eastwood has continued to explore the problems of
male identity. A Perfect World (1993), set in 1963, is the story of another damaged man, escaped convict Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner),
who befriends the boy he abducts. Mystic River (2003) was more
powerful and disturbing, a dark tale of three damaged men—Dave
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(Tim Robbins), Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), and Sean Devine (Kevin
Bacon)—childhood friends from a close-knit blue-collar Boston neighborhood. Robbins and Penn gave Oscar-winning performances, and
the film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (Brian
Helgeland), and for Eastwood as Best Director. In Grand Torino (2008),
Eastwood himself plays a dyspeptic Korean War troubled veteran who
finds a cause in protecting a young neighbor from gang violence. The
conflicts in his position, the belief in the self-reliance and inviolability
of the white American male, and yet the need to protect those who are
disadvantaged or at risk are central to Eastwood’s whole oeuvre, which
exhibits a powerful engagement with film noir.
Eastwood’s other neo-noirs are Play Misty for Me (1971), The Gauntlet
(1977), The Rookie (1990), Absolute Power (1997), True Crime (1999),
Blood Work (2002), and Changeling (2008). See also CORRUPT/
ROGUE COP; MEN.
ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL. The American film industry has been international almost from its inception, but from the 1920s a deliberate policy
of hiring European creative personnel emerged as several studios tried to
elevate their own cultural standing, improve the artistic quality of their
films, and weaken the opposition by poaching its best talent. Although
many of the early émigrés took great pains to immerse themselves
thoroughly in the American way of life and had a respect for American
democracy, they remained at least partial outsiders, able to maintain a
critical detachment from the host culture that was often sharply critical.
The Austrian Josef von Sternberg, who achieved international prominence with the German Strassenfilm Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel,
1930), starring Marlene Dietrich, had already worked in the United
States, making the influential noir precursors Underworld (1927)
and Thunderbolt (1929), which made use of expressionist lighting.
Von Sternberg went on to direct other precursors—Shanghai Express
(1932) and The Devil Is a Woman with Dietrich—and the films noir
The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Macao (1952), though the latter was
largely reshot by Nicholas Ray. The Hungarian Michael Curtiz (Mihály
Kertész), who directed in Germany before coming to Hollywood in
1926, pursued a long and successful career with Warner Bros., making
three of its films noir: Mildred Pierce (1945), The Unsuspected (1947),
and The Breaking Point (1950). The German composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was another European émigré who arrived in the 1920s
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and had a lengthy career. William Dieterle, who came to Hollywood
from Germany in 1930, directed the second version of The Maltese
Falcon—Satan Met a Lady (1935), but as a comedy-romance—and
went on to direct four noirs: The Accused (1949), Dark City (1950),
Paid in Full (1950), and The Turning Point (1952), all of which display
his expressionist heritage with low-key lighting, mobile camera movements, and bizarre angles.
The influx of German personnel intensified when Adolf Hitler came
to power in Germany in 1933, creating a major exodus of actors, cinematographers, composers, directors, scriptwriters, and set designers as
well as other creative artists, initially to Paris and then, usually, to Hollywood. The reputation of Weimar cinema and the technical expertise
of its creative personnel made them a highly desirable commodity for
Hollywood studios. Austro-German émigrés include: directors John
Brahm, Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk
(Detlef Sierck), Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Billy Wilder;
cinematographers Karl Freund, Rudolph Maté, and Franz Planer; set
designer Hans Dreier; scriptwriter Curt Siodmak; and composers Max
Steiner and Franz Waxman. Singly (especially in the case of Lang
and Siodmak) and together, these refugees from Nazism had a profound
influence over the whole development of film noir, especially in the
formative period 1940–44, through their creation of a pervasive atmosphere of doom-laden fatalism, a characteristic visual style that showed
the influence of expressionist lighting and camerawork, the deployment
of complex, time-shifting, and fractured narratives, and the depiction of
alienated protagonists.
Other émigrés who had a significant input into film noir include:
English—director Alfred Hitchcock, actor/director Ida Lupino, scriptwriter Joan Harrison, and composer Cyril Mockridge; French—
director Jean Renoir and composer Michel Michelet; Hungarian—director André De Toth, cinematographers John Alton and Ernest Laszlo,
actor Peter Lorre, and composer Miklós Rózsa; Polish—composer
Bronislau Kaper and art director Anton Grot; Russian—producer Val
Lewton, directors Boris Ingster and Anatole Litvak, art directors Alexander Golitzen and Eugène Louriè, composers Daniele Amfitheotrof,
Constantin Bakaleinikoff, and Dimitri Tiomkin.
Current émigré personnel include Roman Polanski, Christopher
Nolan, and the Hong Kong director John Woo, who continue to make
ENDFIELD, CY
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important contributions to American neo-noirs. See also BLACKLIST;
EXPRESSIONISM.
ENDFIELD, CY (1914–1995). Cy Endfield was involved in various
forms of radical left-wing theater in New York during the 1930s before moving to Hollywood in 1940 and gradually establishing himself
in the film industry as a writer and director. He adapted his first film
noir, The Argyle Secrets (1948), from his own radio play, and directed
it as well. It was a mystery thriller with a strong political edge concerning the collusions between American corporations and the Nazis in
case of a German victory in Europe. Endfield wrote several scenes for
Douglas Sirk’s only noir, Sleep, My Love (1948), before directing The
Underworld Story (1950) starring Dan Duryea as a cynical journalist
who eventually campaigns against corruption and racial prejudice in a
small southern town. The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1951),
set in postwar suburban California, depicted two contrasting troubled
veterans—played by Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy—drawn into
crime. Their misdemeanors are sensationalized by the local press, causing the pair to be lynched in a terrifying finale reminiscent of Fritz
Lang’s Fury (1936).
Poised to move into first features, Endfield’s career was completely
derailed when he was placed on the blacklist in 1951. In order to avoid
naming names, Endfield chose exile. Like Joseph Losey, he moved to
London (in 1952) and gradually rebuilt his career working in the lower
levels of the British film industry as a writer and director. He directed
two British noir “B” features The Limping Man (1953) and Impulse
(1955) under the pseudonym Charles de Latour, the latter containing
a strong performance by Arthur Kennedy as an ordinary suburbanite
whose affair with a nightclub singer tears his life apart. Endfield wrote
and directed a spy thriller, The Master Plan (1954), as Hugh Raker
before directing The Secret (1955) as C. Raker Endfield. It starred Sam
Wanamaker as a shiftless American trying to get back to New York who
becomes suspected of murder. Now more established in Great Britain,
Endfield directed two noirs starring Stanley Baker: Child in the House
(1956), in which he plays a man-on-the-run, and Hell Drivers (1957), in
which he was an ex-con who has to accept work in a corrupt and violent
haulage firm. Baker and Endfield formed a production company, Diamond Films, together and their most famous film was the historical epic
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Zulu (1963). See also BRITISH FILM NOIR; ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL;
FILM GRIS; LEFT-WING CYCLE.
ENTERPRISE PRODUCTIONS. Founded by David Loew in 1947, Enterprise Productions was an idealistic, left-liberal company that tried to
foster a communal ethos and encourage filmmakers who were critical of
the establishment. It was the home for Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul
(1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), starring John
Garfield. Garfield enjoyed Enterprise’s collectivist philosophy, which
reminded him of his time working for the Group Theater on Broadway.
However, Robert Aldrich, who was also part of the company, recalled
that Enterprise lacked a driving force at its center who could organize the
company effectively. Enterprise also produced the noir hybrid, Ramrod
(1947), a Western directed by André De Toth. Its final film was Max
Ophüls’s Caught (1949), after which the company folded through a
combination of uncertain organization, commercial pressures, and the
blacklisting of its major talents. See also LEFT-WING CYCLE.
EXISTENTIALISM. As a philosophy, existentialism emphasizes contingency and chance, a world where there are no transcendent values
or moral absolutes, one devoid of meaning except those that are selfcreated by the confused, desperate, and paranoid “non-heroic hero.” The
existential protagonist is trapped, often by mischance, in an alienating,
lonely world, usually the nighttime city, where he faces the threat of
death or recognizes the futility of existence. Film noir’s use of existentialism derived, not from the specific school of thought that developed
in wartime France, but from American hard-boiled fiction that reached
the screen toward the end of the war in Double Indemnity (1944).
Noir’s existentialism, its sense that life is absurd and meaningless, its
paranoid protagonists at the mercy of chance or fate, is neatly summed
up in The Dark Corner (1946), where private eye Bradford Galt (Mark
Stevens), framed for reasons he cannot fathom, cries in anguish to his
secretary: “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner and
don’t know who’s hitting me.” Adaptations of Cornell Woolrich, the
hard-boiled author most associated with existentialism, show paranoid
protagonists adrift in cities that are monstrous, hallucinatory, and actively malevolent. The Gangster (1947), adapted by Daniel Fuchs
from his own hard-boiled novel Low Company, reworks the figure of
the dynamic, extrovert gangster into a paranoid existentialist whose
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voice-over expresses his corrosive self-contempt and the meaninglessness of his existence where any action seems futile. The malign logic of
Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950) showed how a chance encounter can
destroy an innocent protagonist, and even the story of his own murder
becomes pointless as his case is labeled “Dead on Arrival.”
Neo-noir has been even more powerfully pervaded with existentialist ideas, derived from noir itself and from the European neo-modernist
filmmaking that emerged at the end of the 1950s in France and Italy.
Neo-modernist films were often profoundly existentialist, exhibiting
indeterminate narratives and complex, enigmatic characterization, depicting unmotivated characters adrift in ambiguous situations beyond
their comprehension that they are incapable of resolving. It influenced
a new generation of filmmakers emerging in America during the 1960s
and 1970s, such as Arthur Penn and Martin Scorsese, who both made
a number of existential noirs including Night Moves (1975) and Taxi
Driver (1976), respectively.
The existentialism of contemporary neo-noirs is often more extreme,
displaying a pervasive uncertainty about the reliability of what is being shown or told and the deceptive processes of memory, underscored
by an existential fear of meaninglessness. In Peter Medak’s Romeo Is
Bleeding (1994), the confessional flashback narrative of corrupt cop
Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) is both self-serving and deceitful as he
rearranges chronology in order to disguise or evade his own motives.
His recollections are frequently interrupted by dream sequences that
undermine his credibility as a narrator and question the whole basis of
his story. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is even more extreme,
with its reverse chronology and an amnesiac narrator desperately trying
to make sense of events. See also NARRATIVE PATTERNS.
EXPRESSIONISM. Expressionism, whose origins lay in the GothicRomantic movement in European culture, was a broadly based artistic
movement lasting approximately from 1906 to 1926 whose style and
subject matter had a major influence on film noir. Expressionism was
an attempt to express the alienation, fragmentation, and dislocation
of modern life through a focus on subjective and interior experience:
states of mind, feelings, ideas, perceptions, dreams, and visions, and
often paranoid states. Expressionist art forms created an all-embracing
stimmung (mood) and texture, dependent on a distinct visual style that
used high-contrast, chiaroscuro lighting where shafts of intense light
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FARROW, JOHN
contrast starkly with deep, black shadows. Space is fractured into an
assortment of unstable lines and surfaces, often fragmented or twisted
into odd angles, as in the first, and most famous and influential expressionist film, Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919), an enigmatic murder story. Expressionism’s
preoccupation with tormented or unbalanced psychologies is evident in
Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague), first released in 1913
but remade in expressionist style in 1926. It is the archetypal Doppelgänger story in which a student sells his mirror image to a sorcerer
who turns that image into the young man’s evil, murderous second
self. The Student of Prague showed expressionism’s concern with the
instability and fluidity of identity, and its arresting visual style found
resonant echoes in film noir. Expressionism also influenced noir’s
narrative patterns through its innovative use of displaced, decentered
narratives, nested in frame tales, split or doubled stories, voice-overs,
and flashback narration. Expressionist films often combined horror and
crime: Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows,
1923), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924), Orlacs Hände
(The Hands of Orlac, 1924), and Alraune (Unnatural, 1918, remade
in 1928, 1930, and 1952), the story of an unnaturally created woman
who becomes a vengeful femme fatale. German expressionism’s influence was widely diffused across American culture, but in Hollywood
it was disseminated principally through the work of émigré personnel
(including Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak), who assimilated their
expressionist heritage into the dark visions of film noir. See also GERMAN FILM NOIR; NARRATIVE PATTERNS; POETIC REALISM;
VISUAL STYLE; WELLES, ORSON.
–F–
FARROW, JOHN (1904–1963). After an early career as a screenwriter,
the Australian-born John Farrow began directing with the crime film
Men in Exile (1937). Farrow adapted himself to his material rather
than imposing a particular “signature,” but his noirs exhibit certain
distinctive characteristics, notably his preference for long takes with
the camera moving fluidly around particular scenes and spaces. This is
evident in Calcutta (1947) starring Alan Ladd, but it is used to great
effect in Farrow’s most accomplished noir, The Big Clock (1948),
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adapted by Jonathan Latimer in the first of his four films with Farrow. In this tense cat-and-mouse thriller, Farrow shows a subtle grasp
of expressionist techniques, using low-angle shots, “choker” close-ups,
and deep, foreboding shadows that increase the dramatic tension. Night
Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) was an imaginative adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story, Farrow’s direction rooting this terrifying fantasy
in a believable context. Alias Nick Beal (1949), another dark fantasy in
which the fabular mingles with the everyday, has the same qualities.
Farrow moved to RKO, directing the underrated Where Danger Lives
(1950), in which Robert Mitchum is the victim of Faith Domergue’s
deranged femme fatale. His Kind of Woman (1951), starring Mitchum
and Jane Russell, was more routine. Farrow’s last noir was the seldom
seen Technicolor The Unholy Wife (1957), in which Diana Dors plays
Phyllis, a siren sheathed in a tight-fitting, flame-red dress lurking amidst
the deep shadows of the mansion of her vintner husband Paul (Rod Steiger), whom she is trying to murder in order to be with her lover. Here
the influence of Farrow’s Catholicism comes through strongly as Phyllis
finds true repentance. See also VISUAL STYLE.
FERRARA, ABEL (1951– ). Born in the Bronx, the Italian-American
Abel Ferrara is a highly controversial director best known for his visceral horror films, including the notorious Driller Killer (1979). Ferrara
has made a significant contribution to neo-noir, his demanding and
violent films often written by long-term collaborator Nicholas St. John.
In the innovative horror-thriller Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance, 1981),
a mute seamstress (Zoë Tamerlis), twice raped, uses the gun obtained
by killing her second assailant to attack men at night, combining the revenger with the wronged woman. Fear City (1984) dealt with the same
difficult subject matter, but its main protagonist was male. Matt Rossi
(Tom Berenger), the boss of an agency supplying strippers, combines
with his bitter rival (Jack Scalia) to hunt down a serial killer preying on
strippers who threatens his ex-lover (Melanie Griffith). Ferrara directed
two episodes of the seminal noir television series Miami Vice in 1985,
and he was rehired by Michael Mann to direct the feature-length pilot
for Crime Story in 1986. Ferrara’s next neo-noir, Cat Chaser (1989), is
an underrated film, its victim-hero (Peter Weller), a troubled Vietnam
veteran now owner of a small hotel in Miami, caught up in a whirl of
events in which he is out of his depth. King of New York (1990) is better known and more characteristic of Ferrara’s abiding themes. It stars
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Christopher Walken as newly released drug baron Frank White, who
decides to kill his competitors in order to fund a hospital in South Bronx
but whose violent philanthropy is compromised by the obsessive pursuit
of a corrupt cop (Victor Argo). This latter figure assumes epic proportions in the grueling Bad Lieutenant (1992), Ferrara’s best film, in
which Harvey Keitel gives an astonishing performance as an unnamed
New York police lieutenant on a spiraling descent into gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the sexual abuse of young women but who
desperately searches for some form of redemption.
Ferrara’s other films noir are Body Snatchers (1993), The Funeral
(1996), and ’R Xmas (2001).
FILM GRIS. Film gris (gray film) was a term coined by critic Thom
Andersen in his influential 1985 essay “Red Hollywood” to group
together a distinctive cycle of films released between 1947 and 1951
made by a number of left-wing dissidents—including Jules Dassin,
Cy Endfield, John Huston, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky,
Nicholas Ray, and Robert Rossen—many of whom were subsequently blacklisted. Andersen distinguished film gris from other films
noir because of their drab and depressing social realism that was more
naturalistically photographed than the high-contrast chiaroscuro that
characterized the majority of films noir in this period. The emphasis
in film gris falls not on individual problems but on the inequalities of
capitalism, on its class divisions and rampant materialism, using crime
as a social critique. Film gris often showed the blurred boundaries
between “enterprise” and criminality, including the figure of the corrupt cop, and on the fraudulence of supposedly legitimate society and
the failings of the legal system to protect its citizens. Films gris have
a pervasive sense of guilt and paranoia, their grim stories depicting a
brutal and violent society.
The films usually included in this category are The Asphalt Jungle
(1950), Body and Soul (1947), The Breaking Point (1950), Brute Force
(1947), Force of Evil (1948), He Ran All the Way (1951), Knock on
Any Door (1949), The Lawless (1950), Night and the City (1950), The
Prowler (1951), Quicksand (1950), Road House (1948), Shakedown
(1950), Thieves’ Highway (1949), They Live by Night (1948), The Sound
of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1951), The Underworld Story (1950), and
We Were Strangers (1949). See also LEFT-WING CYCLE.
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FINNISH FILM NOIR. As with other Scandinavian countries, Finland
has produced, intermittently, powerful noirs that exhibit an assured
mastery of the form. The first was Varastettu kuolema (Stolen Death,
1938), set in Helsinki in 1918, a tale of dark alleyways, corruption, and
mentally disturbed protagonists. Tulipunainen kyyhkynen (The Scarlet
Dove, 1961), also set in Helsinki and also shot in black-and-white,
was the story of a middle-aged doctor who, after witnessing his wife’s
infidelity, wanders the nocturnal streets only to return and become the
prime suspect for her murder. Producer-writer-director Aki Kaurismäki
has made a loose neo-noir trilogy beginning with I Hired a Contract
Killer (1990), set in a decaying, bilious-looking East London. It stars
Jean-Pierre Léaud as a depressed Everyman who hires a hit man to
kill him but, having fallen in love, tries to cancel the contract. In Mies
vailla menneisyyttä (The Man without a Past, 2002), a drifter arriving in Helsinki is beaten up so severely that he develops amnesia and
has to begin his life again from scratch. Laitakaupungin valot (Lights
in the Dusk, 2006) depicts a lonely night watchman who is exploited
by a femme fatale to become the fall guy for a jewel robbery. In each
film, Kaurismäki’s slow-moving direction and spare dialogue create a
bleak, curiously sterile world where everyone is exploited but that also
contains love, loyalty, and hope. See also DANISH FILM NOIR; NORWEGIAN FILM NOIR.
FIORENTINO, LINDA (1958– ). Dark, husky-voiced, and seductive,
Linda Fiorentino had an Italian-American Catholic background, gaining her first professional acting role in 1985 and appearing in Martin
Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). Fiorentino attained stardom in 1994
through her performance as the predatory femme fatale Bridget Gregory in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994). Unfortunately, because
it premiered on Home Box Office television, Fiorentino was ineligible
for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress despite glowing
reviews. She played another erotic seductress in William Friedkin’s
Jade (1995), but she was wasted in Dahl’s Unforgettable (1996) in the
dull role of Dr. Martha Briggs, a research chemist. In Liberty Stands
Still (2002) she played another successful, professional woman who
becomes the target of a hit man (Wesley Snipes). But this film also
failed to recapture the impact of The Last Seduction. See also NEONOIR; WOMEN.
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FISHER, STEVE
FISHER, STEVE (1912–1980). Hard-boiled novelist and screenwriter
Steve Fisher made a significant contribution to the development of
film noir, specializing in complex narratives with dream sequences and
the skillful use of dialogue. He wrote the novel on which I Wake Up
Screaming (1941) and its remake Vicki (1953) were based, a dark tale
of victimization, exploitation, deviant sexuality, obsessive desire, and a
corrupt cop. Fisher went on to script or coscript 13 noirs, most of which
are above average. His adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in
the Lake (1947), while retaining much of Chandler’s sardonic dialogue,
tells the entire story in the first person, with the camera serving as the
eyes of Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, who also directed). Fisher
adapted Dead Reckoning (1947) from an unpublished story, his screenplay moving deftly through a complex story of corruption, betrayal, and
doomed love.
His adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel, I Wouldn’t Be in Your
Shoes (1948), another tale of a male victim and a corrupt cop, was
equally assured. Roadblock (1951) was a conventional action thriller
about a hold-up that goes badly wrong, but Fisher’s screenplay maintains the tension throughout and creates well-rounded characters, the
corrupt insurance investigator and his avaricious girlfriend, played with
great effect by Charles McGraw and Joan Dixon. City That Never
Sleeps (1953) was a powerful original screenplay that relied on location
shooting in Chicago in the semidocumentary mode, but it also evoked
a strong degree of pathos and compassion for the characters. After
the underrated I, Mobster (1958), Fisher moved into noir television
series, writing episodes for many crime series, including Peter Gunn
(1959–61).
Fisher’s other films noir are Johnny Angel (1945), The Lost Hours
(GB 1952), Thirty-Six Hours (GB 1953, U.S. title Terror Street), Betrayed Women (1955), The Big Tip Off (1955), The Toughest Man Alive
(1955), and Las Vegas Shakedown (1955).
FLEMING, RHONDA (1923– ). A beautiful redhead best remembered
for her Technicolor roles in costume epics and westerns, Fleming played
scheming femme fatales in Out of the Past (1947) and Cry Danger
(1951), and an ambitious, manipulative gold digger in Fritz Lang’s
While the City Sleeps (1956). She was less distinctive as one of the
victims in The Spiral Staircase (1946), the beleaguered wife in The
FORCE OF EVIL
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Killer Is Loose (1956), or as the foil to her neurotic, unpredictable sister
(Arlene Dahl) in Slightly Scarlet (1956).
FORCE OF EVIL (1948). Force of Evil was one of the most moving
and memorable of the socially conscious left-wing cycle of films noir
before the blacklist took its toll. It was directed by Abraham Polonsky, who collaborated on the screenplay with Ira Wolfert, the author
of Tucker’s People, on which the film is based. Force of Evil’s indictment of organized crime masquerading as enlightened “enterprise” is
focused through the contradictions in the character of Joe Morse (John
Garfield), a successful gambling syndicate lawyer who owes his career to the sacrifices of his elder brother Leo (Thomas Gomez). Trying
to persuade Leo to join the “corporation” that he is setting up with Ben
Tucker (Roy Roberts), Joe triggers a chain of events that causes Leo’s
death and destroys his company. Joe is the archetypal divided noir
antihero, whose story is a dark version of the American success ethic.
In his desperate desire to escape the slums of Lower East Side New
York where he was raised and in which Leo still has his business, Joe
passes off racketeering as professional business ethics, the legitimate
desire to succeed: “To reach out and take something—that’s human,
that’s natural.”
Force of Evil’s dialogue and Joe’s voice-over narration is consciously
and distinctively stylized with a poetic timbre and cadence that Polonsky hoped would “play an equal role with the actor and the visual image
and not run alongside as an illustration.” It was complemented by cinematographer George Barnes’s naturalistic lighting and assistant director Robert Aldrich’s extensive location shooting, both of which give
the raw, “unpolished” look that Polonsky wanted. Force of Evil reaches
a memorable climax, in which Joe leaves his plush Wall Street office to
walk across an eerily deserted Manhattan and to descend the steps onto
the rocks beneath George Washington Bridge, where his brother’s body
has been dumped: “It was like going to the bottom of the world to find
my brother. I turned back to give myself up because if a man’s life can
be lived so long and come out this way, like rubbish, then something
had to be ended one way or the other, and I decided to help.” Joe’s reformation and commitment to fighting corporate greed is emphasized by
David Raksin’s sonorous score, which gives an upbeat mood to what
would otherwise be an almost unbearably bleak and desolate ending. Joe
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is supported by Doris (Beatrice Pearson), Leo’s secretary with whom he
has fallen in love, the antithesis of Tucker’s wife (Marie Windsor), the
femme fatale who tried to seduce him. See also LANGUAGE; MEN.
FORD, GLENN (1916–2006). Glenn Ford’s first film noir role, in
Gilda (1946), was atypical, playing a drifter caught in a destructive
ménage-a-trois in postwar Buenos Aires. He was again teamed with
Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad (1952), a lackluster imitation of
Gilda. Ford’s real metier was gruff ordinariness, the decent man tested
by circumstances, as in A Stolen Life (1946) and Framed (1947). In the
first he was the harassed husband of a ruthless social climber (Bette Davis); in the latter he played an honest but unemployed mining engineer,
seduced by a femme fatale (Janis Carter) as part of an embezzlement
scheme. He had a similar role in Convicted (1950) as an innocent man
convicted of murder who battles to prove his innocence. In Joseph H.
Lewis’s The Undercover Man (1949), he portrayed an indomitable U.S.
Treasury Department agent on the trail of the shadowy “big fellow.” In
Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) that indomitability is subjected to
severe emotional and moral testing as Ford’s Detective Dave Bannion,
upright cop and family man, is sucked into a vicious world of corruption and violence when his wife is killed in a car bomb meant for him.
Only gradually does he come to regain his humanity in what was a moving and finely judged performance. In Human Desire (1954), Lang’s
remake of Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938),
Ford was again the decent man caught in a web of corruption, capable
of an affair with his boss’s wife (Gloria Grahame) but not prepared
to murder her husband. He played another decent guy under pressure,
a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, in Blake Edwards’s neglected
late noir Experiment in Terror (1962). See also MEN.
FRANKENHEIMER, JOHN (1930–2002). Director John Frankenheimer made an important contribution to the development of neo-noir
through his distinctive action thrillers that show a pervasive alienation.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) are
noir hybrids, political thrillers depicting disaffected troubled veterans. Seconds (1966), the third part of Frankenheimer’s “paranoia trilogy,” explores the doomed attempt of an alienated businessman (Rock
Hudson) to escape his moribund life. All three films were too bleak
and disturbing on their initial release to be box-office successes but
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subsequently have established high reputations. I Walk the Line (1970)
and 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974) were less successful, but French Connection II (1975) was sharply realized, focusing on the alienation of its
tough cop hero “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) adrift in a foreign
city (Marseilles). Black Sunday (1977) also focuses on the alienated
protagonist (Bruce Dern), another troubled veteran who colludes with
the Palestinian terrorist group Black September to launch an attack on
the Super Bowl.
Frankenheimer’s later political thrillers, The Holcroft Covenant
(1985), The Fourth War (1990), and Year of the Gun (1991), also have
noir elements, but these are stronger in the crime thrillers 52 Pick-Up
(1986), based on the Elmore Leonard novel, and Dead-Bang (1989).
Ronin (1998), influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and scripted by David Mamet, again focuses on disaffected outsiders, a group of former
special forces or intelligence agents now ronin—the Japanese term for
samurais who have no master and whose actions are mercenary, not
honorable—led by Robert De Niro. Reindeer Games (aka Deception,
2000), Frankenheimer’s last theatrically released film, was a classic noir
story focusing on the victim-hero (Ben Affleck) set up by his former cell
mate and the duplicitous femme fatale (Charlize Theron).
FRENCH FILM NOIR. French film noir has its roots in the broad corpus
of French crime fiction that extends back to the mid-19th century. The
most important author was Georges Simenon, whose dark, morally ambiguous stories, set in drab, everyday surroundings, deal with characters
whose lives are wrecked by crime. The three Simenon adaptations released in 1932—Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads), Julien Duvivier’s La Tête d’un homme (A Man’s Neck), and Jean
Tarride’s Le Chien jaune (The Yellow Dog)—constitute the beginning of
French film noir, though preceded by Renoir’s La Chienne (The Bitch) in
1931. French noir’s key characteristic is a concentration on atmosphere,
character, and place rather than action, as exemplified in prewar poetic
realism, whose films, including Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows,
1938) and Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939), were often more pessimistic and fatalistic than film noir. French film noir is thus darker than its
American counterpart with a greater moral ambiguity, as exemplified by
Jean Gabin’s doomed gangster in Pépé le Moko (1937).
War interrupted this development, but Henri Decoin’s adaptation of
Simenon’s Les Inconnus dans la maison (Strangers in the House, 1942)
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and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), dark dramas of corruption, suspicion, and morbid sexuality, were made during
this period. Postwar French noirs were even bleaker, retaining the quotidian realism and fatalism of the prewar films but without the “poetry,”
in films marked by a strong sense of disillusionment in the aftermath of
the war and the Nazi Occupation (the années noires) when American
films were banned. Les Portes de la nuit (The Gates of the Night, 1946),
Quai des orfèvres (Jenny Lamour, 1947), Une si jolie petite plage
(Riptide, 1949), and Manèges (The Cheat, 1949) are representative examples, all with seedy or sordid settings, oppressive atmospheres, and
venal characters obsessed with money and sexuality.
French noir of the 1950s, as did British film noir, showed a greater
American influence, often via Série Noire. A popular series of gangster
thrillers featured the American actor Eddie Constantine as “Lemmy
Caution,” the tough, hard-drinking, and womanizing Federal Bureau
of Investigation agent created by Peter Cheyney, including La Môme
vert-de-gris (Poison Ivy, 1953). More distinctively French, but equally
stylized, were Touchez pas au grisbi (Honor Among Thieves, 1954),
Razzia sur la chnouf (Razzia, 1955), Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi,
1955), Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler, 1956), and Le Rouge est mis
(Speaking of Murder, 1957). These gangster films depict an affluent society of conspicuous consumption, hybrid music that blends American
jazz with French melodies and instruments, and a masculine world of
professional criminals. However, the principal figure is the aging, tired
gangster, anxious to retire, as with Gabin in Grisbi. The visual style
was more mobile than in the prewar predecessors, moving around the
nightime city with its glistening cobblestones, dark streets, and threatening alleyways.
The French New Wave directors, notably Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc
Godard, and François Truffaut, admired American cinema, especially
the “B” feature noirs, which they appropriated in very different ways
as part of their modernist concern with the alienated rebel adrift in an
absurd world and which, in turn, profoundly influenced American neonoir. Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960),
and Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), with a screenplay
by Truffaut, were seminal. In the latter, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel
Poiccard is both a charismatic, cynical petty crook and a modernist
antihero in a film that creates a dark, existential vision, despite being
shot in broad daylight. It is packed with allusions to and borrowings
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from American noir, including the famous scene where Michel reverentially imitates Humphrey Bogart while gazing at a poster of The
Harder They Fall (1956). Jean-Pierre Melville’s use of American noir
(1956–72) was deeper and more extended, and his films display a characteristically French self-reflexivity and stylistic self-consciousness in
their melding of the two cultures.
French neo-noir was also indebted to crime literature, mostly to new
developments that occurred in the wake of the uprisings and political
protests in May 1968 that showed a more explicit concern with social
and political issues. It was more directly genre-based, essentially a
series of developments of the polar (police thriller) and the political
thriller, and with a clear, if complex, relationship to American neo-noir.
As in the United States and in Italy, political thrillers are more characteristic of the 1970s. Made from a left-wing perspective, they were the
product of the questioning of state power and legitimacy triggered by
the events of May 1968. Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), starring
Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant, was set in Greece and tells
the story of a right-wing cover-up of the murder of a liberal politician;
L’Aveu (The Confession, 1970) had similar concerns. État de siege
(State of Siege, 1973), starring Montand, depicted the struggle between
the U.S.-backed Uruguay government and the Tupamaro guerrillas,
while Yves Boisset’s L’Attentat (Plot, 1972) recounts the kidnapping
and probable murder of a dissident Moroccan, Ben Barka, in 1965, by
French policemen working for the Moroccan police chief. Although
influenced by the American thriller, L’Attentat remains very French,
its roots in poetic realism; its disaffected, lonely, and doomed hero
(Trintignant) recalls Gabin. Chabrol’s Nada (The Nada Gang, 1974)
explores the morality of terrorism through the actions of a group that
kidnaps the American ambassador.
Boisset also directed the polar Un condé (Blood on My Hands,
1970), which depicts a corrupt cop who ignores the rules to avenge
his colleague. In Max et les ferrailleurs (Max and the Junkmen, 1971),
a frustrated cop sets up a robbery in order to catch the criminals who
have eluded him for so long. Deux hommes dans la ville (Two Men in
Town, 1973) depicts police harassment, Dernier domicile connu (Last
Known Address, 1970), police impotence. Police Python 357 (The Case
Against Ferro, 1976) combines the two strands in its complex story of
a policeman, Ferrot (Montand), investigating the murder of his mistress. She was also the mistress of his superior who murdered her, and
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he engineers the investigation so that Ferrot can appear to be the main
suspect. The helpless individual, corrupt institutions, conspiracy, and
paranoia come together in this absorbing police thriller.
In the 1980s the old-style French policeman metamorphosed into
an American-style cop. Bob Swaim’s La Balance (The Nark, 1982),
although set in a carefully depicted Parisian underworld and with a
doomed love affair that evoked poetic realism, had the fast-paced narrative and explosive action that typified the American crime thriller.
The highly artificial style of the cinéma du look thrillers made by JeanJacques Beineix: Diva (1981), La Lune dans le caniveau (The Moon
in the Gutter, 1983); Luc Besson: Subway (1985); and Léos Carax:
Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood, 1986), retained familiar Parisian landmarks
and echoes of poetic realism but appropriated the visual conventions
of classic American noir, although with a postmodern playfulness. La
Lune dans le caniveau, adapted from a David Goodis novel, makes no
attempt to depict a realistic setting but evokes an oneric atmosphere of
paranoia and betrayal that reached back to the French surrealists.
In the 1990s there was also a return to social issues, as in L.627
(1992), Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall, 1994), La
Haine (Hate, 1995), Assassin(s) (1997), and La Vie rêvée des anges
(The Dreamlife of Angels, 1998), which also emphasized marginality,
alienation, and racial issues in an increasingly fractured society. These
films were often set in dreary suburbs or impoverished areas of Paris, as
exemplified by La Haine’s story of three young men from different ethnic minorities whose antisocial behavior stems from police violence.
A number of tendencies can be identified postmillenium, including
a revival of the classic polar, as in Feux rouges (Red Lights, 2004), 36
Quai des Orfèvres (2004), and Le Petit lieutenant (The Young Lieutenant, 2005), and films noir that explore social issues, including Sur mes
lèvres (Read My Lips, 2001) about a petty hoodlum on the margins of
society, and Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The
Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005). The latter, a reworking of the 1978
American neo-noir Fingers, centers on the deeply conflicted impulses
of Romain Duris’s Jacques, torn between following in his mother’s
footsteps as a classical pianist or in his father’s as an exploitative
semicriminal making his money from real estate deals. These dishonest deals take him to the marginal areas of Paris among the ethnic
down-and-outs in derelict buildings and into a violent conflict with the
Russian mafia, now the ubiquitous face of organized villainy. A third
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tendency, as exemplified by Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden, 2005),
taps into contemporary anxieties about surveillance, celebrity, and the
price of affluence. Here a literary talk-show host (Daniel Auteuil) is sent
mysterious videos filmed outside his house triggering a web of paranoia,
guilt, and betrayal that envelops his life and family.
There was also an intermittent strain of “blacker” French neo-noirs,
which unsettle the spectator in their stark portrayals of a dystopian society (a strong continuity with the earlier French noirs) permeated with a
sense of tragic inevitability, fatalism, and entrapment and populated by
dysfunctional males. Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979) shows the influence of American noir—it was based on Jim Thompson’s A Hell of
a Woman—but the action was relocated to dismal, nondescript Parisian
suburbs, and the characters are recognizably French. More recently this
has evolved into “hyper-noir”—L’Humanité (Humanity, 1999), Seul
contre tous (I Stand Alone, 1998), Sombre (1998), Romance (1999),
Baise-moi (Kiss Me, 2000), and Irréversible (2002)—that focuses on the
abject and tormented body in films that are complex hybrids, visceral
and disorientating adult fairy tales that show the influence of American
independent cinema and David Lynch. Baise-moi, with two porn actresses (Raffaëla Anderson and Karen Bach) as its leads and shot on a
tiny budget in grainy digital video, was almost a punk version of Thelma
and Louise (1991), telling the story of two women, one who is raped
and the other whose friend has been shot dead, who meet by chance
and go on an indiscriminate killing spree. It was also a challenge to the
relentlessly masculinist orientation of French noir.
FREUDIANISM. Film noir’s depiction of a wide variety of disturbed
mental states is one of its most marked features, distinguishing it from
earlier crime fiction. As with existentialism, film noir’s use of Freudian motifs and terminology—which had begun to enter into American
consciousness during the interwar period and was popularized during
the war—does not represent a detached and in-depth understanding
of psychoanalysis per se, but rather an acute sense of its potential to
dramatize characters’ repressed or hidden sexual longings, irrational
motivations, and murderous impulses, where violence and desire are
often disturbingly conjoined. This process is shown graphically in the
early noir This Gun for Hire (1942) in which the disturbed killer Raven
(Alan Ladd), physically maimed and psychologically crippled by childhood abuse, yearns for a psychoanalytical cure: “Every night I dream. I
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read somewhere about a kind of a doctor, a psych-something. You tell
your dream. You don’t have to dream it any more.”
Several early noirs, including The Seventh Veil (GB 1945), Spellbound (1945), The Dark Mirror (1946), Possessed (1947), and The
Snake Pit (1948), also explicitly feature psychoanalysts. In Fritz Lang’s
The Woman in the Window (1945), the protagonist lectures on Freud. In
Rudolph Maté’s The Dark Past (1948), escaped killer Al Walker (William Holden) suffers from the childhood trauma of witnessing the death
of his father, gunned down by the police. Dr. Andrew Collins (Lee J.
Cobb), the avuncular police psychiatrist Al is holding hostage, gradually unravels the causes of Al’s psychotic behavior through interpreting
his recurring dream.
Many Gothic noirs, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)
and Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), exploit Freudian
motifs. Other contemporary romance-thrillers use a psychoanalytical
framework. Leave Her to Heaven (1946) traces the neurotic violence
of its central protagonist (Gene Tierney) to its roots in her obsessive
devotion to her father, an incestuous longing that has left her psychologically crippled. John Brahm’s The Locket (1947) uses a complex
series of flashbacks within flashbacks to reveal the childhood origins of
the mental instability of Nancy Blair (Laraine Day) who collapses on
the day of her wedding.
As with existentialism, Freudianism became part of the fabric of film
noir as shown in its preoccupation with fantasies, dream states, schizophrenia, concealment, unconscious and repressed desires, and warped
sexuality. Although noir’s concern with individual pathology became
less important as the cycle moved into an exploration of more social
themes in the 1950s, there were powerful exceptions. The Big Combo
(1955), whose ostensible subject is criminal corporations, is deeply
imbued with a psychopathology that unites criminal and policeman.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was one of the most profound of noir’s
exploration of psychosexual dislocation. Neo-noir takes a concern with
disturbed mental states as a given, and there are numerous examples,
including The Killer Inside Me (1976), Blue Velvet (1986), Unforgettable (1996), and Memento (2000).
FUCHS, DANIEL (1909–1993). Born in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in New York City, Daniel Fuchs established a reputation in the
1930s as a writer whose work expressed a strong left-liberal concern
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with social issues but which emphasized acceptance and resignation. In
1940 MGM bought the rights to one of his stories and hired Fuchs to
work on it. Although a film was never produced, Fuchs spent the next
30 years of his life writing screenplays, beginning with The Big Shot
(1942), a routine Humphrey Bogart gangster film, and an uncredited
contribution to the early noir Background to Danger (1943). Fuchs
adapted The Gangster (1947) from his own hard-boiled novel Low
Company (1937), an important reworking of the gangster figure into a
tragic existentialist. Its setting, Neptune Beach, is a grim wasteland of
vice, corruption, and murder, the action taking place over 48 hours as
an organized gang close in to get rid of a small-time crook, Shubunka.
Fuchs altered his novel so that Shubunka, played by Barry Sullivan, is
a more attractive figure, and his empty, meaningless life is the central
focus of the film’s disillusionment.
Fuchs’s screenplay for Hollow Triumph (1948), adapted from a Murray Forbes novel, was a well crafted if routine story of a confidence man
who outsmarts himself, but he worked more creatively on Criss Cross
(1949), collaborating with director Robert Siodmak to refashion Don
Tracy’s very ordinary pulp novel into a complex and moving story with
a bitterly ironic climax. His final noirs were Panic in the Streets (1950),
a semidocumentary set in New Orleans, directed by Elia Kazan, and
the melodramatic Storm Warning (1951), about the Ku Klux Klan. See
also EXISTENTIALISM; LEFT-WING CYCLE.
FULLER, SAMUEL (1911–1997). An experienced ex-crime reporter for
the New York Graphic, Samuel Fuller’s films noir, nearly all of which
he wrote or cowrote, are informed by a raw energy and broad-brush pulp
sensibility that make them among the most distinctive in the classical
period that he “extended” into the early 1960s. Fuller’s films are full of
violent confrontations but are also pervaded by a sense of moral ambiguity in the choices his divided characters are forced to make.
Fuller started working in the film industry as a writer (from 1936)
and cowrote, with Helen Deutsch, Shockproof (1949), in which a parole
officer (Cornel Wilde) is sucked into a life of crime by a femme fatale
(Patricia Knight). Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952) was adapted
from Fuller’s novel The Dark Page. Fuller became a director in 1949,
and, like Edgar G. Ulmer, made a conscious decision to work in lowbudget second features in order to exploit the relative freedom they offered, acting as his own producer from 1959 onward. Pickup on South
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Street (1953), a Cold War thriller, has a characteristic focus on alienated, socially marginal characters—a pickpocket (Richard Widmark),
a prostitute (Jean Peters), and an informer (Thelma Ritter)—who
discover their underlying patriotism. Fuller’s innovative camerawork,
mixing long takes, intense close-ups, and off-angle compositions with
more conventional tracking shots creates an unstable, restless world,
and the waterfront settings, subways, and shabby rooms of New York’s
outcasts are vividly realized.
House of Bamboo (1955), photographed in color CinemaScope by Joe
MacDonald, focused on another group of outsiders, a criminal ring of
disgraced soldiers operating in Tokyo after the war, organized by Sandy
Dawson (Robert Ryan). Fuller’s story about the infiltration of the gang
by an army agent (Robert Stack) is based on the critical premise that the
American occupation of Japan was a criminal enterprise. The Crimson
Kimono (1959) also explores interracial relationships and rivalries in
its story of two detectives, Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe
Kojaku (James Shigeta), best friends who fought together in Korea but
who become rivals for Christine (Victoria Shaw), an artist whom they
meet on a murder investigation. Underworld U.S.A. (1961) was another
story of infiltration, but this time the undercover man is a criminal,
Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson), out to gain revenge on the gang who
murdered his father.
In Shock Corridor (1963), a journalist (Peter Breck) is the man undercover, spending time in a mental hospital to find out who committed
a murder that has been covered up. He is subjected to violent attacks by
other patients and electric shock treatment by the hospital authorities
until he begins to lose his sanity. The Naked Kiss (1964) was equally
powerful, the shocking tale of a reformed prostitute (Constance Towers), another of Fuller’s anarchic misfits, who works with handicapped
children in a small town only to discover that the wealthy intellectual
whom she was about to marry is a paedophile. She batters him to death
with a telephone receiver, disgusted that he thinks they share comparable “perversions.”
Fuller also made one neo-noir, Street of No Return (1989), a coproduction filmed in Portugal and adapted from the David Goodis novel.
Here too, Fuller focuses on an outcast, a haunted-looking derelict, Michael (Keith Carradine), who reveals in an extended flashback how his
career as a rock musician was ended when a gangster, Eddie, cut his
vocal chords. Fuller’s jump cuts, extreme camera movements, and elliptical editing effectively create a nightmare world.
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–G–
GABIN, JEAN (1904–1976). Jean Gabin was the dominant prewar French
male star who created a new type of hero that was notably different from
his American counterparts, a complex, ambivalent, modern Everyman,
combining toughness with vulnerability. Gabin’s decent ordinary Joe is
also an outsider whose life becomes intertwined with sorrow and crime,
whose love affairs are doomed and who always dies, making his character darker than its film noir successors. However, like the noir antihero,
his past is constantly alluded to, but never fully revealed. Gabin played
variations of this figure in a succession of films: Les Bas-fonds (The
Lower Depths, 1936), Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), La
Bête humaine (Judas Was a Woman aka The Human Beast, 1938), Le
Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939), and Remorques (Stormy Waters, 1940).
Gabin’s style is minimalist, making each small gesture and expression
significant, but although his characters are generally introspective, each
film contains a trademark scene in which Gabin’s suppressed anger explodes. In his gangster film, Pépé le Moko (1937), Gabin’s character is
more swaggering and charismatic but equally doomed.
After fleeing during the Occupation, Gabin did not regain popular
stardom until the success of Touchez pas au Grisbi (Grisbi aka Honor
Among Thieves, 1954). Gabin’s aging gangster Max incarnates his
postwar archetype: the declining patriarch who nevertheless maintains
old-style decency in a changed world of affluence and conspicuous
consumption. Gabin played this role in Razzia sur la chnouf (Chnouf:
To Take It Is Deadly, 1955), Le Rouge est mis (Speaking of Murder,
1957), Le Désordre et la nuit (Night Affair, 1958), Le Cave se rebiffe
(The Counterfeiters, 1961), Mélodie en sous-sol (Any Number Can Win,
1963), Du rififi à Paname (Rififi in Paris aka The Upper Hand, 1966),
and Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). His performance
style continued to be minimal, rarely moving except to deliver the magisterial slap that would humiliate his adversary.
Gabin’s other noirs are La Belle équipe (They Were Five, 1936), Voici
le temps des assassins (Deadlier Than the Male, 1956), and Deux hommes dans la ville (Two Men in Town, 1973). See also DELON, ALAIN;
FRENCH FILM NOIR; POETIC REALISM; PORTMAN, ERIC.
GANGSTER NOIRS. After hard-boiled fiction, the strong tradition of
gangster narratives (in print and on film) was the most important vernacular influence on film noir. In addition to its focus on crime and the
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underworld, the gangster film was centrally concerned with violence
and the struggle for money and power seen as the essential constituents
of modern American urban living. The gangster was another folk hero
whose life exhibited the contradictions of American capitalism, the
price of being a successful, competitive individualist. The three seminal
gangster films—Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and
Scarface (1932)—depicted the gangster as the modern entrepreneur,
from a deprived and/or ethnic background whose toughness, quick wit,
and energy allow him to succeed. However, several noir precursors,
including Quick Millions (1931) and Blood Money (1933), that depicted
the gangster emphasized corruption and betrayal as central themes, anticipating film noir’s typically unheroic presentation of the gangster.
The key transitional film was High Sierra (1941), in which Humphrey Bogart’s tough gangster-on-the-run, Roy Earle, was presented
as a vulnerable, insecure figure wracked by self-doubt. James Cagney,
the star of The Public Enemy, made two gangster noirs, White Heat
(1949) and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), in which the gangster’s
dynamism has become psychotic. Edward G. Robinson’s gangsters
in Key Largo (1948) and Black Tuesday (1954) were deliberate throwbacks to his performance in Little Caesar, but the films’ trajectory is
much more downbeat. Mickey Rooney’s histrionic performance as the
1930s gangster Baby Face Nelson (1957), while retaining the figure’s
astounding energy, also emphasizes his instability, mental anguish, and
psychopathology. The Gangster (1947), in which Daniel Fuchs adapted
his own prewar novel, re-created the gangster as a paranoid existentialist
who believes that any action might be futile. In The Big Combo (1955),
the gangster (Richard Conte) has become part of the sinister, shadowy
corporations that were thought to dominate crime in America, but he
too is corrupt and sadistic, enjoying inflicting pain and humiliation on
his victims.
Noir, in turn, influenced the development of gangster films, including Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Francis Ford
Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (1972/1974/1990). Several neo-noirs
have returned to the figure, notably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas
(1990), which has a voice-over and flashbacks, Casino (1995), Gangs
of New York (2002), and The Departed (2006). Other influential neonoir gangster films include the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing
(1990), Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition (2002), and Ridley Scott’s
American Gangster (2007).
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Other gangster noirs include: Johnny Eager (1942), Her Kind of
Man (1946), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Black Hand (1950), Highway 301
(1950), 711 Ocean Drive (1950), The Racket (1951), The System (1953),
City of Shadows (1955), I Died a Thousand Times (1955), The Naked
Street (1955), Tight Spot (1955), The Houston Story (1956), Party Girl
(1958), and The Trap (1959).
GARDNER, AVA (1922–1990). Like Jane Greer, Ava Gardner’s reputation as an iconic femme fatale is based on one outstanding performance:
as Kitty Collins in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). Gardner’s
spider woman has a dreamlike sensuality, raven-haired, curvaceous, and
full-mouthed, first glimpsed by her victim (Burt Lancaster) singing
“The More I Know of Love” in a nightclub. Even during the mundanities
of planning a robbery, she reclines suggestively on a bed, and the proliferation of mirror shots connotes her narcissism and duplicity. Other noirs
failed to offer her such a substantial role. In Whistle Stop (1946), she
played the good-bad girl opposite George Raft in a film that depicted
the claustrophobia of small-town life. In Singapore (1947) she played
the amnesiac wife of returning veteran Matt (Fred MacMurray). Her
character has remarried another man in ignorance. Gardner was more effective in The Bribe (1949) as another corrupt siren with whom a federal
agent (Robert Taylor) becomes romantically involved.
GARFIELD, JOHN (1913–1952). The son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, John Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East
Side of New York City, and he worked for the left-wing Group Theater
in New York before gaining a contract with Warner Bros. He became
an important star, acting in a number of seminal films noir before the
blacklist helped hasten his premature death. Garfield played a succession of tough, battling working-class loners, struggling to make their
way in an unsympathetic world, often unsuccessfully. His subdued
style, almost immobile, mouth taut, only the eyes moving, suggestive
of a suppressed violence ready to erupt, expressed Garfield’s doomed,
despairing, misunderstood, and thwarted persona.
Garfield played falsely accused outsiders in the noir precursors They
Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Dust Be My Destiny (1939), gangsters in Castle on the Hudson (1940), East of the River (1940), and
Out of the Fog (1941), and emotionally scarred troubled veterans in
The Fallen Sparrow (1943) and Nobody Lives Forever (1946). But his
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most celebrated early noir role was as the working-class drifter Frank
Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Frank, who
narrates the story in flashback from his prison cell awaiting execution,
embodies Depression America—rootless, disaffected, and forced by
circumstances and his infatuation with Cora (Lana Turner) into murdering her husband.
When his Warner Bros. contract expired in 1946, Garfield was one
of the first Hollywood stars to go independent and became part of
Enterprise Productions, playing the lead in two films that reflected
his own left-wing views: Robert Rossen’s boxing noir Body and Soul
(1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948). In these allegories of exploitative capitalism, Garfield’s self-made man eventually
recognizes how he is being exploited and determines to put things right.
In The Breaking Point (1950), he played a troubled veteran forced
into smuggling by economic circumstances. His final film was He Ran
All the Way (1951), written by Guy Endore (Dalton Trumbo) and Hugo
Butler and directed by John Berry, all victims of blacklisting. Garfield
plays petty thug Nick Robey, who can only experience family life at
gunpoint by holding an ordinary working-class family hostage as he
tries desperately to avoid capture by the police for the murder he committed. Shot by the woman he befriended, Peg (Shelly Winters), while
protecting her father, Nick dies wordlessly in the gutter on the dark,
wet, windswept street.
Placed on the blacklist in the early 1950s for his left-wing sympathies, Garfield refused to name names in April 1951 and was found dead
of a heart attack only a month later. See also LEFT-WING CYCLE.
GARMES, LEE (1897–1978). Lee Garmes had a long and distinguished
career as a cinematographer, making his name initially through the Josef
von Sternberg–Marlene Dietrich films—including Morocco (1930) for
which he won an Oscar—that influenced film noir particularly through
their atmospheric lighting. Along with John F. Seitz, Garmes pioneered the use of “Rembrandt lighting,” in which the main source of
light comes from the north, lending a low-key effect with strong blacks
and enabling an audience’s attention to be drawn to significant detail.
This is amply demonstrated in his photography for the noir precursors
City Streets (1931) and The Scoundrel (1935), and also occasionally in
Scarface (1932). His finest noir work was the expressionist lighting on
Nightmare Alley (1947)—from the dark, shadowy world of the second-
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rate traveling carnival to the plush nightclubs—and in Max Ophüls’s
Caught (1949), where the lighting perfectly complements a brooding
tale about tangled emotions. Garmes’s style was at odds with the shift to
a more naturalistic register in 1950s noirs, and the city exposé The Captive City (1952) displays this tension. However, the more melodramatic
The Desperate Hours (1955) was better suited to his talents.
Garmes’s other noirs are Crime without Passion (1934), Guest in the
House (1944), and Detective Story (1951). See also VISUAL STYLE.
GERMAN FILM NOIR. The origins of German film noir are in expressionism, the Weimar Strassenfilm (street film) and Fritz Lang’s M:
Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Searches for a Murderer,
1931), with their explorations of disturbed mental states, crime, and
the conflicts of urban modernity. These developments were truncated
by the rise of Nazism that led Lang, Robert Siodmak, and many other
film personnel to emigrate. However, even after the war, there was
no critical climate, as in France, that embraced film noir or celebrated
American films, and even the films noir of German exiles were met with
scorn or hostility as morally corrupt. It was not until the 1970s that German audiences became familiar with the concept of film noir, initially
adopted under the term Schwarze Serie (Black Series) from the French
Série Noire. Crime films, always the basis of film noir, were a minor
component of postwar German film production. However, there was a
postwar German film noir in the 1940s and 1950s that can be retrospectively defined, one that crossed several genres or cycles of film, which
was haunted by the past, uncomfortable about the present, and harbored
fears about the future.
Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946)—
produced in East Germany as filmmaking did not resume in the West
until 1949—was the first of a short-lived cycle of Trümmerfilme (rubble
films) that combined an expressionist heritage with topical elements. In
this story, a troubled veteran wracked by war guilt struggles to resume
a peacetime existence in a society that is devastated materially, culturally, and psychologically. Blockierte Signale (Blocked Signals, 1948),
Hafenmelodie (Harbour Melody, 1948), Schicksal aus zweiter Hand
(Second-Hand Destiny, 1949), and Tromba (1949) also depict insecure
and disturbed male protagonists, but there is a noticeable absence of
the femme fatale; German women tend to be represented as supportive
and redemptive, with the exception of Alraune (Unnatural, 1952), Die
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Sünderin (The Sinner, 1951), Illusion in Moll (Illusion in a Minor Key,
1952), and Nachts auf den Strassen (At Night on the Streets, 1952), all
starring Hildegard Knef.
Some of the most powerful noirs were made by returning émigrés.
Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951), directed by and starring Peter
Lorre, was a complex story of war guilt told in flashback. Lorre plays
Dr. Rothe, who has faked his death in order to erase his past as a Nazi
scientist and serial killer. Robert Siodmak’s Nachts, wenn der Teufel
kam (The Devil Strikes at Night, 1957) also explores the past through
the figure of the serial killer, a retarded manual worker (Mario Adorf)
whose actions are used by Nazi authorities as a cynical propaganda
exercise to garner public support for their policy of exterminating the
mentally ill. Several other noirs also centered on the serial killer: Es
geschah am hellichten Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight, 1958)—
remade in Hollywood by Sean Penn as The Pledge (2001)—Viele kamen vorbei (Many Passed By, 1956), and Gestehen Sie, Dr. Corda!
(Confess, Dr. Corda, 1958).
Other noirs examined the social, familial, and intergenerational conflicts produced by the commercial success of the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”): Das Bekenntnis der Ina Kahr (Ina Kahr’s
Confession, 1954), Geständnis unter vier Augen (Private Confession,
1954), Teufel in Seide (Devil in Silk, 1955), Die Halbstarken (The Hooligans, 1956), Die Frühreifen (The Adolescents, 1957), Nasser Asphalt
(Wet Asphalt, 1958), Am Tag als der Regen kam (The Day the Rains
Came, 1959), Der Rest ist Schweigen (The Rest Is Silence, 1959), Die
Wahrheit über Rosemarie (The Truth About Rosemarie, 1959), and
Lang’s final film Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand
Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960). Here the titular master criminal uses a
luxury hotel built by the Nazis to attract the new international partners
of West Germany’s economic miracle, while secretly spying on them
through intricate systems of surveillance. There was a similarly bleak
group of films depicting provincial communities, including Die goldene
Pest (The Golden Plague, 1954)—directed by another returning émigré,
John Brahm—Kirmes (Fairground, 1960), Es geschah am hellichten
Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight, 1958), and Schwarzer Kies (Black
Gravel, 1960), which show small towns as rife with corruption, paranoia, introspection, and hidden guilt.
German neo-noir originated as part of the ambivalent attraction
American cinema had for New German Cinema directors in the 1970s
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and 1980s, notably Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. Noir
became a way of connecting a new generation of German filmmakers
with Weimar cinema through the work of the German exiles, but it
was also the only language available to critique the social hypocrisies
of the new economic miracle, the pervasive influence of American
popular culture, and their parents’ “historical amnesia” concerning
the Nazi past. Fassbinder’s early gangster cycle, Liebe: kälter als der
Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death, 1969), Götter der Pest (Gods of the
Plague, 1970), and Der amerikanische Soldat (The American Soldier,
1970) used noir playfully, often parodically, but his second trilogy,
Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979), Lola
(1981), and Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982),
used noir to explore the legacy of the recent past. The first was set in
the immediate aftermath of the war, Lola in the mid-1950s and Veronika Voss during the Nazi period. The last was a reworking of Billy
Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), depicting the life of a has-been star
from the Third Reich.
This self-reflexive use of film history is also to be found in Wenders’s
work. Elements of noir can be found throughout his oeuvre but is concentrated in Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, 1977)
and Hammett (1982). The first is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s
Ripley’s Game and explores the descent of Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno
Ganz), a happily married, respectable picture framer, into a world of
violent crime caused by Ripley (Dennis Hopper), a shady American art
dealer who represents metaphorically the seductive lure of the American
thriller. Hammett deliberately conflates the writer Dashiell Hammett
with his creation Sam Spade as Sam Hammett (Frederic Forrest), who,
in a sequence that hesitates between dream and reality, appears to act
in the story he has just written. Wenders deliberately exaggerates noir
conventions in order to expose them as fictive devices.
In the 1990s German filmmakers no longer felt the need to critique
Hollywood, shifting from art house to more popular genre-based filmmaking that emulates the fast-paced, action-driven American mode, as
in Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998). Long Hello and
Short Goodbye (1998) is a highly stylized neo-noir, reminiscent of Pulp
Fiction (1994) in its use of nonchronological narrative, interpolated
stories, and references to an eclectic range of popular culture.
However, German neo-noir can still be used as a critical instrument,
especially for former East German filmmakers anxious to explore the
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inequalities of the reunification and the failures of integration. Meschugge (1999) revisits the problem of dealing with the Nazi past from
the perspective of postunification “normalization” debates. Wege in die
Nacht (Paths in the Night, 1999) directly explores the problem of integrating the citizens of the former German Democratic Republic into the
new Germany by dramatizing the psychological decline of a man who,
since unification, has been consigned to Germany’s rubbish heap and,
in response, forms a vigilante group. Kurz und Schmerzlos (Short Sharp
Shock, 1998) was a homage to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973)
in its exploration of destructive male friendship among the disaffected
ethnic minorities of Hamburg. Die Unberührbare (No Place to Go,
2000) is a bleak tale about the false euphoria of unification, while Jerichow (2008) is a noir tale of a troubled veteran working for a wealthy
immigrant and his femme fatale wife that recalls James M. Cain.
GET CARTER (1971). Although Get Carter was critically reviled on
its initial release because of its violence, it has subsequently become
a cult classic, recognized as an innovative and morally complex crime
thriller that has influenced the development of both British film
noir and American noir. It displays the high degree of generic selfconsciousness characteristic of neo-noir: Jack Carter (Michael Caine),
a professional hit man working for London gangsters, reads Farewell,
My Lovely as he journeys north back to his home town of Newcastle to
investigate the circumstances of his brother’s death. Although clearly
indebted to Hollywood gangster films, Get Carter was based on a
British crime novel, Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home, which, though
borrowing from the American hard-boiled tradition, contained a detailed depiction of provincial British life. Producer Michael Klinger
wanted a British thriller that was adult and hard-hitting and his chosen
director, Mike Hodges, decided to locate the action in Newcastle because it was a British city in the throes of radical change. Hodges’s
documentarist’s eye and Wolfgang Suschitsky’s long-lens camerawork contrast the city’s prewar terraced housing with its new towerblock developments and multistory car parks, a rapid modernization
that embraced two of the major growth industries of 1960s Great
Britain, gambling and pornography, which turned Newcastle into the
Las Vegas of the northeast of England.
As Carter probes the circumstances behind his brother’s demise, he
uncovers how civic corruption, gambling, violence, and sleazy sex are
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intermingled in a predatory noir world. Carter, as realized in Caine’s
admired performance, is a complex figure, uniting the typically cool,
fastidious hit man, the revenger from Jacobean drama purging the infected state, and the family man who sheds tears of shame and grief as
he views his niece (probably daughter) appearing in a porn movie. However, although Carter is an understandable figure, he is not sympathetic.
Hodges’s dispassionate presentation emphasizes his ruthless, often
heartless actions, littering the film with memento mori that point toward
Carter’s inevitable, and deserved, death. In the dénouement, he is killed
by an anonymous assassin (first glimpsed travelling north on the same
train as Carter) in the pay of either porn king Kinnear (John Osborne) or
Carter’s London employers on a desolate beach as Roy Budd’s haunting, unsettling jazz score plays for the final time.
Get Carter was remade in 2000 with Caine appearing briefly in a
supporting role to Sylvester Stallone’s Las Vegas gangster, who returns
to his hometown of Seattle.
GIBBONS, CEDRIC (1893–1960). The longest-serving and most influential of the studio art directors, the urbane, sophisticated, and autocratic
Gibbons supervised the art department at MGM from its inception in
1924 to his retirement in 1956. Gibbons’s attention to detail and his
belief in built sets were demonstrated perfectly in the early Gothic noir
Gaslight (1944). He won an Oscar for his creation of the cluttered, oppressive London town house in which the homme fatal (Charles Boyer)
tries to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) insane in order to obtain her
aunt’s jewels.
In the modern, urban gangster noir Johnny Eager (1942), there is a
highly effective set in which Johnny (Robert Taylor) transforms from
cab driver to gangster by walking through a series of doors that lead
him from a new office building at a racetrack to the luxurious apartment
where he assumes his criminal identity. There is another accomplished
contrast of different worlds in Rogue Cop (1954), where the well-heeled
lifestyle of the corrupt cop Kelvaney (Taylor) and his “business associates” is counterpointed by the scenes in which his brother patrols
the neighborhood of cheap bars and flophouses separated by dark alleyways, the world to which Kelvaney eventually returns to avenge
his brother’s death. Gibbons combined with Randall Duell on several
important noirs, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
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Gibbons’s other noirs are Fury (1936), Bewitched (1945), Undercurrent (1946), The Arnelo Affair (1947), High Wall (1947), Lady in the
Lake (1947), Act of Violence (1949), Border Incident (1949), The Bribe
(1949), Scene of the Crime (1949), Tension (1949), Dial 1119 (1950), A
Lady without Passport (1950), Mystery Street (1950), Shadow on the Wall
(1950), Side Street (1950), Cause for Alarm! (1951), No Questions Asked
(1951), The People Against O’Hara (1951), The Strip (1951), The Unknown Man (1951), Talk About a Stranger (1952), and Jeopardy (1953).
GILDA (1946). Set in Buenos Aires toward the end of the war where the
normal rules do not apply, Charles Vidor’s Gilda is notable not for its
visual style, though Rudolph Maté’s cinematography is highly accomplished, but for its daring and disturbing depiction of a dark and
destructive sexual triangle that ensured its initial box-office success and
subsequent reputation. Glenn Ford plays Johnny Farrell, a typical noir
drifter, rescued by the sophisticated, urbane Ballin Mundson (George
Macready), on the docks as he is about to be robbed of his winnings
from a crooked crapshoot. Johnny is installed as Mundson’s casino
manager and is his implied homoerotic companion. The beautiful Gilda
(Rita Hayworth), brought back from one of Mundson’s trips, completes the triangle, as she and Johnny were former lovers. Often thought
of as the iconic femme fatale, Gilda is better understood as the good-bad
girl, wanting to be revenged on Johnny and trapped between the now
rival males. Her frequently tantalizing and provocative behavior, including the famous rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame,” a public and
parodic enactment of the promiscuous, worthless tramp she is thought
to be, is an attempt to escape from her impossible situation. Even when
Mundson disappears, Johnny marries Gilda only to humiliate her for
these apparent infidelities and disloyalty to his friend. The pleasure
Johnny takes from this situation is as perverse as it is masochistic, sublimating his erotic feelings into protracted punishment. Gilda’s upbeat
ending, in which Mundson is killed and the happy couple are bound for
the United States, seems contrived and incongruous, but it was insisted
upon by producer Virginia Van Upp, who was anxious to appease the
censors and mitigate the film’s darkness. See also CENSORSHIP;
MEN; WOMEN.
GOLITZEN, ALEXANDER (1908–2005). Alexander Golitzen’s family
fled from Russia after the 1917 revolution, and he arrived in America
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at age 16. He entered the film industry in 1933 as a set designer, his
first noir being Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), in which Golitzen’s
studio-built Greenwich Village streets have an ominous, sealed-off,
claustrophobic quality. The telling detail that was one of Golitzen’s hallmarks is displayed in the cramped, overstuffed interior of Christopher
Cross’s apartment, contrasting with the spacious, clean-cut airiness of
the expensive one he rents for Kitty with embezzled money.
Golitzen’s main work was at Universal, where he became supervising art director from 1952 through to his retirement in 1976. His major
contribution to film noir was from the mid-1950s onward in a series
of modestly budgeted films that reflected the studio’s cash-strapped
status. However, each—Naked Alibi (1954), Forbidden (1953), Female on the Beach (1955), The Price of Fear (1956), The Tattered
Dress (1957), The Night Runner (1957), Man Afraid (1957), and The
Midnight Story (1957)—is characterized by precisely functional interiors that also comment subtly on the action. Golitzen designed the
marvellously sleazy border town of Los Robles with its cracking walls,
peeling paint, murky bars, rancid hotels, and seedy bordellos for Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Golitzen worked on 31 episodes
of the important noir television series Peter Gunn (1958–59), on two
late noirs, Cape Fear (1962) and Kitten with a Whip (1964), and on
the neo-noirs Madigan (1968) and Play Misty for Me (1971). See also
ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL.
GOODIS, DAVID (1917–1967). Goodis was an influential hard-boiled
writer whose work has a darker, more dreamlike and poetic quality than
Dashiell Hammett’s. His protagonists are mostly working class, ordinary people who are frightened, lonely, and paranoid. Although popular
in America, Goodis was more esteemed in France as his melancholy,
world-weary existentialism and oneiric prose were more in tune with
French sensibilities. Goodis wrote for numerous pulp magazines and
radio, and he sold Dark Passage to Warner Bros. even before publication, signing a six-year contract. He cowrote the original screenplay for
The Unfaithful (1947), in which a wife (Ann Sheridan) kills her ex-lover
and tries to keep it from her husband (Zachary Scott), a troubled veteran. However, he was not involved in adapting Dark Passage (1947), a
typical Goodis story of a man (Humphrey Bogart) wrongly imprisoned
for his wife’s murder who, having escaped, has to elude capture while
struggling to prove his innocence.
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Goodis became frustrated by screenwriting, having been involved in
numerous abortive projects, and he returned to his hometown, Philadelphia, and novel writing in 1950. His work continued to be adapted,
including Nightfall (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur, the story of
another innocent man on the run that perhaps comes closest to translating Goodis’s melancholy poetry onto the screen. The Burglar (1957),
which Goodis was persuaded to adapt himself, was a darkly existentialist tale of guilt and frustrated hopes starring Dan Duryea. So far, one
neo-noir, Street of No Return (1989) directed by Samuel Fuller, has
been adapted from his work along with an episode of the noir television
series Fallen Angels (1995).
Adaptations of Goodis’s work in France began with Section des
disparus (1956), directed by Pierre Chenal from Of Missing Persons.
François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player,
1960) was adapted from Down There, with Truffaut shifting the action from Philadelphia and New Jersey to Paris and its environs. Réne
Clément’s La course du lièvre à travers les champs (And Hope to Die,
1972), adapted from Black Friday, starred Jean-Louis Trintignant as the
typical bemused and beleaguered Goodis protagonist, kidnapped by an
outlaw gang led by Robert Ryan, in the last film before his death. JeanJacques Beineix’s La Lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter,
1983) was a radical adaptation stylistically, even though it was faithful
to the surreal poetry of the original and the turbulent and troubled lives
of its socially marginal protagonists. Other directors were attracted to
Goodis in the 1980s: Gilles Béhat’s Rue Barbare (Street of the Damned,
1983), adapted from Street of the Lost, and Francis Girod’s Descente
aux enfers (Descent into Hell, 1986), based on The Wounded and the
Slain. See also FRENCH FILM NOIR.
GOTHIC. Most accounts of film noir tend to overprivilege its debt to
hard-boiled fiction at the expense of its Gothic legacy. However, appreciating the impact of the Gothic tradition on film noir is crucial to
understanding its development, especially in the formative stages of
the 1940s.
The Gothic romance was a literary tradition that originated in the late
18th century as part of a European revival of Gothicism in the arts, a
shift in taste and sensibility that embraced the wild, the morbid, and the
supernatural together with a new preoccupation with death, solitude, and
the horrific or terrifying. The key Gothic setting is the labyrinthine man-
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sion with its secret, shadowy passageways and locked rooms containing
dark secrets. The most influential Gothic romance was Ann Radcliffe’s
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), with its persecuted heroine imprisoned in the decaying castle of Udolpho by her aunt’s sinister husband.
In the 19th-century, European Gothicism was developed by Nathaniel
Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, in whose work evil Europeans and the
pathology of guilt became central preoccupations. Modulated through
the 19th-century “sensation novel,” the modern Gothic romance became
one of the staples of popular fiction, targeted at a female audience. At
its center is the imperiled victim-heroine, often recently married to an
enigmatic older man who is intensely attractive but also frightening
and who seems to harbor a dark secret. Unsure of her own identity, the
heroine feels helpless, confused, and despised; her paranoia includes the
strong sensation that the past is repeating itself. These Gothic romances
articulate the dark side of feminine experience: the fear of mental and
physical annihilation by men.
Hollywood drew extensively on this Gothic tradition in the 1940s as
a branch of the “woman’s film,” centering on a female protagonist and
often narrated by her and with a Victorian or foreign setting. The first
Gothic noir was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), its paradigmatic
story, unfolded in flashback by the unnamed heroine (Joan Fontaine),
concerns her aristocratic older husband (Laurence Olivier), the mysterious circumstances of his first wife’s death, and the dark secrets possibly
contained in his huge family home, Manderley. The other influential and
hugely popular Gothic noir was Gaslight (1944), first filmed as a British film noir by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and released in the United
States as Angel Street, the title of the Patrick Hamilton play on which it
was based. MGM bought the rights and removed the British film from
circulation to make way for its own version starring Charles Boyer and
Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar). The other important component
in noir’s formative period was Southern Gothic, with similar themes
and iconography, but set in the southern states of America. Among the
Living (1941), which takes place in a generic southern location, was
photographed by Theodor Sparkhul, an émigré cinematographer, in an
expressionist register. Dark Waters (1944) was set in the Louisiana
bayous, with Merle Oberon playing the imperiled heroine.
Noir’s developing expressionist visual style, with its shadowy lighting and odd angles, was ideally suited to Gothic fiction’s attempt to render the unconscious and the forbidden, as shown in Robert Siodmak’s
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The Spiral Staircase (1946), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck
(1946), and Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948) and House by
the River (1950), which all develop the exploration of the male figure’s
psychopathologies as well as the heroine’s mounting terror.
Other Gothic noirs include: Ladies in Retirement (1941), Suspicion
(1941), Experiment Perilous (1944), My Name Is Julia Ross (1945),
Love from a Stranger (1947), Moss Rose (1947), So Evil My Love
(1948), Sleep, My Love (1948), The Woman in White (1948), and Night
of the Hunter (1955). See also MEN; WOMEN.
GRAHAME, GLORIA (1923–1981). With a distinctive little girl’s voice,
Gloria Grahame was often used straightforwardly as a femme fatale, as
in Sudden Fear (1952) or Human Desire (1954), but her best roles were
more complex and enigmatic. She received an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the world-weary but decent nightclub
hostess in Crossfire (1947), but a more substantial role came with In a
Lonely Place (1950), directed by her second husband, Nicholas Ray.
Grahame played an independent woman drawn into a relationship with
the homme fatal (Humphrey Bogart) whom she defends, mistrusts, and
ultimately betrays emotionally. Her most memorable role came in Fritz
Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), in which she plays the archetypal moll
Debby Marsh with intelligence and wit, transforming the stereotype
into a complex creation whose sexuality has a playful, ironic quality
that makes it appealing. After her gangster boyfriend (Lee Marvin)
scars her with scalding coffee, she becomes a tragic figure, her death
the most poignant moment in the film. Grahame’s career faltered in the
mid-1950s, and in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), she has only a minor
role as a seductress.
Grahame’s other noirs are A Woman’s Secret (1949), Macao (1952),
The Good Die Young (GB 1954), The Naked Alibi (1954), and Chandler
(1971).
GRAPHIC NOVELS. See COMICS/GRAPHIC NOVELS.
GREENE, GRAHAM (1904–1991). One of the major writers of the 20th
century, Graham Greene had an important influence on the development
of film noir on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly during its formative period, both as an author and as a screenwriter. Greene modernized
the English thriller in parallel with the American hard-boiled writers,
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often drawing on poetic realism that he deeply admired, as shown in
his extensive film reviews. Greene’s protagonists are usually psychologically disturbed, at odds with society or pursued by nebulous threats,
wracked by guilt, with thwarted sexual longings and suffused by a sense
of doom. He made use of first-person narration and internal monologues
with complex shifts in point-of-view and with ambiguous or darkly
ironic endings. His prose is vivid and imagistic and captures a seedy
world of drab ordinariness infused with a feeling of dread that came
to be known as “Greeneland.” Although he described his thrillers as
“entertainments,” they were never straightforward propositions for film
adaptations, despite their seemingly cinematic qualities, because of their
metaphysical and religious dimensions that were difficult to translate.
However, as an internationally acclaimed author he was a marketable
property for both British and American production companies.
The earliest British film noir, The Green Cockatoo (U.S. title Four
Dark Hours, 1937), was adapted from one of Greene’s short stories,
but the war meant that there was a decade’s gap before Sydney Box’s
The Man Within (U.S. title The Smugglers, 1947), an unusual period
noir set in early-19th-century England and adapted from Greene’s first
published novel. Greene adapted and cowrote the screenplay (with Terence Rattigan) for Brighton Rock (U.S. title Young Scarface, 1948) from
his 1938 novel. Its central protagonist Pinkie (Richard Attenborough),
a psychotic gang leader, was a typically paranoid, death-driven figure,
although the adaptation excised the more complex religious elements
concerning predestination. Greene adapted his short story “The Basement Room” as The Fallen Idol (U.S. title The Lost Illusion, 1948).
Superbly directed by Carol Reed, this deceptively gentle story seen
from the perspective of a young boy was a moving exploration of fear,
deceit, and betrayal. Greene worked with Reed again on The Third
Man (1949), an international coproduction for which Greene wrote an
original screenplay.
In the United States, his 1936 novel A Gun for Sale (1936) became
This Gun for Hire (1942), adapted by W. R. Burnett and Albert
Maltz, an important early noir starring Alan Ladd as the alienated,
disturbed hit man. It was remade, directed by James Cagney, as Short
Cut to Hell (1957). Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1945), in which Ray
Milland plays the victim-hero pursued by Nazis and suspected by the
police for a crime he did not commit, was adapted from Greene’s novel,
as was Confidential Agent (1945), the story of a former concert pianist
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(Charles Boyer), middle-aged, weary, and embittered after losing his
wife and child in the Spanish Civil War, who travels to England on a
secret mission for the Republicans. As with the best Greene adaptations,
James Wong Howe’s cinematography captures a shabby, hostile world
peopled by murderous grotesques in a fog-bound London.
Other noirs adapted from Greene are Across the Bridge (1958) and
Double Take (2001).
GREENSTREET, SYDNEY (1879–1954). The portly British-born actor Sydney Greenstreet had a successful stage career in England before
his first film role, at the age of 62, as Kasper Gutman in The Maltese
Falcon (1941). Greenstreet’s silvery-smooth elegance and soft patrician voice connoted devious corruption in what was his defining performance. Although he could play virtuous roles, notably his avuncular
psychiatrist in Conflict (1945), Greenstreet’s forte remained suave villainy, as in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and
The Verdict (1946). In all three, as in The Maltese Falcon, he appeared
with Peter Lorre in what became an extended double act.
Greenstreet’s other noirs are Ruthless (1948), The Woman in White
(1948), and Flamingo Road (1949).
GREER, JANE (1924–2001). Jane Greer only appeared in a handful
of films noir, but her iconic role as Kathie Moffatt in Out of the Past
(1947) made her one of the quintessential femme fatales. In her carefully delayed entrance in the shabby Mexican bar, the slim, 22-year-old
Greer emerges from near invisibility on the shining plaza in a pale dress
and matching straw hat, seeming to materialize out of the brightness itself. Her dreamlike, ethereal presence utterly disarms Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), hired by Kathie’s gangster boyfriend (Kirk Douglas)
to bring her back. Her apparent vulnerability makes her duplicity and
ruthlessness all the more shocking, shattering Jeff’s romantic illusions.
She was reunited with Mitchum in Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949),
designed to cash in on their pairing, but it misfired. In They Won’t Believe Me (1947), Greer had an underdeveloped role as the first mistress
of Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). When Howard Hughes took over
control of RKO, he apparently stifled her career because Greer had refused earlier to become one of his mistresses. She then went into television work. Greer appeared in Against All Odds (1984), a leaden remake
of Out of the Past, this time playing the mother of Kathie Moffatt, and
in David Lynch’s noir television series Twin Peaks (1990).
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Greer’s other noirs are Station West (1948), The Company She Keeps
(1950), and The Outfit (1973).
GROT, ANTON (1884–1974). Born Antocz Groszewski, Anton Grot came
to Hollywood from his native Poland in 1909 and became the dominant
set designer at Warner Bros. from 1927 until his retirement in 1948. His
work for Svengali (1931) revealed a strong expressionist influence, and
his designs for many of the studio’s influential gangster films, including
Little Caesar (1931), while they demonstrated he could adopt a contemporary urban idiom, often relied on lighting to compensate for the pennypinching décor. Both elements fed into Grot’s influential designs for his
first noir, Mildred Pierce (1945), which specify not only the set itself
but also the angle from which it should be shot to create mood as well
as convey the action. Grot’s designs for Deception (1946), Nora Prentiss
(1947), and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) were equally effective in their
memorably sinister interiors. See also ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL.
GUFFEY, BURNETT (1905–1983). Burnett Guffey was the most prolific
of the noir cinematographers, but this may be due to his efficiency and
adaptability rather than his distinctiveness, as it is difficult to distinguish
a Guffey style throughout his 22 films noir. He was Oscar-nominated
for The Harder They Fall (1956), in which his harsh, uncompromising photography captured the brutal and corrupt milieu of professional
boxing. His versatility—equally at home on Gothic noirs (My Name Is
Julia Ross, 1945), on studio-bound melodramas (The Reckless Moment,
1949), on tough urban dramas (Scandal Sheet, 1952), and on location work (Nightfall, 1957)—made Guffey a favored cinematographer
throughout the entire noir cycle. He worked effectively with imaginative directors: Nicholas Ray—In a Lonely Place (1950), Fritz Lang—
Human Desire (1954), and Phil Karlson—The Brothers Rico (1957).
Guffey continued to work on neo-noir, gaining an Oscar for Bonnie and
Clyde (1967) and photographing The Split (1968) in Panavision.
Guffey’s other noirs are Night Editor (1946), So Dark the Night
(1946), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Framed (1947), Knock on Any Door
(1949), The Undercover Man (1949), Convicted (1950), Two of a Kind
(1951), The Family Secret (1951), The Sniper (1952), Private Hell 36
(1954), and Tight Spot (1955).
GUN CRAZY (aka Deadly Is the Female, 1950). Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun
Crazy was the most compelling and challenging of the early outlaw
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couple noirs in which rebellion, eroticism, and the American cult of
the gun are inextricably intertwined. It was an “intermediate” production, a bid by the King Brothers to raise their critical and commercial
prestige, with a reasonably generous $450,000 budget allowing a 30-day
shoot. Thus, although Gun Crazy has the fast-paced quality of the “B”
feature “actioner,” it also had a subtlety of characterization and care in
execution that were more typical of the “A” film. Originally released
as Deadly Is the Female, the title was quickly changed to that of the
MacKinlay Kantor’s serialized story from which it was adapted by Dalton Trumbo under the pseudonym of Millard Kaufman. Trumbo keeps
the focus on the couple, Bart Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr
(Peggy Cummins), whose affair is forged in the heat of the shooting
contest where they first meet. They go together, Bart opines, “like guns
and ammunition.” Bart is the classically divided noir male, just returned
from spells in reform school and the army where his obsession with
guns has been temporarily satisfied but not his yearning for a settled
and ordinary life. The background of Annie, a carnival sharpshooter, is
left deliberately opaque, the enigmatic femme fatale who craves excitement, desperate to do a “bit of living.” She is both a free spirit, sexy,
ambitious, and intelligent, and an unstable killer who will never fulfill
Bart’s dreams of the loving housewife on the ranch raising a family. It
is Annie who ensures that their crimes escalate, including a bank holdup that Lewis famously shot in a single take of three and a half minutes
and the robbery of a meatpacking factory during which Annie shoots
two employees. In a fog-bound dénouement that symbolizes their moral
confusion, Bart kills Annie before she can kill his boyhood friends and
before the police arrive, knowing that their self-destructive affair can
only end in death.
The film was radically remade in 1992 by the feminist director Tamra
Davis to foreground the female character’s background and emotional
life. See also BLACKLIST; REMAKES.
–H–
HACKMAN, GENE (1930– ). Gene Hackman came to acting relatively
late, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Arthur
Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as Clyde’s older brother Buck. Hackman’s burly physique and “lived in” face meant that he did not play ro-
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mantic leads but specialized in complex characters that were mixtures of
violence and vulnerability. He won an Oscar for Best Actor as “Popeye”
Doyle in the highly successful The French Connection (1971). Doyle is
a violent, unstable loner whose obsession with capturing the criminal
mastermind Charnier (Fernando Rey) is a disturbing mixture of hatred,
fear, and envy. In the 1975 sequel, French Connection II, Doyle is
removed from the security of New York to Marseilles, where he is captured by Charnier’s gang and pumped full of drugs. In an extraordinary
performance, both frightening and deeply affecting, Hackman depicts
the terror of the powerless tough guy experiencing “cold turkey,” desperately clinging to the shards of his fragile American identity.
He was equally impressive in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as Harry Caul, a professional electronic surveillance expert,
another obsessive loner, whose paranoia prevents him from having any
normal relationship. In the final scene, convinced he is now the object
of surveillance, Harry frenziedly rips his apartment apart. Hackman’s
defining performance was as the bewildered and outmaneuvered private eye Harry Moseby in Penn’s Night Moves (1975). In The Domino
Principle (1977), he played a troubled Vietnam veteran, a further
embodiment of the alienation that made Hackman the dominant male
neo-noir star of the 1970s.
Hackman’s other neo-noirs are Target (1985), No Way Out (1987),
Narrow Margin (1990), Absolute Power (1997), Enemy of the State
(1998), Twilight (1998), Under Suspicion (2000), and Heist (2001). See
also MEN; NEO-NOIR.
HAMMETT, DASHIELL (1894–1961). Along with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett was the most influential writer in the development of film noir. As Chandler acknowledged, Hammett was the writer
who really transformed crime fiction, who “took murder out of the
Venetian vase and dropped it into the gutter,” forging the characteristic tough, terse, hard-boiled masculine idiom and the concern with
urban America and its denizens. Hammett had been a private detective
himself, working with the Pinkerton Agency, and this experience was
the basis for his creation of the modern private eye: The Continental
Op, an employee of a detective agency, and the self-employed Sam
Spade. Hammett’s short, declarative sentences created a sense of speed
and urgency that resembled reportage, and his work became the staple
of radio noir. Like Chandler, Hammett is the master of the laconic
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one-liner, the wisecrack put-down that deflates the opposition, combining wit, verbal aggression, and a sense of superiority. Hammett’s work
is also characterized by its emphasis on male individualism, inclining to
the misogynist and homophobic, his heroes attempting to avoid social,
sexual, or economic entanglements. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon
(1930) is determined never to be made a “sap,” but there was also a
concomitant concern with male loyalty and its betrayal.
Although a populist writer, Hammett was a cultivated intellectual, an
existential Marxist, whose work offers a searching critique of American
capitalism. After becoming a Hollywood screenwriter and a script “doctor,” though he was relatively unsuccessful, Hammett lived a sybaritic
life in Los Angeles, but he was also an active member of the Communist
Party. This meant that he was pursued by the authorities, subpoenaed to
appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)
hearings in 1953, and placed on the blacklist.
Hammett’s first novel, The Red Harvest (1929), was made into a
gangster film in 1930 under the title Roadhouse Nights (1930), but
this uneven film is uncertain in its address. The noir precursor City
Streets (1931) was based on his short story “After School,” which he
had specifically written for the screen, although he did not write the
screenplay. Warner Bros. produced a reasonably faithful adaptation of
The Maltese Falcon in 1931 in their fast-paced, low-budget style, but it
lacked subtlety. The 1935 remake, Satan Met a Lady, reconstituted the
story as a light comedy in the style of The Thin Man (1934), the most
successful film based on Hammett’s fiction that spawned five sequels.
However, the third adaptation of The Maltese Falcon in 1941, written
and directed by John Huston, not only retained much of Hammett’s
dialogue but also was much closer to the tone and temper of the original.
Paramount had announced its intention to make The Glass Key soon
after it was published in 1931 but dropped its plans under pressure from
the Hays Office. However, a version was made in 1935 starring George
Raft, but again the adaptation lacked the teeth of the original. A much
better version was made in 1942, adapted by Jonathan Latimer, who
restored much of the sexually perverse material omitted from the earlier
version.
Hammett’s work has also influenced neo-noir, not so much in direct
adaptations—though one of his stories was the basis of an episode of
the noir television series Fallen Angels (1993–95) and another for The
House on Turk Street (2002)—but in a more generalized sense. For in-
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stance, The Red Harvest and The Glass Key lie behind the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and Miller’s Crossing (1990), an indication
that his fiction remains a seminal presence. See also CENSORSHIP.
HARD-BOILED FICTION. Hard-boiled fiction was the most important
influence on film noir, not only in the large numbers of direct adaptations from particular novels or short stories but also in a more pervasive effect on dialogue, themes, and subject matter. Many of the most
important hard-boiled writers—including James M. Cain, Raymond
Chandler, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, and
Cornell Woolrich—also worked for Hollywood studios, but their influence extended into various European film noirs.
Hard-boiled fiction took its name from the characteristically tough,
terse, understated vernacular idiom of the writing that kept close to
the rhythms of ordinary speech and is often narrated by the male protagonist. Carroll John Daly and Hammett were acknowledged as the
“fathers” of hard-boiled crime writing, their work appearing from 1922
onward. Joseph C. Shaw, the editor of the most influential film noir
magazine, Black Mask, encouraged other contributors to emulate Hammett’s “objectivity, economy and restraint” and “hard, brittle style.”
The hard-boiled writers challenged the dominant English tradition of
genteel middle-class murder mysteries written by Agatha Christie and
Dorothy L. Sayers among others, replacing ratiocination with action,
stilted exchanges with an aggressive verbal wit, and the drawing rooms
of country houses with the “mean streets” of the fast-growing American
cities. Indeed, hard-boiled writers became the great chroniclers of city
life as corrupt, disorientating, and threatening, a nightmare labyrinth of
violence and death. As Chandler articulated in his seminal 1940 essay
“The Simple Art of Murder,” hard-boiled fiction generated “the smell
of fear . . . [its] characters lived in a world gone wrong. . . . The law was
something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark
with something more than night.”
The sexual politics of film noir are mapped out in hard-boiled fiction in the aggressively masculine, even misogynist viewpoint, at its
extreme in Mickey Spillane. Women are desired and feared as beautiful but duplicitous femme fatales, and males are admired for their
self-contained completeness as embodied in the private eye. But hardboiled authors often depicted male fears and paranoia as much as, or
more than, ambition, ruthlessness, and lust. The other principal male
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character, especially in Cain, Thompson, or Woolrich, is the criminal
himself, an ordinary man, gripped by forces beyond his control, usually
sexual desire, which overwhelms his reason and even his sanity. The
male protagonist is often a victim in a paranoid world where reality and
morbid fantasy become interchangeable.
However, there were also female hard-boiled writers—for instance,
Vera Caspary, who wrote Laura (1942, film 1944) and Bedelia (1945,
film, GB 1946), and Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote In a Lonely Place
(1947, film 1950)—but their contribution has been much less clearly recognized. Their take on gender is often quite different, privileging women
protagonists who are the victims of male power and misogyny and who
have to survive as best they can in a corrupt, patriarchal world.
Overall, the hard-boiled writers—including European masters such
as Georges Simenon and Graham Greene—transformed an established tradition of “blood melodrama”—stories of violence and erotic
love—into a critical modern art form that was populist rather than
avant-garde. However, because of the conservative censorship regime
in America, it was not until the mid-1940s that their work could reach
the screen as film noir. See also AMBLER, ERIC; BURNETT, W. R.;
BRACKETT, LEIGH; DANIELS, WILLIAM H.; FUCHS, DANIEL;
HIGGINS, JOHN; MCCOY, HORACE; MCGIVERN, WILLIAM P.;
MAINWARING, DANIEL; MEN; WESTLAKE, DONALD E.
HARRISON, JOAN (1907–1994). Best understood as one of the talented
émigrés who contributed so much to the development of film noir, the
English-born Joan Harrison worked as an assistant and scriptwriter for
Alfred Hitchcock, accompanying him to Hollywood in 1939. She cowrote the first two of Hitchcock’s American noirs: Rebecca (1940) and
Suspicion (1941), both Gothic noirs in which the victim-heroine (Joan
Fontaine) marries an attractive man who seems to be harboring a dark
secret. Working as a freelance writer, Harrison cowrote the screenplay
for another Gothic noir, Dark Waters (1944), set in the Louisiana bayous, in which a young heiress (Merle Oberon) is preyed upon by bogus
relatives trying to drive her insane and gain her inheritance.
From 1943 Harrison turned to producing, one of only three women in
this role at that time in Hollywood, in order to gain more creative control, but she also assisted in the script development. She produced two
noirs with Robert Siodmak: Phantom Lady (1944) and The Strange
Affair of Uncle Harry (aka Uncle Harry, 1945). Both show her influ-
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ence in their presentation of strong, capable females and weak, paranoid men. Harrison produced Nocturne (1946), in which George Raft
plays an obsessive detective who refuses to believe that the death of a
famous composer is suicide, and Ride the Pink Horse (1947), written
and directed by Robert Montgomery, one of the best noirs about the
troubled veteran. Harrison worked with Irving Pichel on They Won’t
Believe Me (1947), the story of a shallow cad Larry Ballentine (Robert
Young), who is unfaithful to his rich wife, whom he only married for
money and who disposes of her body after she committed suicide in
order not to incriminate himself. After returning to Great Britain to
produce Circle of Danger (1951), Harrison moved into noir television
series, reuniting with Hitchcock to produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents
(1955–62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962–65).
HATHAWAY, HENRY (1898–1985). A reliable and highly experienced
action director, Hathaway directed several semidocumentary noirs:
The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) produced by Louis de Rochemont, and also Call Northside 777 (1948), in
which he combined extensive location shooting with a straightforward
handling of the plot. His best noir, Kiss of Death (1947), combines expert use of authentic locations with a richly melodramatic confrontation
between decency (Victor Mature) and psychopathic villainy (Richard
Widmark). The potentially stagey and static melodrama of Fourteen
Hours (1951), in which a disturbed young man (Richard Basehart) is
poised to jump from a hotel balcony, is enlivened by Hathaway’s creative location shots. Hathaway directed the existential The Dark Corner
(1946) at a brisk pace, despite its convoluted plot about a private eye,
Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), framed for murder. Hathaway’s final
noir Niagara (1953) was in color, but it again showed his ability to unite
thrilling location work around the falls with a character study, here a
troubled veteran (Joseph Cotten).
HAYDEN, STERLING (1916–1986). The imposingly tall Sterling
Hayden tended to play rough-hewn, self-absorbed characters with a
capacity for tenderness. His most compelling performance was as Dix
Handley in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a petty criminal and the “strong
arm” element of the motley gang recruited for the heist, but loyal and
essentially decent underneath his gruff exterior. In the concluding
scene, the mortally wounded Dix becomes a tragic figure as he drives
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desperately out of the noir city toward the beloved Kentucky farm on
which he was raised. He had a similar role in Stanley Kubrick’s The
Killing (1956) as an ex-convict and small-time criminal who masterminds a racetrack robbery. Hayden could play, equally effectively, a
range of characters: the dogged Detective-Sergeant Sims in Crime Wave
(1954); the discharged policeman determined to rehabilitate himself in
The Naked Alibi (1954); the local sheriff taken hostage by the troubled
veteran (Frank Sinatra) in Suddenly (1954); or the honest detectivelieutenant in Crime of Passion (1957), whose lack of ambition enrages
his aspirant wife (Barbara Stanwyck). Hayden’s career was affected
by his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC) where he was forced to name names, an action he regretted for
the rest of his life. He made a memorable cameo appearance in Robert
Altman’s neo-noir The Long Goodbye (1973) as an alcoholic writer
who eventually commits suicide.
Hayden’s other noirs are Manhandled (1949), The Come-On (1956),
Hard Contract (1969), Winter Kills (1971), and Deadly Strangers
(1974). See also BLACKLIST.
HAYWORTH, RITA (1918–1987). Born Margarita Carmen Cansino,
Rita Hayworth changed her name when she signed for Columbia in
1937. Although appearing in only three noirs, Hayworth’s striking performances in Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948) made
her iconic. In the latter she plays one of the definitive femme fatales, the
exotic, inscrutable, utterly duplicitous woman from the Orient, locked
into a sterile relationship with her wealthy husband (Everett Sloane) that
moves inexorably toward their mutual destruction. In Gilda her role is
more complex, part of an ambiguous ménage-à-trois with her husband
(George Macready) and lover (Glenn Ford), who both suspect her
of being faithless. She is in fact the good-bad girl whose provocative
sexuality—the gaucho costume for the Mardi Gras complete with
whip and her famous song, “Put the Blame on Mame,” part of a strip
tease—are designed as public and parodic enactment of the promiscuous and worthless tramp she is thought to be. The tensions in her role are
not removed by the enforced happy ending. Hayworth was teamed with
Ford again in Affair in Trinidad (1952), in some ways a pallid imitation
of Gilda, where she plays a beautiful nightclub entertainer suspected by
Ford of having a hand in his brother’s death but who is actually working
undercover for the local police. See also WOMEN.
HECHT, BEN
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HEAT (1995). Heat is the most critically acclaimed of Michael Mann’s
neo-noirs, the epic confrontation between Lieutenant Vincent Hanna
(Al Pacino) and master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) that
contained the famous first on-screen meeting between these two star
actors. Heat’s origins go back to a script Mann had written in 1979 but
was only able to make as a television film, L.A. Takedown, in 1989, with
the concomitant restricted budget and short shooting schedule. After his
success with The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mann was able to return
to the project with a considerably increased budget that allowed top-line
stars, a generous shooting schedule, and a slow, deliberate unfolding
of the plot: Heat is nearly three hours long. Mann used 85 separate
locations and many panoramic shots from high angles or helicopters,
especially at night, which give Heat’s presentation of Los Angeles an
operatic quality.
The protagonists are conflicted males, both characteristically obsessive consummate professionals. Hanna has a fraught, fractured home
life and is in danger of destroying his third marriage because of his
all-consuming dedication, in which he has “to hold on to my angst. I
preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where
I’ve got to be.” McCauley, his quarry, is an introverted loner holding a
deep sadness, with a Spartan apartment overlooking the ocean. His selfcompleted existentialism becomes compromised by his relationship
with Eady, a young woman who works in a bookstore, and his younger
associate Chris (Val Kilmer), whom he needs to protect. At the midpoint
in their duel, Hannah and McCauley meet in a coffee shop—each is
shot in the same way but never together, as if they are mirror images
of each other—where they acknowledge their mutual respect for the
other’s integrity and uncompromising professionalism but recognize
that only one can survive. In their final confrontation Hanna shoots
McCauley down, but the criminal’s death has a tragic grandeur, which
Hanna acknowledges as he holds the dying man’s hand and looks away.
See also MEN.
HECHT, BEN (1894–1964). Ben Hecht, who made his name as a Chicago
newspaperman before achieving fame as a novelist, short story writer,
and the author of Scarface (1932), was a formative influence on film
noir. He became a Hollywood screenwriter from 1926, valued highly
for his contemporary, idiomatic, and vivid prose, and as a ruthless and
effective “script doctor,” having a hand in many films noir for which
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he was uncredited, including Cornered (1945), Gilda (1946), Cry of the
City (1948), and Angel Face (1953). Hecht wrote an original story for
the noir precursor Underworld (1927)—winning an Oscar at the first
Academy Awards in 1929—adapted Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest
as Roadhouse Nights (1930), and won another Oscar for The Scoundrel
(1935), an existentialist study of greed, cynicism, and corruption starring Noël Coward as an exploitative New York publisher. Hecht wrote
the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), the latter an original script for which he was Oscar nominated. He also made several uncredited contributions to Hitchcock’s
films, including Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951). Hecht
combined with Charles Lederer in writing the screenplays for Kiss of
Death (1947), a melding of the semidocumentary and gangster noir,
and Ride the Pink Horse (1947), from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel, one
of the best troubled veteran noirs. He adapted the Guy Endore novel
Whirlpool (1949) for Otto Preminger under a pseudonym, Lester Bartow, and wrote the compelling screenplay for Where the Sidewalk Ends
(1950), perhaps his best work. See also AMNESIAC NOIRS.
HEFLIN, VAN (1910–1971). Van Heflin had a mobile, expressive
countenance that could project both attractive and morally ambiguous
characters, making him a good choice for film noir roles. He won an
Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Johnny Eager (1942) as the foil to
Robert Taylor’s gangster, playing a crooked lawyer who, realizing
he has prostituted his ideals and his profession, hides his self-hatred
behind a mask of cultivated cynicism in an alcoholic haze. Heflin
starred in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) as the charismatic
drifter, Sam Masterson, who rekindles buried passions and guilt within
his childhood friend Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) but refuses to collude in her scheme to murder her weak husband (Kirk Douglas). In
Possessed (1947) he played a similarly attractive but egotistical and
exploitative young man whose indifference sends Joan Crawford into
a murderously jealous rage that precipitates catatonia. Heflin portrayed
troubled veteran Frank Enley in Act of Violence (1949), whose prosperous postwar life is disturbed when confronted by his nemesis Joe
Parkson (Robert Ryan), the only survivor of a prison camp massacre
in which Enley was implicated. Heflin’s finest role was as a corrupt
cop, Webb Garwood, in The Prowler (1951), who seduces an attractive woman (Evelyn Keyes) and shoots her husband while pretending
HELLINGER, MARK
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to respond to a prowler call. Consumed by fantasies of wealth and
luxury—the Las Vegas hotel that will “make money for you even while
you sleep”—Garwood represents the dark side of the American dream
and is eventually gunned down by the police.
Helfin’s other noirs are Grand Central Murder (1942), Black Widow
(1954), and Once a Thief (1965).
HEIST NOIRS. See CAPER/HEIST NOIRS.
HELLINGER, MARK (1903–1947). Mark Hellinger made his name
as a New York theater critic and Broadway columnist before writing
screenplays for several films, notably the gangster movie The Roaring
Twenties (1939), whose success persuaded Warner Bros. to make him
an associate producer on They Drive by Night (1940). Hellinger lobbied hard to have the offbeat gangster film High Sierra (1941) made,
and its popularity established his reputation as a capable filmmaker.
Hellinger was a hands-on, hard-driving producer, working on two or
three films simultaneously, but one who recognized the value of writers and that a good script was the key to a successful film. He worked
for Darryl F. Zanuck and for Warner Bros., producing The Two Mrs.
Carrolls (1947), but he was also an independent producer, head of Mark
Hellinger Productions, which released through Universal. The Killers
(1946), adapted from an austere but suggestive Ernest Hemingway short
story, reflected Hellinger’s preference for hard-boiled, spare narratives
and realistic settings, which tempered the work of its more romantically
inclined director Robert Siodmak.
Brute Force (1947), a quintessential prison noir, was also violent
and uncompromising, with director Jules Dassin asked to emphasize
the brutality of prison life. Dassin also directed The Naked City (1948),
but this was Hellinger’s project, which he called his “celluloid monument to New York” and which drew on his cosmopolitan knowingness.
Hellinger dispatched screenwriter Malvin Wald to work with the New
York homicide squad in order to get an authentic story of an actual murder case as the focus of this semidocumentary anatomization of New
York life. Hellinger was highly involved in the final cut, which was
orchestrated to his voice-over, but the stress of the production caused his
death of a heart attack shortly after completing the film.
Criss Cross (1949) was released posthumously, and although
Hellinger had chosen the subject and source, without his presence
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during production, Siodmak moved away from its conspectus of Los
Angeles life toward a more archetypal but bitterly ironic romantic tragedy. Hellinger had also announced the production of Act of Violence,
but this was transferred to William H. Wright at MGM and released
in 1949. He had also purchased the rights to Willard Motley’s novel
Knock on Any Door, which was subsequently produced by Humphrey
Bogart’s Santana Productions in 1949.
HERRMANN, BERNARD (1911–1975). Bernard Herrmann, an outspoken and acerbic composer, was never under a long-term studio
contract, but his scores influenced film noir, particularly through his
collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann’s innovative compositions were sparing, deliberately avoiding lush melodies, emotional
underscoring, and the standard symphonic orchestra in favor of isolated harmonies and short, often nonmelodic musical cues. He used
unorthodox combinations of instruments that produced a deliberate
dissonance, unresolved chordal structures, and polytonality. Herrmann
always insisted on orchestrating his own scores and being part of the
creative process at an early stage. He started in collaboration with Orson Welles, writing scores for his prewar radio shows and providing the
highly innovative score for Citizen Kane (1941). He had a major opportunity with John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1944), as the film itself is
about a schizophrenic composer, George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar),
who has psychotic episodes triggered by discordant sounds. Herrmann
wrote George’s piano concerto, “Concerto Macabre,” as a distinctively
nonclassical, discordant piece, which George plays as the flames engulf
him in the closing scene.
Perhaps the finest of his scores for Hitchcock was in Vertigo (1958),
which deliberately avoids a conventional melody and thereby frustrates
identification with the characters and which is part of the insistent but
unpredictable rhythms and tonal ambiguities that reinforce the film’s
deeply unsettling themes. Herrmann’s final score was for Taxi Driver
(1976)—he died just hours after recording it—another deliberately
nonmelodic piece with its sourly dissonant chords and heavily accented
percussion, capturing perfectly the paranoia of the protagonist.
Herrmann’s other noirs are The Wrong Man (1956), Psycho (1960),
Cape Fear (1962), Marnie (1964), La Mariée était en noir (The Bride
Wore Black, France 1968), Endless Night (GB 1972), and Obsession
(1976). See also MUSIC.
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HERZBRUN, BERNARD (1891–1964). Bernard Herzbrun entered the
film industry in the 1920s, becoming supervising art director at Universal from 1947 to 1954, where he was responsible for the design of
12 noirs, including Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and Abandoned (1949),
where he worked closely with Robert Boyle. Herzbrun had to operate
within tight financial constraints that somewhat inhibited the development of a studio style. Nevertheless, he was able to impose a distinctive
look in which expressionist techniques were restrained and combined
with a strong realist aesthetic that favored location shooting. In Brute
Force (1947), his designs for the high-security prison are solidly palpable but also functioned allegorically as a violent, existentialist hell.
Criss Cross (1949) combined location shooting with the careful delineation of contrasting environments: the tacky bar where Steve (Burt
Lancaster) sees Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) again, the spacious home
of her gangster husband (Dan Duryea), and the beach house where
the lovers are killed. Herzbrun’s later noirs were more functional with
little expressive use of setting, though his designs for the metropolitan
hospital where corruption is rife in The Sleeping City (1950) were both
convincing and evocative.
Herzbrun’s other noirs are A Double Life (1947), Kiss the Blood off
My Hands (1948), Undertow (1949), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), One
Way Street (1950), The Shakedown (1950), and Forbidden (1953).
HIGGINS, JOHN C. (1908–1995). The Canadian-born John Higgins
wrote several complex murder-mystery films, including Murder Man
(1935), police procedurals including They’re Always Caught (1938),
and documentary shorts in the “Crime Does Not Pay” wartime series.
This work was the foundation for his five noir screenplays written for
Anthony Mann that were adapted from unpublished stories. The first
of these, Railroaded (1947), was in the hard-boiled tradition, but Raw
Deal (1948) transcended these elements by creating an authentic and
moving woman’s voice-over through which this story of doomed love
is narrated. For the semidocumentary T-Men (1948), Higgins took an
unpublished story by Virginia Kellogg based on the files of the U.S.
Treasury Department and forged it into a compelling story about two
undercover agents subject to intense danger. He Walked by Night (1949)
also had documentary elements but was primarily a study in alienation
and paranoia. Border Incident (1949), based on Higgins’s own unpublished story, was another undercover film, but about immigration
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officials. Higgins only wrote one further noir, Shield for Murder (1954),
adapted (with Richard Alan Simmons) from a William P. McGivern
story. It too exhibits the violence that characterized Higgins’s collaborations with Mann.
HIGHSMITH, PATRICIA (1921–1995). Patricia Highsmith has influenced the development of film noir in America, France, and Germany
through adaptations of her dark novels, with their amoral characters (notably Tom Ripley, the subject of five works) and complex psychological
confrontations. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in
1950, but it was Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation, released the following
year, that established her reputation. The complex sharing of identities
between the two protagonists, in effect an exchange of murders, was
typical of Highsmith and congenial to Hitchcock’s preoccupations.
Strangers on a Train had many similarities to Claude Autant-Lara’s Le
Meurtrier (Enough Rope, 1963) adapted from Highsmith’s The Blunderer (1954), in which two men are, independently, suspected of murdering their wives and who forge a strange alliance after they become
prime suspects. René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) was
an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), in which Alain Delon
played Ripley, a charming but predatory figure, utterly without scruples
or conscience, who murders a rich playboy and assumes his identity. It
was remade using Highsmith’s title in 1999, directed by Anthony Minghella. But, by common consent, Matt Damon could not match Delon’s
sinister, disturbing presence as Ripley.
Wim Wenders’s Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend,
1977) used Highsmith’s third Ripley novel, Ripley’s Game (1974),
to explore the complex relationship between German and American
culture (seen as both exciting and predatory), as did Liliana Cavani
in the coproduction Il gioco di Ripley (Ripley’s Game, 2002) filmed
in English. John Malkovich is a more soft-spoken Ripley than Dennis
Hopper in the 1977 film, but he is equally manipulative and amoral. Die
gläserne Zelle (The Glass Cell, 1978), adapted from Highsmith’s 1964
novel, was a dark, brooding tale of a man released from prison who
becomes psychologically trapped and tortured by a corrosive jealousy
concerning his beautiful wife’s activities while he was incarcerated.
Claude Chabrol’s Le Cri du hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987), adapted
from the 1962 novel, effectively encompassed the strange psychic
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permutations between its two couples, but it became overcomplex and
lacked impact.
Other noirs adapted from Highsmith’s fiction are Dites-lui que je
l’aime (The Sweet Sickness, 1977), Eaux profondes (Deep Water, 1981),
Die zwei Gesichter des Januar (The Two Faces of January, 1986), Der
Geschichtenerzähler (The Story Teller, 1989), and Ripley Under Ground
(2005). See also FRENCH FILM NOIR; GERMAN FILM NOIR.
HITCHCOCK, ALFRED (1899–1980). Born in Leytonstone, northeast
London, Hitchcock had a major career on both sides of the Atlantic,
and his contribution to American and British film noir was immense.
Hitchcock was involved in every aspect of filmmaking—scripting, art
direction, cinematography, music, and editing—and his films constitute a body of work with its own personal “signatures” both visual and
thematic. Therefore, many of his crime and spy thrillers—including
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, remade in 1956), The 39 Steps
(1935), Young and Innocent (1937), Secret Agent (1936), Foreign
Correspondent (1940), The Paradine Case (1948), Under Capricorn
(1949), Dial M for Murder (1954), North by Northwest (1959), The
Birds (1963), and Torn Curtain (1966)—exist on the fringes of noir.
Thus although not as central to the development of film noir as Fritz
Lang’s contributions, the major preoccupations of many of Hitchcock’s
finest films clearly encompass noir’s central concerns.
Even a very early film, The Lodger (1926), a horror-mystery based on
the Jack the Ripper murders, contains strong noir elements in its subtle
presentation of the falsely suspected male protagonist (Ivor Novello)
who appears to be responsible for the murders, and in the high-contrast,
atmospheric lighting that shows Hitchcock’s knowledge of expressionism—he had worked in Germany during the previous two years—and
his visual inventiveness. Blackmail (1929)—which exists in both silent
and sound versions—was another British noir precursor. Alice (Anny
Ondra), who accidentally kills the man who tried to rape her, escapes
detection because her blackmailer falls to his death during the police
pursuit. Alice’s secret, which she shares with her detective fiancé (John
Longden), became a recurring and central Hitchcock preoccupation,
the “transference of guilt.” In Sabotage (1936), adapted from Joseph
Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a woman (Sylvia Sydney) murders her anarchist/saboteur husband because he caused her young brother’s death.
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The evidence is destroyed in a fire at their home, but the handsome
detective knows her guilty secret. This exploration of a dark, complex,
psychosexual terrain established Hitchcock not only as the foremost
British director but also as someone who had reinvigorated the moribund genre of the crime thriller.
Hitchcock went to Hollywood in 1939, and although his first American film, Rebecca (1940), was the choice of his producer, David O.
Selznick, Hitchcock transformed this “woman’s picture” into a Gothic
noir that, in several key scenes, used low-key lighting and unbalanced
compositions to evoke an atmosphere of fear and guilt in which the
couple both share. Suspicion (1941) was also Gothic, with Cary Grant
playing a charming playboy whom his wife (Joan Fontaine) suspects
of being a murderer and of harboring designs on her life. RKO vetoed Hitchcock’s desire to make Grant guilty, but this only serves to
make his character’s motivations all the more unfathomable. Shadow
of a Doubt (1943) had similar themes but a radically different style,
much of it filmed on location in a typical, small American town that
Hitchcock thought created “an atmosphere of actuality that couldn’t
be captured in any other way” and which profoundly influenced the
semidocumentary films noir. It focuses on another charming playboy,
Charlie (Joseph Cotten), but this time he actually is a serial killer
whose guilt, in a typical Hitchcock transference, envelops his niece
(Teresa Wright), who shares his name.
Spellbound (1945) is the story of a traumatized, amnesiac/troubled
veteran (Gregory Peck) who believes he is guilty of the murder of
Dr. Edwards, whom he is impersonating and whose guilt transfers to
the psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) who has fallen in love with him. It
contains a famous dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali that was
explicitly surrealist, a bold move by Hitchcock to create a visual correlative for psychological disturbance. Notorious (1946) was another
star-driven romantic thriller, but again it was built around the notion of
the couple (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman) who share a guilty secret.
Devlin (Grant) is the cynical government agent who recruits Alicia Huberman (Bergman) to infiltrate a group of Nazi conspirators who have
relocated to Rio after the war. Although in love with her, Devlin is mistrustful of her promiscuous past and also needs her sexual attractiveness
as the bait to trap the Nazi businessman (Claude Rains). Alicia is in love
with Devlin but accepts her role because she needs to atone for the sins
of her father, a Nazi spy sentenced at the film’s opening.
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In Strangers on a Train (1951), based on Patricia Highsmith’s first
novel, this motif of the guilty secret is transferred to the male couple,
who agree on an “exchange of murders.” Although opposites, this pact
ensures that a complex psychic transference occurs between the pair so
that in their final struggle on the circus merry-go-round, it is unclear
where our sympathies lie. Rear Window (1954), based on a Cornell
Woolrich story, was an exploration of paranoia, guilty secrets—discovered by the wheelchair-bound journalist (James Stewart) spying on his
neighbors—and voyeurism that was more disturbing than the murder
mystery that drives the plot.
The Wrong Man (1956) was Hitchcock’s deliberate break with the
romantic thriller centered on the couple. Based on a true story, it was a
return to semidocumentary mode using actual locations in its depiction
of the quintessential victim-hero, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a
New York nightclub musician misidentified as the man who has held
up a number of local businesses in Queens. Manny is an ordinary, trusting, insecure man caught up in a nightmare that could have come from
a Woolrich novel, in which witnesses who could prove his innocence
are either missing or dead. Although Manny’s innocence is eventually
established, the accusations have driven his wife insane in this austere
and desolate film. Vertigo (1958) was also very bleak, a ruthless exploration of male weakness and the capacity for self-deception. Marnie
(1964) was a late noir that returned to the theme of the guilty couple.
Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), a jaded, wealthy Philadelphia playboy,
becomes fascinated and attracted by Marnie (Tippi Hedren) because
she is a compulsive thief. Mark’s cruelty and sadism are evident in the
way he forces her to marry him, indicating that he is as psychologically
disturbed as she is, although the ending provides a Freudian “explanation” for her frigidity and fear of men located in a childhood trauma.
The earlier and hugely influential Psycho (1960) was another change of
direction. It begins as a noir, a woman embezzling money to run away
with her lover with whom she is having an adulterous affair, and develops into a horror film. Hitchcock’s final noir Frenzy (GB 1972) was a
return to the London of The Lodger, in which a troubled veteran (Jon
Finch) is suspected of being a sadistic serial killer. Hitchcock, who had
adopted U.S. citizenship in 1956, was knighted in 1979.
Hitchcock’s other noirs are Murder! (GB 1930), Number 17 (GB
1932), Saboteur (1942), Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), and
Stage Fright (GB 1950). See also MEN; VISUAL STYLE; WOMEN.
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HIT MAN. Films about a hit man constitute an important subgenre of the
thriller, and there have been a number of significant noir and neo-noir
hit men. The first was Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) in This Gun for Hire
(1942), based on Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (1936), the earliest
detailed depiction of the modern urban hit man. Raven is the quintessentially alienated noir protagonist, isolated, paranoid, and psychologically
damaged despite his professional expertise. Murder by Contract (1958)
also evokes some sympathy and understanding for the hit man, as does
Johnny Cool (1963), Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), and Michael
Mann’s Collateral (2004). By contrast, other noirs have emphasized the
brutal and psychotic nature of the hit man: Frank Sinatra in Suddenly
(1954), Eli Wallach’s Dancer in The Lineup (1958), Peter Falk’s portrait
of the infamous Abe “Kid Twist” Reles in Murder, Inc. (1960), and the
Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007), in which Javier Bardem plays a sociopathic hit man with a unique weapon.
A third strand focused on the hit man as part of a wider political
conspiracy, notably: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Parallax
View (1974), and also the Bourne Trilogy (The Bourne Identity, 2002,
The Bourne Supremacy, 2004, and The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007) based
on Robert Ludlum’s 1980 thriller, in which Matt Damon plays an amnesiac who suspects that he may have been a Central Intelligence Agency
assassin and who is being pursued by various agents. A fourth strand is
the female assassin inaugurated by Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990), in which
Nikita (Anne Parrillaud) is systematically transformed from heroin addict into a government killing machine. It was remade in Hong Kong
as Black Cat (1991), in the United States as Point of No Return (1993),
and also spawned a television series, La Femme Nikita (1997), that ran
for five seasons. More recently Quentin Tarantino’s hybrid noirs, Kill
Bill I and 2 (2003/2004) starred Uma Thurman as “The Bride,” a kung
fu inspired killing machine exacting revenge.
The hit man has been important in European noirs: Jean-Pierre
Melville’s French film noir Le Samouraï (1967) and Leon (1994);
British film noir—Five Days (U.S. title Paid to Kill, 1954), Mike
Hodges’s Get Carter (1971), and also Mr. In-Between (2001); and numerous Asian films noir, including John Woo’s Die xue shuang xiong
(The Killer, 1989).
Other American hit man noirs include: The Whistler (1944), The
Pretender (1947), New York Confidential (1955), Accused of Murder
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(1956), Hard Contract (1969), and Ghost Dog, the Way of the Samurai
(1999). See also MEN.
HODGES, MIKE (1932– ). Although highly respected, writer-director
Mike Hodges’s films have often been box-office failures, hence the long
gaps in his oeuvre. Hodges was drawn to noir because he believed that
the crime thriller could act like an autopsy, delving “deep into the underbelly of society” to reveal corruption and sickness, as in Get Carter
(1971), which remains his most celebrated film. Pulp (1972), also
starring Michael Caine as a sleazy popular fiction writer caught up in
a real-life murder mystery, was an intermittently effective comedythriller. The Terminal Man (1974) and Black Rainbow (1989) were noir
hybrids, sci-fi/horror and supernatural horror respectively. A Prayer for
the Dying (1987), a grueling thriller about the impossibility of renouncing violence, starred Mickey Rourke as an Irish Republican Army hit
man. Hodges disowned the film after it was drastically re-edited by the
production company that substituted what he deemed to be a crassly
inappropriate musical score.
Hodges regained international recognition with Croupier (1998).
Paul Mayersberg’s brilliant original screenplay is a modern existential
fable about the contemporary obsession with money. Jack/Jake Manfred
(Clive Owen) is an archetypal noir split self, part serious novelist, part
gambler, who returns, at his father’s behest, to working in a casino,
a noir world of tawdry glamour, shimmering surfaces, and distorting
reflections. For Hodges, Jack is a contemporary antihero, making his
way in an insecure world of casualized labor where the social fabric
is collapsing and everyone is on their own. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
(2003), written by Trevor Preston, was even bleaker, narrated entirely
in flashback by Will Graham (Owen), a feared hard man who has renounced violence and the London underworld only to be sucked back by
the need to understand the reasons for his brother’s death (echoing Get
Carter). Will, unlike Jack Carter, survives, but there is no redemption
in a film that Hodges argued was about futility and the meaninglessness
of any action, a study in “lost lives, wasted lives.” See also BRITISH
FILM NOIR.
HODIAK, JOHN (1914–1955). For a brief period in the late 1940s John
Hodiak was a leading man for Twentieth Century-Fox and MGM, but
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his career declined in the 1950s before his early death in 1955, aged
only 41. He appeared in seven noirs and, like Richard Conte, had the
suave good looks that meant that he could play either hero or villain. His
strongest role came opposite Conte in Somewhere in the Night (1946),
where he created a compelling performance as the amnesiac/troubled
veteran, an unstable mixture of strength, tenderness, and existentialist
fear. In Two Smart People (1946), The Arnelo Affair (1947), and Love
from a Stranger (1947), Hodiak played attractive but venal rogues, seducing and exploiting women for his own ends.
Hodiak’s other noirs are Desert Fury (1947), The Bribe (1949), A Lady
without Passport (1950), and The People Against O’Hara (1951).
HONG KONG FILM NOIR. With its high-density, fast-paced, and
rapidly changing urban society, a history of organized gangsterism (the
Triads) and police corruption, it is unsurprising that Hong Kong has
developed a strong film noir tradition. Part of a large film industry—the
“Hollywood of the East”—that works rapidly and favors sequels, Hong
Kong film noir shows a strongly reciprocal relationship with Hollywood
cinema, borrowing heavily from American models that are reworked
and that then often influence American neo-noirs. As with other Asian
noirs, there is a central tension between traditional Confucian values
and the impact of Western materialism. This was intensified after 1984
when Great Britain and China negotiated the return of Hong Kong to
Chinese rule from 1997, encouraging the exploration of ethnicity, nationality, and identity for which noir was an important vehicle.
Although the 1970s were dominated by kung fu films, a number of
crime films had noir elements. Dian zhi bing bing (Cops and Robbers,
1979) and Hang Gui (The System, 1979), explored the unbiquitous
theme of the blurred boundaries between police and the underworld.
The bleak psychological thriller Feng jie (The Secret, 1979) used layered flashbacks to unfold the murky motivations surrounding a double
murder. In the 1980s Johnny Mak’s influential Sheng gang qi bing (Long
Arm of the Law, 1984) and its two sequels depicted a close-knit outlaw
gang based on the “Big Circle” mobsters, Hong Kong’s most notorious
criminals after the Triads, betrayed by a police informer. Mak’s film
culminates in a graphic shootout in the now-vanished Walled City.
Hong Kong cinema began to achieve international recognition from
the mid-1980s with John Woo’s Ying xiong ben se (A Better Tomorrow,
1986) and Die xue shuang xiong (The Killer, 1989). Extremely violent
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but with scenes of melancholic longing, Woo’s films explore noir’s
central concerns about blurred moral boundaries, shifting identites,
and the ties of friendship and honor in an unstable and rapidly changing world. A Better Tomorrow, loosely based on a famous Cantonesedialect thriller (Story of a Discharged Prisoner, 1967—itself a remake
of the French-American thriller Once a Thief, 1965, starring Alain Delon), depicts a gangster leader who tries to go straight after his release
from prison and become reconciled with his policeman brother, while
his old sidekick (Chow Yun-Fat) attempts to persuade him back into
crime. In the sequel, Ying xiong ben se xu ji (A Better Tomorrow Part
II, 1987), set in New York, Yun-Fat plays the earlier protagonist’s twin
brother, and the action contrasts mafia corruption and Triad honor. Ying
xiong ben se III—tzu yang tsugor (A Better Tomorrow Part III, 1989),
directed by Hark Tsui, was a prequel set in Saigon.
The Killer, directly influenced by Le Samouraï (1967) in its lighting
and the costuming as well as thematically, again starred Yun-Fat as Jeff,
a hit man who accidentally blinds a nightclub singer and undertakes one
last job to pay for her operation. He is pursued by his corrupt employers
and the police, forming a close bond with his adversary and mirror image, rogue police inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee). Woo’s later noir, Die
xue jie tou (Bullet in the Head, 1990), influenced by The Deer Hunter
(1978), was a tale of friendship and betrayal between three Vietnam
veterans that explored the instabilities of the Hong Kong male. Zong
heng si hai (Once a Thief, 1991) was a more lighthearted caper film,
but La shou shen tan (Hardboiled, 1992), was shockingly violent in its
a bleak view of vicious criminality without any moral code. Although
Yun-Fat’s volatile, obsessive cop, “Tequila,” is clearly distinguished
from the gangsters he relentlessly pursues, his adherence to outmoded
values is anachronistic. The international success of Woo’s films meant
that he was invited to Hollywood, where he made the American neonoir Face/Off (1997).
Ringo Lam’s Long hu feng yun (City on Fire, 1987), a decisive influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), initiated a
subgenre known as “heroic bloodshed,” gritty urban nightmares that
depicted a turbulent world of violent crime and corruption, emphasizing
the neon-lit, nighttime streets of downtown Hong Kong. Yun-Fat plays
an undercover cop, Ko Chow, who infiltrates a gang and, prefiguring
The Killer, finds his Doppelgänger in adversary/buddy Fu (Danny Lee),
their bond stronger than their group loyalties. Yun-Fat gives one of his
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strongest performances as a world-weary character, so long undercover
that his loyalties and purpose have become confused.
A pervasive ambivalence also characterizes more recent Hong Kong
noirs. Wu yi tan zhang: Lei Luo zhuan (Lee Rock, 1991) and Wu hu jiang zhi jue lie (The Tigers, 1991) portray corrupt cops, while the noirs
of Kirk Wong—including Tian luo di wang (Gunmen, 1988), Zhong
an zu (Crime Story, 1993), and Chung ngon sat luk: O gei (Organized
Crime and Triad Bureau, 1994)—focused on policemen caught in an
in-between world, their signature blue-filtered chiaroscuro and enclosed
spaces providing a visual correlative for the moral ambivalence. A
similar ambiguity haunts the portrayal of the hit man, as in Saat saat,
yin tiu tiu (Ballistic Kiss, 1998) and Wang jiao hei ye (One Night in
Mongkok, 2004). Depictions of the Triads and gangsterism also displayed ambivalent attitudes. Gu huo nu zhi jue zhan jiang hu (Sexy and
Dangerous, 1996) and its nine sequels adapted from a comic book series
romanticized the Triads, but the nihilistic Long hu Bo Lon ji (Street of
Fury, 1996) argued that the traditional Triad code was dead amidst the
narrow, dirty, and vulgar mean streets of Hong Kong. Chan sam ying
hung (A Hero Never Dies, 1998) depicts two rival enforcers for different Triad bosses who, after being betrayed, join forces and take revenge
in the name of the traditional code of honor, a solid ethical stance in an
increasingly material world.
Wai-keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak’s Wu jian dao (Infernal Affairs,
2002) was highly successful, giving rise to a prequel and a sequel, both
released in 2003. It was also influential, remade by Martin Scorsese
as The Departed (2006). Infernal Affairs also reflected the blurred
boundaries between police and criminal and the intricate connections
between Triad and police organizations in its parallel story of a cop who
infiltrates a crime gang and a gang member who infiltrates the police
force, each mole planted by the rival organization to gain an advantage
in intelligence over the other side. Both moles struggle with their double
identities and begin to lose their moral bearings and sense of purpose.
Sun taam (Mad Detective, 2007) also explores psychological confusion
through the figure of Inspector Bun, whose troubled personality and
unorthodox methods cost him his job. However, five years later he is
contacted by a young inspector as the only person capable of solving a
baffling spate of killings that seem to point to his former partner. See
also THE CITY; JAPANESE FILM NOIR; MEN; SOUTH KOREAN
FILM NOIR; VISUAL STYLE.
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HOPPER, EDWARD (1882–1967). Hopper’s paintings, with their wide
compositions and dramatic use of light and dark, had a significant
influence on film noir. Hopper himself was profoundly influenced by
hard-boiled fiction and the cinema: he had designed posters for prewar
gangster films as well as covers and illustrations for pulp magazines.
Hopper studied at the New York Institute of Art and Design with Robert Henri, who encouraged his students to render realistic depictions of
urban life and who influenced the Ashcan School of American art. Accordingly, Hopper derived his subject matter from the common features
of American life—gas stations, drugstores, diners, motels, the railroad,
or an empty street—and their ordinary inhabitants. His most famous
painting, “Nighthawks” (1942), depicts customers sitting at the counter
of an all-night diner set in a dark, empty urban street. The four figures
appear isolated, lonely, and vulnerable under harsh electric light, and
the painting’s mood is one of entrapment and alienation. In “Office at
Night” (1940), painted in drab and subdued greens and browns, the shaft
from the streetlight cutting through the window and onto the frosted
glass at the rear of the office could be a sketch for a noir about the beleaguered private eye.
Hopper’s work had a very direct influence on several noirs: when
Abraham Polonsky was dissatisfied with the rushes for Force of Evil
(1948), he took cinematographer George Barnes to an exhibition of
Hopper’s paintings in Greenwich Village; “House by the Railroad”
(1925) was the inspiration for the Bates’s Gothic home in Alfred
Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); Sam Mendes used “New York Movie”
(1939), Hopper’s study of an usherette standing beneath a wall light in
a small auditorium, to establish the lighting for the retro-noir Road to
Perdition (2002). See also VISUAL STYLE.
HUSTON, JOHN (1906–1987). John Huston, the son of the famous
actor Walter Huston who had appeared in the noir precursor Beast
of the City (1932), was a talented artist, writer, and actor as well as a
director. Huston involved himself in every aspect of a production, including the design, décor, costuming, cinematography, and editing. He
became a contract writer for Warner Bros. in 1938, and his screenplays
included the influential gangster film High Sierra (1941), adapting
W. R. Burnett’s novel, Three Strangers (1946), and the noir-adventure
story The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which he also directed.
Huston also made uncredited contributions to the screenplays for noirs
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made by other companies: Dark Waters (1944) and Robert Siodmak’s
The Killers (1946). His first feature film as a director was The Maltese Falcon (1941), the earliest adaptation of Dashiell Hammett that
retained the dark timbre of the original. Key Largo (1948) was based
on Maxwell Anderson’s prewar blank verse play about a gangster on
the run who holds a group prisoner in a dilapidated hotel on the Florida
Keys. Huston updated the play with Richard Brooks. Although the
film retains an ineradicable staginess, Huston elicits memorable performances from his cast: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Edward
G. Robinson, and above all, Claire Trevor, who won an Oscar for her
performance as the gangster’s moll, Gaye Dawn. Huston helped organize the Committee for the First Amendment to combat the blacklist.
These left-liberal views are reflected in perhaps his finest film, The
Asphalt Jungle (1950), an extremely influential caper/heist noir that
recognizes the humanity of the criminals. Huston received Academy
Award nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Direction and won
the Screen Directors Guild Award.
Huston made three neo-noirs. The Kremlin Letter (1970) was a
political thriller in which a disparate group, assembled to recover a
compromising American State Department letter discussing a United
States–Soviet Russia plan to attack Red China, uses moral and sexual
corruption to accomplish its goal. It is a relentlessly bleak film, permeated by suspicion, betrayal, and double-cross, in which all of the
characters are compromised and most are sacrificed to a fake mission.
Fat City (1972), which Huston coadapted with the author of the novel,
Leonard Gardner, was a boxing noir, but one where the characters are
chasing another false quest: fame and wealth. Prizzi’s Honor (1985),
based on Richard Condon’s novel, was an accomplished and deft blackcomic thriller about a ruling mafia family who demand absolute loyalty.
A study in the “banality of evil,” it focuses on Charley Partanna (Jack
Nicholson), the Prizzi’s loyal hit man, who succumbs to the Prizzi’s
code of honor. Agreeing to murder his wife Irene (Kathleen Turner), he
is reassured by his father: “It’s only business Charley.”
Huston showed his accomplishment as an actor by playing Noah
Cross, the corrupt patriarch in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974),
and a similar role in the underrated Winter Kills (1979).
HYBRIDS. Noir hybrids are films that can be securely located in a particular genre but which have significant noir elements. From the first, noir
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shared many elements with Gothic horror—an investigation that moves
into unknown territory, a convoluted plot, aberrant psychology, claustrophobic spaces, social disintegration, stylized lighting and décor—and
therefore horror-noir is a persistent hybrid. The Universal horror films
were a major influence on film noir and produced a number of hybrids,
including Calling Dr. Death (1944) and The Brute Man (1946), as did
Val Lewton’s cycle of psychological horrors for RKO, including Curse
of the Cat People (1944). Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944), set in
19th-century Paris, was also a typical horror-noir hybrid, using expressionist sets, low-key lighting, and oblique angles, all noir visual tropes.
The cadaverous John Carradine plays a puppeteer who kills women in
order to preserve his artistic creativity but is a haunted, disturbed character, desperate to be released from his uncontrollable compulsions.
John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) had
similar hybrid elements.
The horror-noir hybrid was rare in the 1950s and the 1960s with
the exception of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which influenced
Brian de Palma’s blendings of noir and horror in Obsession (1976),
Dressed to Kill (1980), and Body Double (1984). Horror-noir became
an important component of 1980s neo-noir, as in The First Deadly Sin
(1980), Blowout (1981), and Wolfen (1981). In Angel Heart (1987), set
in 1955, detective Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) is summoned by his
demonic client Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a missing singer
in Harlem, Johnny Favorite, who, 12 years earlier, sold his soul to the
devil. Other supernatural horror-noirs include Kathryn Bigelow’s Near
Dark (1987), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), scripted by Quentin Tarantino, which splices the noir thriller with the vampire tale, and Roman
Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (2000), in which an unscrupulous rare book
dealer (Johnny Depp) is hired to track down an occult text.
Another variation was the “slasher noir,” in which the monster and
the victim are both female, as in Single White Female (1992). Michael
Mann’s underrated Manhunter (1986) was the beginning of an extended concern with the psychopathic serial killer continued (or started
again) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Anthony Hopkins reprised
his role as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in Hannibal (2001) and Red
Dragon (2002), which were baroque, neo-Gothic horror-noirs abandoning the investigative realism of the first film. A prequel, Hannibal Rising (2007), dramatized Hannibal’s formative years. Other serial-killer
noirs included Copycat (1995)—in which the killer commits killings
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modeled on famous cases—Roberto Succo (2001), and Tattoo (2002),
but the most accomplished was Se7en (1995).
The melding of sci-fi and noir has its roots in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis
(1928), but in America the emerging science fiction genre of the 1950s
occasionally incorporated noir elements to express Cold War anxieties:
Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended (1955), Indestructible Man
(1956), and Not of This Earth (1957). The most powerful was Don
Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), narrated in flashback
by a hysterical doctor (Kevin McCarthy) who believes the inhabitants
of his small hometown of Santa Fe in California have become “pod
people,” their bodies taken over by aliens. There were also several interesting examples in the 1960s: The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961),
Brainstorm (1965), in which Jeffrey Hunter plays a physicist working
on a project to develop atomic weapons, Jean-Luc Godard’s influential
French film noir Alphaville (1965), and Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage
(1965). The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972) and Richard Fleischer’s
Soylent Green (1973), with their intrigues, betrayals, and dark secrets,
were later examples.
Following sci-fi’s powerful and sustained re-emergence in the late
1970s, a recognizable hybrid called, variously, “future noir,” “cyber
noir,” or “tech noir” was established that drew upon a noir register in
order to project a dystopian, often terrifying, vision of the future. The
most celebrated and influential example remains Ridley Scott’s Blade
Runner (1982), depicting a nightmare Los Angeles of 2019. Others
included The Terminator (1984), Miracle Mile (1988), and Kathryn
Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), set in Los Angeles in the closings days
of 1999. Dark City (1998), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), and the Matrix
Trilogy (1999–2003) depicted dystopian future worlds ruled by aliens.
In the latter, Neo (Keanu Reeves), a warrior cyber-hacker, has to combat
a simulated world in which the majority of humanity has become enslaved by a race of machines that live off their body heat and which, to
forestall a revolution, project an artificial reality—The Matrix—where
life appears perfectly normal. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report
(2002), like Blade Runner, loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, takes
place in Washington, D.C., in 2054 where murders are solved before
they are committed by the “precrime” unit headed by John Anderton
(Tom Cruise), who goes on the run when the “precogs” predict he will
kill the man who abducted his son.
Westerns, with their wide-open spaces and sense of unlimited expansion, are thematically and iconographically remote from noir, but
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several display a noir sensibility in the genre’s postwar development.
Pursued (1947), starring Robert Mitchum as Jeb Rand, who narrates
the tale through a series of flashbacks, is the story of a troubled veteran
(after the Civil War) tormented by events he cannot recollect clearly
but which haunt his dreams and thwart his relationships. Mitchum
also starred in Blood on the Moon (1948), a dark tale of divided loyalties. Ramrod (1947), a violent and dark Western, has a femme fatale
(Veronica Lake), while Station West (1948) transposes the detective
story into a Western setting with Dick Powell as an army intelligence
officer and Jane Greer as a femme fatale; Alan Ladd played a similar
character in Whispering Smith (1948). Yellow Sky (1949), coscripted by
W. R. Burnett about a group of bank robbers on the run, has a classic
noir plot, and the atmosphere is one of fear, suspicion, betrayal, and
claustrophobia. Two Westerns directed by William Wellman—The OxBow Incident (1943) and Track of the Cat (1954)—also show clear noir
influences, as does Rimfire (1949). Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950)
was the study of a tragic, isolated man (Gregory Peck) anxious to retire
but finding it impossible, another noir protagonist trapped by his past.
The most important noir director who made Westerns—10 in all—
was Anthony Mann. Winchester ’73 (1950), one of six starring James
Stewart, has a pursuit and revenge plot, while Naked Spur (1954) and
Man of the West (1958), the latter starring Gary Cooper, have an atmosphere of uncertainty and bitterness that demonstrate how Mann’s noir
sensibility was transposed to a Western setting. Bad Day at Black Rock
(1955) was thoroughly noir in its gradual unearthing of corruption and
buried secrets. Although the Western’s popularity waned, occasional
later examples show a noir influence, including Welcome to Hard Times
(1967), and three by Clint Eastwood: High Plains Drifter (1973), Pale
Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992).
The 1960s and 1970s saw the development of the noir political
thriller beginning with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by
John Frankenheimer, in which a troubled veteran from the Korean
War (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed by Communist forces
and programmed to become a political assassin. Frankenheimer also
directed Seven Days in May (1964) about a potential right-wing military coup led by General Scott (Burt Lancaster), and he directed John
Huston in the equally desolate The Kremlin Letter (1970). In these
hybrids, noir conventions are used to create a paranoid world that displayed a deep mistrust of American institutions subsequently fuelled
by the Watergate revelations. These influenced Alan J. Pakula’s The
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Parallax View (1974), in which journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty)
investigates a widespread conspiracy controlled by the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Pakula uses off-center framing and low-key lighting
to suggest a corrupt and unbalanced world. Others included: Executive
Action (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Domino Principle
(1977), Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and Capricorn One (1978). Although noir political thrillers are now less common,
they continue to be made, notably the Bourne trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007)
starring Matt Damon and the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington.
Comedy might seem the most remote genre from noir, but there are
examples of comedies that contain noir elements and also comic parodies of noir. Whistling in the Dark (1941), a screwball comedy, has noir
elements in its story of the abduction of The Fox (Red Skelton), a radio
sleuth, by a cunning religious cult led by Conrad Veidt, which wants his
services to perform the perfect murder. Lady on a Train (1945), in which
Deanna Durbin plays a society girl who becomes involved in solving a
murder that no one else takes seriously, has farcical action, but there is
an underlying atmosphere of menace and corruption. There is a noir sensibility at work in several of Preston Sturges’s comedies, including Hail
the Conquering Hero (1944), with its troubled veteran, and Unfaithfully
Yours (1948), in which an orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) plans to
murder his supposedly unfaithful wife during a concert.
There were comic neo-noir hybrids, notably The Late Show (1977),
with its aging, disenchanted private eye (Art Carney), who has to act
when his ex-partner Harry (Howard Duff) arrives at his house riddled
with bullets. The action is played for comic effect, but there is an underlying seriousness in the bleak picture of 1970s Los Angeles that
emerges. Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Jake
Kasdan’s Zero Effect (1998) were comedy thrillers with an affectionate
spoofing of noir conventions. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) was partly
comic, its bogus private eye Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) interrupting his flashback narration with cajoling voice-over asides as he
becomes inadvertently mixed up in a real case. Noir comic parodies
include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), starring Danny Kaye,
and My Favorite Brunette (1947), in which Bob Hope gets involved
with a criminal gang because his photography studio adjoins that of a
private investigator (a cameo appearance by Alan Ladd) who is away
on a case. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) starring Steve Martin
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was a labored parody, intercutting scenes from classic noirs with modern pastiche, but better than the leaden The Black Bird (1975), a spoof
of The Maltese Falcon. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) was a
private-eye burlesque in which a hard-drinking tough guy (Bob Hoskins)
investigates Roger Rabbit, a fictive star framed for murdering a human.
Blondes Have More Guns (1995) was a send-up of two highly successful neo-noirs, Lethal Weapon (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), while
the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) was a Chandleresque
spoof, starring Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, mistaken
for a millionaire who owes the mob money.
A minor noir hybrid is the noir road movie, beginning with Ida
Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), but developed through neo-noir,
notably The Hitcher (1986), starring Rutger Hauer, and its 2007 remake
starring Sean Bean. Others include Bright Angel (1991), Cold Around
the Heart (1998), and Kalifornia (1993), which takes the form of an
inverted westward journey in which a middle-class researcher (David
Duchovny) discovers Third World America with its elemental amoral
killers, represented by Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) with his strange visions,
and John Dahl’s Joy Ride (2001).
Another minor hybrid is the sexploitation (soft-core) noir: a development of the erotic thriller, most famously Basic Instinct (1992).
These hybrids, including Body Chemistry (1990), where a married sex
researcher is lured into a sadomasochistic affair with his colleague, an
unhinged femme fatale, are usually aimed at the straight-to-cable market. Others include Carnal Crimes (1991), Night Rhythms (1992), in
which the hero is a promiscuous disc jockey framed for the murder of a
resentful colleague who is a lesbian femme fatale, I Like to Play Games
(1994), Sinful Deeds (2001), and Young and Seductive (2003), where the
heroine is a sex worker who helps a detective catch her former boyfriend
who is a serial killer. See also THE CITY; GANGSTER FILMS; KISS
OF DEATH; SEMIDOCUMENTARY.
–I–
I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941). I Wake Up Screaming, directed by
H. Bruce Humberstone, was an important early noir because, although
it has aspects of the prewar screwball comedy cycle with its feisty females, knowing, wise-cracking dialogue, and a conventional murder
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mystery, these elements are incorporated into a dark melodrama that explores perverse sexuality as a characteristic element of the noir city and
that are told through a complex series of flashbacks. Cinematographer
Edward Cronjager’s low-angle, occasionally off-angle, compositions
and high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting show the emergence of the noir
visual style, including his use of mesh bars or Venetian blinds where
characters are trapped half in shadow, half in light. I Wake Up Screaming was based on a hard-boiled novel by Steve Fisher, serialized
in Photoplay-Movie Mirror but transferred from Hollywood to New
York because the Head of Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl Zanuck,
had tabooed Hollywood pictures. The three characters—boxing promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), ex-actor Robin Ray (Alan
Mowbray), and columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn)—are bachelor
men-about-town who have a casual bet as to whether waitress Vicky
Lynn (Carole Landis) can be transformed, Pygmalion-like, into a star.
After she is murdered, Frankie becomes framed for her murder, joining
forces with Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) to prove his innocence. He
is pursued by Lieutenant Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), whose obsessive
love for Vicky—his room is a shrine to her—makes him determined
to see off his rival. An introverted loner, Cornell takes a macabre relish in describing how men react to the imminence of their death in
the electric chair, during a scene in which Frankie had woken to find
Cornell perched at the end of his bed, gloating over the evidence he has
collected, which also hints at a repressed homosexual desire. Cornell
is well aware that the real killer is the switchboard operator at Vicky’s
apartment building, Harry Williams (Elisha Cook Jr.), another misfit
hopelessly in love with her.
I Wake Up Screaming was remade as Vicki (1953), directed by
Harry Horner. Although more consistently noir, Vicki did not have the
original’s power to disturb. Elliott Reid lacked Mature’s charisma and
substance as Frankie, and Richard Boone was loathsome as Cornell
rather than disturbing.
INGSTER, BORIS (1903–1978). Born in Riga, Latvia, Boris Ingster
worked with Sergei Eisenstein and came with him to Hollywood in the
early 1930s, choosing to remain there. Initially a screenwriter, Ingster
directed the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), made
on a very modest budget for RKO, which showed the marked influence
of expressionism in style and subject matter as well as the presence of
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Peter Lorre as the mysterious stranger. Ingster wrote the story from
which Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946) was adapted, about an
American physicist (Gary Cooper) asked to penetrate the European scientific network and find out about the development of atomic bombs.
Ingster cowrote and directed Southside 1-1000 (1950) produced by the
King brothers, another undercover noir in which a federal agent, John
Riggs (Don DeFore), infiltrates a gang of counterfeiters led by Nora
Craig (Andrea King), a remarkably tough, callous, and resourceful
femme fatale. After this point, Ingster went on to become a successful
writer and producer in television. See also ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL.
IRELAND, JOHN (1914–1992). Born in Canada but raised in New
York, John Ireland was a talented actor who played intelligent villains
or hard-pressed, beleaguered heroes in second-feature noirs. He was
memorable as sadistic killers in two Anthony Mann noirs, Railroaded
(1947) and Raw Deal (1948). In Open Secret (1948), a poor man’s
Crossfire (1947), expressionistically directed by John Reinhardt, he
was the Everyman hero, caught up in a small-town Nazi League that
has murdered his ex-army pal. Ireland was Oscar-nominated as Best
Supporting Actor in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) as
the disillusioned reporter who becomes the supporter of the governor
(Broderick Crawford) in his quest for power, only to experience a far
deeper sense of disappointment. In The Scarf (1951), an expressionist
noir directed by E. A. Dupont, he played an escapee from an insane
asylum who tries to find out whether he committed the murder for which
he has been incarcerated. Ireland codirected The Fast and the Furious
(1955), in which he plays a man-on-the-run who takes a woman (Dorothy Malone) as hostage.
Ireland’s other noirs are The Gangster (1947), I Love Trouble (1948),
The Good Die Young (GB 1954), Party Girl (1958), Faces in the Dark
(GB 1960), Return of a Stranger (GB 1961), and Farewell, My Lovely
(GB 1975).
ITALIAN FILM NOIR. There has been little recognition and discussion of
Italian film noir because it has been subsumed under the ambit of giallo,
a capacious term encompassing crime mysteries, horror films, and political and erotic thrillers. The Italian film industry has been highly volatile
with short-lived cycles of films (filoni) rather than evolving genres.
However, an Italian film noir can be identified, distinguished above all
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by its highly politicized nature, as critiquing an unstable, corrupt public
life constantly rocked by fresh and often inexplicable scandals.
Italian film noir has deep cultural roots, stretching back to silent
crime serials and the proliferation of crime fiction that occurred even
under Benito Mussolini’s rule (the ventennio nero or black twenty
years, 1922–1944) that were highly influenced by poetic realism and
American hard-boiled fiction. The latter was the source for Luchino
Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession, 1942), an adaptation of James M.
Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. The action was transferred to
the Po Valley, where the extensive location shooting establishes a specifically Italian world of poverty and privations, of people forced to the
margins of society in order to survive, the bleak context for the intense,
overwhelming passion between Gino (Massimo Girotti) and Giovanna
(Clara Calamai). The impact of Ossessione was foreshortened by the
war and its release was blocked internationally by MGM, but it was the
forerunner of the postwar neorealismo nero (black neo-realism) that
included Tombolo paradiso nero (Tombolo, Black Paradise, 1947) and
Alberto Lattuada’s Senza pietà (Without Pity, 1948), both set in the port
of Livorno (Leghorn), a major depot for U.S. army supplies and thus a
center of blackmarketeering. Without Pity revolves around an interracial
love affair between a black American soldier and an Italian prostitute
whom he tries to protect from both the authorities and the criminal underworld. Lattuada’s earlier Il bandito (The Bandit, 1946) focused on
a troubled veteran facing problems of unemployment, poverty, and
social and familial disruption who has to become a criminal in order to
survive. Although the film has gangster elements derived from American models, its location shooting and engagement with specific cultural
issues made it resonantly Italian. The same hybrid qualities inform Gioventù perduta (Lost Youth, 1949), where a gang of young delinquents
commit a number of violent armed robberies in a shadowy urban setting,
and two films by Giuseppe De Santis: Caccia tragica (Tragic Pursuit,
1947) and Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1948), which combine crime film
conventions with neo-realist settings on collective farms.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s noir—Cronaca di un amore (Story of a
Love Affair, 1950), another erotic triangle inspired by Cain and Ossessione—was superbly realized, but the real development of Italian noir
came through its diffusion into popular genres. Rai (Italian state television) produced a series of crime thrillers: adaptations of Georges Simenon, translations of French Série Noire, and American pulp fiction,
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but also programs made from indigenous sources, including Giorgio
Scerbanenco’s stories with their cynical protagonist, abused characters,
corruption, and violence, set in a bleak and ugly Milan of anonymous
hotels, waste ground, and low-life clubs.
The most important crossover was with the horror film, especially
those by Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Bava’s La frusta e il corpo
(The Whip and the Body, aka Night Is the Phantom, 1963), for example,
makes spectacular use of shadows to create a threatening world in which
horror constantly returns, usually associated with excessive female sexual desire. Argento’s Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975) starred David
Hemmings as a music teacher who investigates a series of violent murders that he cannot comprehend and that put his own life in danger. It
displays Argento’s trademark elaborate set-pieces of violence and suspense, with a meticulous build-up and a visceral study of the mechanics
of killing that also characterize Tenebre (Tenebrae, 1982), but here the
focus on male anxieties and pathologies is more overt. The visit of an
American author (Anthony Franciosa) to Italy is disrupted by a series
of murders in which the victims are found with pages of his latest novel
stuffed into their mouths.
However, the most significant Italian development of film noir occurred in the political thriller (giallo politico) in the 1970s, when there
was a marked increase in terrorist crime by both far-right and extremeleft groups. Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970)—which won
an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film—was an influential example,
presenting contemporary Italian life as a Kafkaesque fable about a corrupt cop. The key filmmaker was Francesco Rosi, whose Salvatore
Giuliano (1961), the story of a Sicilian bandit in the immediate postwar
years, was an earlier example. In Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair,
1972), Lucky Luciano (1973), and Cadaveri eccellenti (Illustrious
Corpses, 1975), Rosi employs the investigative mode of the conspiracy
thriller in order to explore the nature of power relationships in Italian
society. The disruptions triggering the investigations are exceptional
events that disturb the carefully constructed impression of normality
preferred by those in power, revealing the hidden alliances and corrupt
dealings that maintain the status quo.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970)—an
adaptation of the famous novel by Alberto Moravia—revisited the fascist era, with Jean-Louis Trintignant as the bland protagonist trapped
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by the past. Its multiple flashbacks indicated the attractions of a noir
paradigm for auteur directors, as did Bertolucci’s later La tragedia
di un uomo ridicolo (The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, 1981) and
Antonioni’s Professione reporter (The Passenger, 1975), starring Jack
Nicholson as a disaffected journalist who switches identity and finds
himself pursued as a gunrunner. As in Antonioni’s earlier Blow-up
(1966), another film intensely preoccupied with the instability of identity, the protagonist never seems to grasp the significance of the events
in which he becomes embroiled.
Italian neo-noir, which dates from the 1980s, is characterized by a
combination of American and Italian elements (including coproductions), but it continues to be highly politicized. L’assassinio di poliziotti
(Copkiller, 1983) is typically allusive both to Italian popular culture
(the hooded killer derives from Diabolik comics) and to American noir
in the figure of the corrupt cop, played by Harvey Keitel. In spite of its
New York setting, the use of the long takes and beautifully composed
interior shots are typically Italian. The giallo politico was revived in the
early 1990s in Il lungo silenzio (The Long Silence, 1993), La scorta (The
Escort, 1993), Il muro di gomma (The Rubber Wall, 1991), Il giudice
ragazzino (The Young Judge, 1993), and Un eroe borghese (Middle
Class Hero, 1994), which all focus on the imperiled lives of highranking officials. Rose e pistole (Roses and Guns, 1998)—which was
set on the edge of Naples and focused on low-life, marginalized characters who inhabit a border zone and “work” in the telephone sex industry
or armed robbery—was one of a number of films concerned with social
breakdown and the problem of Eastern European immigration into Italy.
Liliana Cavani’s Il gioco di Ripley (Ripley’s Game, 2002), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, explored metaphorically the uneasy
relationship between Italy and America, the dying picture framer sucked
into the amoral, criminal world of Ripley (John Malkovich) by the need
to provide for his family.
Paolo Sorrentino’s stylish Le conseguenze dell’amore (The Consequences of Love, 2004) was a return to the crime-mystery, in which the
apparent orderliness of the protagonist’s life in a Swiss hotel conceals a
relationship with the mafia that destroys his attempts to break free with
the young woman with whom he has fallen in love. The highly politicized nature of Italian noir was further underlined by three recent films
that explored the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Alberto
Moro in 1978: Buongiorno notte (Good Morning, Night, 2003), Piazza
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delle cinque lune (Five Moon Square, 2003), and the highly successful
Romanzo criminale (Crime Novel, 2005). The last depicts the Magliana
gang, one of the most powerful Italian criminal associations centered
in Rome from the early 1970s to 1992, whose activities included drugrunning, assassinations, and terrorism, another index of the corruption
and instability that characterize Italian public life.
–J–
JAPANESE FILM NOIR. Japanese society and culture have the necessary conditions to develop a strong film noir: high-density cities, a
criminal underworld, a taste for crime fiction, a fascination with the
yakuza (gangster), and a strong cinematic tradition. Typical of Asian
film noirs, there is a particular concern with the clash between longestablished conceptions of loyalty and honor (often represented by the
samurai tradition) and the amoral forces of Western capitalism. Japanese film noir has been dominated by talented auteur-directors whose
distinctive films often straddle the boundary between commercial and
art-house cinema. Thus, unlike Hong Kong film noir or South Korean
film noir, they are often too distinctive to be easily remade and are
therefore less directly influential on American noir.
There were noir elements in three prewar Yasujiro Ozu crime films:
Sono yo no tsuma (That Night’s Wife, 1930), Hogaraka ni ayume (Walk
Cheerfully, 1930), and particularly Hijosen no onna (Dragnet Girl,
1933), in which a thief corrupts an ordinary woman. However, as in
other cultures, film noir developed strongly after World War II when
Japan experienced a pervasive social and psychological alienation
during the period of American Occupation, 1945–52. This is captured
in two compelling noirs by Akira Kurosawa: Yodire tensi (Drunken
Angel, 1948), in which an alcoholic slum doctor tries to help a callow
gangster (Toshirô Mifune) suffering from tuberculosis contracted from
contaminated water, and, especially, Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949), which
showed American noir’s influence in its high-contrast black-and-white
photography. Stray Dog is the story of a new police recruit (Mifune)
who has to recover his stolen gun used in a murder, and, descending
into the Tokyo underworld, discovers an unnerving similarity between
himself and the killer, both men disturbed and deracinated by the war.
Kurosawa’s later Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well,
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1960) about corporate corruption and revenge had noir elements, as did
Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low), adapted in 1963 from an Ed McBain
“87th Precinct” novel that depicted a stark moral choice faced by a rich
businessman (Mifune) after a kidnapping.
The tense black comic noir Hateshinaki yokubo (Endless Desire,
1958), in which war comrades retrieve a buried cache of black-market
morphine, is a classic noir story of corruption and betrayal involving a
shady femme fatale. Yoshitaro Nomura’s Harikomi (The Chase, 1958),
in which two detectives pursue a low-life drifter suspected of murder,
has atmospheric black-and-white photography in what is an absorbing, deliberately paced, social-realist character study. Nomura’s later
masterpiece Suna no utsuwa (The Castle of Sand, 1974) was based on
a popular detective story relating how two detectives pursue the killer
of an old man found bludgeoned to death in a rail yard. Their pursuit
expands into a complex and deeply moving story about outcasts and
moral responsibility.
Many of the yakuza gangster films, a staple of Japanese filmmaking,
had noir elements, as in Seijun Suzuki’s Tôkyô nagaremono (Tokyo
Drifter, 1966) and the internationally influential Koroshi no rakuin
(Branded to Kill, 1967). The latter, beautifully shot in black-and-white
chiaroscuro by Kazue Nagatsuka, depicts a hit man, inveigled by a
femme fatale to kill the American agent investigating a smuggling operation, who is pursued by the gangster organization that hired him when
the hit goes wrong. This avant-garde noir with its jump cuts, extreme
close-ups, elliptical editing, and fractured, nightmarish narrative with
frequent flashbacks, depicts an ambivalent, unsure, and paranoid protagonist trapped in a world he no longer understands. Fukasaku Kinji’s
noirs—Gendai yakuza: hito-kiri yota (Street Mobster, 1972), Hito-kiri
yoya: kyoken san-kyodai (Outlaw Killers, 1972), and Shin jingi naki
tataki (Battles without Honor and Humanity, 1973), which was highly
successful and spawned four sequels—delineated the demise of the
samurai tradition in a brutal critique of Japan’s economic success.
Though there is no clear consensus, it can be argued that a Japanese
neo-noir developed in the 1980s. There are noir elements in some of
the numerous anime films, such as The Professional: Golgo 13 (1983),
about a hit man, and Yôjû toshi (Wicked City, 1987), with its femme fatale. Noir continues to have a strong presence in contemporary Japanese
cinema, including: Nudo no yoru (A Night in Nude, 1993), depicting
an ordinary man, hired as a Tokyo tour guide by a femme fatale, who
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becomes involved, half unwittingly, with crooks and killers; Yume no
ginga (Labyrinth of Dreams, 1997), shot in black-and-white, in which
a new bus driver is suspected of being a serial killer by his female colleague; and Hyôryû-gai (City of Lost Souls, 2000), an action-packed
thriller with a multinational cast.
In the 1990s, writer-director-actor and television celebrity Takesi
Kitano emerged as a dominant presence. His first neo-noir was Sono
otoko, kyôbô ni tsuki (Violent Cop, 1989), in which Kitano took over
direction of the film from Kinji Fukasaku, who fell ill. Kitano stars as a
“Dirty Harry”-style vigilante cop, an old-school detective, who battles
corruption, ineffective bureaucracy, and betrayal in a world of confused boundaries. In 3-4x jûgatsu (Boiling Point, 1990), an apathetic,
slow-witted gas station attendant becomes inadvertently involved with
a psychotic gangster (Kitano). In these films Kitano started to develop
his distinctive visual style, combining long, static takes in which nothing appears to be happening with shock cuts to a moment of extreme
violence or the aftermath of an event. This style reaches fruition in
Sonatine (1993), inspired by Fukasaku’s Bakuto gaijin butai (Sympathy for the Underdog, 1971), which established Kitano’s international
reputation. Kitano plays Murakawa, a disaffected yakuza who now perceives gang rivalries as pointless but gradually becomes sucked back
into the Tokyo underworld partly through revenge for the death of one
of his men. In the final scene Murakawa commits suicide on a deserted
beach. Kitano’s masterpiece, Hana-Bi (Fireworks, 1997), was equally
bleak, depicting retired policeman Nishi (Kitano), psychologically
damaged by a shooting in which a colleague dies and his partner is
paralyzed. Drawn into crime to support the treatment of his wife, who
is dying of leukemia, Nisha also commits suicide as the only honorable
course of action.
More recently, Shinya Tsukamoto has emerged as an important director with both a cult and a growing critical reputation. Tsukamoto’s
films noir explore the problems of identity, beginning with Bullet Ballet
(1998), about a man (Tsukamoto) obsessed with locating the gun his
girlfriend used to commit suicide. Sôseiji (Gemini, 1999) was a classic
Doppelgänger story, Rokugatsu no hebi (A Snake of June, 2002) and
Vital (2004) are dark erotic thrillers, and Akumu Tantei (Nightmare
Detective, 2006) and its sequel Akumu Tantei 2 (Nightmare Detective 2,
2008) are horror-noir hybrids in which Tsukamoto plays a serial killer
with supernatural powers.
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LE JOUR SE LÈVE (DAYBREAK, 1939). Along with Le Quai des
brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), Le Jour se lève represents the high
point of poetic realism. Both films were directed by Marcel Carné and
scripted by Jacques Prévert and are highly influential, admired in intellectual circles, popular with the public, and a major inspiration for the
development of film noir. Le Jour begins in media res with Valentin
(Jules Berry) staggering and collapsing on the stairs, having been shot
by François (Jean Gabin), who then holes up in his single room. In
the night that passes, with a large crowd gathered in the square of an
anonymous town, we come to understand the motivation for his action
through a series of extended flashbacks, evocatively photographed by
Philippe Agostini. Gabin is an ordinary worker in love with the gamine
Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), who has fallen under the sway of the
Svengali-like Valentin, an animal trainer with hypnotic powers. As in
Le Quai, Gabin is a tragic hero, a decent man with a fatal violent streak
when crossed, as when a gloating Valentin is about to reveal the details
of his affair with Françoise.
Although the structure and fatalism of Le Jour found its way into
many American noirs, it was directly remade as The Long Night (1947),
starring Henry Fonda. See also FRENCH FILM NOIR.
–K–
KARLSON, PHIL (1908–1985). Phil Karlson was one of the most
important and influential directors of film noir in the 1950s, his films
exhibiting the violence, social themes, and direct, uncomplicated, quasidocumentary style that characterized its development in that decade. After directing the noirish melodrama Wife Wanted (1946), Karlson’s first
noir was Scandal Sheet (1952), an exposé of tabloid journalism, based
on Samuel Fuller’s novel. Karlson’s two city exposé films, Kansas
City Confidential (1952) and The Phenix City Story (1955), were hardhitting, grueling depictions of organized crime. 99 River Street (1953)
and the color noir Hell’s Island (1955), both starring Karlson’s favored
male lead, John Payne, were more individualized if equally brutal. 5
Against the House (1955) was a caper/heist noir with conventional
characterization, but Tight Spot (1955) was unusual in having a female
lead, with Ginger Rogers playing a gangster’s moll under police protection as a star witness. Karlson’s masterpiece was The Brothers Rico
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(1957), based on the Georges Simenon novel, starring Richard Conte
as an ex-syndicate accountant, and like all Karlson’s male protagonists
he is unable to escape his past but is drawn back to fight the organization
after the death of his two brothers. Its depiction of criminal organizations mirroring corporate America anticipated later developments.
After directing the late noir Key Witness (1960) about a vicious delinquent gang, Karlson worked in noir television series and in neo-noir,
achieving his greatest box-office success with Walking Tall (1973),
starring Joe Don Baker as a Tennessee sheriff, Buford Pusser, prepared
to use any method, however violent, to achieve “justice.” Baker also
starred in Framed (1975), Karlson’s last noir.
KEYES, EVELYN (1916–2008). Evelyn Keyes did not develop a distinct
character type but had interesting roles in several noirs, beginning with
the maid in the Gothic noir Ladies in Retirement (1941). She had a
more substantial role in the hybrid The Face Behind the Mask (1941)
as the blind woman with whom the hideously scarred immigrant (Peter
Lorre) falls in love. Keyes played the out-of-town girl investigating
the murder of her sister in Johnny O’Clock (1947), who falls in love
with and eventually redeems the gangster (Dick Powell). She played a
similar role in Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street (1953). In The Prowler
(1951), she had a more complex role as a woman who begins an affair with the charismatic corrupt cop (Van Heflin) that leads to her
husband’s death. Her strong, sympathetic performance was a departure
from the slight mawkishness of her earlier roles. The Killer That Stalked
New York (1951) contained Keyes’s most extended role as a smallpox
carrier who is hiding from the police because she has been involved in
a jewel theft with her husband.
THE KILLERS (1946). The Killers was one of the most influential early
noirs, with an elaborate series of six flashbacks by different narrators that
was clearly modeled on Citizen Kane (1941) and a memorable robbery
sequence filmed entirely in one continuous three-minute take. It was
the product of the creative tension between producer Mark Hellinger’s
desire for “newsreel” realism and director Robert Siodmak’s romantic
fatalism. It was adapted and greatly expanded by Anthony Veiller and
an uncredited John Huston from a brief Ernest Hemingway hardboiled short story, whose action only encompasses the first scene in
which two hired killers (William Conrad and Charles McGraw) enter
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the small town of Brentwood to shoot “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster).
The flashbacks, interconnected but not chronological, are held together
by the plot device of the investigation by an insurance agent (a fine performance by Edmond O’Brien in what was a thankless part) initially
into a small bequest that The Swede made, but which becomes, through
his obsessive interest, an exploration as to why The Swede should accept his death so passively. Drifting into crime after his boxing career
has been ended by a busted right hand, The Swede becomes fatally
enamored of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) as soon as he sees her and
listens to her croon “The More I Know of Love.” Softly and sensuously
lit, Kitty is the siren, driven by avarice and knowing no sense of loyalty,
who leads him to his doom, manipulating The Swede as she does all
the other men who cross her path, including the gang leader “Big” Jim
Colfax (Albert Dekker). Woody Bredell’s wide-angle, deep-focus cinematography, with its unnerving angles and high-contrast chiaroscuro
lighting, inclines more to expressionism than realism, as does Miklòs
Ròzsa’s tense and urgent score. Although Riordan solves the case and
recovers the money, The Swede remains an enigmatic figure whose
poignant death lingers in the memory. See also MUSIC; NARRATIVE
PATTERNS; VISUAL STYLE.
KING BROTHERS (Frank King, 1913–1989; Maurice King, 1914–
1977). The sons of Russian immigrants, Frank and Maurice King started
out manufacturing film projectors, pinball machines, and slot machines
before moving into feature films as King Brothers Productions in 1941.
They gained a rather unenviable reputation as tough, no-nonsense
formula producers, ruthlessly paring down budgets and economizing
wherever possible, with younger brother Herman (1916–1992) usually
credited as a “technical adviser.” The quality of the King Brothers’
films depended on their choice of writers and/or directors and varied
considerably. Their first noir was the little known Gangs Inc. (aka Paper Bullets, 1941), with an unusual criminal heroine (Joan Woodbury).
When Strangers Marry (1944, reissued as Betrayed ), written by Philip
Yordan, was a routine “falsely accused” noir with Dean Jagger as the
innocent victim and Robert Mitchum as the real murderer. Yordan’s
screenplay for Suspense (1946) was much stronger, an intense melodrama starring Barry Sullivan, who murders his rival (Albert Dekker)
but retains some sympathy. The coruscating existentialism of The
Gangster (1947) was attributable to Daniel Fuchs, adapting his own
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novel, utterly different from the furious rise and fall paradigm of the
King Brothers’ Dillinger, made only two years earlier. Gun Crazy (aka
Deadly Is the Female, 1950) is undoubtedly their best-known film, but
its strengths are largely attributable to its director, Joseph H. Lewis.
However, Lewis benefited from the King Brothers’ attempt to go upmarket, affording him a higher budget and longer shooting schedule.
Southside 1-1000 (1950) was a semidocumentary noir, directed with
style and assurance by Boris Ingster, which has resemblances to Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1948) in its story of an undercover FBI agent
(Don DeFore) who descends into the criminal underworld.
KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Kiss Me Deadly was attacked on its release
for its confusing plot and brutal violence, blackballed by the Legion of
Decency, and banned in Great Britain. It is now recognized as one of
noir’s incontestable masterpieces, a seminal film that, coming late in
the cycle, was a forerunner of the revisionist neo-noirs that characterized the 1970s. For producer Victor Saville, who had made I, the Jury
(1953), it was to be another adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel
whose popularity would ensure box-office success. But screenwriter
A. I. Bezzerides, encouraged by director Robert Aldrich who considered Spillane a cynical and quasi-fascist writer, inverted Spillane’s
values, making the brutality and viciousness of Mike Hammer (Ralph
Meeker) part of a corrosive critique of the private eye hero. Hammer is
depicted as venal (a cheap “bedroom dick”), philistine, and chauvinist
(the film’s sexual politics are also ahead of its time), who exploits his
assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper) and all the other women he encounters. Bezzerides replaces Spillane’s prosaic search for a cache of mafia
drugs with the pursuit of the “Great Whatsit,” the secret of nuclear fission. During the course of the investigation, the slick, stylish, and supposedly resourceful Hammer becomes hopelessly out of his depth.
From the outset, Aldrich depicts a dissonant world. A young woman,
clad only in a trench coat, runs in terror along a pitch-black road, trying
to flag down passing motorists. When Hammer reluctantly picks her up,
the title credits unroll in reverse as if to suggest an upside down, looking-glass world, one that is supposedly speeding forward but actually
running backward toward oblivion. Moments later she is killed in one
of the film’s characteristically elliptical and disorientating scenes, an
event that we only witness obscurely from the viewpoint of the partially
conscious Hammer. It is also more violent and graphic than preceding
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noirs, showing how the woman’s twitching legs and screams gradually
cease as she is tortured and then killed. Kiss Me Deadly’s brutality is
both gruelingly realistic and oneiric, as if taking place in a nightmare
world. Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography is highly inventive with a restless mobility, using odd or “impossible” angles and high-contrast lighting casting deep shadows to evoke a surreal, distorted world. The final
scene is genuinely frightening and apocalyptic with the loose cannon
Gabrielle/Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers), the roommate of the dead woman,
opening a box containing radioactive material, thereby causing a nuclear
chain reaction. It parallels Pandora’s mythical unleashing of sin into the
world and is a metaphor for a paranoid, overly competitive society about
to self-destruct. Although Hammer and Velda escape from the building,
as they stumble in the surf they are far too close to a nuclear explosion
to have any chance of surviving. See also NARRATIVE PATTERNS;
VISUAL STYLE.
KISS OF DEATH (1947). Kiss of Death, directed by Henry Hathaway
and with an accomplished screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, was an influential film noir through its merger of the semidocumentary with the traditional crime thriller. It starred Victor Mature
as Nick Bianco, a decent family man but with a criminal record, who
is arrested robbing a jewelry store. In order to give authenticity to his
actions, the film states: “All the scenes . . . both interior and exterior,
were photographed in the State of New York in the actual locale associated with the story.” These include the working-class neighborhood in
Queens where Nick and his family live, the Chrysler Building (where
the robbery takes place), the Criminal Courts Building (where Nick is
sentenced), Tombs Prison, Sing Sing Penitentiary, including its machine
workshop to which Nick has been assigned and where he hears the
news of his wife’s suicide amid the dinning noise, and an orphanage
in New Jersey to which his children are taken. Hathaway insisted that
cast and crew were transported to Sing Sing and “processed through”
the prison as if they were convicts. Norbert Brodine shoots these scenes
in an unobtrusively naturalistic style, giving them a subdued, gray look.
Eventually, Nick is persuaded by Assistant District Attorney Louis
D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to become an undercover agent and so secure his parole; in the process the crime thriller elements become more
pronounced. Nick has to gain the confidence of the psychotic, unstable
gangster Tommy Udo (a memorable debut performance by Richard
KRASKER, ROBERT
• 163
Widmark), who likes to shoot squealers in the belly “so they can roll
around for a long time, thinking it over,” and who dispatches a fellow
hood’s wheelchair-bound mother down a tenement staircase with one
giggling, gurgling leer. Behind him lies the film’s real villain, shyster
lawyer Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who protects criminals and operates an undercover crime ring.
As a hybrid film, Kiss of Death oscillates between naturalism and
melodrama. The most memorable scene takes place at a cheerless suburban station where Nick waits anxiously for the train that will take his
second wife Nettie (Coleen Gray) and his two young children to safety.
A large black car pulls up, but the driver is simply waiting to pick up
a passenger. The children play too close to the rails, and Nettie and
then Nick pulls them back. These apparently contingent events and the
nondescript location give a documentary feel, yet are tense and exciting
because of the threat to their safety if Nick’s cover is blown. The dénouement, where Nick waits for his final showdown with Udo, is shot expressionistically with deep, menacing shadows. In a rather unconvincing
ending, Nettie, who narrates much of the film, tells us Nick has survived
being shot at point-blank range and the family will be reunited.
Kiss of Death was remade by Barbet Schroeder in 1995.
KRASKER, ROBERT (1913–1981). The Australian-born Robert Krasker
was a highly accomplished cinematographer who won an Oscar for his
work on The Third Man (1949), one of several British films noir he
shot for Carol Reed. The first of these was Odd Man Out (1947), in
which Krasker’s high-contrast photography, with its deep, rich shadows, helps create the alien and hostile city that becomes a trap for the
protagonist (James Mason). Krasker’s mastery of chiaroscuro lighting
was also evident in the little known Gothic noir Uncle Silas (U.S. title
The Inheritance, 1947), another world of entrapment and fear. Another
Man’s Poison (1951) was conventional, but in Libel (1959), directed by
Anthony Asquith, Krasker’s contrastive cinematography helps create
a disturbing tale of a troubled veteran (Dirk Bogarde) whose identity
is uncertain. Krasker’s work on The Criminal (U.S. title The Concrete
Jungle, 1960) was radically different, his harsh, unforgiving lighting
and cold, gray location shooting creating the brutal, alienating world
that director Joseph Losey envisaged. In Krasker’s last noir, The Running Man (1963), he was reunited with Reed in what was a routine
thriller. See also VISUAL STYLE.
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KRASNER, MILTON (1904–1988). Krasner worked as a cinematographer on second features before photographing two important noirs by
Fritz Lang: Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1945).
In both, Krasner used dramatic chiaroscuro photography to convey the
central characters’ psychological state. Krasner’s cinematography in all
his films noir was consistently expressionist, characterized by dark,
atmospheric lighting and bold camera angles, best exemplified in A
Double Life (1948), in which he creates an unstable world of glittering, shifting surfaces that mirror the split personality of its protagonist
(Ronald Colman). Krasner was awarded the Best Cinematography Prize
at Cannes for his work on The Set-Up (1949), in which his very lowkey lighting and gloomy shadows create the oppressive darkness of the
harrowing boxing noir.
Krasner’s other noirs are The Accused (1949), No Way Out (1950),
House of Strangers (1949), and Vicki (1953). See also VISUAL STYLE.
–L–
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997). L.A. Confidential is a retro-noir adapted,
by director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, from the
third novel in James Ellroy’s celebrated Los Angeles quartet that began in
1987 with The Black Dahlia. The film compresses the novel’s eight years
into a few weeks beginning on Christmas Eve 1952, depicting a city in
the throes of violent transformation in which the utopian promise of postwar optimism starts to dissolve. Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), working
for the tabloid journal Hush-Hush (based on Confidential Magazine), is
busy exposing the sleaze and smut behind the veneer of the tinsel-town
community, aided in his humiliations of the rich and famous by dapper
“celebrity cop” Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), one of three contrasting
policemen around whom the narrative is constructed. The others are Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), the straight-arrow cop, his purging zeal driven
by the memory of his revered father, a policeman killed by an unidentified assailant, and Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), another in the
long tradition of unstable cops, always close to the edge and treading the
borderline between effectiveness and vicious brutality. All three, though
mutually hostile, pursue their own leads and begin to recognize that their
common enemy is corrupt Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell),
protected by crooked District Attorney Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin), who
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is attempting to take over the Los Angeles drug trade now that mobster
Mickey Cohen has been incarcerated. As the plot unfolds, the dark underside of the “innocent” 1950s emerges powerfully, its racism, misogyny,
and endemic corruption, a city riddled with drugs and racketeering and
where prostitutes like Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), with whom White
becomes involved, look like movie stars (in this case Veronica Lake),
another reminder that LA is dominated by Hollywood.
Hanson wanted to avoid cliché and nostalgia in his re-creation of
the early 1950s and “be true to the period but also feel contemporary,”
creating a meticulous re-creation of the surface features but imbuing
them with the sense of “manufactured illusion” that characterizes how
memory has been shaped by cinema itself. Cinematographer Dante
Spinotti uses the skewed angles and chiaroscuro lighting of classic noir
sparingly, mainly in the final shootout where Exley and White confront Smith and his posse of bent cops. The film is more upbeat than
the novel, with Smith defeated and Exley installed as his replacement,
bidding farewell to the injured White, who heads off to Arizona with
Lynn. But the ending cannot erase the uneasy brittleness that suffuses
the whole film and made it such a compelling and popular neo-noir.
LADD, ALAN (1913–1964). After several minor roles, including Gangs
Inc. (aka Paper Bullets, 1941), Alan Ladd became a star through his
performance as the sympathetic hit man in This Gun for Hire (1942).
Ladd’s minimalism is highly effective in portraying a paranoid killer
for whom every gesture is a potential betrayal. His stiff movements,
masklike face, and parched, expressionless voice have a grace and
beauty absent in the source novel by Graham Greene. In The Glass
Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), Ladd also played opposite the
equally diminutive Veronica Lake, the pair forming the outlaw couple.
In these two films, despite his outward toughness, Ladd plays insecure
figures, the man between in The Glass Key and a troubled veteran in
The Blue Dahlia. In Calcutta (1947), Chicago Deadline (1949), and Appointment with Danger (1951), he played less interesting roles as tough,
two-fisted investigators who eventually solve the case.
Ladd’s other noirs are Whispering Smith (1948), Hell on Frisco Bay
(1955), The Man in the Net (1959), and The Tiger Among Us (1962).
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948). Starring, scripted, and directed
by Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai is an enigmatic and cryptic
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tale narrated entirely in flashback by jobbing sailor Michael O’Hara
(Welles) who confesses, after rescuing Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth)
from a hold-up in New York’s Central Park, that he is an unreliable narrator: “once I had seen her, I was not in my right mind.” Accepting a
job captaining a yacht chartered by her husband Arthur (Everett Sloane),
“the world’s greatest criminal lawyer,” to sail to San Francisco, O’Hara
is caught up in a complex plot of betrayal, double-cross, and murder
acted out between the Bannisters and Arthur’s partner George Grisby
(Glenn Anders). The trio’s sole purpose seems to be to devour each
other, summed up in O’Hara’s own interpolated story of crazed sharks
eating themselves off the hump of Brazil, the nightmare image of a destructive and predatory capitalism. Welles’s characteristically elliptical
and bravura direction is organized around particular set pieces, culminating in the famous scene in the Crazy House in San Francisco’s Chinatown. O’Hara, dazed and confused after escaping from a rigged trial
where he is accused of murder, blunders around a series of fantastical
rooms before descending a chute into a hall of mirrors. The bewildering
doubling and redoubling of distorted images, which fracture and shatter
as Elsa and Arthur shoot each other, is a final metaphor for their illusive,
empty identities, grotesquely distorted by paranoia, greed, and perverse
eroticism. O’Hara is now free but condemned to relive the meaning of
these events like a man in limbo: “Maybe I’ll live so long I’ll forget her.
Maybe I’ll die trying.”
Welles’s initial rough-cut ran to 2.5 hours and was ruthlessly pruned
by Columbia’s chief editor Viola Lawrence, its plot judged incomprehensible by studio head Harry Cohn. Welles’s lengthy memo of instructions was ignored, and the dénouement became a much-reduced version
of what Welles had intended. It was also saddled with, in his view,
inappropriate music. Finally released after nearly two years’ delay, The
Lady from Shanghai was met with lukewarm reviews and indifferent
box-office returns. Always admired by the French as embodying the
surrealism and oneirism that they took to be the essence of film noir, it
has slowly become an accepted classic, with Hayworth’s enigmatic Elsa
celebrated as one of the iconic femme fatales. See also NARRATIVE
PATTERNS.
LAKE, VERONICA (1919–1973). A diminutive, pretty blonde, Veronica
Lake achieved celebrity opposite Alan Ladd in three noirs: This Gun
for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946), in
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each of which they are partnered as an outlaw couple. Lake’s “peeka-boo” bang—the wave of blonde hair that hung over her left eye—
became her much imitated trademark and contributed to her iconic
status, re-created in L.A. Confidential (1997) by Kim Basinger. Lake’s
persona was cool but sultry, tough and hard-edged but also vulnerable.
Her acting style was detached, remote, and unemotional, and she could
engage in smart dialogue effectively. In This Gun for Hire she had her
most complex role: the loving fiancée of a detective, a singer at a club
owned by one of the villains, an undercover agent for the U.S. government and confidante of the psychotic killer (Ladd) whom she encounters
by chance. In The Glass Key, she is part of an emotional triangle between Ed Beaumont (Ladd) and his boss (Brian Donlevy). Lake’s most
accomplished performance came in The Blue Dahlia, in which she plays
the estranged wife of the man with whom Ladd’s adulterous wife has
had an affair, a mutual cuckolding that propels the pair together.
Lake’s stardom was short-lived, and after the hybrid noir Western
Ramrod (1947), in which she plays a tough, resourceful ranch owner
holding out against the local “boss” of the valley, she appeared in only
one further noir, Slattery’s Hurricane (1949), in a dull role as the faithful woman waiting patiently for the troubled veteran Slattery (Richard
Widmark) to see sense.
LANCASTER, BURT (1913–1994). An ex-circus acrobat, Burt Lancaster was one of a new breed of self-taught actors who brought an
unpolished energy to their performances. He became a star through
his first film, The Killers (1946), in which he played “The Swede,”
ensnared by a femme fatale (Ava Gardner), who loses the will to live
after she deserts him. He played another doomed, masochistic lover in
Criss Cross (1949), returning to the area in which he grew up (Bunker
Hill) only to be betrayed by his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) with
whom he resumes a romance. In both, Lancaster epitomizes the existential antihero, undone by his own weaknesses and misjudgements, which
he interprets as malign fate. Wasted as an honest local sheriff in Desert
Fury (1947), he played the leader of the convicts who revolt against
the sadistic brutality of the chief warden in Brute Force (1947), an
important prison noir. In I Walk Alone (1948) he plays another figure
who cannot cope with a changed, postwar world, an ex-con, bewildered
by the new corporate structures of the crime “business” represented by
his former partner (Kirk Douglas). This alienation was more explicit
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in Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948), set in London, in which he
played an embittered troubled veteran whose long incarceration has
left him with shattered nerves and an uncontrollable temper and who is
blackmailed after he kills a bar worker in a fit of rage. In Sorry, Wrong
Number (1948) Lancaster was cast against type as the bespectacled,
ineffectual husband of the self-invalided heiress (Barbara Stanwyck),
weakly colluding in a scheme to murder her.
Lancaster went independent in 1948, setting up his own company
with Harold Hecht and James Hill. He returned to film noir with Sweet
Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, in a very
different role as the predatory and egotistical Broadway columnist J. J.
Hunsecker (based on Walter Winchell) who suborns the venal publicity
agent (Tony Curtis) into breaking up the relationship between his sister
and a musician. This action, supposedly a demonstration of Hunsecker’s
power and control, inadvertently betrays his incestuous desire.
Lancaster appeared in two neo-noir political thrillers, Executive Action (1973) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and in Louis Malle’s
Atlantic City (1980), in which he plays the archetypal character of the
small-time crook who gets sucked into a noir world of murder and betrayal. See also MEN.
LANG, FRITZ (1890–1976). Lang was the most important of the émigré
personnel who helped to shape film noir, and he was the most significant single influence on its development. Lang had a distinguished
career in Weimar Germany, one of the elite group of directors (autoren)
who dominated the film industry. Lang wrote and directed two crime
thrillers about a master criminal, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild
der Zeit (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922) and Das Testament des Dr.
Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933), but his most influential
film was M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Searches for a
Murderer, 1931), the first modern urban crime thriller. Lang fled from
Germany two years later after Adolf Hitler came to power, working in
Paris before going to America in 1935, where, despite his reputation, he
had to work for a variety of studios and accept whatever assignments
he was offered. Adapting himself to new conditions, Lang found the
crime thriller to be a congenial genre through which to explore social
and psychological tensions and what he perceived as the fundamental
contradictions of the American dream. Lang has been described as the
“classicist” of film noir, his films being typically precise, analytical, and
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economical, the product of Lang’s understanding that “every scene has
only one exact way it should be shot.”
Lang’s first two American films, Fury (1936) and You Only Live
Once (1937), are noir precursors that anticipate noir themes, and their
use of low-key lighting and unusual camera angles, derived from Lang’s
heritage from expressionism, prefigure its aesthetic conventions. Both
concentrate on ordinary, average Americans who become sympathetic
victims, imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and whose lives
exhibit the tensions in the Depression era. You and Me (1938), starring
George Raft as a paroled convict trying to go straight, was much less
distinctive. Lang’s wartime spy thrillers, Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of
Fear (1945), and Cloak and Dagger (1946), with their atmosphere of
suspicion, paranoia, and false appearances, also powerfully anticipate
the main noir cycle.
The bulk of Lang’s 10 films noir may be divided into two distinct
phases. The first four films in the 1940s—The Woman in the Window
(1945), Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the Door (1948), and
House by the River (1950)—are preoccupied with psychological disturbance and individual relationships; the second, 1950s quartet—The
Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953), While the City Sleeps
(1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)—concentrate more on
social issues and the burgeoning power of the media. However, running
through Lang’s whole oeuvre is a focus on the ambiguities of guilt and
innocence and the anarchic force of sexual desire. In a shift of emphasis
that was typical of the whole noir cycle, Lang’s 1940s films are much
more expressionist and more overtly melodramatic, deploying highcontrast chiaroscuro lighting and complex compositions, whereas the
lighting in his 1950s films is more uniform, the camera work more fluid
and mobile.
The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street concentrate on the
middle-aged protagonist (Edward G. Robinson) trapped in a hopeless and destructive amour fou by a manipulative femme fatale (Joan
Bennett). In the former, the male victim awakes from his nightmare
at the end—Lang’s clever reverse tracking shot helps to palliate this
cliché—in the latter, his humiliation is total. Scarlet Street was the first
film made by Diana Productions, an independent company formed by
Lang, Bennett, and her husband, the producer Walter Wanger, with
whom Lang had worked at Universal on You Only Live Once. Diana
Productions offered Lang the creative control he craved, but it was
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short-lived. Secret Beyond the Door was its second film, a Gothic noir
that explores the paranoia felt by Celia (Joan Bennett), who narrates the
film in voice-over, in her mid-life marriage to the brooding and enigmatic Mark (Michael Redgrave). An uneven, sometimes opaque film,
replete with surreal dream imagery, Secret Beyond the Door was unsuccessful with cinemagoers. Its failure exacerbated the tensions within
Diana Productions, and the company was dissolved. The low-budget
House by the River was a “B” feature, but Lang was able to invest this
rather unpromising Gothic melodrama with an acute exploration of the
dark depths of male sexual desire.
Suspected of harboring subversive attitudes, Lang was placed on the
industry’s “gray list” and found work more difficult to come by. Clash
by Night (1952), based on a play by Clifford Odets, and Human Desire
(1954), adapted from an Emile Zola novel that had also been filmed by
Jean Renoir as La Bête humaine (Judas Was a Woman aka The Human
Beast) in 1938, were realist social dramas, but there are many disturbing noir undercurrents in the love triangles formed between Barbara
Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, and Paul Douglas in Clash by Night and
Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford in the
latter. The women are trapped in unsatisfying marriages, the men’s
desires often violent or thwarted, further indication of the tensions
within American, in this case small-town, life. The first of the more
overtly social noirs was The Blue Gardenia, based on a short story by
Vera Caspary, who wrote the novel from which Laura was adapted.
Unusually, it has a working-class heroine, Norah (Anne Baxter), who
believes she has killed her would-be rapist (Raymond Burr). Norah
is first exploited then championed by a cynical newspaper reporter
(Richard Conte), who eventually uncovers the actual murderer. In
this film, in collaboration with Nicholas Musuraca, Lang developed
the use of a crab dolly that could “wander through space like a curious
person,” as Lang put it.
The Big Heat was Lang’s most powerful and successful 1950s film
noir, a searching exploration of the threat of underworld corporations
and of the ambiguities of the vigilante policeman (Glenn Ford). While
the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt exploit the enigmatic,
opaque persona of Dana Andrews, as television reporter and writer
respectively, renewing Lang’s examination of the ambiguities of guilt
and innocence, the fragility of identity in the modern world, and the dark
compulsions of the male libido. In the former Andrews shows disturbing
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similarities to the serial killer stalking New York; in the latter having
agreed to pose as a murderer, he eventually accidentally confesses to his
wife (Joan Fontaine) that he was indeed the killer.
Restless and autocratic, Lang had never been comfortable in the commercial environment of the American studio system and he was never
fully accepted. He returned to Germany in 1958 to resume his career
there, directing Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The Thousand
Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960), a return to his roots in the crime thriller. See
also BLACKLIST; GERMAN FILM NOIR.
LANGUAGE. Although film noir is regarded as having a highly visual
style, part of its appeal comes through its distinctive verbal language
articulated in voice-overs or in dialogue. Noir’s verbal idiom derives
primarily from the hard-boiled fiction on which so many noirs were
based or the pulp fiction authors who frequently wrote or adapted the
screenplays. The caustic existentialism of the low-rent hood’s opening voice-over in The Gangster (1947) is taken from its source novel
Low Company (1937) by its author Daniel Fuchs, who also wrote the
screenplay: “I was no hypocrite. I knew everything I did was low and
rotten. I knew what people thought of me. What difference did it make?
What did I care? I got scarred, sure. You get hurt a little when you fight
your way out of the gutter.” By contrast, the voice-over of Jeff Bailey
(Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past (1947), adapted from Daniel
Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, expresses the doomed
longing of the man gripped by a romantic obsession: “I never saw her
in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day
went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where
she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and
time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe
we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream and
we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls.” Raymond Chandler
wrote the resonant opening voice-over delivered by the dying Walter
Neff (Fred MacMurray) for Double Indemnity (1944), including the
memorable image: “As I was walking down the street to the drugstore,
suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds
crazy but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footprints. It was
the walk of a dead man.” Chandler was also responsible for much of the
crackling dialogue that characterizes the exchanges between Neff and
femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck): Neff: “You’ll
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be here too?” Phyllis: “I guess so. I usually am.” Neff: “Same chair,
same perfume, same anklet?” Phyllis: “I wonder if I know what you
mean.” Neff: “I wonder if you wonder.”
The ubiquitous private eye, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or Dashiell
Hammett’s Sam Spade in the 1941 adaptation of the Maltese Falcon,
is a master of the cynical, devastating one-liner: “We didn’t exactly
believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy, we believed your $200.”
The private eye is a connoisseur of “dames” whom he treats with wary
skepticism, an appreciation that extends even to indolent playboy
Larry Ballentine (Robert Young) in They Won’t Believe Me (1947):
“She looked like a special kind of dynamite, neatly wrapped in nylon
and silk. Only I wasn’t having any. I’d been too close already. I was
powder-shy.” But the wary males can be matched, on occasion, by the
salty tongue of the hard-bitten femme fatale: “Not only don’t you have
any scruples, you don’t have any brains,” says Vera (Ann Savage) to
her victim Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Detour (1945). Gangsters too, are
often equipped with a mordant sense of how things are in the noir world.
In The Big Heat (1953), Mike Langalla (Alexander Scourby) observes:
“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.”
And gangster’s moll Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) tells avenging
cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford): “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.
Believe me, rich is better.”
Neo-noir inherited and developed these verbal tropes. Matty Walker
(Kathleen Turner) says approvingly of the infatuated Ned Racine (William Hurt) in Body Heat (1981): “You’re not too smart. I like that in
a man.” In reply to the dilemma of hit man Charley Partanna (Jack
Nicholson) in Prizzi’s Honor (1985), unsure whether to marry the
fellow assassin (Kathleen Turner) he loves but who has crossed the
Prizzis—“Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which of dese?”—femme fatale Maerose Prizzi (Angelica Huston) replies: “Marry her Charley. Just
because she’s a thief and a hitter doesn’t mean she’s not a good woman
in all other departments. . . . She’s an American. She had a chance to
make a buck and she grabbed it.” Neo-noir’s pervasive sense of the inversion of American values is often expressed through its omnipresent
corrupt cops. Max Hoover (Nick Nolte) in Mulholland Falls (1996)
opines: “This is LA. This is my town. Out here you’re a trespasser.
Out here I can pick you up, burn your house, fuck your wife and kill
your dog.” Neo-noir protagonists are imbued with the same pervasive
existentialism as their predecessors. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in
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Taxi Driver (1976) muses: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life,
everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no
escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” Overall, language remains important to
the development of film noir, always rooted, as in Sin City (2005), in
the pulp fiction to which it is profoundly indebted.
LASHELLE, JOSEPH (1900–1989). A talented cinematographer,
Joseph LaShelle’s first noir was Laura (1944), for which he won an
Oscar, in which his intricate, delicate lighting and subtle chiaroscuro
created a suitably languorous, dreamlike atmosphere for this complex
tale. He photographed three further noirs for Otto Preminger: Fallen
Angel (1946), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), and The Thirteenth
Letter (1951), where his low-key, contrastive cinematography contributes powerfully to the drama. Some of his most accomplished work
was in John Brahm’s period noir Hangover Square (1945), in which
LaShelle uses a more overtly expressionist style, with high-contrast
chiaroscuro, as befits a highly wrought tale of schizophrenia and madness. In the more realistic Road House (1948), he tempered his style to
the different demands of this action melodrama. In Storm Fear (1956),
LaShelle showed his ability to photograph exteriors, capturing the rugged beauty of the snow-clad mountains where the family are trapped.
Crime of Passion (1957), LaShelle’s final noir, was more routine. See
also VISUAL STYLE.
THE LAST SEDUCTION (1994). John Dahl’s The Last Seduction, which
originally premiered on Home Box Office television, was re-released in
cinemas after favorable reviews, becoming one of the most celebrated
neo-noirs of the 1990s largely through the charismatic performance
of Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory, perhaps the ultimate femme
fatale, who destroys all the men who cross her path. Bridget, a highly
capable professional, first shown in an office demanding her male
workers increase sales, embodies the then-fashionable yuppie ethos of
upward mobility and greed. Unable to be content with legitimate enterprise, Bridget assists her vain doctor husband Clay (Bill Pullman) in a
drug deal, then double-crosses him and escapes with $700,000. Driving
into “cow country”—Beston in upstate New York—the film shifts from
urban to country noir as Bridget seduces the “rural Neanderthal” Mike
(Peter Berg). She works her way rapidly to a top position in Mike’s insurance company, where she uses the client database to create a feminist
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assassination agency offering wives the chance to be revenged on their
unfaithful husbands. But her scheme is part of a more diabolical plan to
kill Clay and have Mike blamed for his murder. In the final sequence,
Bridget climbs into a gleaming limousine, triumphant.
Essentially a black comedy, The Last Seduction has a postmodern
playfulness and irony that allows Bridget to “have it all”: power, sexuality, and wealth. It reconfigures the erotic attractiveness of the femme
fatale within a narrative constructed around a female subject whose
seductive image is always under her own control. Like Sharon Stone’s
Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (1992), Bridget offers a postfeminist image of a strong and attractive woman who is both feminine and
independent, uniting what were previously incompatible qualities in a
way that was particularly appealing to young women as well as powerfully erotic for males, making The Last Seduction into a cult film. See
also WOMEN.
LASZLO, ERNEST (1898–1984). The Hungarian-born Ernest Laszlo
was director of photography on eight noirs, mainly for United Artists.
His first, Impact (1949), a highly superior “B” noir, showed Laszlo’s
proficiency with location shooting that, in D.O.A. (1950), was coupled
with a controlled expressionism that created suitably murky, claustrophobic interiors. Laszlo shot 11 films for Robert Aldrich, including
his noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its evocative variety
of Los Angeles locations and superb nighttime opening sequence in
which Laszlo’s strongly contrastive chiaroscuro lighting creates an atmosphere of confusion and terror. Laszlo also collaborated repeatedly
with Stanley Kramer, including on the political conspiracy thriller The
Domino Principle (1977), in which Gene Hackman played a troubled
Vietnam veteran.
Laszlo’s other noirs are Cover Up (1949), Manhandled (1949), M
(1951), The Steel Trap (1952), The Big Knife (1955), and While the City
Sleeps (1956). See also VISUAL STYLE.
LATIMER, JONATHAN (1906–1983). A hard-boiled novelist and
screenwriter highly indebted to Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer’s
reputation was as a consummate professional rather than an innovator,
esteemed for his lively and convincing dialogue. His 1936 novel The
Lady in the Morgue was filmed in 1938 starring Preston Foster as Latimer’s wisecracking private eye William Crane, but it was a murder
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mystery. Latimer’s first noir was an adaptation of Hammett’s The Glass
Key (1942) in which, in contrast to the previous (1935) adaptation, Latimer retained the novel’s perverse and disturbing sexuality. Nocturne
(1946), a poor man’s Laura (1944), was enlivened by Latimer’s smart
dialogue, as was They Won’t Believe Me (1947), a sub-James M. Cain
story of corrupt passion starring Robert Young. Latimer’s best work
came through his creative association with director John Farrow on
four films beginning with The Big Clock (1948), adapted from Kenneth
Fearing’s novel. Latimer’s screenplay adroitly reproduces the novel’s
intricate plotting and its tense, disturbing atmosphere. Night Has a
Thousand Eyes (1948) is regarded as one of the best adaptations of
Cornell Woolrich, capturing the paranoia and morbid fatalism of the
original. Alias Nick Beale (1949) had more overt fantasy elements, with
Ray Milland as the Devil, but Latimer gives full weight to the chillingly
real disintegration of the crusading district attorney (Thomas Mitchell).
The Unholy Wife (1957) had an original screenplay by Latimer (with
William Durkee) depicting a restless, ambitious femme fatale (Diana
Dors) who tries to destroy her husband (Rod Steiger).
LAURA (1944). Laura, highly rated by critics and popular with audiences,
was the third film released in 1944 (along with Double Indemnity and
Murder, My Sweet) that established film noir as a style. Adapted by Jay
Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt from Vera Caspary’s
novel, Laura combined the Gothic woman’s picture with the contemporary crime thriller. Its sophisticated “European” style was largely attributable to its émigré producer-director Otto Preminger who, having
replaced Rouben Mamoulian after 18 days shooting, successfully lobbied Twentieth Century-Fox’s Head of Production Darryl F. Zanuck
to get the film “A” status. As such, it benefited from the sophisticated
set design and dressing of Lyle Wheeler and unit art director Leland
Fuller and the fluid camerawork and lighting of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who received an Oscar. In particular, Preminger uses
interiors to express character, as in the famous opening shot in which
the camera travels slowly around the apartment of New York columnist
Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) to suggest the fastidious, over-refined
narcissism of this acerbic New York intellectual.
At the center of Manhattan’s haut monde—a rarified world, untypical of noir, of expensive restaurants, luxurious apartments, modern offices, and art galleries—is the mysterious, enigmatic figure of Laura
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herself (Gene Tierney), the ingénue trying to become a successful
designer, her career molded by the Svengali figure of the sexually
ambivalent Lydecker. Her disappearance triggers the investigation of
police Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who, although
hard-bitten and misogynist, falls in love with her portrait. As he falls
asleep in her apartment, Laura returns, an audacious entrance that suggests she is a ghost or a spirit who haunts men while remaining elusive.
It is deliberately unclear whether she really has returned as if from
the dead or whether McPherson has imagined it all. David Raksin’s
celebrated haunting score preserves this mysteriousness, and he opposed Preminger’s idea to use Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”
as Laura’s theme tune as he felt the associations of jazz would mark
her as a wanton woman. It is this hesitation between dream and reality
that transforms Laura from a conventional murder mystery into a true
noir, exploring the dark undercurrents of male desire. See also MEN;
MUSIC; VISUAL STYLE; WOMEN.
LEFT-WING CYCLE. There was a powerful group of films noir informed by a left-liberal critique of American democracy as sick and
corrupt. These films attempted to keep alive the spirit of the 1930s
New Deal and its cultural manifestation the Popular Front, a broad alliance of left-wing activists whose work attacked the gross inequalities
of capitalism. Orson Welles was the most significant Popular Front
figure, and his disparate films noir—notably Journey into Fear (1943),
The Stranger (1946), and Touch of Evil (1958)—are informed by an existentialist Marxism. This combination of existentialism and Marxism
characterizes a generation of filmmakers whose radicalism was forged
in New York’s political theatre of the 1930s: Jules Dassin, Edward
Dymtryk, Cy Endfield, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky, and Robert Rossen, whose collective contribution to
film noir was highly significant.
Body and Soul (1947), written by Polonsky and directed by Rossen, was the paradigm story of the slum kid who becomes a successful
boxer but who is corrupted by material success. It starred John Garfield, an actor known for his left-wing sympathies, who was also the
lead in Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), portraying the human cost of
amoral laissez-faire capitalism and individual ambition. Dassin’s Brute
Force (1947) was an allegorical critique of totalitarian institutions, the
prisoners’ bid for freedom a generalized revolt against entrapment and
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persecution. Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) directly addressed the social
and psychological problems of returning veterans and of regional and
racial prejudice. Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me,
1951) again explored troubled veterans but also the power of social
prejudice. Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947) examines small-town mentality
and the cries for mob justice, while the plague scare in his Panic in the
Streets (1950) was a metaphor for collective fears about the presence of
foreigners and “outsiders” in American culture. Huston’s The Asphalt
Jungle (1950) contrasts the band of sympathetic outcasts engaged in a
robbery with the corrupt lawyer (Louis Calhern) and the self-righteous
police commissioner.
Losey’s The Prowler (1951) was a powerful allegory about the false
values that capitalism induced, which corrupt the personable young
police officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). It was scripted by Dalton
Trumbo, who had to remain uncredited because he had been placed
on the blacklist and then imprisoned as one of the “Hollywood Ten,”
which also included Dmytryk. The anti-Communist witch hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy effectively ended the left-wing
cycle, its main figures either in prison, in exile, or forced to work under
a pseudonym. In the process, studio executives became increasingly
wary of “message” films and distanced themselves from the values that
had informed the left-wing cycle. See also BLACKLIST; FILM GRIS;
RIGHT-WING CYCLE.
LEWIS, JOSEPH H. (1907–2000). Director Joseph H. Lewis spent his
career in “B” features with limited budgets, but this did not prevent
him forging a distinctive visual style in his seven films noir, showing
a preference for complicated takes, striking camera movements, and
intricate lighting schemes. His first film noir was the Gothic My Name
Is Julia Ross (1945), in which the heroine (Nina Foch) is drugged and
imprisoned in a mansion overlooking the coast. So Dark the Night
(1946) is the story of a schizophrenic French Sûreté detective (Steven
Geray) who investigates his own criminal self. Numerous shots of
mirrors and other reflective surfaces create a visual correlative for his
divided mind. By contrast, The Undercover Man (1949), the story of a
group of undercover agents fighting organized crime in Chicago, was
in semidocumentary style but with expressionist scenes depicting the
criminal underworld. Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female, 1950) is
Lewis’s most celebrated film, one of the definitive outlaw couple noirs,
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the study of a perverse and fatal infatuation and with a famously audacious robbery sequence shot in a single 3.5-minute take. A Lady without
Passport (1950) and Cry of the Hunted (1953) were more routine thrillers, but Lewis makes interesting use of the swamp settings, the Florida
Everglades and the Louisiana bayous respectively. The Big Combo
(1955) was Lewis’s other celebrated noir, which, like Gun Crazy, was a
study in perverse sexuality and self-destructive violence.
After 1958 Lewis directed several noir television series, including
The Investigators (1961).
LEWTON, VAL (1904–1951). Although not directly connected with the
postwar noir cycle, the Russian-born producer Val Lewton exercised an
important influence on its aesthetic and thematic characteristics through
a series of intelligent and highly wrought Gothic horror-thrillers: Cat
People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man
(1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944), The
Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Working as head of his own,
modestly budgeted, second-feature unit at RKO where he was allowed
almost complete creative freedom, the erudite Lewton was involved in
all aspects of these films’ production, frequently coscripting and codirecting, which gave them an instantly recognizable look and sensibility.
Thematically, Lewton’s films have a pronounced existentialism, sharing strong similarities with Cornell Woolrich’s fiction—indeed, The
Leopard Man was adapted from Black Alibi—in which ordinary men
and women in, for the most part, contemporary urban settings, experience paranoia, terror, and a morbid dread of death and whose sexuality
is repressed or hideously distorted into violence. The Seventh Victim
takes its epigraph from one of John Donne’s holy sonnets (“I run to
Death, and Death meets me as fast, and all my Pleasures are like Yesterdays”) and is a genuinely disturbing and frightening story of isolation,
fear, and despair in which a young woman, Jacqueline, takes her own
life rather than continue to face the intolerable pressures of living.
Aesthetically, these films deploy atmospheric, low-key lighting—they
were the training ground for Nicholas Musuraca—to subtly evoke the
sense of doom and foreboding. Lewton encouraged his young directors
to be experimental and innovative, and he was responsible for molding
the early career of several who made significant noirs: Mark Robson,
Robert Rossen, Robert Wise, and, most notably, Jacques Tourneur.
See also HYBRIDS.
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LITVAK, ANATOLE (1902–1974). Born in Kiev of Jewish parents, director Anatole Litvak worked in the German film industry in the 1920s
but fled when the Nazis came to power. He pursued a career in British
and French cinema—where he directed Coeur de Lilas (Lilacs, 1932)—
before going to Hollywood in the late 1930s. In 1940 he directed three
noir precursors: Castle on the Hudson and Out of the Fog starring John
Garfield, and City for Conquest, starring James Cagney. His first true
noir was The Long Night (1947), an American remake of Le Jour se
lève (Daybreak, 1939), in which Henry Fonda plays the Jean Gabin
role, now reconfigured as a troubled veteran. Litvak’s version uses a
double flashback and is visually striking, but the characterization seems
strained and the sentimental ending false. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948),
adapted from Lucille Fletcher’s famous radio script, was a crisply handled crime thriller, whereas The Snake Pit (1948), nominated for several
Academy Awards including Best Director, was a sensitive study of a
woman (Olivia de Havilland) who has to cope with her incarceration in
an insane asylum. Litvak also directed a British film noir, The Deep
Blue Sea (1955), featuring another bored and restless troubled veteran
(Kenneth More), a Battle of Britain ace who cannot adjust to peacetime
existence. See also ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL.
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973). Although Robert Altman’s The Long
Goodbye had a disastrous theatrical release and received poor reviews,
it is now recognized as one of the key 1970s neo-noirs that radically
reworked noir conventions. The screenplay was by Leigh Brackett, who
had worked on The Big Sleep (1946). Altman encouraged her to update
Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and to subvert the convention of
the hard-boiled but omniscient private eye. Accordingly, Altman cast
against type: Elliott Gould is a shambling, scruffy, passive, and above
all puzzled Marlowe, whose tagline—“It’s okay with me”—betrays his
bewilderment and attempt to disengage himself from what is going on.
His laid-back attitude seems contemporary, but his ill-fitting suits and
addiction to wearing a tie appear hopelessly old-fashioned. He shambles
about, his actions banal or apparently inconsequential.
Altman’s visual style is also radical—almost every shot is either a
slow, never completed zoom or an almost imperceptible arc or track
around the characters—which creates a drifting, uncertain perspective,
neither conventionally objective nor subjective. In nearly every scene,
the central focus shifts in what appears to be a random way, leaving the
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viewer unsure what the real object of interest is. This self-conscious,
obtrusive style is consistent with an episodic, rambling narrative that
refuses orthodox emotional melodramatic climaxes. This is most starkly
shown in the scene where Roger (Sterling Hayden), whom Marlowe
has been engaged to protect from his corrupt psychiatrist, commits
suicide, the action happening away from the center of the frame as Marlowe talks inconsequentially to Roger’s wife (Nina Van Pallandt). Marlowe’s one moment of decisive action occurs right at the end of the film
when he shoots his friend Terry Lennox, whom he has been shielding,
after Lennox reveals casually how he used and betrayed Marlowe and
faked his own death after murdering his wife. This apparent vindication
of Marlowe’s professional honor and integrity is undermined by the
strident playing of “Hooray for Hollywood” on the soundtrack, which
reminds viewers of the artifice of American myths. Altman commented:
“I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not
the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way.”
LORRE, PETER (1904–1964). One of the more important émigré actors, the Hungarian-born László Loewenstein achieved fame on stage
before making a memorable film debut, as Peter Lorre, in Fritz Lang’s
M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Searches for a Murderer, 1931). He left Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933
and moved to America via Paris and London—he played a terrorist in
Alfred Hitchcock’s British film noir The Man Who Knew Too Much
(1934)—signing a contract with Warner Bros. in 1935. Lorre’s obvious
foreignness, his huge, globular eyes and diffident, breathy whine (much
impersonated) cast him as the eternal outsider. In Stranger on the Third
Floor (1940) he played the mysterious, nameless stranger, the killer terrorizing a small American town; in Quicksand (1950) he was a sleazy,
blackmailing arcade owner. Lorre’s characters often had an exotic,
decadent quality, as in his perfumed, primped Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This was the first of several films in which he was
paired with Sydney Greenstreet; the others were The Face Behind the
Mask (1941), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Three Strangers (1946),
and The Verdict (1946). Lorre played supporting roles in two Cornell
Woolrich adaptations: Black Angel (1946), as a shady nightclub owner
suspected of murder, and a psychotic gangster’s henchman in The Chase
(1946), a role he also played in the British film noir Double Confession
(1950). Lorre’s association with Bertolt Brecht meant he was on the
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Hollywood “gray list,” making roles difficult to obtain. Lorre returned
to Germany to cowrite, direct, and star in the important German film
noir Der Verlorene (The Lost One, 1951). See also BLACKLIST.
LOS ANGELES. Los Angeles (LA) is the most frequently represented
city in film noir and neo-noir. In part, this is because of its convenience
for Hollywood filmmakers, but more importantly because it has been
seen, especially by crime writers, as the quintessential modern American metropolis, what Raymond Chandler called that “big hard-boiled
city with no more personality than a paper cup.” Thus LA is at once an
actual place with famous streets (Wilshire Boulevard, Sunset Strip) and
recognizable landmarks—especially City Hall, Union Station, or the
Bradbury Building—and a metaphoric urban space, dark, unknowable,
and threatening. It can be the palimpsest for the dystopian city of the
future, as in Blade Runner (1982) or Strange Days (1995) or, because
it includes Hollywood itself—one of a number of towns swallowed up
by the relentless expansion of what has become the largest metropolitan
area in the United States—the setting for noirs that critique the movie
industry, including Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), David
Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), or Brian De Palma’s The Black
Dahlia (2006). In some noirs, such as The Killers (1946) or Impulse
(1990), LA is simply the anonymous neon-lit noir city. In others, there
is a realistic concentration on actual locations.
Criss Cross (1949), Mark Hellinger’s attempt to anatomize LA
along the lines of New York in Naked City (1948), opens with a shot
of the City Hall in the heart of downtown, as Steve Thompson (Burt
Lancaster), returning to the city, journeys back to his working-class
residence in Bunker Hill with its white-framed houses built in the 1920s.
Steve’s house is accessed by the short railway ride up Angels Flight,
a picturesque area used in several noirs—Night Has a Thousand Eyes
(1948), Act of Violence (1949), and M (1951)—before its redevelopment
in 1969. Kiss Me Deadly (1955) encompasses the fading tenements of
Bunker Hill but also the Bel Air mansions, where gangsters relax by
their swimming pools, and the fashionable Malibu beach house where
the final explosion takes place. John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967),
Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), and Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) are also topographically explicit, depicting a range of actual LA locations. Armored Car Robbery (1950) features the downtown
district with its old bridges, the Long Beach oil fields, and shipyard
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terminal, while Roadblock (1951) culminates in a car chase along the
concrete-lined bed of the Los Angeles River, used again in Point Blank.
Although most LA noirs feature central locations, Pitfall (1948), Two
Days in the Valley (1996), and Jackie Brown (1997) are set in the suburbs. Some, such as Double Indemnity (1944), encompass both. Three
important neo-noirs, Chinatown (1974), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995),
and L.A. Confidential (1997) depict specific periods of LA’s history
(the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s respectively), in order to understand its
complex present-day realities. Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays
Itself (2003) is a documentary compendium of how the city has been
represented in films. See also HEAT.
LOSEY, JOSEPH (1909–1984). Director Joseph Losey made an important contribution to the development of film noir on both sides of the
Atlantic, but, as with Cy Endfield, Losey’s was an enforced exile, his
American career brutally truncated by being placed on the blacklist: he
chose to work abroad rather than appear before the House Un-American
Activities Committee and name names.
Losey worked in left-wing political theatre in the 1930s and was
deeply influenced by the Marxist-materialism of Bertolt Brecht; all his
films search for a causal realism that can explain events and characters’
actions. Losey’s first noir was The Lawless (1950), indebted to Fritz
Lang’s Fury (1936), an exposé of small-town prejudice and the plight of
Mexican fruit pickers. M (1951) was an actual remake of Lang’s 1931
film, set in present-day Los Angeles. Losey’s treatment of the child killer
emphasizes the alienating effects of a narrow, materialistic society but
also makes the protagonist’s sickness and perversion more explicit. The
Prowler, scripted by Dalton Trumbo, who had been imprisoned as one
of the “Hollywood Ten” before it was released in July 1951, explored
the dark underside of the American dream through its depiction of the
corrupt cop (Van Heflin) obsessed with money, “100,000 bucks, a Cadillac and a blonde,” which eventually destroys him and the woman he
seduces (Evelyn Keyes). The Big Night (1951), which Losey coscripted,
was another study in alienation. As shy, bookish teenager George La
Main (John Barrymore Jr.) seeks revenge on the man who humiliated
his father, his eyes are opened to the dark undercurrents in social and
familial life in what becomes a rite-of-passage film. Losey’s blacklisting
meant that he was unable to finish postproduction and the film is told
chronologically, whereas he had wanted it to be in flashback.
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Having gone into exile, Losey moved to Great Britain in 1952 and
directed two noirs under “fronts”: The Sleeping Tiger (1954) and The
Intimate Stranger (U.S. title Finger of Guilt, 1956), both routine thrillers directed under pseudonyms. Time without Pity (1957), the first British film noir to carry Losey’s name, was more compelling, an intense
and claustrophobic melodrama in which an estranged and alcoholic
father (Michael Redgrave) tries desperately to prove the innocence
of his son (Alec McCowen) accused of murder. In Blind Date (U.S.
title Chance Meeting, 1959), Losey used the conventions of the crime
thriller to probe the class prejudice and xenophobia of British society.
A foreigner (Hardy Krüger) needs the help of a dissident working-class
police inspector (Stanley Baker) to prove his innocence of a murder and
thus reveal an attempted establishment cover-up. The Criminal (U.S.
title The Concrete Jungle, 1960), also starring Baker, ranks with the best
of the Hollywood prison noirs in its depiction of the brutality of life
behind bars. Johnny Bannion (Baker) is another alienated protagonist,
able to survive prison, but not the new breed of slick criminal (Sam Wanamaker) he encounters on his release. Bannion is lost in the shallowly
affluent world of modern Britain. His death in a bleak, snow-covered
field is terrifying and shocking.
Eve (1962), a French-Italian coproduction, had noir elements in the
obsessive love of a disaffected writer (Baker) for a femme fatale (Jeanne
Moreau). The Servant (1963) was Losey’s final noir, a highly wrought
Doppelgänger tale in which the charming but ineffectual upper-class
Tony (James Fox) is gradually manipulated by his manservant Barrett
(Dirk Bogarde) into a position of utter dependency and virtual psychic
annihilation. Visually inventive, The Servant was a profound exposure
of the destructiveness of the British class system. See also FILM GRIS;
LEFT-WING CYCLE.
LUMET, SIDNEY (1924– ). In a long and distinguished career as a
director, Sidney Lumet made a number of ambitious, often grueling
neo-noirs, most of which are set in New York and deal with police
corruption. He directed Sean Connery, anxious to escape being typecast
as James Bond, in two noirs. The first was The Anderson Tapes (1971),
where Connery plays an ex-con who has to cope with ubiquitous surveillance as he plans an ambitious robbery. The second was The Offence
(1972), a British film noir in which Connery played veteran DetectiveSergeant Johnson in the throes of disillusioned middle age and marital
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breakdown, who beats to death a suspected child molester (Ian Bannen)
because he is forced to confront the deviant tendencies he has himself
been suppressing. Throughout, Lumet expertly orchestrates a visual and
aural correlative for Johnson’s confusion and anguish.
Lumet also directed Al Pacino in two noirs. Serpico (1973) was
based on the true story of a New York City cop who goes undercover
to expose police corruption, and by embracing countercultural mores,
becomes a lonely and alienated figure. In Dog Day Afternoon (1975),
a caper/heist noir, Pacino plays a troubled veteran turned robber to
fund his transgendered partner’s sex-change operation. In both, Lumet
employs a grittily realistic style, framing familiar noir themes and scenarios within a wider commentary on social change.
The long and complex Prince of the City (1981) attempted to treat police officers’ lives in a more rounded way, exploring the pressures that
lead to corruption, whereas Q & A (1990), starring Nick Nolte as the
loathsome Lieutenant Mike Brennen, prepared to stoop to any lengths,
takes corruption as a given. Lumet wrote and directed Night Falls on
Manhattan (1996) about an idealistic district attorney (Andy Garcia)
who finds out that the prosecution case that made his name was based
on corrupt police evidence.
Lumet’s other noirs are Power (1986), A Stranger Among Us (1992),
Guilty as Sin (1993), Gloria (1999), and Before the Devil Knows You’re
Dead (2007). See also CORRUPT/ROGUE COP.
LUPINO, IDA (1918–1995). Ida Lupino made a significant contribution to film noir as an actress, director, writer, and producer. Born
into a London theatrical family, Lupino went to Hollywood in 1933
and secured a contract with Warner Bros. She had strong roles in They
Drive by Night (1940) and Out of the Fog (1941), but especially in the
film that really established her reputation, High Sierra (1941). In each
she portrayed tough, knowing characters who are resourceful but also
vulnerable, a role she again played in The Man I Love (1947) and Road
House (1948), both of which used her talent as a singer. Lupino became an American citizen in 1948, forming an independent company,
Emerald Productions, the name changed to The Filmmakers in 1950
when Malvin Wald joined. The company’s aim was to make low-cost
but high-quality films in a realistic style that had unorthodox and provocative subject matter. In addition to hard-hitting social melodramas,
such as her first film as director, Not Wanted (1949), Lupino directed
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(and cowrote) the noir hybrid The Bigamist (1953) in which Edmond
O’Brien plays a successful suburban businessman who turns out to
have a double life.
In The Bigamist, the first film in which a woman director directed
herself, Lupino played his Los Angeles mistress, an ordinary, unglamorous, working woman; Joan Fontaine played his wife in San Francisco.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953), based on a notorious real-life case, was also
about the suburban male, the story of two ex-army buddies (O’Brien
and Frank Lovejoy) getting away from their families for the first time
since the war, who are terrorized by the psychotic ex-convict they pick
up (William Talman). Lupino cowrote Private Hell 36 (1954), but Don
Siegel directed because her second husband, Howard Duff, thought it
unmanly to take direction from his wife. Duff played one of two corrupt cops, typical Lupino males who are restless and insecure with a
suppressed violence and who have something of the dangerous, irrational force that the femme fatale represented for male directors. Lupino
played a characteristic role as an ambitious working-class woman, a
nightclub singer. However, she could portray very different characters,
as in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952), where she was a
blind woman whose disinterested love for her brother provides the psychotic cop (Robert Ryan) with hope for salvation. She starred opposite
Ryan again in Beware, My Lovely (1952) as a teacher and war widow
terrorized by the handyman (Ryan) who behaves violently during bouts
of insanity of which he has no recollection. In Fritz Lang’s While the
City Sleeps (1956), she was one of the competitive group of careerist
reporters investigating the “lipstick killer” whose actions help create the
horror they purport to diagnose.
From the mid-1950s, Lupino moved into noir television series, directing, among others, episodes of The Untouchables (1959) and The
Fugitive (1963).
Lupino’s other noirs are Ladies in Retirement (1941), Moontide
(1942), Woman in Hiding (1950), Jennifer (1953), The Big Knife
(1955), Women’s Prison (1955), and Strange Intruder (1956).
LYNCH, DAVID (1946– ). Writer-director David Lynch is a highly
distinctive presence within American cinema. Lynch’s neo-noirs have
pronounced surreal elements, their bizarre, hallucinatory narratives
intertwining dreams and reality where the ordinary coexists with the
strange and nightmarish and where many of the characters have multiple,
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fractured identities. Lynch’s films often explore the seedy underside of
small-town American life, as in Blue Velvet (1986), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and which has
become a cult classic. The investigations of innocent college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) into a severed ear he discovers lead
him and his girlfriend (Laura Dern) into a nightmare world of perverse
sexuality in which a lounge singer (Isabella Rossellini) is abused by a
sociopathic criminal (Dennis Hopper).
Lynch’s cult noir television series Twin Peaks (1990–91) and its film
prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) also depicted a seething
welter of corrupt passions beneath small-town respectability. MacLachlan plays a Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent investigating
the death of popular high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)
who uncovers a series of disturbing secrets, including the incest that
destroyed Laura’s life. Wild at Heart (1990), which won the Palme
d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, is Lynch’s outlaw couple film
in which Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are on the run
from the police and gangsters hired by Lula’s vindictive mother (Diane
Ladd). Like Blue Velvet, it shows Lynch’s profound debt to classic noir,
in this case Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948).
The bizarre, surreal events that punctuate Wild at Heart become more
central to Lost Highway (1997), a complex, baffling, circular narrative
in which one character, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), unsure whether he
has murdered his wife (Patricia Arquette) for which he has been imprisoned, inexplicably changes into a completely different self, Pete Dayton
(Balthazar Getty). This second self is caught up in another web of intrigue apparently organized by Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia),
another of Lynch’s sociopathic gangsters, whose abused mistress is
also played by Arquette. In the final scene, Pete, transformed back into
Fred, is pursued by police along a nighttime highway that begins to turn
into a dark vortex as he appears to be metamorphosing once again. It is
therefore unclear whether the events are all a dream triggered, as in the
famous Ambrose Bierce story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,”
at the moment of death.
These doublings and metamorphoses also characterize Mulholland
Dr. (2001), for which Lynch was Oscar-nominated as Best Director
and won that award at the Cannes Film Festival. An aspiring actress,
Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), another small-town innocent, meets and
befriends a mysterious amnesiac stranger (Laura Elena Harring), whose
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dark beauty makes her appear like a femme fatale and who assumes the
name “Rita” when she sees a poster for Gilda (1946). Their passionate
but tender affair is beautifully handled by Lynch in another baffling narrative where identities shift and transfer—Rita may be Betty’s fantasy
self—and where all the events may have the surreal logic of dreams
rather than reality. Thus, Lynch’s films draw from the body of classic
noir but subject it to a radical and complex reworking that constantly
challenges the viewer, refusing to offer easy or convenient explanations.
See also NARRATIVE PATTERNS; NEO-NOIR.
–M–
M (1931/1951). Fritz Lang’s M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City
Searches for a Murderer, 1931) was the most influential of the German
Strassenfilm (street film) and the first modern urban crime thriller that
depicted the city as a dark labyrinth fraught with danger. Hans Beckert
(Peter Lorre) is a pedophile who has murdered several young girls. The
police pursuit is so intense and intrusive that the organized underworld
mounts its own search, eventually catching Beckert and subjecting him
to a “trial.” While a thrilling pursuit film and the first police procedural
with a detailed presentation of organization and tactics (mirrored by the
underworld), the profundity of Lang’s film lies in his presentation of
Beckert as a man painfully aware of his condition: “I have to roam the
streets and I always sense that someone is following me. It is me! And
I shadow myself. . . . Sometimes I feel that I’m hunting myself down.”
Unable to escape this hideous other that is subject to uncontrollable
urges, Beckert is the archetypal divided self whom we first see gazing
into a mirror, as if trying to transform himself into the monster conjured
up by the newspaper headlines and the children’s rhyme and thereby
understand his own identity. Lorre’s extraordinary and affecting performance, combined with the intense subjectivity of certain scenes where
the action is shown from Beckert’s viewpoint, make M a deeply disturbing film in which the audience is invited to understand this figure rather
than dismiss him as a loathsome pariah, suggesting that criminality and
deviance are a potential within us all.
M was remade in 1951 by Joseph Losey, who had been approached
by Lang’s producer, Seymour Nebenzahl. A new screenplay was
prepared by Norman Reilly Raine and Leo Katcher with additional
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dialogue by Waldo Salt, and the story was relocated to contemporary
Los Angeles, set in the Bunker Hill area with the final “trial” in the
labyrinthine Bradbury Building. Like Lang, Losey presents the protagonist Martin Harrow (David Wayne) sympathetically. Martin also
gazes at his reflection as if unable to comprehend it. However, his
sickness and perverted sexuality is made more explicit, a comment on
what Losey saw was an alienating materialistic society that created its
own outsiders. Although Wayne’s performance is compelling, Losey’s
film lacked the power and weight of Lang’s and was not warmly received. However, it deserves to be rescued from the relative obscurity
into which it has fallen.
McCOY, HORACE (1897–1955). An influential hard-boiled novelist,
Horace McCoy was regarded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus
as the first American existentialist, his fiction concentrating on the
despairing individual as much as social themes. His most famous
novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), about the exploitation
of Depression-era characters in dance marathons, was finally filmed
as a neo-noir in 1969, though Sydney Pollack’s film waters down the
nihilism and general hopelessness by emphasizing the motivations of
the crooked dance organizers. McCoy’s novel Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
(1948) was filmed in 1950, adapted by Harry Brown, and starred James
Cagney as ex-con Ralph Cotter, who, arriving in an obscure small town
realizes that the police and politicians are corrupt and can be bribed and
exploited. It is a brutal, cynical film, with Cotter displaying no redeeming features in his relentless rise to the top. The Turning Point (1952),
adapted by Warren Duff from McCoy’s unpublished story, starred Edmond O’Brien as the head of a special committee fighting organized
crime in a midwestern city. It prefigured the city exposé cycle, but the
sadism and brutality displayed are pure McCoy. It was published posthumously as a novel, Corruption City, in 1958. There is one French
film noir adapted from McCoy: Un linceul n’a pas de poches (No
Pockets in a Shroud, 1974).
MacDONALD, JOE (1906–1968). An accomplished cinematographer,
Joe MacDonald was adept at expressionist photography, as in Shock
(1946) and The Dark Corner (1946), which uses deep shadows broken
or distorted by intense shafts of light. He was equally competent in the
more realistic semidocumentary style of Call Northside 777 (1948),
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The Street with No Name (1948), Panic in the Streets (1950), and Fourteen Hours (1951), which have extensive location shooting. MacDonald’s two noirs with Samuel Fuller—Pickup on South Street (1953) and
House of Bamboo (1955)—have innovative and striking compositions,
full of visual dynamism, the latter in color. Niagara (1953) was also
in color, where Macdonald’s photography makes full use of the film’s
dramatic setting. See also VISUAL STYLE.
McGIVERN, WILLIAM P. (1918–1982). An ex-police reporter turned
crime writer, William Peter McGivern’s fiction explores police corruption and the capacity of decent people to descend into amoral brutality,
as exemplified in the The Big Heat (1953) adapted by Sydney Boehm,
and Shield for Murder (1954), adapted by Richard Alan Simmons.
Rogue Cop (1954), also adapted by Boehm, has a crooked detective
(Robert Taylor) finally turning against the syndicate that pays him
in order to avenge the death of his brother. McGivern himself adapted
Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) in which an ex-cop (Alan Ladd), released
from San Quentin after five years, wants to be revenged on the gangster
who framed him for manslaughter (Edward G. Robinson). McGivern’s
1957 novel was the basis for Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), in which
Ed Begley plays a renegade former cop using his insider knowledge to
plan an apparently foolproof heist. McGivern’s work was also adapted
as a French film noir, Un choix d’assassins (A Choice of Killers, 1966),
and as a neo-noir, Night of the Juggler (1980), in which a tough New
York ex-cop relentlessly searches for his kidnapped daughter, held by
a twisted psychopath who mistook her for the daughter of a wealthy
businessman. See also CORRUPT/ROGUE COP.
McGRAW, CHARLES (1914–1980). Charles McGraw’s distinctive
gravely voice and rugged appearance—the jutting jaw and penetrating gaze—enabled him to play tough guys on both sides of the law.
Even in small supporting roles—a mobster in T-Men (1948) or hit
man in The Killers (1946)—he had a compelling presence, most
memorably as the sadistic and vicious gangster’s henchman in His
Kind of Woman (1951). His starring roles came in “B” features, including Armored Car Robbery (1950), where he played the steely, hardbitten cop on the trail of a cruel, intelligent criminal (William Talman)
determined to avenge the death of his partner. In The Narrow Margin
(1952), also directed by Richard Fleischer, he played a tough detective
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escorting a racketeer’s widow (Marie Windsor), who is to appear as a
star witness. A more vulnerable side emerged most strongly in Roadblock (1951), where he plays a cynical insurance agent who falls for a
seductive woman. McGraw skillfully reveals his character’s deep desire
for companionship and love. McGraw continued to play minor roles in
neo-noirs: Chandler (1971), The Killer Inside Me (1976), and Twilight’s
Last Gleaming (1977).
MacMURRAY, FRED (1908–1991). Fred MacMurray was a Paramount leading man who played mostly in light comedies and musicals, but he is best remembered for his role as Walter Neff in Double
Indemnity (1944). Although he initially resisted the move from his
customary genres, MacMurray proved able to portray, with great precision, a clever but weak figure, desperate to show that he “knows all
the angles” and can outsmart his boss (Edward G. Robinson). In the
process he becomes a helpless pawn in the schemes of the far stronger
and more ruthless femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck). In Pushover
(1954) he played a similar character, an intelligent police detective
with the same laconic one-liners but who also falls for a femme fatale
(Kim Novak).
MacMurray’s other noirs are Singapore (1947) and Borderline
(1950).
MacREADY, GEORGE (1899–1973). George Macready was a descendant of the great 19th-century Shakespearean actor William Macready,
and his clipped, cultivated voice and patrician bearing made him suitable
for casting as a suave villain, as in his sinister homme fatal in Joseph
H. Lewis’s Gothic noir My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), or as the coldly
manipulative right-hand man of the business tyro (Charles Laughton) in
The Big Clock (1948). His most famous role was as Ballin Mundsen in
Gilda (1946), an urbane, bisexual sadist who admits he only feels alive
when he experiences hate.
Macready’s other noirs are The Missing Juror (1944), The Man Who
Dared (1946), Alias Nick Beal (1949), Johnny Allegro (1949), Knock
on Any Door (1949), A Lady without Passport (1950), Detective Story
(1951), and A Kiss Before Dying (1956).
McGraw’s other noirs are Brute Force (1947), The Gangster (1947),
The Long Night (1947), Berlin Express (1948), Border Incident (1949),
Side Street (1950), Loophole (1954), and In Cold Blood (1967).
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MADSEN, MICHAEL (1958– ). The tall, powerfully built Michael
Madsen has been used extensively as villains in a plethora of neonoirs where his saturnine appearance and gruff tones have created a
succession of sinister, sadistic characterizations. After working in noir
television series and appearing in some minor film roles, he attracted
notice as a deranged killer in John Dahl’s Kill Me Again (1989),
but his big breakthrough came as the sadistic jewel thief Mr. Blonde
in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). The bravura scene
in which he dances around a tied-down police officer—slicing him
with a knife and splashing gasoline all over the terrified man—to the
upbeat melody of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”
was memorably disturbing. Madsen was also well suited to playing
corrupt cops, as in Mulholland Falls (1996), L.A.P.D. to Protect and
to Serve (2001), and Sin City (2005). He worked for Tarantino again
in the two-part martial arts noir hybrid Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), as the coldly evil Budd (aka “Sidewinder”).
Madsen has appeared in many indifferent or straight-to-cable crime
noirs and alternates starring roles in lesser films with supporting roles
in more prestigious ones.
Madsen’s other noirs are Miami Vice (TV, 1984), Crime Story (TV,
1986), The Killing Time (1987), Fatal Instinct (1991), Beyond the Law
(1992), Inside Edge (1993), Dead Connection (1994), The Getaway
(1994), Man with a Gun (1995), Donnie Brasco (1997), Executive Target (1997), The Stray (2000), Outlaw (2001), Living and Dying (2007),
Machine (2007), Break (2008), Hired Gun (2009), and The Big I Am
(GB 2010).
MAINWARING, DANIEL (1902–1977). Daniel Mainwaring, who frequently used the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, wrote several detective
novels, including two adapted for the screen, No Hands on the Clock
(1941) and Crime by Night (1944). Mainwaring’s career as a screenwriter began with the screenplay for They Made Me a Killer (1946), a
routine man-on-the-run thriller adapted from Owen Franes’s story. He
adapted his own thriller, Build My Gallows High (1946), for the seminal noir Out of the Past (1947), and his own novel for Joseph Losey’s
The Lawless (1950), which exposes the racist prejudices of small-town
America. Mainwaring’s left-wing views caused him to be placed on the
“gray list,” which damaged his career. However, he wrote the screenplays for The Big Steal (1949), Baby Face Nelson (1957), and the noir
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hybrid, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), all directed by Don
Siegel. Invasion was the strongest, capturing the fears and paranoia that
he had also explored in the story that was the basis for Ida Lupino’s
The Hitch-Hiker (1953), where he remained uncredited. Mainwaring
cowrote The Phenix City Story (1955), a city exposé film, directed by
Phil Karlson.
Mainwaring’s other noirs are Roadblock (1951), This Woman Is Dangerous (1952), and A Bullet for Joey (1955). See also BLACKLIST;
LEFT-WING CYCLE.
MALONE, DOROTHY (1925– ). Dark, sensuous, and alluring, Dorothy
Malone tended to be poorly served by her films noir in which she had
underwritten or supporting roles: a bookshop assistant in The Big Sleep
(1946), the wife of the district attorney (Broderick Crawford) in Convicted (1950), and a nurse in The Killer That Stalked New York (1951).
She played the supportive wife to her falsely accused husband (Barry
Sullivan) in Loophole (1954), and in Pushover (1954) and Private Hell
36 (1954) she was the foil to the femme fatales Kim Novak and Ida
Lupino, respectively. She had a more substantial role in her last noir,
The Fast and the Furious (1955), taken hostage by a desperate man-onthe-run played by John Ireland, who codirected. Malone also appeared
in two neo-noirs: Winter Kills (1979) and Basic Instinct (1992). See
also WOMEN.
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). John Huston adapted and directed
the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, but it was the third version
made by Warner Bros., which had purchased the rights to Dashiell
Hammett’s story only six months after it had been published in 1930.
The first version, released in 1931 and directed by Roy Del Ruth, follows Hammett quite closely, retaining much of the original dialogue, but
it lacks the wit and irony of the original. Sam Spade, in Ricardo Cortez’s
broad interpretation, is more accomplished lothario than hard-bitten
private eye. The second adaptation, Satan Met a Lady (1936) directed
by William Dieterle, was a light comedy-mystery, following the success of the “Thin Man” series also based on Hammett. Huston’s version
returned to the original and, in addition to retaining as much of the dialogue as possible, attempted to convey Hammett’s acerbic sense of the
predatory and competitive nature of American society and the gullibility
of the avaricious who pursue phantoms, “the stuff that dreams are made
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of.” The lighting by Arthur Edeson, who had shot the 1931 version, was
fairly conventional, but Huston’s innovations came through his use of
frequent low-angles and intense close-ups, coupled with shock cuts to
unsettle the viewer. The compositions are deliberately cramped and unbalanced, lending an oppressive claustrophobia to the rather anonymous
interiors. Huston also elicits subtle and inventive performances from his
cast. Humphrey Bogart’s Spade is suitably hard-bitten and cynical,
equipped with a mordant wit but also vulnerable. He is unsettled by his
love for the lying femme fatale Miss Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy
(Mary Astor) that compromises his professional integrity—he needs
to do something about the death of his partner Miles Archer—and that
threatens to make him the “sap” he so despises. Instead of the novel’s
ending in which Spade returns to his affair with Archer’s amoral wife,
the film ends with a tormented Spade reluctantly arranging for Brigid to
be arrested. Astor plays the schemer with a brittle, somewhat theatrical
refinement, constantly moving from one persona to another, conscious
that Spade knows she is putting on an act. Sydney Greenstreet’s elegant, urbane, but ruthless Kasper Gutman, Peter Lorre’s over-refined,
effeminate, and decadent Levantine Joel Cairo, and Elisha Cook Jr.’s
neurotic, abused gunsel Wilmer give excellent support to the principals
and embody the novel’s sense of perverse sexuality.
On its release in 1941, reviewers commented on this adaptation’s
toughness and cynicism, its crisply economical scenes and black humor,
which they saw as a decisive departure from the conventional Warner
Bros. crime thriller. Although the war delayed the impact of Huston’s
version, it had a major influence on the main film noir cycle. See also
LANGUAGE; PRECURSORS; VISUAL STYLE.
MALTZ, ALBERT (1908–1985). Author and screenwriter Albert Maltz
was imprisoned as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” another victim of
blacklisting that effectively ended the powerful left-wing cycle of
film noir. Maltz made his reputation as a playwright working for the
left-wing theatrical companies Theatre Union and Group Theatre in
the 1930s, and he joined the Communist Party in 1935. He started
working as a screenwriter in 1941 and cowrote (with W. R. Burnett)
the screenplay for This Gun for Hire (1942), which depicted the hit
man as a sympathetic social outsider. Maltz cowrote the screenplay
for Fritz Lang’s spy noir Cloak and Dagger (1946) and collaborated, uncredited, on The Red House (1947), a country noir starring
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Edward G. Robinson. He was nominated, with Malvin Wald, for the
Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Drama
for The Naked City (1948).
MANN, ANTHONY (1906–1967). Mann was the most important indigenous American director of film noir beginning with his first film, Dr.
Broadway (1942), a Runyonesque crime film that had noir elements.
The Great Flamarion (1945) was a distinctive early noir in which a
vaudeville marksman (Eric Von Stroheim) narrates, in flashback, the
tale of his destruction by a three-timing femme fatale. Mann worked
on “B” features where time and money were at a premium: Strange
Impersonation (1946), Desperate (1947), and Railroaded (1947) all
betrayed their limited resources. However, he was fortunate in being
able to collaborate with a talented screenwriter, John C. Higgins,
and an innovative and accomplished cinematographer, John Alton,
on four films: T-Men (1948), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night
(1949), and Border Incident (1949). Their distinctiveness was to
combine expressionist lighting with semidocumentary realism in
characterization, setting, and in extensive location shooting. T-Men
and Border Incident were compelling tales of undercover agents, capturing the compromises and harsh dangers inherent in their situation
and where the violence is often brutal and shocking. In T-Men the
two agents who infiltrate the notorious Vantucci gang in Detroit form
a strong and protective bond that is cruelly shattered when O’Brien
(Dennis O’Keefe) has to watch helplessly as Genaro (Alfred Ryder) is
shot by the vicious Moxie (Charles McGraw) rather than give away
their mission.
In He Walked by Night Mann replaced Alfred Werker and remained
uncredited, but the film has Mann’s hallmark paranoia and a bravura
final chase sequence in Los Angeles’s cavernous storm drains. Raw
Deal was a moving tale of doomed love unusually narrated by a woman
(Claire Trevor). For Reign of Terror (1949), set during the French
Revolution, Mann, aided again by Alton, created a baroque masterpiece
in which each frame is composed unconventionally, claustrophobic
close-ups are juxtaposed with extreme high or low angles, the editing
jagged and disorientating. These techniques evoke a nightmare world
whose violence is even more brutal and grotesque than in Mann’s earlier
films, providing producer Walter Wanger with a mordant allegory for
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the paranoia, denunciations, and betrayals he felt were associated with
the anti-Communist investigations and the blacklist.
Side Street (1950), made on a higher budget for MGM, attempted to
capitalize on the success of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, released
five months earlier, using the same star pairing of Farley Granger and
Cathy O’Donnell. However, Mann’s film lacks Ray’s romanticism, and
the opening voice-over presents this tale as a semidocumentary of New
York life. Mann, characteristically, concentrates on the existentialist
hopelessness of individuals trapped in a hostile and alienating environment. Like the protagonists of Desperate and Railroaded, Joe Norson
(Granger) is the archetypal “little man,” the victim of forces beyond his
control in Mann’s dark, oppressive noir world.
The brutality and existentialism of Mann’s noirs anticipate his later
Westerns—including Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952),
The Naked Spur (1953), and The Tin Star (1957)—all of which have
strong noir elements in themes, characterization, and visual style and
represent his most accomplished work. Mann’s last film, A Dandy in
Aspic (1968), was a neo-noir hybrid, a dark political thriller starring
Laurence Harvey as a double agent. See also VISUAL STYLE.
MANN, MICHAEL (1943– ). Producer-director Michael Mann has made
one of the most significant contributions to the development of American neo-noir stretching over 25 years, combining an American predilection for fast-paced action and orchestrated violence with a European
existentialism. Mann is involved in every aspect of filmmaking and
shows a meticulous attention to detail. Although he films on location
where possible, there is a recognizable Mann visual style that is highly
orchestrated with a glossy high-tech sheen, and his noirs repeatedly focus on consummate professionals on either side of the law. Thief (1981)
starred James Caan as Frank, the leader of a small band of jewel thieves,
whose dream of complete professional self-sufficiency is compromised
by his desire for family life that leads to his own destruction. The noir
hybrid Manhunter (1986), famous for the first screen appearance of
Hannibal Lecter (played here by Brian Cox), centers on another top
professional, retired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Will
Graham (William Petersen), whose uncanny ability to apprehend serial
killers is based on learning to think as they do, a process that nearly
destroys him and his family.
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Mann’s central occupation during the 1980s was as the executive
producer of the hugely successful noir television series: Miami Vice
(1984–89)—which he insisted had a “big screen” look in its cinematography, design, pacing, and sense of scale—and Crime Story (1986–88).
L.A. Takedown (1989), a television movie, finally metamorphosed into
Heat (1995), where Mann had the budget to realize fully his epic confrontation between two supreme professionals, an obsessive cop (Al
Pacino) and a master criminal (Robert De Niro). Collateral (2004)
depicted another self-sufficient professional, Vincent (Tom Cruise), a
top hit man who flies in to Los Angeles to perform multiple hits in a
single night. Miami Vice (2006), also shot on high-definition video, was
Mann’s long-delayed feature-film version of his television series, displaying his trademark fast-cutting, extended chases, and complex shootouts. Miami Vice continued Mann’s exploration of the instabilities of
masculine identity as the two narcotics cops, Sonny Crockett (Colin
Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), go undercover and start to
lose their true selves. Public Enemies (2009) is a noir hybrid, a period
film about the notorious gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), another
of Mann’s charismatic, dedicated, but doomed criminals, and an epic
confrontation with his professional nemesis, FBI agent Melvin Purvis
(Christian Bale). See also MEN; VISUAL STYLE.
MASON, JAMES (1909–1984). Dark and handsome, with a distinctive,
deep, purring voice, James Mason was the most popular male star in
British cinema in the 1940s before moving to Hollywood in 1947. His
first British film noir was I Met a Murderer (1939), a low-budget
thriller in which he was both star and coproducer. He was a troubled
veteran (from the Spanish Civil War) in The Night Has Eyes (U.S. title
Terror House, 1942), before appearing in three Gothic noirs: The Man
in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (U.S. title Man of Evil, 1944), and
The Seventh Veil (1945) as a ruthless and sadistic homme fatal. His
brooding, troubled nature suggested a soul in torment, the essence of his
role in The Upturned Glass (1947). His portrayal of Johnny McQueen,
an idealistic Irish Republican Army activist in Carol Reed’s Odd Man
Out (1947), was his finest performance. Wounded in a bungled raid,
Johnny tries to evade capture as the police close in, his helpless vulnerability in a now alien city making his via dolorosa genuinely tragic.
Mason returned to Great Britain to star in another Reed film, The Man
Between (1953), playing Ivo Kern, a former lawyer now black-market
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agent who eventually sacrifices himself to save the innocent Susanne
(Claire Bloom) with whom he has fallen in love. In the neo-noir The
Deadly Affair (1966), based on a John Le Carré novel, Mason gave a
similarly compelling performance as a secret agent who has become
disillusioned with Cold War betrayals and evasions.
Mason’s first two American noirs were directed by Max Ophüls. In
Caught (1949), Mason played the one-dimensional role of the understanding doctor set against the overweening and cruel millionaire (Robert Ryan). Mason had a more substantial part in The Reckless Moment
(1949) as a blackmailer who falls in love with the heroine Lucia Harper
(Joan Bennett). He protects Lucia and her daughter from his vicious
boss at the cost of his own life. In One Way Street (1950), Mason was
a doctor who goes on the run after double-crossing a gangster (Dan
Duryea), but in Cry Terror (1958) he was as an innocent man, trapped
with his wife in their home by a psychotic former wartime comrade
(Rod Steiger).
MATÉ, RUDOLPH (1898–1964). The Polish-born cinematographerdirector Rudolph Maté worked in Germany in the 1920s (with Fritz
Lang among others), establishing a reputation as a brilliant and inventive
cameraman before moving to Hollywood in 1935. Maté was the cinematographer on Gilda (1946) and completed some uncredited photography
for The Lady from Shanghai (1948), but his main contribution to noir
was as a director. The Dark Past (1948) was an uneven film but contained some striking dream sequences that explain the psychosis of the
killer (William Holden). Union Station (1950), Forbidden (1953), and
Second Chance (1953), RKO’s first 3-D release, were competent noir
thrillers with extended chase sequences. Maté’s masterpiece was D.O.A.
(1950) in which he preserves the pace and tension of an action thriller
while emphasizing the existential anguish of its victim-hero (Edmond
O’Brien). See also ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL; FREUDIANISM.
MATURE, VICTOR (1913–1999). Victor Mature’s florid, slightly exotic
good looks were used by Josef von Sternberg as the sinister, manipulative Dr. Omar in The Shanghai Gesture (1941). In another early noir,
I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Mature played an egotistical promoter
who becomes incriminated in a murder he did not commit by the cynical manipulations of his self-appointed adversary Lieutenant Cornell
(Laird Cregar). Kiss of Death (1947) contained his best role, in which
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his characteristic long-suffering look, as if haunted by aspirations that
he cannot really acknowledge, let alone achieve, made Mature perfect
as a sympathetic ex-con having to support his family by becoming the
police informant used to trap the psychotic killer (Richard Widmark).
In Cry of the City (1948), he was again highly effective as detective
Lieutenant Candella, a saturnine loner obsessed by his Doppelgänger,
the charismatic villain Martin Rome (Richard Conte), brought up in
the same neighborhood, whom he admires, envies, and hates. Mature
played a small-time racketeer in Gambling House (1951) and a rich
businessman ashamed of not having fought in World War II in Violent
Saturday (1955), both characteristically conflicted characters.
MAZURKI, MIKE (1907–1990). Born in what is now Ukraine, Mike
Mazurki’s huge bulk of solid muscle (he had been an accomplished
soccer player and wrestler) and battered face that seemed to have been
crudely hacked out of granite made him one of the most distinctive of
noir’s pantheon of heavies. Belying his real-life cultivation and intelligence, he specialized in playing lowbrow heavies, as in New York
Confidential (1955), where he is one of the “Syndicate’s” thugs. His
most memorable role came early, in the Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet (1944), as Moose Malloy, just out of jail and
enlisting Marlowe’s help to find his beloved Velma. His performance
combined menace with a poignant wistfulness. He was also highly effective as a wrestler, “The Strangler,” in Jules Dassin’s Night and the
City (GB 1950).
Mazurki’s other noirs are The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Nightmare
Alley (1947), I Walk Alone (1948), Abandoned (1949), Dark City (1950),
New Orleans Uncensored (1955), and Man in the Vault (1956).
MELVILLE, JEAN-PIERRE (1917–1973). Director Jean-Pierre Grumbach renamed himself after the novelist Herman Melville as an expression of his deep affection for American culture. But although Melville
made a number of thrillers based on American models, he always
insisted: “I make gangster films inspired by the gangster novels, but
I don’t make American films, even though I like the American films
noir better than anything.” Although Melville’s noirs are indebted to
American sources, they remain intensely and unmistakably French.
Melville had an exceptional degree of control over his films, as pro-
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ducer, director, scriptwriter, set designer, actor, and editor, even owning his own studio, and was fanatical about small details. His first film
noir Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter, 1953),
the story of a charismatic gigolo and criminal, was more melodramatic
than his later work.
Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler, 1956), although influenced
by The Asphalt Jungle (1950), evoked a very French world through
Melville’s idiomatic script (with dialogue by Auguste Le Breton, a
Série Noire author) and his extensive location shooting in Montmartre and Pigalle. Bob (Roger Duchesne), an aging criminal, down on
his luck, tries to rob a casino but is double-crossed, thus invoking
Melville’s key themes of loyalty and betrayal. This concern has its
origins in the French wartime resistance movement, a subject Melville
tackled directly in the compelling thriller L’Armée des ombres (The
Army of Shadows, 1969). Le Doulos (The Finger Man, 1963) and Le
Deuxième souffle (The Second Breath, 1966), both adapted from Série
Noire novels, were more abstract distillations of American noir stylistically (the expressionist lighting and ubiquitous belted trench coats)
and thematically. Both concern the nature of honor among thieves,
Melville’s abiding preoccupation.
Melville’s later noirs were even more consciously stylized—creating a cold, harsh, modernist world of muted colors: washed-out grays,
blues, and greens—and were even more deeply existential. Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle, 1970), and Un flic (Dirty
Money, 1972) all starred Alain Delon as a hit man, criminal, and cop
respectively. In each, Melville uses Delon’s beauty and minimalist
performance style to evoke a mythically pure masculinity that is inevitably compromised. Un flic, Melville’s final film, has two complicated
20-minute silent robberies, making it one of the most accomplished
caper/heist noirs.
Melville influenced later American directors, notably Walter Hill
(The Driver, 1978), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992), the
Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing, 1990), and Jim Jarmusch (Ghost
Dog, the Way of the Samurai, 1999). Neil Jordan remade Bob le flambeur as The Good Thief (2002).
Melville’s other noirs are Deux hommes dans Manhattan (Two Men
in Manhattan, 1959) and L’Ainé des Ferchaux (Magnet of Doom, 1963).
See also FRENCH FILM NOIR.
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MEMENTO (2000). Memento, an extreme version of the amnesiac films
noir, is the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator who suffers from a form of amnesia that makes him incapable
of making new memories lasting longer than 15 minutes. He suffers
from a head injury apparently inflicted when he tried to rescue his wife
from being raped and murdered. Leonard is determined to take revenge
on his wife’s killer, and, to compensate for his disability, takes Polaroid snapshots of places and people he encounters on which he writes
captions to retain essential information and places a series of notes
and tattoos on his body to preserve other “facts” he finds out. In this
way, director Christopher Nolan, who wrote the screenplay from his
brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori,” was keen to “freshen
up” the amnesiac paradigm. And, instead of a conventional flashback
structure in which events are gradually explained and their motivation
revealed, Memento unfolds in a complex reversal, where each scene
depicts events that immediately precede the action we have just witnessed. However, Memento is not a straight reversal but unfolds like a
Möbius strip, punctuated with flashbacks, direct or indirect repetitions
of the same events, and interspersed with black-and-white sequences
that proceed chronologically, apparently providing a more objective
depiction of Shelby’s situation. Gradually, as the pace of the intercutting
between the two modes increases, the black-and-white sequences are
also revealed as subjective.
In the process, the motivations of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), the
undercover policeman who helps Leonard, and the woman Natalie
(Carrie-Anne Moss) who befriends him, become more ambiguous.
The character and motivations of Leonard himself, initially an empathetic wronged character, also become more clouded, keeping viewers
in the state of heightened attention that Nolan felt was essential to
understand Memento’s ambiguities and the process of memory itself.
In a riveting performance, Pearce manages the difficult feat of being,
at the same time, bewildered and cunning, living in a perpetual present but haunted by the fear that he may be capable of murder, which
his amnesia has allowed him to forget. Memento’s backward spiraling narrative and existential confusion culminates in a chilling final
scene that, instead of resolving the issues, provokes a more profound
uncertainty, creating the possibility that what we have witnessed, as in
Vertigo (1958) or Point Blank (1967), may be a dream.
The noir precursor: Underworld (1927), directed by Josef von Sternberg. Shown: Clive
Brook. Courtesy of Photofest.
The first “true” film noir: Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), directed by Boris Ingster.
Shown: Charles Waldron. Courtesy of Photofest.
The iconic private-eye noir: Murder, My Sweet (1944), directed by Edward Dmytryk.
Shown: Dick Powell (as Philip Marlowe). Courtesy of Photofest.
Born to Kill (1947), directed by Robert Wise. Shown: One-sheet poster featuring Lawrence
Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak. Courtesy of Photofest.
Noir realism: Criss Cross (1949), directed by Robert Siodmak. Shown: Burt
Lancaster’s character, returning home to Bunker Hill, Los Angeles. Courtesy
of Photofest.
Japanese film noir: Nora inu, or Stray Dog (1949, Japan), directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Shown: Toshirô Mifune (left, as Detective Murakami), Takashi Shimura (right, as
Detective Sato). Courtesy of Photofest.
French film noir: Du rififi chez les homes, or Rififi (1955, France), directed by Jules
Dassin. Shown (left to right): Robert Manuel, Jean Servais (standing), Jules Dassin (background, billed as Perlo Vita), and Carl Möhner.
The birth of neo-noir: Body Heat (1981), directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Shown from left:
William Hurt, Kathleen Turner. Courtesy of Photofest.
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Memento’s radical confusion of subjective and objective states where
it is impossible to separate facts from lies or self-deluding fantasies
meant that it straddled the uncertain divide between generic fiction (a
revenge drama) and the radical ambiguities associated with European
art-house cinema. Produced as a very modestly budgeted independent
neo-noir, its rapid success allowed it to “cross over” onto the mainstream circuit, achieving widespread distribution and exhibition and
quickly attaining cult status, the object of continued reinterpretation. See
also NARRATIVE PATTERNS.
MEN. The unconventional representation of masculinity is one of film
noir’s most distinctive features. Instead of the heroic, successful, and
self-confident males that are the norm of Hollywood cinema, film noir,
profoundly influenced by existentialism and Freudianism, characteristically depicts weak, confused, and ineffectual males, often damaged
men who suffer from a range of psychological neuroses and are unable
to resolve the problems that they face. Existentialist ideas produced
the “nonheroic hero” or antihero who acts in a fatalistic, absurdist
world lacking the ethical framework that sustains the traditional hero,
one governed by chance and contingency, where actions appear to be
meaningless and pointless. D.O.A. (1950) was a prime example. The
popularization of Freudian ideas and terminology during World War
II encouraged noir filmmakers to depict disturbed mental states, where
repressed, frequently murderous desires surface and where sexuality is
often morbid, violent, and sadistic, as in Phantom Lady (1944). The
noir male is therefore frequently an alienated, ambivalent, and divided
figure, unsure of his own identity. Noir males are characteristically loners, without a durable home life or, if they have one, its stability and
security is under threat, as in Pitfall (1948) or The Steel Trap (1952).
The nearest film noir gets to a conventional masculine hero is the
government law enforcer, often operating, as in The Undercover Man
(1949), in a clandestine way. However, the decent policemen or tireless
agents are outnumbered by the legion of corrupt cops, from Robert
Taylor in The Bribe (1949) through to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil
(1958). The private eye, walking noir’s “mean streets,” is honorable
and incorruptible if not stridently heroic, but he is often enveloped in
a mystery whose darkness exceeds his comprehension, as in Murder,
My Sweet (1944). More typical is the male victim, the passive or emasculated man either falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, as in
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Crack-Up (1946) or Nightfall (1957), or innocently caught up in a network of crime, as in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Most frequently,
he is the dupe of the stronger and more intelligent femme fatale, as in
Double Indemnity (1944) or Scarlet Street (1945). Above all, the noir
male is a man who cannot escape his past, either the troubled veteran
who fails to cope with the new demands of peacetime or who harbors
a dark secret, or someone who attempts to live an ordinary decent
life—The Killers (1946) or Out of the Past (1947)—until ambushed by
figures from his previous existence.
Film noir also offers a range of corrupt or evil males, such as the
homme fatal sadistically exercising his sexual power in a number
of Gothic noirs, for example, Gaslight (1944) or its contemporary
equivalent, The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). Noir is littered with psychopaths who enjoy inflicting pain, beginning with Richard Widmark’s
memorable Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947) or James Cagney’s
unstable gangster in White Heat (1948), who eventually blows himself
up. Grotesques, hulking bruisers, vicious sidekicks, and sociopaths are
frequently depicted, including Mike Mazurki’s Moose Molloy in Murder, My Sweet (1944).
These characteristic representations of masculinity in film noir are
taken to greater extremes in neo-noir. The private eye becomes a bemused, vulnerable, and inept investigator, lost and alienated in a world
he no longer understands and is therefore powerless to master, as in
Night Moves (1975). Lone investigators are overwhelmed by political conspiracies in a world dominated by surveillance—The Parallax
View (1974). The corrupt cop has become the norm rather than the
aberration in noirs that seem to abandon the hope of justice or civil
order, as in Training Day (2001). The male victim suffers more extreme abjection, as in Steven Soderberg’s Underneath (1995), a remake
of Criss Cross (1949) that abandons the romanticism of the original,
emphasizing just deceit and betrayal. The male victim still abounds in
neo-noir (Body Heat, 1981) as the femme fatale has become more ruthless and more successful. The troubled veteran has become psychotic
as in Taxi Driver (1976), part of a more widespread focus on extreme
mental disturbance, as in the number of neo-noirs adapted from Jim
Thompson, from The Killer Inside Me (1976) through to This World,
Then the Fireworks (1997). Neo-noir also abounds with homme fatals
(Jagged Edge, 1985) and sociopathic hit men (No Country for Old
Men, 2007). One key neo-noir character is the serial killer, the ultimate
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• 203
transgressor, a mythical figure composed of Gothic elements and the
contemporary psychopath, as in Se7en (1995). See also ANDREWS,
DANA; BASEHART, RICHARD; BOGART, HUMPHREY; COOK,
ELISHA, JR.; COTTEN, JOSEPH; CREGAR, LAIRD; DE NIRO,
ROBERT; DELON, ALAIN; DOUGLAS, KIRK; DOUGLAS, MICHAEL; DURYEA, DAN; EASTWOOD, CLINT; FORD, GLENN;
GABIN, JEAN; HACKMAN, GENE; HAYDEN, STERLING; HEFLIN, VAN; HODIAK, JOHN; LADD, ALAN; MCGRAW, CHARLES;
MACMURRAY, FRED; MACREADY, GEORGE; MADSEN, MICHAEL; MASON, JAMES; MATURE, VICTOR; MILLAND, RAY;
MITCHUM, ROBERT; MONTGOMERY, ROBERT; NICHOLSON,
JACK; NOLTE, NICK; O’BRIEN, EDMOND; O’KEEFE, DENNIS;
PACINO, AL; PALANCE, JACK; PAYNE, JOHN; PORTMAN,
ERIC; POWELL, DICK; RAFT, GEORGE; ROBINSON, EDWARD
G.; ROURKE, MICKEY; RYAN, ROBERT; SULLIVAN, BARRY;
TIERNEY, LAWRENCE; WASHINGTON, DENZEL; WILDE, CORNEL; WOMEN.
MEXICAN FILM NOIR. Mexican film noir began with La mujer del
puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934) in which Rosario (Andrea
Palma), an innocent young country woman, leaves her hometown after her faithless fiancé kills her father for the port of Veracruz, where
she lives in the red-light district as a prostitute, a mujer manchada or
“stained woman.” Rosario meets a sailor, Alberto (Domingo Soler),
who rescues her from an attack on the docks and they make love, only
to discover that they are siblings. La mujer shows the deep influence of
expressionism and the Strassenfilm (street film) in its subject matter
and visual style, the dark shadows intensifying as the tragedy deepens.
It was a highly influential film, remade four times, that inaugurated a
new genre, the cabaretera (brothel) film in which an innocent woman
moves to the city and becomes a prostitute or nightclub singer/hostess
enmeshed in an underworld milieu. The genre developed rapidly during and after World War II as in Doña Bárbara (1943), La mujer sin
alma (Woman without a Soul, 1944), Crepúsculo (Twilight, 1945), La
devoradora (The Man Eater, 1946), Salón México (1949)—remade in
1996—and Victimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951), which all feature
the femme fatale or la devoradora—the devouring woman. The most
famous and successful was Aventurera (The Adventuress, 1950) starring
the Cuban singer-actress Ninón Sevilla. Sevilla plays an innocent who
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leaves for “sin city,” Ciudad Juarez, after her father commits suicide,
where she is drugged by a nightclub owner and madame (Palma) and
becomes a cabaret dancer.
Luis Buñuel, who made over 20 films in Mexico after fleeing from
Spain in 1946, contributed to this genre through Susana (The Devil
and the Flesh, 1950) and, in the same year, directed Los olvidados
(The Forgotten Ones, aka The Young and the Damned), a dark and
violent picture about the lives of several destitute children in the
slums of Mexico City. In El bruto (The Brute, 1953), Buñuel depicted
another urban predator, a young man who enforces eviction, but the
story was one of redemption, as was Buñuel’s Ensayo de un crimen
(The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, 1955), which focused
on a would-be serial killer. Other noirs in this period include Distinto
amanecer (A Different Dawn, 1943), the story of an idealistic labor
leader pursued by the gunmen of a corrupt state governor because of
the compromising evidence he possesses, and El suavecito (1950), a
boxing noir that has similarities to The Set-Up (1949).
The Mexican film industry experienced a sharp decline after 1955,
and there has not been a sustained production cycle of neo-noirs, but
the occasional example. Alfredo Gurrola’s Llámenme Mike (1979) was
a blackly comic neo-noir in which a narcotics cop, an avid reader of
Mickey Spillane, is desperate to become Mike Hammer. Psychologically damaged after a beating, he wages a one-man war against drug
barons. Gurrola’s Días de combate (Days of Combat, 1982) was less
playful, depicting an engineer turned private eye trying to hunt down
a notorious strangler with whom he establishes a strange rapport. His
Cosa fácil (Easy Thing, 1982) was a private eye thriller, but one in
which the detective becomes personally obsessed by his investigations.
In all three instances, Gurrola explores the ills of Mexican society, its
violence, corruption, and injustice. Los albañiles (The Bricklayers,
1976) was a police procedural in which the investigation of the murder
of a night watchman on a construction site reveals the financial and
moral corruption rife in Mexican society at that time.
Arturo Ripstein remade La mujer del puerto in 1991 before remaking The Honeymoon Killers (1970) as Profundo carmesi (Deep Crimson, 1996), the story of the “Lonely Hearts Killers,” a famous pair of
murderers who preyed on lonely American widows. Both noirs present
their shocking tales with cool detachment. Alex Cox’s El patrullero
(Highway Patrolman, 1992) was a thoughtful depiction of the corrupt
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cop, portraying a young cadet’s first assignment on the northern border
where his integrity is slowly, insidiously undermined. Soba (Beaten,
2004), shot in black-and-white, its roots firmly in the cabaretera tradition but filtered through Taxi Driver (1976), portrays a young girl,
Justina, fleeing from home, who is abused by the police before she is
“rescued” by an unstable maverick cop, Ivan, with whom she has a
fraught affair.
MILDRED PIERCE (1945). Long recognized as a seminal noir, Mildred
Pierce was a hybrid, combining the prewar woman’s picture with the
crime thriller. Something of an experiment for Warner Bros., it was
a critical (nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best
Screenplay) and commercial success, and Joan Crawford’s own Oscar-winning performance as Mildred revived her career, leading to starring roles in a further six films noir.
The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, was based on the 1941 novel
by James M. Cain, a major departure for the writer through its focus
on a female protagonist, its chronological third-person narrative, and the
absence of a crime; Cain wanted to depict the struggle of an ordinary,
working-class woman to be economically successful. However, producer
Jerry Wald, the key figure in the making of Mildred Pierce, consistently, through eight rewrites, encouraged various screenwriters and advisers—including the uncredited Malvin Wald—to emphasize the crime
elements in their adaptations. The opening murder of Monte Beragon
(Zachary Scott), shot in shadowy chiaroscuro and the film’s focal point,
is not in the novel. Its inspiration, along with the imported flashback
structure, was Wald’s admiration for Double Indemnity (1944).
Crawford is a more glamorous figure than in the novel, more sexually attractive and more manipulative, aligning her with the femme
fatale archetype and allowing an audience to believe that she is indeed
guilty of Monte’s murder, the louche, predatory, but charming playboy she marries after her divorce from her drab husband Bert (Bruce
Bennett). The real culprit is Mildred’s daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), a
more venal and superficial character than in the novel, who kills Monte
because he has spurned her for Mildred. In covering up the crime,
Mildred acknowledges that Veda is her dark self, the product of her
own ambitions and desires. In a muted conclusion, Mildred is reunited
with her loyal first husband, but the film’s emphasis was on Mildred’s
guilt and responsibility for what happens, as shown in its publicity
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campaign: “She knew there was trouble coming—trouble she made for
herself—a love affair—and a loaded gun. . . . She had no right playing
around with either!” See also WOMEN.
MILLAND, RAY (1905–1986). Born Reginald Alfred Truscott-Jones in
South Wales, Ray Milland entered British cinema in 1929 and changed
his name before emigrating to Hollywood in 1930, where he became a
proficient leading man, winning an Oscar for his desperate alcoholic
in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), which has noir elements.
Milland’s good looks and charm led him to play debonair professionals
under duress, as in Fritz Lang’s The Ministry of Fear (1945) or John
Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), or suave villains, for example, Alias
Nick Beale (1949), in which he plays a modern incarnation of the devil,
Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), and the British noir So Evil My
Love (1948). A subtle and accomplished actor, Milland played the role
of the corrupt scientist-on-the-run in The Thief (1952), a film entirely
without dialogue.
Milland’s other noirs are The Glass Key (1935), Circle of Danger
(GB 1951), and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).
MILTON, DAVID (1888–1979). Art director David Milton worked
exclusively in second features for Monogram and later Allied Artists. Forced to be highly economical, Milton evolved a style that was
spare and angular, where the poverty of the sets and décor could be
disguised by inventive lighting and camerawork, as on the cut-price
adaptations of Cornell Woolrich: Fall Guy (1947) and I Wouldn’t Be
in Your Shoes (1948).
Milton’s other noirs are Decoy (1946), Southside 1-1000 (1950), The
Underworld Story (1950), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Cry Vengeance
(1954), Loophole (1954), Sudden Danger (1955), Baby Face Nelson
(1957), and Portland Exposé (1957). See also VISUAL STYLE.
MITCHUM, ROBERT (1917–1997). Robert Mitchum was the single
most important male performer, appearing in over 20 films noir. Mitchum’s size and muscular physique were counterpointed by the wry,
ambivalent attitude he projected, and his indolent, soft-spoken style
lacked the usual aggression and dynamism of the American star but
made him perfect for the introverted, skewed noir world. He perfected a
minimalist style that lent meaning to the smallest gesture and suggested
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intelligence and the capacity for reflection. Mitchum had supporting
roles in When Strangers Marry (1944), Undercurrent (1946), and The
Locket (1947) and a more substantial one in Crossfire (1947), but his
first starring role came in Out of the Past (1947). As private eye Jeff
Bailey, whose world-weary skepticism is blown apart by his romantic
longings for the femme fatale (Jane Greer), Mitchum gave what became his most iconic performance and established him as RKO’s most
bankable male star. He played several similar roles, including The Big
Steal (1949) again with Greer, Where Danger Lives (1950) with Faith
Domergue, and Angel Face (1953) with Jean Simmons. In His Kind of
Woman (1951) and Macao (1952), he starred opposite Jane Russell, essaying the same weary, sardonic character, apparently indifferent to his
fate. Mitchum starred in two noir hybrids, the westerns Pursued (1947)
and Blood on the Moon (1948), savage tales of persecution, guilt, and
paranoia in which he adopted a more demonstrative style, as he also did
in what is considered to be his best performance in Charles Laughton’s
Night of the Hunter (1955). Mitchum is genuinely terrifying as the psychotic criminal posing as a fundamentalist preacher who preys on his
victims across Bible-belt America. In the late noir Cape Fear (1962),
he was Max Cady, another frighteningly convincing psychotic waiting
patiently for his revenge.
Mitchum appeared in a number of neo-noirs, notably the adaptation
of a George V. Higgins’s novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973).
Mitchum played a middle-aged loser, haunted by his past, caught between the police and the mob. In The Yakuza (1974), he portrayed a
retired detective summoned to assist his friend in his dealings with a
yakuza gangster, becoming embroiled in a different culture he gradually learns to respect. His performance as Philip Marlowe in the two
Raymond Chandler adaptations Farewell My Lovely (1975) and The
Big Sleep (1978) provided a self-consciously nostalgic link to 1940s
noir, but Mitchum gave the character a new sense of middle-aged weariness and ennui.
Mitchum’s other noirs are The Racket (1951), Second Chance (1953),
Thunder Road (1958), Going Home (1971), Nightkill (1980), and Cape
Fear (1991). See also MEN.
MOHR, HAL (1894–1974). Hal Mohr was a distinguished cinematographer who did not work on film noir until the cycle was fully developed.
His early noirs—The Second Woman (1950), Woman on the Run (1950),
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and Joseph Losey’s The Big Night (1951)—had expressionist elements, but his cinematography on Baby Face Nelson (1957), The LineUp (1958), and Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961) evinced the
increasing brutal realism of the later noirs. See also VISUAL STYLE.
MONTGOMERY, ROBERT (1904–1981). Robert Montgomery was an
established leading man from 1931 onward, mainly in comedies, but
his debonair charm was used very effectively in the noir precursor,
Night Must Fall (1937). Montgomery plays an homme fatal, a psychopathic sexual opportunist and murderer, who enters the employ of a rich
spinster with a beautiful niece. Montgomery turned to directing as well
as acting, beginning with the Raymond Chandler adaptation, Lady
in the Lake (1947), a bold experiment in first-person screen narration
in which Marlowe’s eyes were the camera and Montgomery’s Philip
Marlowe was seen only in reflections. Ride the Pink Horse (1947), one
of the definitive troubled veteran noirs, was adapted from Dorothy B.
Hughes’s hard-boiled novel. Montgomery plays the morose Gagin, on
the trail of a war profiteer who caused the death of an army comrade.
The war’s fallout was also the theme of Your Witness (U.S title Eye Witness, 1950), a British film noir in which he plays a New York lawyer
who comes to England to defend a former comrade who saved his life
but now stands accused of murder.
MURDER, MY SWEET (1944). Murder, My Sweet, along with Double
Indemnity and Laura, released in the same year, established the major
film noir cycle. RKO owned the rights to Raymond Chandler’s 1940
novel Farewell My Lovely and had adapted it as the comedy thriller
The Falcon Takes Over (1942). However, the creative team of director Edward Dmytryk, writer John Paxton, and writer-turned-producer
Adrian Scott saw the opportunity of making a version that was much
closer to the novel’s cynical, dispassionate take on American society.
Although their adaptation was influenced by the hard-boiled dialogue
and sardonic ambience of The Maltese Falcon (1941), it was stylistically thoroughly different, much more indebted to Citizen Kane (1941)
in its use of flashback, voice-over narration, expressionist lighting, and
Albert S. D’Agostino’s deliberately distorted sets. Cinematographer
Harry J. Wild uses disorientating reflections, subjective camerawork,
and whirling dissolves to render how private eye Philip Marlowe (Dick
Powell) drifts in and out of consciousness as he is knocked senseless,
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choked, drugged, and beaten by Dr. Sonderborg and his hoods in the
course of his search for the elusive Velma. At one point Marlowe seems
to fall through space, pursued by huge figures that tower over him.
Indeed, the most radical aspect of Murder, My Sweet is its pervasive oneirism beginning in the second scene where Marlowe, musing
on the “dead silence of an office building at night—not quite real,” is
interrupted when the next flash of the neon light outside discloses the
hulking figure of Moose Molloy (Mike Mazurki), the first in a series
of grotesque figures whom Marlowe encounters in what seems to be
an hallucinogenic world where dream and reality mingle and become
confused. Powell, a more vulnerable Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart,
though he protects himself through a series of smart wisecracks, often
discloses an existential bewilderment at the seductive but disorientating
city whose secrets he can barely grasp. Marlowe inhabits an ominous
world beyond his control, be it the seediness of cheap flophouses and
grimy bars or the corrupt, decadent world of the rich, revealing a society
that is insubstantial and predatory.
Murder, My Sweet was very popular and highly influential, especially
in its attempt at providing a visual equivalent for subjective states. See
also FREUDIANISM; LANGUAGE; NARRATIVE PATTERNS; VISUAL STYLE.
MUSIC. Music in films noir of the 1940s was dominated by the conventional approach to film scoring derived from late 19th-century European
romanticism, particularly Richard Strauss, whose main features were
full symphonic scoring, lush orchestration, the use of melodies as leitmotifs, and the underscoring of dramatic action. Many noirs used variations of this model, including Max Steiner’s score for Mildred Pierce
(1945) and Miklós Rózsa’s superb orchestration for Criss Cross (1949).
The Gothic noirs have lush orchestration that underlines the emotional
climaxes, as in Franz Waxman’s score for Rebecca (1940).
However, one of noir’s distinctive elements was its use of more experimental musical styles that incorporated dissonance and atonality, the
use of unusual instrumentation, and experimental recording techniques
to make the scoring darker and more threatening with more effective
use of silences. Bernard Herrmann counterpoints his romantic score
for John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945) against the discordant
sounds used during the blackouts of the protagonist, composer George
Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar), in which he transforms into a murderous
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psychopath. Bone’s own piano concerto is characterized by its modernist atonality and dissonance.
Noir incorporated elements of modern “urban” American music.
Jazz, derived from the black demimonde, was used strategically to suggest the exotic and the forbidden, as in the famous sequence in Phantom
Lady (1944) where “Kansas” (Ella Raines), dressed as a prostitute,
visits a jazz cellar and listens to the “hot music.” Unlike symphonic orchestration, jazz is improvisational, and noir uses its strident, dissonant
aspects to signal illicit sexuality, a sense of danger and disturbed mental
states. In D.O.A. (1950), the jazz club is the dangerous, uncontrolled
space where the hero’s murder takes place. Vincent Minnelli’s pastiche
of the noir style in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence in The Band Wagon
(1953) uses a jazz score. In the 1950s, jazz started to be used as the basis
of film noir orchestration rather than as irruptions into it. In Nightmare
(1956), the remake of Fear in the Night (1947), the central protagonist
is a New Orleans jazz musician, and Herschel Burke Gilbert provided
an inventive jazz score. Hiring Gilbert was also indicative of the greater
use of indigenous rather than European composers. Jazz began to be
used as an important part of film noir’s appeal, as in Henry Mancini’s score for Touch of Evil (1958) or that of composer John Lewis
for Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Early noir television series—
including Johnny Staccato (1959–60) or Peter Gunn (1959–61)—used
jazz scores as the norm.
Neo-noir’s use of music is more heterogeneous, generally showing
the tension between atonal techniques and the return of more melodic
elements. Jazz scores are often used to evoke the 1940s, as in John
Barry’s for Body Heat (1981), a “retrospective illusion” or “constructed
nostalgia” that recasts jazz as the dominant soundtrack of classic noir.
See also NEWMAN, ALFRED; RAKSIN, DAVID; SALTER, HANS
J.; SAWTELL, PAUL; TIOMKIN, DIMITRI; YOUNG, VICTOR.
MUSURACA, NICHOLAS (1892–1975). Italian-born Nicholas Musuraca worked as a cameraman from the end of the silent period through
to 1960. Known as a specialist in “mood lighting,” he was the director of
photography for the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).
Musuraca exercised a seminal influence on the development of film noir
through his work with Val Lewton at RKO on a series of Gothic horrorthrillers that included The Seventh Victim (1943). Musuraca’s low-key
contrastive cinematography and subtly suggestive chiaroscuro evolved
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into the “RKO expressionism” that defined the early noir style, as shown
in Deadline at Dawn (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and the noir hybrid
Blood on the Moon (1948). For Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase
(1946) and John Brahm’s The Locket (1947), Musuraca intensifies his
use of chiaroscuro lighting, in keeping with the Gothic nature of the
stories. This is shown in the famous doubled scenes in The Spiral Staircase in which the female victims descend the spiral staircase, candle in
hand, their huge, ominous shadows dominating the frame. In Clash by
Night (1952), and especially The Blue Gardenia (1953), Musuraca’s
cinematography was more naturalistic, using neutral gray tones to help
depict the claustrophobic, stifling modern world that director Fritz Lang
wanted to create. Musuraca used the mobility of the crab dolly to make
the camerawork sufficiently fluid to “eavesdrop” on the action.
Musuraca’s other noirs are The Fallen Sparrow (1943), I Married a
Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949), Where Danger Lives
(1950), Roadblock (1951), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Split Second (1953),
and The Lawbreakers (1960). See also VISUAL STYLE.
–N–
THE NAKED CITY (1948). The Naked City was the most celebrated and
popular of the semidocumentary noirs. Director Jules Dassin spent 10
weeks filming in 107 different locations in New York City, conducting the most ambitious attempt to put the ideas promoted by Italian
neo-realism and the American wartime documentarists into practice.
Interiors were often shot in actual buildings to add authenticity. Dassin,
and cinematographer William Daniels who received an Oscar, used the
new fast film stock and portable lighting units to shoot on location, and
some of the film was photographed secretly through trucks panelled
with two-way mirrors to avoid onlookers crowding around or posing for
the camera. The editing—by Paul Weatherwax, who also received an
Oscar—is dynamic, with constant changes of perspective, from tracking
shots that follow the action and underline dramatic involvement to the
high-angle panoramic perspectives in which the workings of the city
are exposed.
The Naked City was the brainchild of screenwriter Malvin Wald,
who had spent several months researching in the New York police
department records for an appropriate story that was both typical and
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engaging. It was based on an unsolved story that gave Wald and coscreenwriter Albert Maltz the freedom to create a highly dramatic
ending. The working title, “Homicide,” was changed to its present one
as a reference to Weegee’s influential 1945 book of black-and whitephotographs, Naked City, the rights to which had been acquired by
producer Mark Hellinger. Hellinger narrates the film in a more confidential fashion than the customary “voice of God” mode: “I may as
well tell you frankly that it’s a bit different from most films you’ve ever
seen,” reflecting Hellinger’s own intimate knowledge of New York as
a newspaper columnist. According to Dassin, much of the explicit leftwing social commentary that he and Maltz had wanted to show (largely
through the juxtaposition of images) was jettisoned in Hellinger’s emollient treatment.
Like most films in this cycle, The Naked City is a tribute to the methodical workings of authority (in this case the New York Police Department) and its avuncular representative, Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry
Fitzgerald), 38 years on the force, who succeeds in solving the murder
case of model Jean Dexter by doggedly sifting through all the evidence.
Almost a third of the time on location was spent on the bravura final
sequence, in which the working-class ex-wrestler and Dexter’s actual
murderer Garzah (Ted de Corsia), now trapped in his teeming East Side
neighborhood, tries to evade capture, eventually falling to his death
from the Williamsburg Bridge Tower.
The Naked City ends with Hellinger intoning “There are eight million
stories in the naked city—this has been one of them,” which became the
catchphrase of the noir television series Naked City (1958–63). Ironically, Hellinger died almost immediately after recording the voice-over,
and shortly after the film’s release, Dassin and Maltz were placed on the
blacklist. See also LEFT-WING CYCLE; VISUAL STYLE.
NARRATIVE PATTERNS. Film noir’s distinctive narrative patterning derives from its depiction of protagonists dominated by their past,
particularly how past actions determine the present and the future.
Therefore, the stabilities of a linear chronology are often undermined
and time becomes discontinuous and fragmented. Hence the narrative
devices that attempt to render this discontinuity—voice-overs, multiple narrators, flashbacks, and dream sequences depicting subjective
states—that are such a striking feature of film noir. These unorthodox
narrative patterns were a radical departure from classical Hollywood’s
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conventional mode of storytelling, with its omniscient, smoothly flowing linear narrative in which each action leads swiftly and logically on
to the next and where all the loose ends are tied up, as opposed to noir’s
often ambiguous or inconclusive endings.
Noir’s use of voice-over was an attempt to replicate the firstperson narration of the hard-boiled fiction from which many noirs
were adapted, and they can be either confessional or investigative.
The use of a confessional flashback in Double Indemnity (1944) was
highly influential, creating a dramatic counterpoint between the confession itself and the narrator’s present situation. Detour (1945) and Out
of the Past (1947) are also celebrated examples in which the narrator
tries to make sense of the past, his narrative becoming both an exorcism
and a plea for understanding. The Lady from Shanghai (1948) makes
repeated references to dreams, and its voice-over narrative seems not
so much to progress toward a resolution as compulsively double back.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) and D.O.A. (1950) both use the flashback narrative of a man already dead or about to die. The confessional narrative
is dominated by the male protagonist’s retrospective examination of the
ways in which he was seduced and betrayed by a duplicitous femme
fatale, but there are occasional examples of female narrators—Rebecca
(1940), Mildred Pierce (1945), or Raw Deal (1948). Investigative narratives often circle around enigmatic central characters, as in The Mask
of Dimitrios (1944) or The Killers (1946), which were highly influenced
by Citizen Kane (1941). The Killers’ screenplay expands its source—
a cryptic Hemingway short story that only directly provides the material
of the opening scene—into a complex succession of 11 disconnected
and overlapping narrative flashbacks that shed some light on why The
Swede (Burt Lancaster) had lost his desire to live and made no attempt to run or hide from two hired killers. The Swede himself is not
permitted a voice but remains, like Charles Foster Kane, the enigmatic
absent center. John Brahm’s The Locket (1947) uses a complex series
of flashbacks within flashbacks to “explain” the mental instability of
Nancy Blair (Laraine Day), who collapses on the day of her wedding.
Noir’s dream sequences and subjective point-of-view scenes were
an attempt to provide a visual correlative for disturbed psychological
states that derived from German expressionism, as shown clearly in
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). A much more widely seen example was Murder, My Sweet (1944), which uses whirling dissolves
and partially fogged screens to render Marlowe’s lapses in and out
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of consciousness as he is drugged, beaten up, and tortured. Robert
Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947) took this experiment further
by making the camera Marlowe’s eyes so that the whole film is what
he sees. Curtis Bernhardt used subjective techniques in Possessed
(1947) and High Wall (1947) to convey the mental conflicts of their
amnesiac protagonists. Possessed begins with an extended sequence
shot from the point of view of Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) to
capture her distracted, catatonic state in which she wanders through the
early morning Los Angeles streets. High Wall uses scenes shot from
the point of view of troubled veteran Steve Kenet (Robert Taylor),
who has a blood clot pressing on his brain that results in violent headaches and amnesia and who is suspected of murdering his wife. Alfred
Hitchcock used dream sequences designed by the surrealist Salvador
Dali in Spellbound (1945) to convey the bewilderment and disorientation experienced by another amnesiac troubled veteran (Gregory Peck),
who believes himself guilty of murdering the man he is impersonating. A Cornell Woolrich adaptation, Fear in the Night (1947), has a
wonderfully surreal opening where Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley)
experiences a nightmare in which he murders a man in a mirrored room
from which he cannot escape. He falls into what appears to be an endless tunnel before waking, only to find the evidence—cuts on his arm,
two thumbprints on his neck, a button torn off in the struggle, and the
key to the mirror cupboard—that seems to prove the dream was true,
creating an intense paranoia and confusion.
In the 1950s, where there is less concern with individual pathologies,
these experiments with subjective camerawork, flashbacks, voiceovers, or dream sequences fade away in favor of more conventional
narration—Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Orson Welles’s Touch
of Evil (1958) were powerful exceptions. However, these techniques
returned in neo-noirs. Modernist neo-noirs abandoned the crisp, fastpaced trajectory of their predecessors in favor of meandering, episodic,
and inconclusive stories, circling back on themselves and leading to
ambivalence about narrative itself as a meaningful activity, as in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975). In Taxi Driver (1976), the intermittent voice-over of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is not retrospective
but haltingly tracks his deteriorating mental condition and increasingly
intense misanthropy and bewilderment.
Postmodern noirs also use flashbacks, but these tend to be more
visceral, oblique, and ambiguous than their classical predecessors, with
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unreliable narrators. In Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding (1994), the
confessional flashback narrative of corrupt cop Jack Grimaldi (Gary
Oldman), told to an imaginary interlocutor, is self-serving and deceitful. His recollections are frequently interrupted by dream sequences,
making it unclear whether the whole story is real or a self-deluding fantasy. The flashback narrative of Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) in Bryan
Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) unfolds events in meticulous detail
but explains nothing and may all be embroidered from the names he sees
on the police notice board in the interrogation room. Nothing definite
is resolved as the film allows us no access to an objective viewpoint.
This radical indeterminacy is pushed further in Christopher Nolan’s
Memento (2000), where it is impossible to separate “facts” from lies or
self-protecting fantasies. The two separate narratives, one in color that
proceeds in reverse, the other told intermittently but chronologically
in black-and-white, eventually merge, but nothing is resolved. In these
ways the narrative patterning of neo-noirs often exceeds their classic
predecessors and comes close to the radical ambiguity associated with
European art-house cinema.
NEO-NOIR. Neo-noir has established itself as the preferred term for
films noir made after the end of the “classic” period (1940–59). However, neo-noirs are films that self-consciously allude to classic noir,
either implicitly or explicitly, building on what had become recognized
and accepted as a distinct body of films from a particular period. Thus,
neo-noirs should be distinguished from “late noirs” (1960–67)—that
include The 3rd Voice (1960), Angel’s Flight (1965), In Cold Blood
(1967), or the work of Samuel Fuller: Underworld U.S.A. (1961),
Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964)—which were
simply a continuation of noir filmmaking practices slightly after the
arbitrary watershed of 1959.
The first true neo-noir was John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967),
which, drawing on the French New Wave, explicitly and selfconsciously revised the noir tradition in a contemporary idiom, using
color, widescreen lenses, and elliptical editing. It inaugurated, gradually, what can be termed the “modernist” phase of neo-noir (1967–80) in
which a new generation of filmmakers, profoundly influenced by recent
neo-modernist developments in European cinema, attempted to transform American cinema and its generic traditions. Robert Altman’s The
Long Goodbye (1973), an acerbic updating of Raymond Chandler,
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Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Arthur Penn’s Night Moves
(1975), and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) written by Paul
Schrader, all engaged in a critique not only of American society but
also of noir conventions, including the resourceful private eye.
Modernist neo-noirs abandoned the crisp, fast-paced trajectory of
their predecessors in favor of meandering, episodic, and inconclusive
stories, circling back on themselves. Formally self-reflexive, modernist
neo-noirs developed Boorman’s innovations in widescreen compositions, disjunctive editing, the expressive use of color, and the persistent
deployment of unsettling zoom shots to depict protagonists who are
alienated and dysfunctional, adrift in situations beyond their comprehension that they are incapable of resolving. Neo-noir antiheroes are
the product of the forces that destabilized American society during this
period: including the protests against the Vietnam War and left-wing
student activism, the struggle for black civil rights, the feminist movement, and the 1972 Watergate scandal, all of which combined to create a
profound disillusionment with American society and the countercultural
creation of “alternative” lifestyles.
These disruptive forces, most directly the deep mistrust of American
institutions stemming from the Watergate revelations, also generated a
less experimental group of political conspiracy thrillers, neo-noir hybrids, through which social anxieties could be expressed. This cycle of
films included Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and Alan J. Pakula’s
“paranoia trilogy” Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and All
the President’s Men (1976). These social and political upheavals also
generated a cycle of African American neo-noirs—beginning with the
adaptation of the novels of black hard-boiled author Chester Himes: If
He Hollers Let Him Go (1968) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), and
Shaft (1971), that launched a cycle of “blaxploitation” films—exploring
the black experience and the deep-seated racism in American society.
The release of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat in 1981 marked a new,
postmodern phase of neo-noir in which noir conventions were embraced
less critically and which often—as in the case of Body Heat, directly indebted to Double Indemnity (1944)—evoked the mood and atmosphere
of classic noir through their visual style, jazz scores, and archetypal narratives. Cinematographers were now able to shoot in color at very low
lighting levels, creating striking contrasts that resembled classic noir’s
chiaroscuro. The Postman Always Rings Twice, also released in 1981,
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was the first of numerous direct remakes of classic noirs. These remakes were complemented by many retro-noirs set during the 1940s or
1950s, as in L.A. Confidential (1997) or Brian de Palma’s The Black
Dahlia (2006). A countertendency was an increasing hybridity in which
noir was melded with a variety of other genres, most notably sci-fi, inaugurated by Blade Runner (1982), a highly influential “future noir” that
combined retro elements, such as Harrison Ford’s trench-coated blade
runner, with a dystopian vision of Los Angeles in 2019. Other examples
included Dark City (1998) and Minority Report (2002).
Neo-noir also expanded its range through adaptations of Jim
Thompson—notably After Dark, My Sweet (1990), The Grifters
(1990), and This World, Then the Fireworks (1997)—the hard-boiled
writer whose style and subject matter was most challenging, and
country noirs—including the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984)
or John Dahl’s Red Rock West (1996)—in which the corruption, betrayals, and murderous hatreds of classic noir’s urban settings were
extended into the wide-open spaces of redneck America. The 1990s
also saw a renewed and wider-ranging development of African American noir that revealed the complexity and heterogeneity of the black
experience, beginning with Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem (1991) and
Deep Cover (1992), and including Carl Franklin’s One False Move
(1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). More women directors made
neo-noirs, bringing a feminist perspective to its masculine confines
that opened up new vistas, as in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990)
and Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy (1992), a radical remake of Gun Crazy
(aka Deadly Is the Female, 1950) in which the subjectivity and experiences of the woman partner were foregrounded. A recent development
has been the proliferation of neo-noirs adapted from comics/graphic
novels, including Sin City (2005), which used digital technology to
render Frank Miller’s comic strip landscape.
What unites these developments is an intensification of the visual
and aural experience for the cinemagoer. Hypermobile camerawork,
rapid zooms, shock cuts, and ultrafast montage sequences create a visceral, disruptive, often overwhelming sensory experience that makes
neo-noirs stylistically very different from classic noir. Face/Off (1997),
for instance, combines a dark Doppelgänger story with the high-speed
action sequences and breathtaking special effects through which director John Woo made his name in Hong Kong film noir. Face/Off exemplifies the increasingly global nature of neo-noir in which American
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directors react not only to developments in European cinema but also
to ones in Asia and Latin America. The subject matter and core themes
of classic noir—paranoia, alienation, existential fatalism, and Freudian
psychopathology—have been retained, but heightened, often through
the use of oblique and ambiguous flashback devices and disruptive
chronologies, as in Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding (1994) or Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), with its reverse chronology and amnesiac self-deluding narrator.
Neo-noirs have often emerged from independent cinema, the sector
of the American film industry associated with formal innovation and
challenging subject matter that characterized European art cinema or the
modernist American auteurs in the 1970s. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp
Fiction (1994) with its discontinuous narrative and multiple allusions,
was a famous example and one that “crossed over” between independent
and mainstream cinema, though this boundary is increasingly blurred.
Neo-noirs have now become a staple of cinema exhibition, cable television programming, and DVD rental. Their production is no longer characterized, as it was in the modernist period, by occasional productions
but by a continuous stream of new releases. There is even a low-budget
equivalent to the studio second feature, the noir-inflected erotic thriller,
such as Night Rhythms (1992), made to be released on cable networks or
DVD and relying on the basic appeal of sex and violence.
In these ways, neo-noir has become, unlike its classic predecessor, a
widely recognized and accepted contemporary genre. The noir “look” is
now part of a knowing postmodern culture, with cineliterate audiences
attuned to the multiple allusions and prepared to accept a greater narrative ambiguity and range of stylistic devices. Neo-noirs themselves are
now part of a wide network of noir fiction: hard-boiled novels, television
series, interactive video games, magazines, cover art, websites, comic
books and graphic novels, and even tourist industry simulations. Although this commodification means that film noir is no longer clearly an
oppositional form of filmmaking, neo-noir retains the capacity, handled
intelligently, to engage with important issues. See also ARGENTINIAN
FILM NOIR; AUSTRALIAN FILM NOIR; BRAZILIAN FILM NOIR;
BRITISH FILM NOIR; DANISH FILM NOIR; EXISTENTIALISM;
FINNISH FILM NOIR; FRENCH FILM NOIR; FREUDIANISM;
GERMAN FILM NOIR; ITALIAN FILM NOIR; JAPANESE FILM
NOIR; MANN, MICHAEL; MEN; MEXICAN FILM NOIR; NARRATIVE PATTERNS; NEW ZEALAND FILM NOIR; NORWEGIAN
NEWMAN, ALFRED
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FILM NOIR; SOUTH KOREAN FILM NOIR; SPANISH FILM NOIR;
VISUAL STYLE; WOMEN.
NEW ZEALAND FILM NOIR. New Zealand has a relatively small
film industry and the strongest generic elements are Gothic horror
and the macabre rather than crime fiction, thus the earliest films noir
were horror-noir hybrids. In Scarecrow (1982), John Carradine plays
a cadaverous serial killer and necrophiliac in a small rural town, while
in The Lost Tribe (1982), an anthropologist (John Bach), working from
a remote coastal hut investigating the graves of a lost Maori tribe, is
affected by a “dark force” that leads him to murder his twin brother.
The female protagonist (Heather Bolton) of Mr. Wrong (1985), having bought a beautiful Jaguar car to assert her independence, finds it is
haunted by its previous owner who was murdered in the vehicle by a
mysterious stranger.
A second noir strand was comprised of several political thrillers
inspired by true events that critiqued aspects of New Zealand society.
Should I Be Good? (1985) was based on the arrest and death of Martin
Johnstone, a real-life drug baron, dubbed “Mr. Asia” by international
police. The film explores the popular myth that the man who died was
not the real criminal. In Spooked (2004), also based on real incidents,
an investigative journalist (Cliff Curtis) determines to uncover the
truth behind the death of a secondhand computer dealer who may have
died as the result of stumbling upon information that identifies New
Zealand as the center of money laundering by multinational corporations to fund terrorism and illegal arms trading. The Last Tattoo (1994),
starring Kerry Fox, Tony Goldwyn, and Rod Steiger, was also about
cover-ups and political intrigue, but it was set during World War II and
is about the fraught encounter between American servicemen and the
local female population. This powerful film probes the dark underside
of wartime, the spread of venereal disease, and a mysterious death to
protect those in charge.
NEWMAN, ALFRED (1901–1970). A prolific and influential composer,
Alfred Newman was musical director at Twentieth Century-Fox from
1940–60 and oversaw all the studio’s releases. Newman was a conservative composer using melodic strings, leitmotifs, and countermelodies
throughout his career, including his nine noirs. Because of his high
turnover, Newman tended to repeat his major themes and was adaptable
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rather than original, but his scores for films noir are often memorable,
as in the haunting melody for Cry of the City (1948). He was Oscarnominated for his work on The Snake Pit (1948).
Newman’s other noirs are You Only Live Once (1937), Leave Her to
Heaven (1946), Boomerang! (1947), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), 13
Rue Madeleine (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), Thieves’ Highway
(1949), Whirlpool (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), No Way Out
(1950), Fourteen Hours (1951), and House on Telegraph Hill (1951).
See also MUSIC.
NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY. The influence of news photography on
film noir has not been widely recognized. The New York Daily News
was the most aggressive and influential tabloid newspaper pioneering
the graphic and sensational use of photographs that captured actual
incidents, most famously the shot of Ruth Snyder dying in the electric chair on 12 January 1928. These photographs helped stimulate
a public appetite for representations of violent crime, particularly
involving a sexual element, which paralleled developments in hardboiled fiction. Technological advances in the early 1930s, including
faster film and shutter speeds, meant that photographs became more
sharply focused, could be shot at night, and had greater depth of field.
This created the characteristic high-contrast lighting with deep black
shadows, an aesthetic that fed directly into the development of film
noir. News photographers and their editors made creative choices that
established a repertoire of events (accidents, arrests, beatings, destruction of property, murder, and shootings) and a cast of characters—policemen, criminals, victims, prostitutes—that signified the dangerous
and threatening nature of the city at night, all of which were taken up
by noir filmmakers. See also WEEGEE.
NICHOLSON, JACK (1937– ). One of the major actors currently working in Hollywood, Jack Nicholson has starred in several neo-noirs, although his first noir was Roger Corman’s The Cry Baby Killer (1958),
in which he plays a juvenile delinquent who panics after shooting two
other teenagers. Nicholson also wrote the late noir Thunder Island
(1963) about a hit man. Nicholson’s most accomplished performance
came in his first neo-noir, Chinatown (1974), in which he played the
smug private eye, J. J. Gittes, trammelled in a mystery in which he
is out of his depth. Nicholson directed himself in the sequel, The Two
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Jakes (1990), set in a postwar Los Angeles still riven by corruption,
this time concerning the oil industry. He played the disaffected television journalist David Locke in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s ItalianAmerican noir Professione: reporter (The Passenger, 1975). Changing
identities with the man who has died suddenly overnight in the next
door hotel room, Locke finds himself embroiled in gun-running and
the target for assassins. Nicholson starred in the 1981 remake of The
Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but he failed to recapture John
Garfield’s charisma.
Nicholson gave one of his most controlled and satisfying performances as “Straight-Arrow Charley, the All-American Hood” in John
Huston’s noir hybrid Prizzi’s Honor (1985), based on the Richard
Condon novel. Charley Partanna is a hit man for the ruling Prizzi family, who accepts their ideology and logic even at the cost of killing his
own wife, fellow assassin Irene (Kathleen Turner). In Blood and Wine
(1996) he played a Miami-area wine merchant so heavily in debt that
he risks all on a jewel robbery. Nicholson gave a reflective, understated
performance in The Pledge (2001) as a retiring detective who makes a
pledge on his final day to find a child killer. He becomes obsessed by
the case to the point of putting the life of his newly acquired “family”
at risk and ends a decrepit wreck in this bleakly powerful film. He was
equally compelling as the Irish crime boss Frank Costello in Martin
Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), who believes in the gangster’s adage
that you have to make your own way in this world because “no one
gives it to you . . . you have to take it.”
NOLAN, CHRISTOPHER (1970– ). The son of an English father and
an American mother, Christopher Nolan has emerged as a significant
contemporary writer-director. All of his five films so far, if not entirely films noir, draw heavily upon its themes and style and show a
preoccupation with memory and the instabilities of identity. His début
film, Following (1998), made in Great Britain, was a 16 mm blackand-white feature made on a minuscule budget but with a sophisticated triple timeline narrative, a fragmented visual style with jarring
cuts, odd angles, and off-center compositions, and an archetypal noir
antihero (Jeremy Theobald), a would-be writer confused about his
purposes and identity and subject to the distorting, unreliable power of
memory. Following attracted considerable attention and led to Nolan’s
first American film, Memento (2000), an innovative amnesiac noir.
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Memento, which received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Editing, was a major success, enabling Nolan to direct his
first high-budget studio production, Insomnia (2002), a remake of the
Norwegian film noir, but with the action shifted to Alaska. Al Pacino
plays a world-weary cop, Will Dormer, worn down by the grimy realities of his profession and beginning to be unsure of his own purposes
and identity, uncertain if he killed his partner accidentally and of what
separates him from a killer (Robin Williams) he is pursuing. Characteristically, Insomnia is peppered with hallucinatory miniflashbacks
that evoke a state of waking dream.
Nolan was brought in to revive Warner Bros.’ Batman franchise,
directing Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), starring
Christian Bale as Batman. Both are dark, haunted noir hybrids in which
Batman is an ambiguous figure, uncertain of his identity in a corrupt
and brutal Gotham City that is a mythic version of the archetypal noir
necropolis. In between, Nolan wrote and directed The Prestige (2006),
another exploration of male identity through the story of two magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) in 1890s London who seek
to destroy each other. The Prestige is a brooding tale of duplicity and
doubling that explores the connections between magic (“the prestige”
is the third and crucial part of the magician’s act whereby the vanished
object returns), cinema, and experimental science. See also NARRATIVE PATTERNS; NEO-NOIR.
NOLTE, NICK (1941– ). Gravel-voiced, burly, and intimidating, Nick
Nolte’s first noir was as the troubled Vietnam veteran in Karel Reisz’s
underrated Who’ll Stop the Rain (aka Dog Soldiers, 1978), but Nolte
came to prominence in 48 Hrs. (1982) as a cynical, tough cop, a role he
played in several noirs, including the sequel, Another 48 Hrs. (1990).
He could be the stoical good guy version, as in his Texas Ranger in
Extreme Prejudice (1987), but he was more powerful as the loathsome
corrupt cop Mike Brennan in Sidney Lumet’s Q & A (1990). He played
a more charismatic version in Lee Tamahori’s stylized Mulholland Falls
(1996) as the leader of an elite group of unorthodox and often unethical
cops battling organized crime in postwar Los Angeles. Nolte could also
play disillusioned, troubled men, as in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear
(1991) and Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997). His most powerful role, in
Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997), combines the two elements. Nolte
gives a striking performance as the emotionally crippled Wade White-
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house, sheriff of a small New Hampshire town whose life has been
blighted by the destructive presence of his father Glen (James Coburn),
a brutal alcoholic. In Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief (2002), a remake
of Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler, 1955), Nolte played the aging,
world-weary gambler trying to pull off one last heist.
Nolte’s other noirs are Everybody Wins (1990) and Nightwatch
(1997).
NORWEGIAN FILM NOIR. Norway has a small film industry that
nevertheless has managed to generate some interesting if sporadic films
noir and neo-noirs. Norwegian film noir was influenced by expressionism, poetic realism, and American hard-boiled fiction as well
as American film noir, but there were also indigenous sources, including Edvard Munch’s paintings, Henrik Ibsen’s plays, and a vernacular
hard-boiled tradition. To levende og en død (Two Living and One Dead,
1937) had noir elements, but the first “true” noir was Døden er et
kjærtegn (Death Is a Caress, 1949), adapted from a Norwegian novel
but heavily influenced by film adaptations of James M. Cain. Its opening and “confessional” flashback was indebted to Double Indemnity
(1944), and its tale of a violent desire leading to murder between a
car mechanic and a wealthy married woman displayed some striking
similarities to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Death Is a
Caress is more sexually explicit than its American counterparts and
the ending bleaker, a typically Norwegian pessimism, which also pervades To mistenkelige personer (Two Suspicious Characters, 1950),
a fugitive-on-the-run story.
Norwegian neo-noir began in the 1970s, following a huge boom
in the output of indigenous crime novels, with Bortreist på ubestemt
tid (Away for an Indefinite Time, 1974), a complicated tale of murder,
passion, and guilt, with an ambiguous central protagonist, which shows
the influence of European modernist cinema and particularly Claude
Chabrol. Angst (Anguish, 1976) was a hostage thriller with another
ambivalent male protagonist and a bleak ending. The neo-noirs of the
1980s also focus on the troubled male protagonist, as in Brun Bitter
(Hair of the Dog, 1988), with its flawed detective and femme fatale.
The most successful and accomplished was Erik Skjoldbjerg’s Insomnia (1997), which Christopher Nolan remade in 2000. Skjoldbjerg
described his film as a “reverse film noir” because its summer setting
in Tromsø, a small town in northern Norway, meant the sun is always
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visible. Two policemen investigating a murder try to trap the killer and
in the process one, Engström, accidently kills the other. In trying to
make it appear that the murderer they were hunting was responsible,
Engström becomes haunted by guilt, cannot sleep, and feels he is going
insane, his perception of the world confused and uncertain as Insomnia
moves toward its bleak conclusion. Uro (Restless, 2006) was an archetypal noir tale of a man who, attempting to reform and join the police,
finds his past coming back to haunt him. See also DANISH FILM
NOIR; FINNISH FILM NOIR.
NOVAK, KIM (1933– ). Kim Novak is best remembered for her dual
role in Vertigo (1958), which exploited both her ethereal beauty as
the enigmatic Madeleine Elster and her earthy sexuality as the hapless
Judy, who can only be attractive to Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart)
once she has been re-created as her false self, Madeleine. Novak had
her first starring role in an earlier noir, Pushover (1954), in which she
plays a femme fatale, and she was a nightclub singer in Phil Karlson’s
5 Against the House (1955). She appeared in one neo-noir Liebestraum
(1991), but was at odds with the director, Mike Figgis, and her role was
much reduced.
–O–
O’BRIEN, EDMOND (1915–1985). Edmond O’Brien often played the
decent, ordinary Joe, as in D.O.A. (1950), where he is the innocent
victim of a criminal web that is indifferent to his fate, or The HitchHiker (1953), where he plays one of two friends held up by a psychotic
killer (William Talman). He was equally effective as an indefatigable
investigator in The Killers (1946), or in The Turning Point (1952), as
the leader of a special committee investigating organized crime in a
large midwestern city. However, there was always an edgy tension in
O’Brien’s performance that made his characters inclined to cynicism
and skepticism about human motivations, and thus his strongest roles
were as darker, more ambiguous characters. In Between Midnight and
Dawn (1950) and A Cry in the Night (1956), he played policemen who
have been brutalized by the criminals they have to deal with and who
struggle to maintain their relationships with others. In 711 Ocean Drive
(1950) and Shield for Murder (1954), this dark side is allowed greater
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rein. The latter, which O’Brien also codirected with Howard Koch, was
adapted from a William P. McGivern novel, in which a case-hardened
policeman, Barney Nolan, is prepared to murder and rob a bookmaker
who carried mob money and to kill the only witness. Alienated from his
girlfriend and the young detective who idolizes him, Nolan is gunned
down at the suburban dream home where he had buried the money.
O’Brien’s other noirs are The Web (1947), A Double Life (1948),
White Heat (1948), Backfire (1950), Man in the Dark (1953), and 99
and 44/100% Dead (1974).
O’KEEFE, DENNIS (1908–1968). The tall, well-built, gruff-voiced
O’Keefe could be both action hero and tough guy. His best roles came in
two Anthony Mann films noir, T-Men (1948) and Raw Deal (1948). In
the former he played a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, O’Brien,
working undercover, who impersonates a hoodlum in order to infiltrate
a counterfeiters’ gang. His pose is uncomfortably authentic, making
O’Brien seem interchangeable with the gangsters he works to expose.
However, when his partner is shot rather than give away their mission,
O’Keefe conveys the hurt and pain superbly. In Raw Deal he was escaped convict Joe Sullivan, tough and abrasive but decent underneath,
who can command the love of two women. However, these roles did
not lead to stardom, and O’Keefe spent the rest of his career in “B” features, for instance, Cover Up (1949), which he also coscripted, playing
an insurance investigator. He went undercover again in Chicago Syndicate (1955) and tries to revenge his brother’s murder in Inside Detroit
(1956), both city exposé films. O’Keefe wrote, codirected, and starred
in Angela (1955), an American-Italian coproduction that had many similarities to Double Indemnity (1944).
O’Keefe’s other noirs are Dishonored Lady (1947), Walk a Crooked
Mile (1948), Abandoned (1949), Woman on the Run (1950), and The
Company She Keeps (1951).
OUTLAW COUPLE. The outlaw couple noir is an important subcategory
that focuses on the conflict between sexual desire and the law. The outlaw
couple is often sympathetically presented, rebelling against outmoded or
insensitive barriers and constraints, both class-based and generational.
The first example was the noir precursor, Fritz Lang’s You Only Live
Once (1937), starring Henry Fonda as a “three-time loser,” wrongfully
convicted for his part in a robbery and eventually going on the run after
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a prison break, with his adoring pregnant wife Jo (Sylvia Sidney). They
are killed in a police ambush trying to cross the border into Canada.
Out of the Past (1947) has elements of the outlaw couple, but the
first postwar example was Anthony Mann’s Desperate (1947), in which
a newlywed truck driver (Steve Brodie) is inadvertently drawn into a
warehouse robbery. He goes on the run with his pregnant wife from
the vengeful mobster (Raymond Burr), but he is pursued by a shady
private eye. Mann’s second outlaw couple film was Raw Deal (1948),
highly distinctive because it is an outlaw ménage à trois, narrated by one
of the two women who are in love with escaped convict Joe Sullivan
(Dennis O’Keefe). Douglas Sirk’s Shockproof (1949) starred Cornel
Wilde as an honest parole officer who, falling in love with a femme
fatale (Patricia Knight), is slowly drawn into a life of crime. Perhaps the
definitive example, and one of the most romantic, was Nicholas Ray’s
They Live by Night (1948), which centers on the relationship between
Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), young, nearinnocents on the run because Bowie misguidedly gets involved in a
prison break with two hardened criminals and is sucked into their criminal activities. Equally memorable but more downbeat was Joseph H.
Lewis’s Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female, 1950), in which the outlaw couple (John Dall and Peggy Cummins) meet in a shooting contest
and become fatally addicted to lawlessness.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was an attempt to see the
Depression era of the 1930s through the countercultural lens of the late
1960s, depicting a couple—Clyde (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie (Faye
Dunaway)—who are “liberated” criminals at odds with a bankrupt
conventional world. It was the inspiration for numerous neo-noirs,
including Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), a somber remake
of They Live by Night with a more deliberate emphasis on the period
setting (the 1930s). Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy (1992), a remake of Gun
Crazy, emphasized the impoverishment and limited horizons of rural
America. The action-packed neo-noir The Getaway (1972), directed by
Sam Peckinpah and starring Steve McQueen as an escaped bank robber
and Ali McGraw as his wife, was remade in 1994, directed by Roger
Donaldson, starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Terrence Malik’s
influential Badlands (1973) was based on real-life events and set,
loosely, in the late 1950s. It is narrated by the infatuated Holly (Sissy
Spacek), emancipated from her mundane existence in South Dakota by
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the charismatic young rebel Kit (Martin Sheen), the pair embarking on
a trans-state killing spree.
Other notable examples include David Lynch’s Wild at Heart
(1990), also indebted to They Live by Night, which depicts a small-town
young couple Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) on the run
from the police and gangsters hired by Lula’s vindictive mother (Diane Ladd). Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) depicted a female
couple (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon), whose outlaw status is a
liberation from patriarchal oppression. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born
Killers (1994) argued that its conscienceless outlaw couple Mickey
(Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) were produced by a
media-infatuated American society in love with crime and violence. See
also MEN; WOMEN.
OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Out of the Past was adapted by Daniel
Mainwaring from his own 1946 novel (as Geoffrey Homes) Build My
Gallows High. Robert Mitchum plays the central character, private
eye Jeff Markham, who is dispatched by crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk
Douglas) to bring back his mistress Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) and the
$40,000 she stole. Jeff catches up with Kathie in Acapulco but falls in
love and, instead of bringing her back, flees with her to San Francisco.
Jeff’s former partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) spots them, but he is
shot by Kathie, who then flees. Jeff narrates these events in flashback to
his new girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) in the small town of Bridgeport in the Californian Sierras, where he lives under his new name
Bailey, just before he is sucked back in to Sterling’s affairs. Adroitly
compressing the novel’s secondary plot convolutions, Mainwaring’s
screenplay makes the story more inexorably fatalistic and changes the
ending so that Jeff and Kathie meet their fate together.
This archetypal story of double- and triple-cross is given depth by the
principal performances. Douglas is superb as Whit, cruel and vindictive
but also inveigling and fearful; Greer is perfect as Kathie, utterly ruthless and manipulative but never losing the air of helplessness that makes
her so attractive. However, it is Mitchum who carries the film, conveying a complex character: intelligent, skeptical, and engaging but also
passive, enveloped in a coruscating fatalism that can only comment on
his actions, never alter them. He realizes that he has created a romantic
fantasy around Kathie, but he is never able to disengage. As she starts to
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tell him about her past in one of their first meetings, Jeff merely shrugs
saying “Baby, I don’t care” before resuming his embrace.
Equally effective is Jacques Tourneur’s expansive, slow-paced
direction that creates the space for the central love affair to develop
convincingly. The fluidity of Nicholas Musuraca’s subtle photography
complements the performances, his delicately modulated lighting lending Out of the Past a dreamlike quality that also characterizes Jeff’s
voice-over narration. When he recounts first seeing Kathie materializing
out of the bright Mexican sunlight as he dozes over his beer in the La
Mar Azul bar, or coming to him on the moonlit beach, the words and
images give her a delicate, ethereal beauty that is overwhelmingly desirable. Like all noir protagonists, Jeff cannot escape his past and realizes
that the new life he tried to construct for himself in wholesome Bridgeport is another illusion, as insubstantial as his love for Kathie.
Out of the Past was successful on its initial release and made Mitchum into a star and RKO’s leading man. It has become an iconic film
that, along with Double Indemnity (1944), best exemplifies film noir.
–P–
PACINO, AL (1940– ). The son of Italian-American parents and brought
up in the South Bronx, New York, Al Pacino is a celebrated and highly
influential actor who has made a major contribution to the development
of neo-noir. Pacino attained stardom through his role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Serpico (1973), narrated in flashback,
contained noir elements with Pacino as a countercultural maverick
policeman, the first of several roles in which he plays unstable outsiders. In the caper/heist noir Dog Day Afternoon (1975), also directed
by Sidney Lumet, Pacino played a troubled Vietnam veteran, who
takes to crime in order to fund his transgendered partner’s sex-change
operation. In Cruising (1980), Pacino played Steve Burns, a New York
City police officer sent deep undercover to frequent sadomasochistic
bars in order to track down a serial killer targeting gay men. In true noir
fashion, his undercover work leads Burns to question his own sexual
orientation and his identity.
Pacino stared in the ultraviolent remake of Scarface (1983) but did
not return to film noir until Sea of Love (1989), as a hard-drinking New
York City detective trying to catch a serial killer. Now middle-aged,
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Pacino’s dark, deep-set owl eyes and hoarse, gravelly voice allowed him
to play a series of police officers or villains deeply affected by a pervasive weariness, forcing them to question the values they have lived by
and whether their lives have been worthwhile. His characters have dysfunctional emotional lives, are unable to form stable relationships, and,
although desperate to change direction, cannot. Pacino was compelling
in Carlito’s Way (1993) as a gangster, Carlito Brigante, newly released
from prison, whose past drags him inexorably back into criminal activities. In Heat (1995), he plays the unstable Lieutenant Vincent Hanna,
in the process of losing his third marriage but needing his edgy angst to
keep him sharp in his pursuit of the master criminal (Robert De Niro).
Pacino played an idealistic but corrupt mayor in City Hall (1996), but a
better role came in Donnie Brasco (1997), set in the late 1970s, as Lefty
Ruggiero, a low-level mafia hit man who is continually passed over for
promotion to a higher position within the Family and whose personal
life is in tatters. He suffers yet another betrayal by Brasco (Johnny
Depp), an undercover policeman he treats as a son. In Christopher
Nolan’s Insomnia (2002), a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film noir,
Pacino plays another world-weary cop, Will Dormer, under investigation by the internal affairs unit. He becomes increasingly guilt-ridden
and unstable, unable to sleep because of the perpetual Alaskan summer
daylight, deeply unsure if his shooting of his partner was really accidental. In Righteous Kill (2008), Pacino was the archetypal corrupt cop,
“Rooster” Fisk, murdering criminals whom he thought would escape
justice and becoming addicted to the satisfaction of killing while attempting to frame his partner, the volatile “Turk” Cowan (De Niro).
PALANCE, JACK (1919–2006). Born Volodymyr Palahniuk in Pennsylvania of Ukrainian parents, Jack Palance’s imposing height, rugged
looks, and intimidating glare made him the natural choice for villains,
as in his first noir, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), in which
he played a killer who becomes a plague carrier. He received an Oscar
nomination for his supporting role in Sudden Fear (1952) as an homme
fatal who plans to murder his wife (Joan Crawford) after he finds that
she intends to leave the bulk of her fortune to a charitable foundation.
Palance starred in two ill-judged remakes: Man in the Attic (1953),
based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’s novel The Lodger, which fictionalizes the Jack the Ripper killings and was better made by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927, and I Died a Thousand Times (1955), an inferior version
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of High Sierra (1941). Palance played a hit man in Second Chance
(1953), but he had a more substantial role in Robert Aldrich’s The
Big Knife (1955), based on Clifford Odets’s play about the venalities
of the film industry. As Charlie Castle, Palance created a complex and
sympathetic character who eventually commits suicide, destroyed by
the pressures of stardom.
Palance had a demanding dual role as lookalike brothers in the labored prison noir House of Numbers (1957), filmed on location in CinemaScope at San Quentin prison. In the late noir Once a Thief (1965),
he played Alain Delon’s criminal brother, and he was in two neo-noirs:
as another hired killer in Portrait of a Hitman (1977), a thoughtful performance that gave his character some depth, and a vigilante cop in The
One Man Jury (1978), who is prepared to go to any lengths to apprehend
a serial killer.
PANORAMA DU FILM NOIR AMÉRICAIN (1941–1953). Raymond
Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir américain
(1941–1953), published in 1955, was the first book-length study of film
noir. Although they were not the first to use the term film noir, Borde
and Chaumeton’s study established film noir as a significant object of
critical debate, even though a full text in English did not become available until Paul Hammond’s translation in 2002. As the title implies, the
Panorama sought to map out a distinctive and significant body of films
that redefined American crime cinema for the postwar world. Borde
and Chaumeton defined noir as a “series,” with a common style, atmosphere, and subject matter that was characterized as “oneiric, strange,
erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” They were more interested in the emotional or affective qualities of film noir than its narrative structures
or visual style, considering that the disorientation of the spectator, a
“specific sense of malaise,” was noir’s key quality.
Although Borde and Chaumeton considered noir to be a relatively
short-lived cycle of films lasting from 1941–53, “a specific moment in
sensibility” that was part of a longer cultural history of crime fiction,
they regarded Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) as its culmination. However, in the Postface to the 1979 edition, originally published
in Écran in 1975, they welcomed another series of neo-noirs, “a flourishing renaissance,” which displayed “a new kind of morbid heartlessness” in which the private eye had been replaced by the flawed or
corrupt cop.
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PAYNE, JOHN (1912–1989). Like Dick Powell, John Payne was a singer
and dancer in musicals who made the transition to film noir once his
looks had matured and hardened. He was effective in The Crooked Way
(1949) as a Silver Star amnesiac/troubled veteran, who discovers, to
his horror, that in the past life he cannot remember, he was a violent
criminal. In three films for Phil Karlson—Kansas City Confidential
(1952), 99 River Street (1953), and Hell’s Island (1955)—Payne also
played empathetic, confused battlers, struggling against seemingly overwhelming odds. He played a more ambivalent character in Slightly Scarlet (1956), based on a James M. Cain novel. In Hidden Fear (1957),
directed by André De Toth, Payne played a tough cop who travels to
Copenhagen to pursue his quarry.
PENN, ARTHUR (1922– ). Arthur Penn was a crucial transitional figure
between classic and neo-noir through a series of distinctive films made
in the 1960s. Mickey One (1965) was deeply indebted to the French New
Wave and to the experiments with fractured narrative and disjunctive
editing by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Mickey (Warren
Beatty) is a second-rate nightclub comic who, becoming involved with a
mob in Detroit, flees to Chicago, where he lives as an outcast. His story
is presented obliquely, often in disconnected and grotesque images,
capturing Mickey’s paranoia and his confused, distorted perceptions.
The Chase (1966) was more conventional, a taut thriller that developed
understated elements in the city exposé films in its exploration of the
racism, corruption, and violence in a small southern town. Penn’s major
commercial success came with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the definitive
outlaw couple noir, a depiction of the 1930s through a countercultural
lens so that the couple, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie
Parker (Faye Dunaway), are presented as young, glamorous, and appealing rebels, at odds with a moribund and bankrupt officialdom.
Penn’s Night Moves (1975) was one of several 1970s neo-noirs that
redefined the private eye. Penn stated that he was part of a generation
“which knows there are no solutions” and described Night Moves as
a “dark picture” caused by his sense of depression and loss after the
Kennedy assassinations. Penn regarded it as a “counter-cultural genre
film, a private-eye film about a detective who finds the solution is not
solvable.” Gene Hackman played Los Angeles private investigator
Harry Moseby, disillusioned, insecure, and disconcertingly detached
from events, even his wife’s infidelity. Harry’s lack of a true purpose
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or a moral center, his nameless fears, hopelessness, and impotent anger,
are mirrored in the film’s oblique style, where scenes often seem to lose
their energy and drift onward to no real purpose, only to be abruptly
truncated by a disorientating cut. Even the central investigation into the
disappearance and subsequent death of the promiscuous Delly (Melanie
Griffith) becomes mired in Harry’s doubts and lack of resolution. At the
end of the case, Harry is trapped on a yacht, ironically named the Point
of View. Penn’s slow reverse zoom shows the craft circling endlessly,
a metaphor for a stagnant, directionless contemporary world. Target
(1985), also starring Hackman, was a conventional political thriller, and
Dead of Winter (1987) a labored remake of My Name Is Julia Ross
(1945). After this point, Penn directed for television and became an executive producer for the noir television series Law and Order (1990– ).
See also NARRATIVE PATTERNS; VISUAL STYLE.
PERFORMANCE (1970). Performance was an innovative and internationally influential British crime film, codirected by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg. Cammell, a member of London’s exclusive
bohemian Chelsea Set, was interested in dramatizing the clash of the
criminal underworld and 1960s counterculture. The lead singer of the
Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, in his first film, played the reclusive rock
star Turner, who has lost his “demon” and retreated into an alternative
world of drugs and Eastern mysticism. Turner’s dark locks, unnatural
pallor, long, thin fingers, and fear of daylight and mirrors mark him as a
modern vampire, androgynously sexual in his fluid ménage à trois with
Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). Like Dracula,
he awaits the arrival of the victim who will revive his powers: East
End hard man Chas Devlin (James Fox), a violent “enforcer” for Harry
Flowers (Johnny Shannon), loosely modeled on the notorious gangster
Ronnie Kray. Chas, on the run after killing another member of the organization, hides out in Turner’s house in Notting Hill.
In their encounter, both Turner and Chas have their identities remodeled as Chas, the sadomasochistic performer of sex and violence,
is forced, through drugs and clever manipulation, to acknowledge his
feminine side; in one pivotal moment, Pherber holds a mirror so that her
breast appears on his chest. As Chas, now clothed in hippie attire with
ruffled shirt, velvet suit, and long-haired wig, loses himself in druginduced catatonia, Turner absorbs his hard, male energy and, in his electrifying performance of the song “Message from Turner,” symbolically
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takes over the East End gang. In the final scene, the identities of Chas
and Turner have become interchangeable, suggesting the disturbing
proximity, even equivalence, of these two apparently opposite worlds.
Performance made the most radical use of the extraordinary freedom
offered to British filmmakers by American studios convinced that British culture was in the forefront of change. Roeg’s rococo, allusive, and
self-reflexive visual style with its “cut-up” editing creates a surreal,
Nietzschean space in which “all is permitted.” Turner’s house, designed
by Christopher Gibbs, another member of the Chelsea Set, is a psychedelic mausoleum stuffed with Arabian exotica and images of rebel
icons, including Jorge Luis Borges. Filmed during the summer of 1968,
Performance’s experimental style, graphic violence, and above all its
notoriously explicit sex scenes meant that its release was delayed for
over two years by Warner Bros. executives appalled at the results. However, it has become recognized as an important and influential film that
innovatively explores the deep recesses of masculine identity. A cult
classic, Performance has become an inspirational film for subsequent
filmmakers. See also BRITISH FILM NOIR; MEN.
PETERS, JEAN (1926–2000). Slim, pretty Jean Peters starred in four
noirs all released in 1953. In Vicki, a remake of I Wake Up Screaming
(1941), she played convincingly an ambitious, ruthless woman catapulted from waitressing to celebrity status. In A Blueprint for Murder
she was an attractive widow eventually revealed to be a murderer despite appearances. She had an antithetical role in Niagara as the demure
young wife, the foil to Marilyn Monroe’s femme fatale. Her strongest
role came in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street as Candy, the
low-rent prostitute in her cheap dresses and gaudy jewelry, hard-bitten
and streetwise but also with an independence and integrity that makes
her character complex and compelling. Her relationship with the pickpocket (Richard Widmark) mixes eroticism, violence, and tenderness.
Peters’s acting career was cut short in 1955 when she married billionaire
Howard Hughes.
PHANTOM LADY (1944). Phantom Lady was a highly influential early
noir that helped to establish its dominant themes and visual style. This
adroit adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story by Bernard C. Shoenfeld,
who worked on a number of noirs, stays close to the original. Scott
Henderson (Alan Curtis), a successful businessman, is arrested for the
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murder of his wife, but the witness who will prove his innocence—a
young woman he met in a bar—cannot be located. Henderson is paranoid and morbidly fatalistic, assailed by doubts about his identity and
almost courting his own annihilation in the typical Woolrich manner.
It is his secretary, the resourceful, strong-willed Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines), who tries to prove his innocence. In a famous scene
she dresses like a prostitute in order to visit a jazz cellar and extract
information from musician Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook Jr.). The murderer is Marlow (Franchot Tone), whose dandified dress, “hysterical”
headaches, and profession as a modernist sculptor all mark him as both
deviant and an homme fatal.
Director Robert Siodmak’s deliberate pacing and visual style stem
from his knowledge of expressionism: the scene in which Kansas talks
to Henderson in his cell has unmistakable echoes of Das Cabinet des
Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919). Siodmak also drew on
his experience working on Universal horror films: Marlow’s neurotic
volatility, compulsive inspection of his hands, and preoccupation with
his own reflection have clear allusions to The Hands of Orlac (1935).
Siodmak worked closely with cinematographer Woody Bredell, whose
chiaroscuro lighting, which often has a velvety texture, subtle and suggestive, helps create a strongly atmospheric thriller that is claustrophobic, intense, and menacing, the perfect visual counterpart to Woolrich’s
novel. Phantom Lady performed well at the box office and established
Siodmak as a key noir director. See also VISUAL STYLE; WOMEN.
PLANER, FRANZ F. (1894–1963). The Austrian-born cinematographer
Franz Planer was one of many talented émigré personnel who fled
from Nazi Germany and arrived in Hollywood via Paris. His first noir,
The Chase (1946), revealed a mastery of expressionist style, with minimalist lighting and ominous shadows, in this evocative adaptation of a
Cornell Woolrich story. Planer received an Oscar nomination for the
boxing noir Champion (1949) starring Kirk Douglas, which combines
graphic action sequences in the ring with vividly executed scenes in
which Douglas is chased and cornered by racketeers. Criss Cross (1949)
melded evocative location shooting in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district
with delicately rendered chiaroscuro compositions.
Planer’s other noirs are 711 Ocean Drive (1950), The Scarf (1951),
99 River Street (1953), and The Long Wait (1954). See also VISUAL
STYLE.
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POETIC REALISM. Poetic realism was one of the major cultural influences on film noir. The term poetic realism (Réalisme poétique) was
used to describe a cycle of 1930s French films usually set in workingclass or underworld Paris, focusing on crime and/or a doomed romance
that, through an atmospheric visual style, elevated ordinary characters
and everyday surroundings to the level of “poetry.” The principal sources
for poetic realism were French crime writers, notably Georges Simenon,
but also American ones, especially James M. Cain. Although poetic
realism stretched from 1931–40, the main period was 1936–39, dominated by the collaboration between scriptwriter Jacques Prévert, director Marcel Carné, and star Jean Gabin, which produced seven films,
including the two considered to be definitive: Le Quai des brumes (Port
of Shadows, 1938) and Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939). The latter was
remade (with a happy ending) as The Long Night (1947), directed by
Anatole Litvak and starring Henry Fonda, one of a number of American
noirs that were directly indebted to poetic realism.
Aesthetically, poetic realism was the “bridge” between expressionism and film noir and several émigrés—Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls,
Robert Siodmak, and Billy Wilder—made films in Paris before going to America. Its visual style deployed softened, less severe chiaroscuro lighting and realistic rather than abstract renderings of the city;
its atmospheric use of shadows and fog, rain-soaked cobblestones
reflecting the garish signs of neon-lit nightclubs, narrow streets, and
dark, claustrophobic alleyways, anticipate film noir. Although poetic
realism’s slow pace and preference for long takes, reframing rather than
cutting in deep-focus settings, were not reproduced in the faster style
of American thrillers, its typical protagonists prefigure film noir. The
principal characters are the “lost girl” in her beret and shiny raincoat,
the prototypical femme fatale, and the angst-ridden male protagonist
(usually Gabin), confused, passive, and introspective, an alienated outsider who combined an outward toughness with an acute, even morbid
vulnerability. More pessimistic and fatalistic than film noir, the doomladen protagonist of poetic realism cannot escape his past nor avoid his
ineluctable death.
Other poetic realist films are La Chienne (The Bitch, 1931), La Nuit
du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads, 1932), La Rue sans nom (Street
without a Name, 1934), Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, aka Underworld, 1936), La Belle équipe (They Were Five, 1936), Le Crime de
Monsieur Lange (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), La Bête humaine (The
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Human Beast, aka Judas Was a Woman, 1938), and Remorques (Stormy
Waters, 1940). See also FRENCH FILM NOIR; MEN; WOMEN.
POINT BLANK (1967). John Boorman’s Point Blank has been identified as the first true neo-noir, reflecting back on the conventions and
scenarios of classic noir but through a modernist sensibility informed
by the narrative and thematic experimentation of the European New
Wave directors. Boorman was particularly indebted to Alain Resnais’s
L’Année dernière á Marienbad (The Last Year at Marienbad, 1961)
with its exploration of the ambiguities of desire, memory, and identity.
Arriving at a time when American studios were unsure of their direction, Boorman was given almost complete creative control, if with a
modest budget of $3 million. Point Blank was based on the 1962 hardboiled thriller The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard
Stark. Boorman retains Westlake’s basic structure in which a criminal,
Walker (Lee Marvin), shot at point-blank range and left for dead by his
unfaithful wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) and his partner Mal Reese (John
Vernon) in the disused prison on Alcatraz Island, exacts his revenge,
determined to hunt down Lynne and Mal and recover the $93,000 he is
“owed” by the shadowy Organization. However, Boorman deliberately
makes it unclear if Walker actually survived the shooting (a seeming
impossibility) and thus whether the events we witness are actually happening or whether they are Walker’s compensatory hallucination just
before he dies. Walker—we never learn his first name—is played by
Marvin as an impenetrable, implacable force, whose actions seem subject to the dream logic of desire, not of reality.
Boorman relocated the action to Los Angeles because he “wanted my
setting to be hard, cold and in a sense futuristic. I wanted an empty, sterile world, for which Los Angeles was absolutely right.” Shooting with
a 40 mm Panavision lens and low-key lighting that bleached the colors,
Boorman updated the noir style. His jarring angles and crosscutting,
sudden outbursts of unanticipated violence, and unexplained actions all
enforce this central hesitation between dream and reality. In particular,
Boorman frequently repeats events (typical of dreams), often through
an innovative deployment of flashbacks, creating a feeling of “déjà vu.
Everything that happens to Walker has happened to him before. . . .
The impression is that he is caught in a revolving door, that his life is
repeating itself.” Boorman’s sound design was equally innovative with
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overlapping dialogue, disembodied monologues, and sudden amplified
sound effects, coupled with an experimental score that was more tonal
than melodic. The conclusion returns to Alcatraz, reinforcing the sense
that Walker’s life is circular and his revenge a recurring nightmare, the
delusion of a man already dead. Thus Boorman turns an apparently archetypal revenge thriller inside out, transforming it into an existentialist
narrative about the nature of desire, the fallibility of memory, and the
fragility of identity in the face of a contingent and meaningless world,
expressing the blank pointlessness of modern existence.
The film was remade in 1999 as Payback, directed by Brian Helgeland, with Mel Gibson in the principal role. See also NARRATIVE
PATTERNS; VISUAL STYLE.
POLANSKI, ROMAN (1933– ). Born Rajmund Roman Liebling in Paris
of Polish parents, Roman Polanski is an eclectic and nomadic writerdirector, one of a number of modernist European filmmakers who made
their mark on film noir. Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962), made
in Poland, was a remarkably assured first feature. The story of a hitchhiker picked up by an unhappily married couple going for a sailing trip
sharply delineates the male rivalries and sexual tensions that characterize all Polanski’s work. It was nominated for an Academy Award (for
Best Foreign Film) and gained Polanski an international reputation.
Supported by producer Michael Klinger, Polanski made two British films noir: Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966), both jointly
scripted with his long-term writing partner Gérard Brach. Repulsion,
starring Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux, a Belgian immigrant
living in London, was a disturbing study in alienation and progressive
psychological trauma. In a surrealist scene, Carol imagines that hands
are coming out of the walls trying to catch her and that a man is trying to
rape her. In terror, she kills her landlord and her suitor but has no sense
of what she has done. Cul-de-sac was an archetypal gangsters-on-therun story, but Polanski’s Absurdist sensibility—influenced by Samuel
Beckett in the figure of the mysterious boss, Katelbach, who never
appears—meant it became a typically intense study of sexual jealousy,
psychological breakdown, and existentialist despair.
Polanski’s masterpiece was Chinatown (1974), one of the most
significant and visually accomplished of the modernist neo-noirs. The
pacing, careful creation of mood and atmosphere, wide, panoramic
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compositions, and long takes that are typical of Polanski’s work as a
whole here find their apogee. Polanski made Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976) in France, combining again with Brach to adapt Roland
Torpor’s 1964 novel, returning to the claustrophobic, paranoid psychological territory of Repulsion. Polanski himself played the main
protagonist, a diffident introvert who rents a dingy apartment in Paris
where the previous tenant committed suicide. He becomes convinced
that his neighbors and landlord are trying to make him follow suit.
In 1978 Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles and pleaded guilty to
the charge of having “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” and,
released after a psychiatric evaluation, fled to France. He is unable to
return to America without risking arrest and imprisonment but has continued to pursue a filmmaking career through international coproductions. Polanski was arrested in Switzerland on 26 September 2009, and
the United States formally requested his extradition on 23 October. At
press time he was under house arrest at his chalet in Gstaad.
In 1988 Polanski filmed Frantic, a routine thriller with occasional
noir elements, but Bitter Moon (1992), a further collaboration with
Brach, set in another claustrophobic setting on board a cruise liner,
returned to the familiar territory of destructive, sadistic relationships, as
did Death and the Maiden (1994). The Ninth Gate (1999) was a noir hybrid, a horror-mystery thriller with supernatural elements. Johnny Depp
stars as Dean Corso, a shady rare book dealer who is hired to search for
the three copies of a 17th-century text believed to be able to summon the
Devil. Although often visually stunning, its range of locations lacked
the intensity and depth of Polanski’s best work that added a distinctive
dimension to film noir.
POLGLASE, VAN NEST (1898–1968). Van Nest Polglase entered the industry in 1919, moving to RKO in 1932 as supervising art director working closely with Albert D’Agostino. Polglase worked on Stranger on the
Third Floor (1940) and Citizen Kane (1941), both highly influential films
that used expressionist sets to create an unsettling world. Polglase moved
to Columbia in 1943 and was largely responsible, under the supervising
direction of Stephen Goosson, for creating the decadent sophistication of
Gilda (1946), filmed on two sets, an Art Moderne gambling casino and
an opulent Buenos Aires mansion. Polglase’s designs for his final noir,
Slightly Scarlet (1956), shot in color, showed a similar attention to detail
in his creation of the crime boss’s tastelessly gaudy mansion.
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Polglase’s other noirs are Suspicion (1941), The Crooked Way
(1949), and The Man Who Cheated Himself (1951). See also VISUAL
STYLE.
POLONSKY, ABRAHAM (1910–1999). A moderately successful novelist, Abraham Polonsky joined Enterprise Productions and wrote
the Oscar-nominated original screenplay for Body and Soul (1947),
directed by Robert Rossen, a powerful story of a boxer (John Garfield) corrupted by greed and alienated from his loved ones, who finally
turns against his promoter/gangster partner. Polonsky adapted and also
directed Ira Wolfert’s socialist novel Tucker’s People as Force of Evil
(1948). Garfield was again the star as a gambling syndicate lawyer in
another trenchant indictment of American “enterprise.”
Polonsky was attracted to film noir because he thought that “the intellectual content is absorbed into what people think is a dark, criminal
type of picture anyhow and so there’s an acceptance of it.” He therefore
judged film noir to be an excellent vehicle for the promotion of a leftwing critique. However, he was unable to continue working because,
having never made a secret of his membership of the Communist Party
and been politically active, including an association with the radical
journal Hollywood Quarterly, he was indicted and appeared before one
of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1951. After refusing to “name names,” Polonsky was placed on the blacklist for
17 years. He was only able to work as an uncredited screenwriter operating under “fronts,” as with the screenplay for Odds Against Tomorrow
(1959), adapted from the William P. McGivern novel. Polonsky emphasizes the novel’s indictment of racism, and the climactic ending in
which the two criminals are blown up was a metaphor for the destructive
nature of capitalism. Polonsky was finally able to cowrite the screenplay
for Don Siegel’s Madigan (1968) under his own name, a bleak neo-noir
whose themes are as much existential as social. See also FILM GRIS;
LEFT-WING CYCLE.
PORTMAN, ERIC (1903–1969). Eric Portman was the dominant male
actor of British film noir. He specialized in tormented, introspective,
sexually thwarted figures, first surfacing in the wartime melodramas A
Canterbury Tale (1944) and Great Day (1945). This persona was developed in a series of postwar noirs beginning with Wanted for Murder
(1946), in which he played a psychologically disturbed serial killer. In
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Daybreak (1946) he was cast as a doomed, Gabinesque figure who
eventually commits suicide. In Dear Murderer (1947), he was seemingly more suave and assured, relishing the ingenious ways in which he
can torment his wife’s lover before killing him, but he is finally undone
by his wife’s ruthlessness. In all these films—and in The Mark of Cain
(1948), Corridor of Mirrors (1948), and The Spider and the Fly (1949)
that were set in the past—Portman plays a man unable to adjust to the
new demands of peacetime, one who cannot achieve lasting or fulfilling relationships. Portman continued to play similar lonely, unsatisfied
figures throughout the remainder of his career, notably in The Naked
Edge (1961), West 11 (1963), and Deadfall (1968). As he lost his looks,
Portman’s characters were increasingly seedy and socially marginal,
with the homosexual element, latent in his earlier performances, becoming more explicit.
Portman’s other noirs are Child in the House (1956) and The Man
Who Finally Died (1963). See also POETIC REALISM.
POSTERS. During the period of classic noir (1940–59), all the major
studios engaged in extensive marketing and promotion of their films
through graphic posters. Films noir often stimulated some of their best
work, which closely resembled the artwork and colors of the paperback
fiction covers that continued throughout the cycle. The muted palette of
William Rose, an accomplished illustrator for Collier’s and American
Weekly, produced some of the most distinctive posters for RKO, including Born to Kill (1947), in which the stony features of tough guy Lawrence Tierney, with the ubiquitous dangling cigarette, stare out at the
viewer above an alluring image of the femme fatale (Claire Trevor), in
the customary long, sheathlike dress, with a vignette of a murder scene
in the bottom left-hand corner. Occasionally, the woman is represented
as the tough guy, as in the poster for Gun Crazy (1950), in which Laurie
Starr (Peggy Cummins)—“She was more than any man could handle!”—is depicted holding a smoking gun in both hands and with a cigarette in her mouth. This combination of sex, crime, and violence was the
basis for the marketing of film noir, a reminder that although noirs are
now frequently seen as sophisticated adult artifacts, they were offered
to contemporaneous audiences as thrilling popular entertainment. The
ways in which films noir were advertised reveal that the target audience
was the same as for hard-boiled fiction: urban, working-class males.
The poster for Detour (1945) was highly typical: a montage of graphic
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scenes depicting sex and death next to the caption: “He went searching
for love. . . . But Fate forced a DETOUR to Revelry. . . . Violence. . . .
Mystery!” On the right-hand side of the poster, Ann Savage and Tom
Neal lean on the same lamppost, he upright and wary and she cool, confident, and suggestively pressed against the metal.
The poster for Murder, My Sweet (1944) trumpeted the film as
“TWO-FISTED, HARDBOILED, TERRIFIC!” between a two-shot of a
tough, unshaven Dick Powell gazing into the brazen eyes of the femme
fatale (Claire Trevor) and another of him struggling with the hulking
Moose Molloy. Its copy continues: “MEET the year’s biggest movie
surprise. . . . Dick Powell playing a new kind of role. . . . In a murdermystery that packs as big a punch as the NEW Dick Powell!” As in
this instance, the star’s image was usually the principal selling device.
The posters for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) emphasized
the hot-blooded romance between its stars (John Garfield and Lana
Turner): “Their Love Was a Flame that Destroyed!” and the reputation
of the James M. Cain novel on which it was based: “The Book that
Blazed to Best-Seller Fame!” Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with no major
stars, was advertised as “Mickey Spillane’s LATEST H-BOMB,” offering “BLOOD-RED KISSES!” and “WHITE-HOT THRILLS!” Often
the main protagonists stare out at some undisclosed danger, as in the
poster for The Chase (1946), in which Robert Cummings and Michele
Morgan seemed trapped by a searchlight beam on precipitous stairs.
Noirs that deal with disordered states and amnesia produce some of
the most inventive work: the posters for Somewhere in the Night (1946)
and The Scarf (1951) have complex montages organized around the
haunted eyes of the male figure. Photomontages are occasionally used,
as with The Underworld Story (1950) and Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet
(1952), both stories about newspapers.
Overall, the noir posters present a relatively crude version of their
subject, but their striking graphics and design no doubt contributed to
the films’ box-office success and remind us of their intended audience.
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946). Tay Garnett’s film
for MGM was the third version of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. The
first was Le Dernier tournant (The Last Turn, 1939), directed by Pierre
Chenal, a significant French film noir with extensive nighttime scenes
and chiaroscuro lighting. Luchino Visconti directed the second version Ossessione (Obsession) in 1942, an important Italian film noir,
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transferring the action to the Po Valley and filmed in what became
the neo-realist manner with extensive location shooting. Both versions
show a pronounced interest in transferring the milieu of Cain’s story to
a specific national context. Neither was influential because they were
not shown in America during the war; indeed, distribution of Ossessione
was blocked by MGM as an unauthorized adaptation.
MGM had optioned the novel in 1935 but did not proceed until Paramount’s Double Indemnity (1944) showed that the anticipated censorship problems of Cain’s “hot” story about adulterous passion and murder could be circumvented. Although the tale is narrated in flashback,
Garnett’s direction and Sidney Wagner’s cinematography use few noir
stylistic elements, keeping to the high-key MGM style in which scenes
are evenly lit and classically composed, thus ensuring that the focus is
on the glamorous stars and their actions. The power of the MGM version, particularly in the repeated scenes on a deserted nighttime beach,
comes through its direct presentation of an irresistible and destructive
passion between charismatic drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield)
and Cora (Lana Turner), the much younger wife of California roadside
café owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Nick is an unattractive figure,
and although his murder is brutal and heartless, Cora and Frank remain
sympathetic characters. Frank is basically decent and Cora, who has
been relentlessly pursued by men since she was 14, had taken refuge in
a marriage that offers security and stability. However, their subsequent
marriage is blighted by the aftermath of Nick’s death, and when they
finally trust each other, Cora dies in a car accident and Frank is accused
of her murder. In the final upbeat scene, he becomes reconciled to his
fate because he hopes they will be reunited after death.
The film was remade in 1981, directed by Bob Rafelson, scripted by
David Mamet, and starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. A retronoir, it lacks the ambience of the original, and although the postcode
sex scenes are far more explicit, their erotic charge is reduced. The key
difference is in the ending, where there is no quasi-religious redemption
but a highly secular desolation. The Postman continues to be remade:
Szenvedély (Passion), directed by György Fehér, was released in Hungary in 1998, and a Malaysian version, directed by U-Wei Haji Saari,
was released in 2004.
POWELL, DICK (1904–1963). Dick Powell was a popular song-anddance man in prewar Warner Bros. musical comedies, but he managed
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the transition to noir tough guy, beginning with Murder, My Sweet
(1944). As Philip Marlowe, Powell was laconic and hard-bitten, with a
well-timed delivery of one-liners but also displaying a vulnerable humanity. The success of Murder, My Sweet and the public’s acceptance
of Powell in his new guise led directly to Cornered (1945), with the
same production team: director Edward Dmytryk, producer Adrian
Scott, and screenwriter John Paxton. Powell’s characterization is more
driven, playing a Canadian pilot recently released from a prisoner-ofwar camp and intent on avenging the death of his French war bride. He
eventually beats the perpetrator to death in one of the brief “trances” that
have afflicted him since his incarceration. Powell is convincingly gruff
and laconic but also emotional enough to cry at the memory of his wife.
Powell’s suave gangster in Johnny O’Clock (1947) was less interesting, but in Cry Danger (1951) he played another vulnerable tough guy,
framed for a robbery he did not commit. In Pitfall (1948) Powell had a
more subtle role as a suburban professional who feels jaded and stifled
in what he views as a humdrum existence and whose fling with an attractive woman (Lizabeth Scott) nearly proves his undoing. Powell also
worked in radio and television noir through his production company
Four-Star Playhouse, notably making Richard Diamond (1957–60). See
also LANGUAGE; PRIVATE EYE.
PRECURSORS. Precursors are those films that predate the main American noir cycle (1940–59) but which anticipate the thematic or visual elements that would become central to the development of film noir. Josef
von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927)—from a Ben Hecht story—and
Thunderbolt (1929), both starring George Bancroft as a mobster, were
the first crime films to concentrate on the gangland milieu and explore
the themes of corruption, alienation, and betrayal that characterize noir.
Other prewar gangster films with noir elements include: Quick Millions
(1931) and Blood Money (1933), both directed by Rowland Brown, The
Beast of the City (1932), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Rouben
Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931), adapted from a Dashiell Hammett
story, has a lush visual style with chiaroscuro lighting that creates a
noir world of bribery and double-cross. Two of Warner Bros.’ prewar
social realist films, produced by Hal B. Wallis and directed by Mervyn
LeRoy, had noir thematic elements. In I Am a Fugitive from a Chain
Gang (1932), Paul Muni played a World War I troubled veteran who is
sentenced for a crime he did not commit and becomes disillusioned and
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fatalistic, summed up in his final line, “I steal.” Edward G. Robinson
starred as John Allen in Two Seconds (1932), wrongly imprisoned for a
murder he did not commit and about to be executed. In flashback, Allen
reveals that he is guilty of another crime: killing his faithless wife.
Other precursors explored ordinary men corrupted by crime. In Payment Deferred (1932), Charles Laughton plays a bank clerk desperate
for money to pay his family’s bills, who murders his young nephew
after he refuses to make him a loan and is destroyed by his crime. Crime
without Passion (1934), directed, produced, and written by Ben Hecht
and Charles MacArthur and photographed by Lee Garmes, starred
Claude Rains as a prominent lawyer who shoots his girlfriend during
a quarrel and loses his sanity trying to escape the consequences. The
Scoundrel (1935), made by the same trio, starred Noël Coward as a sadistically exploitative New York publisher, who, after dying in a plane
crash, is returned to life in order to try to find someone who will mourn
his death. Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937)
use low-key lighting and unusual camera angles, derived from German
expressionism, to explore the fate of ordinary, average Americans who
are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and who represent sympathetic victims of the tensions and stresses of the Depression era.
PREMINGER, OTTO (1905–1986). Like Edgar G. Ulmer and Billy
Wilder, Otto Preminger was an émigré Jewish-Viennese director
who brought a distinctive European sensibility to film noir. Preminger
had been a successful stage director working with Max Reinhardt before moving to America in 1935 to work for Twentieth Century-Fox.
Fiercely autonomous and wanting control of all aspects of the filmmaking process, Preminger had several battles with Head of Production
Darryl F. Zanuck, beginning with his first film noir, Laura (1944).
Laura was highly successful and established a recognizable visual style,
the “Preminger touch,” where the long takes and fluid camerawork are
used analytically to explore moral ambiguity and the ambivalence of
guilt and innocence. Preminger used Dana Andrews, the obsessive policeman in Laura, again in Fallen Angel (1946) as a bogus medium and
in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) as a corrupt cop in order to deepen
his analysis of moral ambiguity. Like another émigré, Fritz Lang, Preminger valued Andrews’s ability to project the hidden darkness of the
all-American male. Gene Tierney, the other enigmatic star of Laura,
also played in Where the Sidewalk Ends, and in Whirlpool (1949), as
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a wealthy woman suffering from kleptomania who is manipulated by a
corrupt hypnotist (José Ferrer) so that she becomes the suspect for the
murder he has committed.
The Thirteenth Letter (1951), a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s
Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), projected Preminger’s exploration of
moral ambiguity onto an entire community in a small French-Canadian
village, the dénouement revealing the often perverse depths of human
motivations and actions. Angel Face (1953), which Preminger produced
and directed for RKO, was another twisted and thwarted love story between the gullible working-class Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) and
the exploitative and unstable heiress Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons),
an obsessive relationship that leads inexorably to their deaths.
Preminger became an independent in 1953 but did not make another
American noir, with the partial exception of the Oscar-nominated
Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a courtroom drama in which the motivations of the killer (Ben Gazzara) are the subject of intense debate.
Preminger’s one British film noir, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), also
displayed his characteristic themes of obsession, moral ambiguity, and
corrupt desires.
PRISON FILMS NOIR. As with boxing noirs, prison noirs were in part
a revival of the prewar Warner Bros. subgenre that included Numbered
Men (1930), Each Dawn I Die (1939), or Mutiny in the Big House
(1939), and the noir precursor, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
(1932).
The first postwar prison noir was San Quentin (1946), in which
Lawrence Tierney plays an ex-con and war veteran who has founded
the Inmate’s Welfare League. He feels obliged to hunt down a vicious
inmate who absconds by abusing the League’s efforts. The powerful and
influential Brute Force (1947) starred Burt Lancaster as the leader of a
group of convicts who attempt to break free from the Nazi-style regime
of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Caged (1950) was unusual in its
focus on a woman’s prison, with Eleanor Parker playing a wrongly accused innocent who learns that “in this cage you get tough or you get
killed.” In Convicted (1950), Glenn Ford played the falsely accused
character, with Broderick Crawford as the liberal governor. The outstanding mid-1950s prison film was Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11
(1954) that, like Brute Force, sided with the aggrieved inmates rather
than the sadistic or corrupt authorities. Black Tuesday (1955), starring
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Edward G. Robinson, and Behind the High Wall (1956) were more
routine prison escape films, as was The Last Mile (1959), enlivened by
Mickey Rooney’s energetic performance as a hardened convict trying
to escape Death Row.
Prison films after this period tend to be action adventures, lacking the
fatalism and sense of oppression that would qualify them as noir; hence
prison neo-noirs are rare. Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978) was
a dark and brooding tale about a young American student (Brad Davis)
incarcerated in a brutal Turkish jail for smuggling hashish. Brokedown
Palace (1999) was also about foreign incarceration for drug smuggling,
but it featured two young women trapped in a grim Thailand jail.
Other prison noirs are Canon City (1948), The Story of Molly X
(1949), Under the Gun (1951), Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), Gang
Busters (1955), Women’s Prison (1955), The Steel Jungle (1956), House
of Numbers (1957), and Revolt in the Big House (1958).
PRIVATE EYES. With his belted trench coat, fedora, and dangling cigarette, the private eye is one of the most recognizable male characters in
film noir. The private eye was the rugged, self-reliant, individualistic
frontiersman urbanized, acting as a cultural middleman, poised between
respectability and the underworld. An outsider, not bound by official
codes and conventions, the private eye was ideally placed to describe
society’s workings. Film noir’s private eyes are almost always drawn
from hard-boiled fiction, beginning with Dashiell Hammett’s The
Continental Op in 1923 and then the abrasive, cynical Sam Spade in
The Maltese Falcon (1930). Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe
was the most influential figure, intelligent, cultivated, and sensitive but
also tough, hard-drinking, and good with his fists. Above all Marlow is
a “man of honor” who takes on the challenge of investigating modern
urban America: “down these mean streets a man must go who is not
himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” By contrast, the third
archetype, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, was a self-appointed lone
avenger, as violent as the criminals he pursues.
The first important incarnation of the private eye in film noir was
Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart’s Spade is close to Hammett’s original, an egotistical competitor,
hard, sarcastic, and motivated by the desire to win out over everyone
rather than having a commitment to truth or justice. However, Bogart
projects a greater vulnerability in the altered closing scenes. Dick Pow-
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ell’s incarnation of Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944) was close to
Chandler’s conception of the modern urban knight whose toughness hid
a belief in justice and the protection of the weak, clinging to a hope that
things can be made better. Bogart’s incarnation in The Big Sleep (1946)
was more hard-bitten, wary, and tough, but also with a capacity to fall
in love. Spillane’s Mike Hammer was first filmed in I, the Jury (1953)
starring Biff Elliot, but the definitive version came in Kiss Me Deadly
(1955), played by Ralph Meeker, where the figure is subjected to a withering critique as chauvinist, emotionally repressed, morally bankrupt,
and unaware of the implications of his actions. Other private eyes are
often victims rather than heroic figures, as in Robert Mitchum’s Jeff
Bailey in Out of the Past (1947) or Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) in
The Dark Corner (1946), caught in a complex web of intrigue that he
cannot fathom: “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner
and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”
Neo-noirs tended to undermine further the image of the honorable
private eye. Chandler (1971), Klute (1971), Hickey and Boggs (1972),
The Long Goodbye (1973), Shamus (1973), Night Moves (1975), The
Drowning Pool (1975), The Late Show (1977), and The Big Fix (1978)
all depicted bemused, inept investigators, lost and alienated in a world
they no longer understand and are therefore powerless to master, adrift
in a society that no longer has a real place for them. Even in Chinatown
(1974), set in the 1930s, the private eye is shown as hopelessly out of his
depth. After the 1970s, the private eye is an anachronism, only featured
in retro-noirs, for instance, Farewell, My Lovely (1975), Angel Heart
(1987), or Dead Again (1991).
Other private eye noirs include: The Maltese Falcon (1931), The Spider (1945), Blackmail (1947), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), High Tide
(1947), Lady in the Lake (1947), I Love Trouble (1947), Philo Vance’s
Gamble (1947), Riff-Raff (1947), World for Ransom (1954), My Gun Is
Quick (1957), Harper (1966), Shamus (1973), The Big Sleep (1978), I,
the Jury (1982), and Poodle Springs (1998). See also MEN; RADIO;
TELEVISION SERIES.
PULP FICTION (1994). Pulp Fiction has become a contemporary classic, a highly influential, much imitated, quintessentially postmodern
neo-noir that helped to confirm Quentin Tarantino as a celebrated
director. In addition to winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1994,
Pulp Fiction won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (by Tarantino
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and Roger Avary) and was nominated for Best Film, Best Director,
Best Actor (John Travolta), Best Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman),
and Actor (Samuel L. Jackson). It was also a huge commercial success,
“crossing-over” from independent to mainstream cinema and rapidly
establishing itself as a cult film. Pulp Fiction displays Tarantino’s characteristic profusion of allusions, verbally and visually, to an eclectic
range of popular culture; not only hard-boiled (pulp) fiction and classic
film noir (notably Kiss Me Deadly, 1955) but also European art cinema,
Hong Kong action cinema, Italian pulp horror (especially Mario Bava’s
Black Sabbath, 1963), and French film noir, particularly Jean-Pierre
Melville’s Le Doulos (The Finger Man, 1963) whose complex narrative
Tarantino so admired.
Pulp Fiction was originally conceived as three separate films shot by
different directors but ended up as one film consisting of three distinct
but interrelated and overlapping stories, presented nonchronologically,
among which the central characters circulate. The stories are bookended by a hold-up in a diner by two down-and-outs Pumpkin (Tim
Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer). Tarantino deliberately
disrupted the expected narrative sequence to stimulate an audience to
try to make sense of events, thus affording a fresh approach to familiar
noir conventions.
Tarantino wanted his modestly budgeted film to have epic qualities,
enticing major stars to take part and having cinematographer Andrej
Sekula shoot on lustrous 50 ASA film stock. A major item in the budget was the design of the 1950s retro restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s,
to which hit man Vincent (Travolta) takes Mia (Thurman), the wife
of mobster Marsellus (Ving Rhames). But Pulp Fiction is not a conventional retro-noir, taking place (as its diverse soundtrack suggests)
in a continuous postwar present. Its eclectic mode playfully mingles
comedy with noir seriousness, necessitating violent changes in tone, as
when Mia overdoses on heroin or where Vincent accidentally shoots an
informant, creating a bloody mess that has to be cleaned up by Winston
Wolf (Harvey Keitel). In this way Pulp Fiction also makes exacting
demands on its audience. Tarantino commented: “I wanted to take these
genre characters and put them in a real-life situation.” Pulp Fiction ends
with Vincent’s partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) sparing the lives of
Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, which may indicate, as Tarantino argued,
that it is a film about mercy and redemption but which also avoids ending with the downbeat (and startling) death of Vincent, shot by the ag-
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ing prizefighter Butch (Bruce Willis), or with the potentially excessive
sentimentality of Butch’s escape to freedom. See also NARRATIVE
PATTERNS; VISUAL STYLE.
–Q–
LE QUAI DES BRUMES (PORT OF SHADOWS, 1938). Along with Le
Jour se lève (1939), Le Quai des brumes was the most distinguished
example of poetic realism that strongly influenced the development
of film noir. Both films were directed by Marcel Carné, scripted by
Jacques Prévert, here adapting a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan, and starred
Jean Gabin. In Quai, Gabin plays Jean, an army deserter, a troubled
veteran, scarred by his fighting in Indo-China. He tells the truck driver
who gives him a lift: “You’re left standing there, not understanding
anything anymore. It’s like everything had melted away.” On the run
after an undisclosed killing committed “in anger,” Jean drifts toward
Le Havre, where he meets the 17-year-old Nelly (Michèle Morgan),
and they have a brief affair. Nelly is no femme fatale but a “lost girl”
desperate to escape the mean circumstances of her life but powerless
to do so. Jean’s concern for Nelly makes him pass up the opportunity
to leave on a ship bound for South America. He kills her guardian Zabel (Michel Simon) only to be gunned down by local hoodlum Lucien
(Pierre Brasseur) in a neurotic act of vengeance. Eugen Schüfftan’s
atmospheric cinematography creates a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere
that intensifies the somber mood, a slow, inexorable fatalism in which
moments of happiness penetrate a deeper darkness than American
noir could usually contemplate. Jean, like all classic noir heroes, is a
marked man who cannot escape his past. See also EXISTENTIALISM;
FRENCH FILM NOIR; MEN.
–R–
RADIO. Radio noir series were predominantly adaptations of hard-boiled
fiction, beginning with the mystery anthology Suspense (1942–62)
produced by William Spier that included adaptations of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and other crime writers. Spier also produced The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946–51) starring Howard Duff,
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a weekly broadcast that was very popular. The Fat Man (1946–50) was
loosely based on Hammett’s Continental Op, but the stories—often
scripted by Lawrence Klee—were written especially for radio; J. Scott
Smart played the hefty crime fighter, Bradford Runyon. A Chandlerbased series, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (1947–51), adapted
by Milton Geiger, starred Van Heflin and later Gerald Mohr. Although
the dominant figure in radio noir series was the private eye—including
the highly successful Martin Kane, Private Detective (1949–52) with
William Gargan and two series starring Dick Powell: Rogue’s Gallery
(1945–46), where he played gumshoe Richard Rogue, and Richard
Diamond, Private Detective (1949–53)—there were other types of investigator. Crime Doctor (1940–47) was about a criminal psychiatrist,
and Frank Lovejoy, a seasoned radio performer, appeared in Nightbeat
(1949–52) as Chicago reporter Randy Stone, roaming the nighttime
streets in search of a “special” story.
Dragnet (1949–57) starred Jack Webb as Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Joe Friday, apparently investigating actual cases in which
“only the names have been changed”; Dan Duryea starred as hardbitten Lieutenant Lou Dana in The Man from Homicide (1951). Yours
Truly, Johnny Dollar (1949–62), about an insurance investigator, had
five changes of lead including Edmond O’Brien; I Was a Communist
for the FBI (1952–53) starred Dana Andrews as undercover agent Matt
Cvetic who infiltrated the top echelons of the Communist Party. Lucille
Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number, first broadcast on 25 May 1943, the
compelling story of a trapped woman who believes, rightly, that she is
about to be murdered, was highly distinctive and often repeated. It was
filmed in 1948 starring Barbara Stanwyck. Increasing production costs
and competition from television made radio noir rare after the mid1950s. The Zero Hour (1973) was an unsuccessful attempt at revival.
Others include: Johnny Madero, Pier 23 (1947), Pat Novak, For Hire
(1947–49), Box 13 (1948), Jeff Reagan, Investigator (1948–50), Crime
Fighters (1949–56), and The Lineup (1950–53). See also TELEVISION
SERIES.
RAFT, GEORGE (1895–1980). After his role as the coin-tossing henchman in Scarface (1932), George Raft became one of Warner Bros.’
major prewar stars, specializing in gangster roles. With a limited range
as an actor, Raft concentrated on honing the lineaments of a type: immaculately dressed, with repeated gestures and an unruffled cool, the
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way he played Ed Beaumont in the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s
The Glass Key (1935), a noir precursor. Raft was a poor judge of which
roles to take and turned down High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon
(1941), and Double Indemnity (1944), losing him status at Warner
Bros. and elsewhere. His typical noir role was as the man of integrity
battling against the odds, determined to find out the truth, as in Nocturne
(1946), where he played a policeman, or Loan Shark (1952), in which he
fights corruption by infiltrating a gang. In Intrigue (1947) as a troubled
veteran, Race Street (1948), and Red Light (1950), he portrayed men
spurred on by the desire to avenge a wrong.
Raft’s other noirs are They Drive by Night (1940), Johnny Angel
(1945), A Dangerous Profession (1949), Johnny Allegro (1949), I’ll
Get You for This (GB 1950; U.S. title Lucky Nick Cain), Black Widow
(1954), Rogue Cop (1954), and A Bullet for Joey (1955).
RAINES, ELLA (1920–1988). Ella Raines’s dark, sultry beauty was
exploited in three noirs she made with Robert Siodmak. As Raines
acknowledged, her role as Carol “Kansas” Richman in Phantom Lady
(1944) was really four roles in one film: the prim, efficient secretary;
the woman in love; the pretend femme fatale in a provocatively tight
black dress, fishnet stockings, and heavy makeup; and the intelligent
and resourceful amateur sleuth chasing down suspects. In The Suspect
(1944), she played the young woman who falls in love with an older
man, Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton), the sympathetic murderer of
his vicious wife. Marshall responds to her warmth, integrity, and vivacity. She was another capable professional woman in The Strange Affair
of Uncle Harry (aka Uncle Harry, 1945), who also awakens in a trapped
middle-aged man (George Sanders) the possibility of true happiness.
She was not used so creatively by other noir directors, having rather
nondescript roles in The Web (1947) and Brute Force (1947), though
in Impact (1949), she played another resourceful, capable woman who
falls for an older man (Brian Donlevy) and again plays detective to help
him. Raines retired in 1957 after appearing in a British film noir The
Man in the Road, a sadly underused talent. See also WOMEN.
RAKSIN, DAVID (1912–2004). Trained as a dance band musician
and Broadway arranger, David Raksin was one of a new generation
of American composers who modified and diversified the “classical
idiom.” His scores were more impressionistic, tending to emphasize
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implicit rather than explicit action, contrapuntal rather than chordal and
pared-down. They were smaller ensembles, creating a greater range and
complexity. Raksin came to prominence through his score for Laura
(1944). Raksin objected to Otto Preminger’s choice of “Sophisticated
Lady” for Laura’s theme tune judging that its connotations of an available sexuality were reductive. Raksin’s original theme melody tries to
capture her ambivalence as a modern, sophisticated, sexually experienced woman rather than a temptress. Her theme is never completed
in the film, contributing to Laura’s ambiguity. After the film’s release,
Raksin combined with lyricist Johnny Mercer to create a hit song version. However, Raksin’s score for Laura was more conventional than
with his later noirs, which are not dominated by melodic strings but
introduce elements of jazz—brass, woodwind, and percussion. His
most experimental scores, including Force of Evil (1948) and The Big
Combo (1955), rely almost solely on contemporary jazz and blues.
Raksin’s other noirs are Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949),
A Lady without Passport (1950), Suddenly (1954), and Pay or Die!
(1960). See also MUSIC.
RANSFORD, MAURICE (1896–1968). Maurice Ransford, like many
other set designers of this period, was a trained architect and practiced
for 10 years before entering the film industry in 1940 working for
Twentieth Century-Fox. His first noir was Hangover Square (1945),
in which his elaborate sets helped create the atmosphere of Edwardian London and the climactic scene in which the disturbed protagonist
(Laird Cregar) is engulfed in flames in his home while playing a concerto. Ransford was nominated for an Oscar (with Lyle Wheeler and
Thomas Little) for his designs for the lakeside house where the majority of the action takes place in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), a rare color
noir. In Otto Preminger’s The Thirteenth Letter (1951), Ransford’s
cramped, deliberately overstuffed sets help create the claustrophobic
atmosphere of the small French-Canadian village imploding under a
poison pen campaign.
Ransford’s other noirs are Somewhere in the Night (1946), 13 Rue
Madeleine (1947), Road House (1948), Panic in the Streets (1950), Niagara (1953), and Black Widow (1954). See also VISUAL STYLE.
RAW DEAL (1948). In several respects Raw Deal is Anthony Mann’s
finest noir, combining the typically taut, tense, and violent masculine
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action thriller replete with dynamic, low-angled compositions for which
Mann was best known, with an uncharacteristically romantic counterpoint. It is also contains the very unusual technique of a female voiceover, provided by Pat (Claire Trevor), the loyal and long-suffering
girlfriend of criminal Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe). Sullivan is sprung
from prison by gangster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), but only in the
expectation that he will be killed or captured in the police dragnet. The
framing and betrayal of the central character is an archetypal film noir
story, but it is given a fresh perspective in the screenplay by Leopold
Atlas and Mann’s frequent collaborator John C. Higgins, through Pat’s
plangent narration. Pat’s brief, intermittent, deadpan voice-overs that
comment on the action are accompanied by the eerie, haunting sounds
of the theremin in Paul Sawtell’s evocative score. The music, combined with John Alton’s soft-focus photography, gives the narration a
haunting, oneiric quality.
Pat’s commentary is fatalistic, always sensing that happiness is
beyond her grasp, focusing on the presence of her rival Ann (Marsha
Hunt), a lawyer’s assistant whom Pat and Joe kidnap during his escape.
Although the two women are carefully contrasted in looks, voice, and
behavior—Pat the gangster’s moll from the same slum, Corkscrew
Alley, where Joe was brought up, Ann the refined middle-class professional—Raw Deal refuses any simple moral distinctions: both are strong
and courageous women in love with Joe and prepared to kill for him.
But for Pat, Ann is always in the way, always separating her from Joe:
“sitting next to Joe where I should be. Where I would be if she wasn’t
there.” In the fog-bound dénouement, Pat’s plans to escape with Joe to
South America are wrecked when Joe returns to rescue Ann, who has
been captured by Coyle. As Ann cradles the dying Joe, Pat bleakly intones: “There’s my Joe in her arms, a kind of happiness on his face. In
my heart I know this is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.” Thus Pat
is that film noir rarity, a genuinely tragic working-class antiheroine, and
Raw Deal is a moving elegy to her blighted hopes.
RAY, NICHOLAS (1911–1979). Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle,
Nicholas Ray changed his name when he moved to New York in 1932
and worked in radical theater. Although he was associated with the leftwing social conscience directors, Ray’s six films noir principally focus
on vulnerable, doomed figures, on social misfits or outsiders; although
often fatalistic, his noirs are underpinned by a fundamental romanticism.
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Even though his films noir give space to intelligent, resourceful, and loving women, their main focus is on the insecure, unstable, over-sensitive
men whose struggle to find a meaning and purpose in their lives is constantly frustrated. Ray was respected by actors and usually elicited strong
performances, but these are complemented by his trained architect’s eye
for evocative compositions and the expressive use of decor, lighting, and
camera movement.
They Live by Night (1948), which Ray adapted as well as directed,
was a classic outlaw couple story, the emphasis falling on the tender
love that develops between the young pair—Bowie (Farley Granger)
who misguidedly gets involved in a prison break with two hardened
criminals and is sucked into their life of violent crime—and Keechie
(Cathy O’Donnell), the woman who befriends him. They retain a
fundamental innocence in the face of an unsympathetic and corrupt
society, and although Bowie is betrayed and killed in a police ambush,
Keechie still possesses Bowie’s letter expressing his love. Knock on
Any Door (1949) was less successful because the character of the young
delinquent (John Derek) is seen solely as a victim of impoverished circumstances as his defending attorney (Humphrey Bogart) emphasizes.
In a Lonely Place (1950), adapted from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel,
offered Bogart a much more compelling role as the frustrated, neurotic,
and sexually repressed Hollywood writer Dixon Steele. In a beautifully
paced film, Ray charts the development and then destruction of Steele’s
relationship with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Although she has
given evidence in his favor, Steele’s unpredictable violence make Laurel suspect that he did indeed murder the hatcheck girl as the police
believe. His innocence is established too late to save their love affair in
Ray’s bleakest conclusion.
A Woman’s Secret (1949), told in flashback, deserves to be better
known as it is an unusual noir that focuses on the destructive relationship
between two women—Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara), a singer
whose rare throat infection ends a promising career, and Susan Caldwell
(Gloria Grahame), the slow-witted, small-town hick she befriends and
ruthlessly molds into a Broadway star. Ray took over the direction of
the meandering thriller Macao (1952), but although he reshot most of
the film, his work was uncredited in favor of the originally contracted
director, Josef von Sternberg. Ray was much more creatively involved
in On Dangerous Ground (1952), coadapting, with A. I. Bezzerides,
Gerald Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart. It enabled Ray to focus on
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another lonely, alienated character, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a New
York City policeman brutalized by his job. Wilson is sent upstate to capture a disturbed teenager—Ray and his cameraman George E. Diskant
evocatively contrast the nighttime city streets shot in expressionist
chiaroscuro with the more naturalistically photographed snow-covered
countryside—and although Wilson fails to save the boy, he finds love in
a developing relationship with the boy’s sister Mary (Ida Lupino). Ray
was opposed to the unconvincingly optimistic ending in which the pair
are united, made at the insistence of the studio, RKO.
Ray’s last noir, Party Girl (1958), set in 1930s Chicago, was more
stylized than his earlier films, but it characteristically depicts a lonely,
frustrated, and morally compromised central male protagonist, the
crippled criminal lawyer Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor). Farrell also
experiences the redemptive power of love through his relationship with
a nightclub dancer (Cyd Charisse). Despite being pursued by the mobsters Farrell represented, the pair are able to leave Chicago and begin a
new life.
Ray had a cameo role in Wim Wenders’s Der amerikanische Freund
(The American Friend, 1977). See also VISUAL STYLE.
REED, CAROL (1906–1976). One of the foremost directors in British
cinema—and the first to be knighted, in 1953—Carol Reed made several noirs that were both visually sophisticated and morally complex
and that take place in locations that are alienating or divided. They were
profoundly influenced by poetic realism. Odd Man Out (1947), adapted
from F. L. Green’s novel, was the haunting story of a wounded Irish
Republican Army gunman (James Mason) on the run in Belfast after a
botched robbery. Reed’s direction and Robert Krasker’s cinematography create a city at once real and archetypal, here divided by sectarian
loyalties that allow no refuge for the doomed protagonist. Reed enjoyed
a stimulating and productive collaboration with Graham Greene on two
noirs: The Fallen Idol (U.S. title The Last Illusion, 1948) and The Third
Man (1949). The first was located in an embassy in London’s Belgravia
where the ambassador’s son—Reed elicits a superb performance from
the 12-year-old Bobby Henrey—is another outsider, desperately struggling to make sense of the duplicitous adult world.
Both The Third Man, set in postwar Vienna, and The Man Between
(1953), set in postwar Berlin, also depicted divided cities with alienated
protagonists. Though it is often regarded as an inferior version of The
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Third Man—by common consent Reed’s finest film—The Man Between
centers on the doomed love affair between the world-weary, morally
compromised Ivo Kern (Mason) and the innocent abroad (Claire Bloom)
whom he tries vainly to protect. Outcast of the Islands (1952), adapted
from a bleak Joseph Conrad novel set in and around Singapore, was
another doomed romance with strong noir overtones. It tells the story of
the self-destructive Willems (Trevor Howard), another displaced figure,
a rogue Dutch trader, and his infatuation with a native woman.
The Key (U.S. title Stella, 1958), though clearly a war film, also had
noir elements. Trevor Howard again plays a self-destructive figure, a
tugboat skipper rescuing crippled ships, who is in love with a Swiss
refugee (Sophia Loren), one of cinema’s most enigmatic femme fatales.
Reed’s career faltered after this point, and his final noir, The Running
Man (1963)—a routine thriller about a man (Laurence Harvey) who
fakes his own death and is pursued by an insurance investigator—lacked
the intensity of his earlier work.
REMAKES. Although the most obvious remakes are those neo-noirs
that adapt classic noir originals, film noir has been, from its inception, partly a process of remaking and reworking the same material.
John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the third adaptation
of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the others being in 1931 and 1936;
Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) was a radical remake of The Falcon Takes Over (1942), an adaptation of Raymond
Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. In each case the studio owned the
rights, and talented filmmakers saw the potential for a darker treatment of the story, closer to the temper of the hard-boiled original.
Similarly, Maxwell Shane’s Nightmare (1956), a remake of his 1947
noir Fear in the Night, adapted from the Cornell Woolrich story,
used the opportunity of a larger budget to enhance the visual style,
introduce an expressive jazz score, and film in evocative New Orleans
locations. The noir precursor Blind Alley (1939) was remade as The
Dark Past (1948) with director Rudolph Maté pointedly emphasizing
the psychological aspects of the story. By contrast, Vicki (1953), Harry
Horner’s remake of I Wake Up Screaming (1941), although more
coherently noir and excising the intrusive moments of light comedy,
lacked the original’s edgy menace.
Often the remake is an adaptation from one national cinema into
another, usually, though not exclusively, from a French original into
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an American remake. Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) was a remake
of Jean Renoir’s French film noir La Chienne (The Bitch, 1931), and
his Human Desire (1954) remade Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (Judas
Was a Woman, aka The Human Beast, 1938). Anatole Litvak remade
Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939), a classic of poetic realism, as The
Long Night (1947). Lang’s own German noir M: Eine Stadt sucht
einen Mörder (M: A City Searches for a Murderer, 1931) was remade
by Joseph Losey in 1951. By contrast, Maté’s American noir D.O.A.
(1950) spawned an Australian film noir Color Me Dead (1969), an
EastmanColor remake directed by Eddie Davis starring the American
Tom Tryon. Although transferring the action to Australian locales, it
followed the original much more faithfully than the 1988 American
remake, an updated version starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. John
Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was remade as the British film
noir Cairo (1963), directed by Wolf Rilla, who had already made as
Marilyn (U.S. title Roadhouse Girl, 1953), a version of the James M.
Cain story The Postman Always Rings Twice. The Asphalt Jungle was
remade again as a “blaxploitation” noir Cool Breeze (1972), directed by
Barry Pollack, in which proceeds from the jewel heist will go to fund a
black people’s bank. More recently, Asian film noirs have been remade
by American filmmakers, notably Martin Scorsese’s The Departed
(2006), a remake of Wai-keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak’s Hong Kong film
noir, Wu jian dao (Infernal Affairs, 2002).
Although neo-noirs can spawn their own remakes—Sam Peckinpah’s
The Getaway (1972) was remade in 1994 by Roger Donaldson, heightening the criminal elements, sexuality, and violence of the original—
they typically remake classic noirs to cover a spectrum ranging from a
slavish attempt to re-create the original to a radical and highly creative
reworking. The 1992 remake of Detour (1945), directed by Wade Williams, although in color, cast Tom Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jr., as Al Roberts, redeployed the actual Packard that Edgar G. Ulmer had used, and
followed the original script very closely with only minor additions. Dick
Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975) set out to re-create Chandler’s
1940s Los Angeles and used noir icon Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.
David Goodman’s screenplay follows the novel’s plot more closely than
Dmytryk’s version and takes the opportunity of a more liberal censorship regime to depict the sleazier parts with Velma (Charlotte Rampling) clearly being an ex-prostitute. Similarly, Rob Rafelson’s 1981
remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, scripted by David Mamet,
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took the opportunity to have more explicit sex scenes, thus again bringing the remake closer to Cain’s original novella.
Other neo-noir remakes depart more widely from their originals.
Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), a remake of Nicholas Ray’s
They Live by Night (1948), although in color and CinemaScope, determinedly avoided the original’s romanticism in its bleaker, more objective delineation of the Depression era. Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat
(1981) was a deliberately loose remake of Double Indemnity (1944) in
which the original is a source rather than a blueprint. Roger Donaldson’s
No Way Out (1987), based on The Big Clock (1948), reconfigured the
original as a Cold War conspiracy thriller. Don Siegel’s The Killers
(1964) is not interested, as was Robert Siodmak’s 1946 original, in
re-creating small-town America or romanticizing the love affair through
chiaroscuro photography, but it focuses on the killers (Lee Marvin and
Clu Gulager) as much as their victim Johnny (John Cassavetes) and
is much more violent and sadistic than the original. Writer-director
Steven Soderbergh’s Underneath (1995) was an intelligent updating of
Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949), located not in working-class Los Angeles but in Austin, Texas, to which Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher)
returns. Soderbergh accentuates the dysfunctional familial elements,
and the protagonist is not yearning for love. He radiates a disaffected,
directionless anomie; his motives are enigmatic and ambiguous. In
Soderbergh’s fatalistic universe there is no romanticism, only deceit and
betrayal. Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy (1992) reworked the outlaw couple
paradigm, in particular Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is
the Female, 1950), by privileging the subjectivity and experiences of
the woman partner, Anita (Drew Barrymore), abandoned by her mother
and abused by her stepfather (Joe Dallesandro). She teams up with exconvict Howard (James LeGros), another ill-educated redneck, in a film
that depicts a rarely glimpsed, impoverished rural America dominated
by revivalist religion.
Remakes continue to be produced: Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable
Doubt (1956) has been remade in 2009, starring Michael Douglas; a
remake of Rififi (1955), starring Al Pacino, is in production.
Other remakes include: The Big Sleep (1946/1978); Black Angel
(1946) / Night without Sleep (1952); Body and Soul (1947/1981); Dark
Passage (1947) / Johnny Handsome (1989); The Desperate Hours
(1955) / Desperate Hours (1990); Les Diaboliques (1955) / Diabolique
(1996); La Femme Nikita (1990) / Point of No Return (1993); Get
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Carter (1971/2000); High Sierra (1941) / I Died a Thousand Times
(1955); I, the Jury (1953/1982); A Kiss Before Dying (1956/1991);
Kiss of Death (1947/1995); The Narrow Margin (1952) / Narrow Margin (1990); Night and the City (1950/1992); Out of the Past (1947) /
Against All Odds (1984); Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) / The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); Point Blank (1967) / Payback (1999); The
Prowler (1951) / Unlawful Entry (1992); Psycho (1960/1998); Ransom
(1956/1996); and Vertigo (1958) / Obsession (1976) / Mirage (1995).
See also RETRO-NOIR.
RETRO-NOIR. Retro-noirs are neo-noirs that consciously re-create the
“classic” 1940–59 period; Chinatown (1974), set in the 1930s, was
deliberately not retro. Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was one of the first
retro-noirs, with David Goodman’s screenplay staying closer to Raymond Chandler’s novel than Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet
(1944). The presence of Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe combines
with John A. Alonzo’s chiaroscuro cinematography to evoke the mood
and look of classic noir. Body Heat (1981), loosely based on Double
Indemnity (1944), was a complex retro-modern example, ambiguously
straddling the contemporary and the classic periods. Blade Runner
(1982), though set in the future, also re-created the look of classical noir
in its trench-coated hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford). Since the 1990s,
there have been more instances of retro-noirs, including Mulholland
Falls (1996) and L.A. Confidential (1997), both set in 1950s Los Angeles. The latter was based on the third novel in James Ellroy’s celebrated
“L.A. Quartet” (1987–92), while Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia
(2006) was based on the first, set in 1946 and re-creating the unsettled
mood of the immediate postwar period in its archetypal tale of obsession
and betrayal.
The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), set in 1949
and shot in black-and-white, alluded, in particular, to Scarlet Street
(1945) in its bleak story of an archetypal noir antihero, Ed Crane (Billy
Bob Thornton), the victim of a series of cruel ironies. Hollywoodland
(2006) was based on the famous mystery that surrounded the death of
George Reeves—played by Ben Affleck—the star of the Superman
television series in 1959. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), also set in Hollywood, was an ironic and partly comic take on retro-noir, in which
small-time criminal Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself
inadvertently enmeshed in a complex mystery that he attempts to solve
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with his partner, homosexual private eye Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer).
Harry is conscious of his role-playing and directly addresses the audience
at several points. See also REMAKES; SPANISH FILM NOIR.
RIFIFI (DU RIFIFI CHEZ LES HOMMES, 1955). Often referred to as
the definitive caper/heist film, the title of Jules Dassin’s Du rififi chez
les hommes comes from the French argot for “free-for-all,” or “of brawling among men,” connoting open hostilities between rival gangs or
individuals. It was coined by Série Noire writer Auguste Le Breton and
popularized in his 1953 novel from which the film is adapted. Dassin,
directing his first film since being placed on the blacklist in 1950, disliked the novel’s racism—all the villains were North Africans—therefore the adaptation, on which he collaborated with screenwriter René
Wheeler, made the main characters (with one exception) French. Dassin
retains the central focus on loyalty and betrayal and made the gang’s
burglary of a Parisian jewelry store the centerpiece, played wordlessly
(and with no accompanying music) for 28 tense minutes.
The central character, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), is an aging
criminal, typical of 1950s French film noir, who adheres to the oldfashioned code of honor. In a key scene, not in the novel, he shoots another member of the gang, César le Milanais—played by Dassin himself
under the pseudonym Perlo Vita—because he betrayed the gangster’s
code of honor. Tony has to rescue the five-year-old son of his partner
from a rival gangster, but he is mortally wounded. In a marvellously realized final sequence that combined point-of-view shots evoking Tony’s
hallucinating state of near death with the vivid realism that characterizes
the whole film, he drives the boy home before collapsing.
Although Rififi was made for a very modest budget of $200,000,
Dassin’s reputation in France commanded highly talented collaborators: Alexander Trauner, who designed the jewelry store and the L’Age
D’Or nightclub; Georges Auric, whose sparing and haunting score helps
create the film’s elegiac mood; and Phillipe Agostini, whose cinematography creates a palpable but subdued Montmartre—Dassin insisted
that they shot only on gray days, never when the sun was shining, thus
evoking a melancholic fatalism. Rififi was a major hit, and Dassin won
the Best Director’s award at the 1955 Cannes Festival. A major influence on subsequent heist noirs, notably Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir
Dogs (1992), Rififi was re-released theatrically in 2000 and a remake is
scheduled starring Al Pacino.
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RIGHT-WING CYCLE. The conventional image of film noir is as
antiestablishment and left-leaning. However, there was a pronounced
right-wing agenda in numerous noirs whose overriding theme is the
enforcement of law and order. The semidocumentaries were usually informed by a right-wing ideology that celebrated the vigilance,
hard work, and courage of American institutions and where government agents or policemen root out and destroy “the enemy.” The early
examples—The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine
(1946)—are preoccupied with fascism; but, as Nazis operate like
gangsters, this focus shifts seamlessly into a concern with crime lords.
Joseph H. Lewis’s The Undercover Man (1949) was a rerun of the
Capone indictment. Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) is the tireless Internal
Revenue agent who uncovers a web of intimidation, murder, fraud, and
tax evasion organized by the shadowy “big fellow.” Right-wing noirs
of the 1950s are obsessed with corporate crime, with takeovers by ever
more powerful and well-organized syndicates. This is shown clearly in
The Enforcer (1951) and in the city exposé cycle. The Racket (1951),
set in an anonymous midwestern city, looked back to the Prohibition era
(an earlier version had been released in 1928), but its struggle between
honest cop Captain McQuigg (Robert Mitchum) and mobster Scanlon
(Robert Ryan) is framed within an overarching corruption that reaches
the highest levels of government.
A right-wing agenda is most clearly visible in the subcycle of Cold
War films noir that were explicitly about the Communist threat, beginning with Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), which teamed a Scotland Yard
detective (Louis Hayward) and a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent
(Dennis O’Keefe) to fight crooks stealing atomic secrets to sell to the
Communists: those “who walk their crooked mile along the highways
and byways of free America.” In I Married a Communist (aka The
Woman on Pier 13, 1949), the bridegroom of the title is blackmailed by
a Communist leader who wishes to foment unrest in the docks for the
party’s ends. I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. (1951)—in which an
ordinary citizen (Frank Lovejoy) is recruited to infiltrate the Communist Party, and The Thief (1952), where Dr Allan Fields (Ray Milland)
plays an Atomic Energy Commission scientist who has defected—show
different aspects of the perceived Communist threat together with its
defeat by the resilience and vigor of American democracy. John Wayne
starred in the title role of Big Jim McLain (1952), a House Un-American
Activities Committee investigator trying to break up a Communist ring;
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Walk East on Beacon (1952) was producer Louis de Rochemont’s antiCommunist equivalent to The House on 92nd Street, with Soviet spies
replacing the Nazi ones from the earlier film. See also BLACKLIST;
LEFT-WING CYCLE.
ROBINSON, EDWARD G. (1893–1973). One of the most commanding
and distinctive actors in film noir, Edward G. Robinson, born Emanuel
Goldenberg in Bucharest, attained stardom through his memorable
performance as Johnny Rico in Warner Bros.’ Little Caesar (1931). Although he played variations on this iconic role in Key Largo (1948) and
Black Tuesday (1955), Robinson’s main contribution to film noir came
through very different parts that exploited his maturity and his ability,
evident in his tough-guy roles, to project a thoughtful, vulnerable sensitivity. As the second male lead in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity
(1944), Robinson invested the unsympathetic role of the dyspeptic insurance claims investigator, Barton Keyes, with a warm humanity. He
played two middle-aged male victims in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in
the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), whose need for love and
understanding is abused by the femme fatale. In the latter his cruel fate
is bleakly tragic.
In Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), the focus of the Cornell
Woolrich story was shifted from the heroine to the male clairvoyant,
giving Robinson the opportunity to create another tragic figure, the man
who can foresee future events but who is powerless to prevent their
outcome. In The Red House (1947), an unusual country noir, he played
the archetypal man-with-a-dark-secret, obscuring the traces of his murderous jealousy and sealing up the woods around the Red House so that
his adored stepdaughter will not discover the truth. House of Strangers
(1949) offered another major role as Gino Monetti, a proto-Godfather,
a self-made man on New York’s Lower East Side who is blind to the
corruption that his pursuit of wealth and status has caused. As with so
many other noir personnel, Robinson’s career suffered from the House
Un-American Activities Committee investigations after which he was
“gray listed” and his roles diminished.
Robinson’s other noirs are The Stranger (1946), Vice Squad (1953),
A Bullet for Joey (1955), Illegal (1955), Tight Spot (1955), Nightmare
(1956), and Soylent Green (1973). See also BLACKLIST; MEN; PRECURSORS.
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ROGUE COPS. See CORRUPT/ROGUE COPS.
ROSSEN, ROBERT (1908–1966). Robert Rossen, another major casualty of the blacklist, wrote and directed for the theater before becoming a screenwriter with Warner Bros., scripting a series of prewar
gangster thrillers. His first film noir screenplay was The Strange Love
of Martha Ivers (1946), a brooding tale of corrupt passion, which has
the characteristic Rossen concentration on the psychological and social
origins of the characters, the corruption of money, and the abuse of
power. By contrast, his screenplay for Desert Fury (1947) lacked a
powerful center. Rossen became a writer-director with Johnny O’Clock
(1947), a gangster film but with the emphasis on betrayal, corruption,
and the power of money. Rossen next directed Body and Soul (1947)
for the new Enterprise Productions, written by Abraham Polonsky.
In his finest film, Rossen, working with cinematographer James Wong
Howe, handles the fight scenes with imagination and inventiveness and
develops the prewar boxing film about a working-class battler into a
metaphor for predatory capitalism.
Its success enabled Rossen to form his own company, and he produced
The Undercover Man (1949), an indictment of organized crime directed
by Joseph H. Lewis. Rossen adapted, from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, and directed All the King’s Men (1949), which
won an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor for Broderick Crawford,
with Rossen nominated as Best Director and Screenwriter. It was a noir
hybrid, based on the true story of the rise and fall of Louisiana governor
Huey Long, with Rossen emphasizing the abuse of ordinary people’s
hopes by Willie Stark (Crawford), his corruption by the old aristocratic
order at Burden’s Landing, and the crippling price of his ruthless desire
to succeed. After blacklisting, Rossen pursued a career abroad, returning
to make The Hustler (1961), which has noir elements. See also BOXING NOIRS; FILM GRIS; LEFT-WING CYCLE.
ROURKE, MICKEY (1952– ). Mickey Rourke, feted, especially in
France, as a rebellious outsider figure, has created a distinctive persona
and presence in neo-noir playing complex, self-questioning antiheroes.
Rourke has the ability to suggest an underlying pathos mixed with
streetwise toughness, making his characters fragile, vulnerable figures
underneath their rough, violent exteriors, as in his portrayal of a seedy
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RÓZSA, MIKLÓS
private eye, Harry Angel, in the noir hybrid Angel Heart (1987) and
his troubled Irish Republican Army hit man in Mike Hodges’s A
Prayer for the Dying (1987). Rourke’s defining role came in Johnny
Handsome (1989) as a career criminal, deformed since birth, whose
face is rebuilt by a kindly doctor and then he is paroled from prison.
Pretending to cooperate, he executes his revenge on the man who killed
his father figure and sent him to prison. Rourke’s career faltered in the
1990s (he even made a return to prize-fighting, 1991–95), but he wrote
and starred in Bullet (1996), the story of Butch Stein (“Bullet”) who,
after leaving prison with intentions to reform, goes back home to his
dysfunctional Jewish family and his old life, robbing drug dealers and
using heroin. Typically, Bullet has to overcome his inner demons as
well as his sworn enemy Tank (Tupac Shakur). Rourke had a major
success as Marv in Sin City (2005), a hulking ex-con who, like Moose
Molloy in Murder, My Sweet (1944), is both violent and a pitiable
victim desiring love and beauty.
Rourke’s other noirs are Body Heat (1981), Desperate Hours (1990),
White Sands (1992), Thursday (1998), The Pledge (2001), and Man on
Fire (2004).
RÓZSA, MIKLÓS (1907–1995). The Hungarian-born composer Miklós
Rózsa was a classically trained musician whose first films were made in
Great Britain. He scored two early British noirs, The Green Cockatoo
(U.S. title Four Dark Hours, 1937) and On the Night of the Fire (U.S.
title: The Fugitive, 1939), working for fellow Hungarian Alexander
Korda’s London Film Productions. Rózsa moved to California in 1940,
establishing a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished film
composers. Rózsa thought the function of music was to “complete the
psychological meaning of a scene,” and his noir scores were among his
finest work. He was Oscar-nominated for Double Indemnity (1944),
combining closely with director Billy Wilder—with whom he collaborated on five occasions, including The Lost Weekend (1945)—who defended Rózsa’s “advanced” score against the criticisms of Paramount’s
musical director, Louis Lipstone, who judged it too harsh and unsettling.
Rózsa’s music showed a clear break from the prevailing lush romanticism that was the norm. It was often dissonant and scored in dark instrumental hues, starting with a gloomy trumpet-call introduction over
the title credits, going into a slow dirge without a harmonic minor mode,
producing an ominous, doom-laden mood.
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Rózsa won an Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945),
introducing the eerie, tremulous tones of an electronic instrument, the
theremin, into the Hollywood repertoire, which was highly influential.
Rózsa won another Oscar for The Killers (1946), its rumbling, ominous, low-note opening used later as the theme tune for Dragnet, and
for his evocative scoring of George Cukor’s only noir, A Double Life
(1948). For Fritz Lang’s Secret beyond the Door (1948), Rózsa wrote
and recorded a piece of music backward and then played the recording
in reverse so that it was in the normal sequence but strangely distorted.
Rózsa could also make telling use of an understated score, as with The
Naked City (1948), and indeed his most radical score was his sparest—for John Huston’s realistic The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which
uses only five minutes of music to accompany the opening and closing
moments. The beginning has edgy, anxious music as Dix (Sterling
Hayden) dodges a police patrol car in the early hours; the ending a brief
and ironically lush passage as he dies on his beloved Kentucky farm.
Rózsa also wrote the score for the neo-noir comic parody Dead Men
Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).
Rózsa’s other noirs are Ministry of Fear (1944), Dark Waters (1944),
Blood on the Sun (1945), Lady on a Train (1945), The Strange Love of
Martha Ivers (1946), The Red House (1947), Brute Force (1947), Desert Fury (1947), Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948), The Bribe (1949),
Criss Cross (1949), Crisis (1950), and Last Embrace (1979).
RUSSELL, GAIL (1924–1961). An attractive, doe-eyed brunette, Gail
Russell could play either sensual or supportive women. In Calcutta
(1947) opposite Alan Ladd, she was a duplicitous femme fatale, and in
The Tattered Dress (1957), she played the mistress of the local sheriff
(Jack Carson), used by him to undermine a city lawyer (Jeff Chandler).
By contrast, she portrayed a schoolteacher and the sympathetic girlfriend
of the tormented hero (Dane Clark) in Moonrise (1948). She was also a
campaigning editor in Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950). Her best role
came as the wide-eyed, trusting heroine in Night Has a Thousand Eyes
(1948). The film opens with her attempted suicide because she believes
in the premonitions of the clairvoyant (Edward G. Robinson), whose
vision of her lying under the stars seemed to portend her death.
RYAN, ROBERT (1909–1973). Ryan was one of the most important noir
male actors, appearing in 15 films. His craggy good looks, imposing
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height, taut muscular body, and dark, impenetrable eyes made him a
cross between heavy and leading man, thus perfect as a disturbed or
ambiguous noir antihero. He played troubled veterans in Crossfire
(1947)—for which he was Oscar-nominated—in Jean Renoir’s Woman
on the Beach (1947) and in Act of Violence (1949). In each, his character is an unstable, violent loner who can explode at any moment. This
also typified his compelling performance as the bitter and resentful cop
on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous
Ground (1952). His anguished outburst when he beats a confession out
of a petty criminal, “Why do you make me do it?” encompasses the
sense of incoherent rage and neurotic self-destructiveness that permeates all his performances. In the later scenes Ryan also reveals a tender
and vulnerable side that came through strongly in an earlier outstanding
performance as the aging boxer Stoker in The Set-Up (1949), brutally
beaten up by mobsters because he would not throw the fight but who
retains his dignity and can return to his wife (Audrey Totter). Ryan
played a psychotic handyman in Beware, My Lovely (1952), whose
murderous rages are obliterated by amnesia, and gangsters in The
Racket (1951) and House of Bamboo (1955), less complex roles but
with the suggestion of troubled depths. Ryan was again compelling
in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) as the racist, self-loathing criminal
whose trajectory, as always, is toward self-destruction. Ryan appeared
in two neo-noirs, The Outfit (1973), in which he plays a powerful and
ruthless syndicate boss, and Executive Action (1973), as one of the
right-wing conspirators.
Ryan’s other noirs are Berlin Express (1948), Caught (1949), I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949), The Secret Fury
(1950), Born to Be Bad (1950), and Clash by Night (1952). See also
BOXING NOIRS; MEN.
–S–
SALTER, HANS J. (1896–1994). The Viennese-born composer Hans
J. Salter worked in Germany, including scoring Der Mann, der seinen
Mörder sucht (The Man Who Searched for His Own Murderer, 1931)
directed by Robert Siodmak. He left for Hollywood in 1936 where
he enjoyed a long-term contract with Universal. Salter was a versatile
composer who collaborated with several major émigré directors, in-
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cluding three film noirs for Robert Siodmak: Phantom Lady (1944),
Christmas Holiday (1944), and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (aka
Uncle Harry, 1945). Salter was Oscar-nominated for his lush scoring
of Christmas Holiday, including several torch songs by Deanna Durbin
that are fundamental to the meaning of the film.
Salter’s other noirs are Scarlet Street (1946), The Web (1947), Love
from a Stranger (1947), Cover Up (1949), The Reckless Moment (1949),
The Killer That Stalked New York (1951), The Night Runner (1957), and
The Midnight Story (1957). See also MUSIC.
LE SAMOURAÏ (1967). Le Samouraï, which forms a loose trilogy with
Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) and Un flic (Dirty Money,
1972), all starring Alain Delon and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville,
is the consummate hit man noir, a radical reworking of This Gun for
Hire (1942), replacing the former’s psychological underpinning with a
profound existentialism. Jef Costello (Delon) is a hit man who executes
the director of a nightclub and becomes pursued both by the police and
his paymasters who think he has betrayed them or is a bad risk. As
Costello, the consummate professional, Delon, like Alan Ladd, has a
hard, sculpted handsomeness, an impenetrable beauty, cold and still.
Delon’s performance is even more minimalist, built around a series
of repeated and precise gestures including the fastidious way in which
he exactly adjusts the curve of his hat (which, like his trench coat, is
iconographic). Delon’s style is matched by Melville’s austere mise-enscène—influenced by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)—and Henri
Decaë’s cinematography, with its muted blue-grays in which even the
colors of ordinary objects such as banknotes or labels were deliberately
bleached out. The dialogue is stripped down (the first 7.5 minutes are
wordless) and action only intermittent.
The ideological framework is the Japanese feudal warrior code of the
samurai that demands an utter dedication to the craft of killing: “There
is no more profound solitude than the samurai’s, except that of the tiger in the jungle . . . maybe. . . .” as the film’s opening epigraph, from
Melville’s invented ancient samurai text, The Book of Bushido, states.
Melville eschews a social context almost entirely (though the settings
and the elaborate chases on the Paris Métro are unmistakably French) in
favor of a series of elaborate, slow-paced rituals that move inexorably
towards Costello’s death in which he colludes. He fakes the execution of the nightclub pianist (Cathy Rosier) who had refused earlier to
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identify him, pointing to an empty gun as he is shot by a police marksman. Jef collapses elegantly, crossing his white-gloved hands over his
upper chest. Costello’s death, like his executions, is an act of tragic
beauty. Le Samouraï is a modern fable about masculine solitude that is
deliberately abstract and self-consciously mythical, and it was highly
influential in both European and American cinema. See also COLLATERAL; FRENCH FILM NOIR.
SAWTELL, PAUL (1906–1971). The Polish-born composer Paul Sawtell worked in Hollywood from 1939, scoring numerous second feature
noirs including three for Anthony Mann: Desperate (1947), T-Men
(1948), and Raw Deal (1948). Raw Deal makes eloquent use of the eerie
sound of the theremin to underscore the plangent voice-over narration
of the tragic heroine.
Sawtell’s other noirs are Cornered (1945), The Devil Thumbs a Ride
(1947), Born to Kill (1947), For You I Die (1947), Walk a Crooked Mile
(1948), Bodyguard (1948), The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly
(1949), The Threat (1949), Outrage (1950), Southside 1-1000 (1950),
Roadblock (1951), The Racket (1951), Another Man’s Poison (GB
1951), Kansas City Confidential (1952), and On Dangerous Ground
(1952). See also MUSIC.
SCARLET STREET (1945). Scarlet Street is one of the most powerful
and influential noirs and Fritz Lang’s finest film. It was adapted from
Georges de la Fouchardière’s play that had already been filmed by Jean
Renoir as La Chienne (The Bitch) in 1931, though, as Lang insisted,
not a single scene was directly copied. Set designer Alex Golitzen
transposed Renoir’s Montmartre to the sleazy Bohemia of New York’s
Greenwich Village in 1934, and his forced perspective sets, together
with Milton Krasner’s low-key cinematography, allowed Lang to
create an ordinary-seeming world where the everyday blends with the
sinister and the macabre.
Scarlet Street is shot through with a series of devastating ironies that
thread a web of deception and betrayal. The principal character is the
hen-pecked Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), infatuated by
the prostitute Kitty (Joan Bennett), who pretends to be an actress. Chris
ensconces her in a luxurious apartment, which he can only maintain
by embezzling from his firm but which is his emotional escape from a
loveless marriage to the castrating Adele (Rosalind Ivan). When Kitty’s
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pimp/lover Johnny (Dan Duryea) opportunistically sells one of Chris’s
spare-time paintings, it is Kitty who becomes fêted as a talented artist.
In a cruel scene Chris paints her picture, calling it “Self Portrait,” while
Kitty, exercising her power, sticks out her toenails: “Paint me Chris. . . .
They’ll be masterpieces.” When Chris discovers the truth about her
relationship with Johnny, he stabs her repeatedly with an ice pick in a
murderous frenzy that releases his repressed sexual desire. In a further
irony, Johnny becomes convicted of Kitty’s murder and is executed
in Sing Sing. Foiled in his attempt to kill himself, Chris is subject to
a final irony in which his portrait of Kitty is sold by Adele for a huge
sum. As the camera cranes up over the street and the crowd dissolves
around him, Lang’s final image is of Chris’s desolate figure, haunted by
Kitty’s refrain “Jeepers I love you Johnny” and her song “Melancholy
Baby” that has never left him, the archetypal nighttime urban wanderer,
a doomed outcast beyond the reach of society.
Lang cut the scene in which Chris climbs a telegraph pole on a hill
overlooking Sing Sing in order to watch the glare of light in the death
chamber, judging it too shocking, but Scarlet Street remained a controversial film, banned in three states, and subject to studio cuts to which
producer Walter Wanger was forced to agree. One of the bleakest
noirs, Scarlet Street’s devastating and corrosive ironies continue to
make it a challenging film.
SCHARY, DORE (1905–1980). Dore Schary was active in a number of
progressive organizations and consistently supported innovative and
forward-thinking filmmakers, working initially for David O. Selznick’s
Vanguard Films that released through RKO, then as Head of Production at MGM (1948–56). An ex-Broadway playwright and screenwriter,
Schary was a creative producer, involved in optioning stories, revising
screenplays, casting, and final editing as well as controlling the budget.
Through Vanguard he supported, among others, Robert Siodmak’s The
Spiral Staircase (1946), despite its controversial subject matter, and the
hard-hitting social noir Crossfire (1947). Schary defended its director
Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott, but he was unable to
prevent their being placed on the blacklist. At MGM, he redirected
production policy to include a far greater number of lower-budgeted,
realistic crime films with greater location shooting, providing a climate
in which talented filmmakers, including John Alton, Sydney Boehm,
Joseph Losey, Anthony Mann, and Nicholas Ray could flourish. He
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encouraged John Huston to make The Asphalt Jungle (1950), despite
the opposition of MGM boss Louis B. Meyer.
SCHRADER, PAUL (1946– ). Paul Schrader has made a significant
contribution to the development of film noir as critic, screenwriter,
and director. His 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir,” originally issued
to accompany a major Los Angeles Museum retrospective, is the most
influential short piece on film noir, defining a style, canonical works,
and a “specific period of film history” that was ripe for revaluation and
reappropriation following the widespread disillusionment consequent
upon the war in Vietnam. Schrader observed: “as the current political
mood hardens, filmgoers and filmmakers will find the film noir of the
late forties increasingly attractive,” and argued that its influence will
be felt at a time when “American movies are again taking a look at the
underside of the American character.”
These ideas were graphically embodied in Schrader’s original screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), with its troubled
veteran (Robert De Niro). Schrader’s first noir screenplay, cowritten
with his brother Leonard and Robert Towne, The Yakuza (1974) starring Robert Mitchum, had portrayed the clash of traditional Japanese
and imported American values after the war. Schrader cowrote Rolling
Thunder (1977), which also depicted disaffected veterans—played by
William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones—returning home to a small
town in Texas. Hardcore (1979), which Schrader wrote and also
directed, explored the clash between Schrader’s own cultural roots,
embodied in the repressed Calvinist midwestern businessman Jake
Van Dorn (George C. Scott), and dissolute modern America, as Jake
searches for his missing daughter who has become involved in the Californian porn industry. Schrader combined again with Scorsese, writing
the screenplay for Raging Bull (1980), one of the definitive boxing
noirs and another study in the alienated male.
There were noir elements in Schrader’s “night workers” series of
films—American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), Bringing Out the
Dead (1999), and The Walker (2007)—which, following Taxi Driver,
all depicted estranged, insomniac males trying to find meaning in their
lives. Schrader’s bleakest and most compelling study of the classic noir
themes of corruption, betrayal, and the hero’s inability to escape the past
came in Affliction (1997), the story of the destruction of Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a small-town policeman in New Hampshire, by his
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alcoholic father Glen (James Coburn). Glen has also abused his wife
Jill, and Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) retrospectively narrates
the story in voice-over.
Schrader’s other noirs are Obsession (1976), City Hall (1996), and
Forever Mine (1999). See also MEN; NEO-NOIR.
SCORSESE, MARTIN (1942– ). Writer-director Scorsese, whose
métier is the crime film, has had a profound influence on neo-noir,
his films informed by his Italian-American Catholicism and his comprehensive knowledge of film history. Mean Streets (1973), made for
only $500,000, explored Catholic guilt and redemption in New York’s
working-class Little Italy. The title is an allusion to Raymond Chandler, and Scorsese’s edgy style and rapid-fire editing was indebted
to John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard, but the pounding rock
soundtrack was contemporary. Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who works for
his uncle Giovanni (the local mafia caporegime) collecting debts, is the
first in a long line of divided protagonists unsure of their identity and
direction. His confusion is exacerbated by his sense of responsibility
toward his childhood friend, the unstable, violent, and self-destructive
Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), in many ways Charlie’s alter ego. These
themes were explored further in Taxi Driver (1976), scripted by Paul
Schrader, which remains Scorsese’s most celebrated film, capturing
the disaffection of the post-Vietnam generation. Scorsese combined
with Schrader again on Raging Bull (1980), one of the definitive boxing
noirs, filmed in high-contrast black-and-white, a violent biopic of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, played by De Niro. Scorsese
employs extensive slow-motion photography, complex tracking shots,
and extravagant distortions of perspective to explore the psychological
fragmentation of the protagonist.
After Hours (1985)—like the later Bringing Out the Dead (1999),
Scorsese’s third collaboration with Schrader—was a change of direction, a black-comedy noir, with a playful and often witty use of noir
archetypes. GoodFellas (1990), based on Wiseguy by New York crime
reporter Nicholas Pileggi, who collaborated on the screenplay, refocused
on mafia practices. Scorsese was drawn to Pileggi’s sharp delineation of
the day-to-day actualities of the gangster’s lifestyle, the tedium, casual
violence, and occasional exhilaration experienced by Irishman Henry
Hill (Ray Liotta), who, beginning in 1955, works for a Sicilian family
of “wiseguy” gangsters, the Ciceros, in Queens, New York. Cape Fear
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(1991) was a lumbering remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 late noir,
but Casino (1995), again adapted from a Pileggi novel that was based on
a true story, was an epic noir tale of corruption and betrayal. It charts the
destruction of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro), a top gambling handicapper called by the Chicago Mob to oversee the day-to-day operations
at the fictional Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas, and his desert paradise.
Gangs of New York (2002) was an historical gangster film, but The
Departed (2006), for which Scorsese won his first Oscar, was a return to
noir, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film noir Wu jian dao (Infernal
Affairs). Scorsese switches the action to Boston, and the film precisely
evokes the specificities of its history, culture, and its racial, social,
and class antagonisms. The Departed is also a penetrating study of the
instabilities of identity through its complex mirror story of how two
informers (Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio), working for mobster
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and the Massachusetts State Police respectively, get caught up in their double lives and become obsessed with
finding the other. The Departed’s story recalls Scorsese’s beginnings in
Mean Streets, indicating the deep consistency of his noir oeuvre.
SCOTT, ADRIAN (1912–1973). Adrian Scott was a talented writer and
producer whose career was proscribed by the blacklist. A Popular
Front Communist and a member of various progressive groups, Scott
believed in film’s capacity to raise public consciousness. Having established a reputation as freelance writer, Scott joined RKO in 1942,
where he turned to producing to gain greater creative control and had
the support of Head of Production Dore Schary. Though he produced
the Cornell Woolrich adaptation Deadline at Dawn (1946), Scott’s
major noirs were made with screenwriter John Paxton and director Edward Dmytryk. Their first film was the highly influential Raymond
Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet (1944), followed by Cornered
(1945), also starring Dick Powell, a thriller dramatizing the postwar
fascist threat in Argentina. Scott battled with RKO executives to retain
the overt political content, but he had to compromise. Scott’s greatest
success was Crossfire (1947), nominated for five Academy Awards,
another antifascist (and antiracist) film that dramatized the problems of
troubled veterans. However, despite its success, Scott and Dmytryk
were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in
1947 and imprisoned as two of the “The Hollywood Ten.” Scott sued
RKO for wrongful dismissal, but the case was dismissed in 1957. He
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survived by writing for film and television behind a front, but he never
produced another film. See also LEFT-WING CYCLE.
SCOTT, LIZABETH (1922– ). Born Emma Matzo to Slovakian parents,
Lizabeth Scott appeared in 11 films noir. Her sultry blonde beauty and
low, husky voice were obvious femme fatale material, the role she
played in Dead Reckoning (1947) and in Too Late for Tears (1949). She
also played more sympathetic and supportive women in I Walk Alone
(1948), Dark City (1950), and The Racket (1951). However, her most
distinctive performances were as the good-bad girl, basically decent but
drawn into situations over which she has no control, as in The Strange
Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Pitfall (1948).
Scott’s other noirs are Desert Fury (1947), The Company She Keeps
(1951), Two of a Kind (1951), Stolen Face (GB 1952), Bad for Each
Other (1954), The Weapon (GB 1957), and Pulp (GB 1972).
SCOTT, ZACHARY (1914–1965). Zachary Scott’s somewhat sinister good looks lent themselves to the portrayal of ruthless or amoral
characters whose surface charm masked an inner corruption in several
noirs. He was hired by Warner Bros. after appearing on Broadway and
played a ruthless criminal in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), the amoral
millionaire playboy Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce (1945), a suave
scoundrel in Danger Signal (1945), and the cold-hearted businessman
Horace Vendig in Ruthless (1948). His most complex role was in Guilty
Bystander (1950) as a dishonorably discharged police detective turned
alcoholic, who redeems himself through his search for his kidnapped
child, a quest that reveals a seamy American underclass.
Scott’s other noirs are The Unfaithful (1947), Whiplash (1948), Flamingo Road (1949), Shadow on the Wall (1950), Wings of Danger (GB
1952, U.S. title Dead on Course), The Counterfeit Plan (GB 1957), and
Man in the Shadow (GB 1957, U.S. title Violent Stranger).
SEITZ, JOHN F. (1892–1979). As principal photographer at Paramount,
John F. Seitz had an important influence on film noir, developing the
high-contrast “north” or “Rembrandt” lighting technique he had worked
on in the 1920s with director Rex Ingram into what became the dominant noir visual style. In This Gun for Hire (1942), Seitz blended realistic location shooting with an expressionist use of Rembrandt lighting,
creating the film’s deep brooding shadows and the atmospheric backlit,
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fog-shrouded scenes photographed at night or in the early hours. This
style was refined in Double Indemnity (1944), the first of three Oscarnominated collaborations with Billy Wilder—the others were Sunset
Boulevard (1950) and the quasi-noir The Lost Weekend (1945)—where
Seitz’s cinematography was consistently resourceful and inventive in
ways that stimulated and influenced his fellow cinematographers. Seitz
also received an Oscar nomination for his cinematography on Rogue
Cop (1954), with its compelling contrast between the sordid underground streets and dark alleyways and the luxurious penthouse that
Kelvaney (Robert Taylor) has obtained through graft.
Seitz’s other noirs are The Unseen (1945), Calcutta (1947), The Big
Clock (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Saigon (1948), Chicago Deadline (1949), Appointment with Danger (1951), Hell on Frisco
Bay (1955), and A Cry in the Night (1956).
SEMIDOCUMENTARY. This category of films noir has the authenticity and hard-edged naturalism of contemporary newsreel journalism
and documentaries. It was stimulated by wartime restrictions on studio
space and technological changes including lighter cameras and portable
lighting equipment, and it was profoundly influenced by Italian neorealism. The forerunner was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt
(1943), which made use of local inhabitants and location shooting in
Santa Rosa. But the first true example was Louis de Rochemont’s The
House on 92nd Street (1945), directed by Henry Hathaway, based on
an actual case of the destruction of a Nazi spy ring. House was made
with the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which lent
its offices, personnel, and equipment, and it was “photographed in the
localities of the incidents depicted. . . . Wherever possible in the actual
places the original incidents occurred.” It also used what became the
standard authoritarian voice-over introduction. Further examples that
were also avowedly right-wing—including 13 Rue Madeleine (1946)
and Walk a Crooked Mile (1948)—followed, but the most celebrated
and influential was Mark Hellinger’s The Naked City (1948), almost
entirely shot on the streets of New York.
Others, notably Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), Anthony
Mann’s T-Men (1948), and Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948),
combined the documentary with a typically noir story of crime and corruption. Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), filmed primarily on
the waterfront and French Quarter of New Orleans, depicted the efforts
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of the authorities to catch a criminal who is a plague carrier. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) combined a documentary realism with the caper/
heist film. In the 1950s, the city exposé cycle used similar techniques,
and the semidocumentary element in film noir goes through to the late
noir In Cold Blood (1967), an outstanding adaptation by Richard Brooks
(who also directed) of Truman Capote’s novel based on the actual killing of a Kansas family by two parolees in 1959.
Other semidocumentary noirs include: Call Northside 777 (1948),
Union Station (1950), 711 Ocean Drive (1950), Walk East on Beacon
(1952), and The Wrong Man (1956).
SÉRIE NOIRE. Série Noire—“Black Series”—was a highly influential
run of French translations of American and English hard-boiled fiction that helped to provide the context within which film noir was first
recognized and understood. Série Noire was launched by the French
publisher Gaston Gallimard in autumn 1945 and edited by Marcel
Duhamel, a skilled translator, a specialist in American literature and
member of the Paris surrealist movement, who wrote the foreword to
Panorama du film noir américain (1941–1953). Duhamel believed
that hard-boiled crime novels were the true future of popular fiction,
and he differentiated Série Noire from the famous French collection
of murder mystery detective fiction, Le Masque, which had been published since 1927: “Sometimes there is no mystery. And sometimes not
even a detective. So what? . . . there is action, anxiety, violence.” The
title Série Noire was selected by the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, who had been strongly associated with poetic realism. The title
was a play on the expression une série noire used to describe a succession of troubling events, but it also evoked littérature noire, the French
term for English Gothic literature. The series, with its distinctive black
and yellow covers, combined the cultural prestige of Gallimard with
the lurid appeal of pulp fiction and became highly popular, attracting
an educated as well as a mass readership.
The first two titles were translations of the English writer Peter
Cheyney, featuring his Federal Bureau of Investigation hero Lemmy
Caution, followed by another British author James Hadley Chase and
a succession of prominent American hard-boiled writers, including
James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Jim
Thompson. Initially French writers, including Thomas Narcejac, wrote
under American pseudonyms, but in the 1950s they wrote more Gallic
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stories, usually set in Paris and using an underworld argot, under their
own names. Among the most popular were Albert Simonin, Touchez
pas au Grisbi (1953); Auguste Le Breton, Du rififi chez les Hommes
(1953); Pierre Lesou, Le Doulos (1957); and José Giovanni, Le Deuxième Souffle (1958), which were all adapted into prominent French
films noir, the last two by Jean-Pierre Melville. Série Noire still continues as a vehicle for the publication of noir fiction.
SE7EN (1995). David Fincher’s Se7en is a highly influential hybrid
horror-noir that deliberately and disorientatingly oscillates between a
highly stylized modern Gothic and a police procedural. World-weary
Lieutenant William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), about to retire after 34
years of service, must take on one final case, a serial killer calling himself John Doe (Kevin Spacey). He is obsessed with punishing his victims, who each represent one of the seven deadly sins, in a manner that
befits their sin. Somerset is partnered by his impulsive, overconfident
successor, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), their investigations taking
place in a partially glimpsed unidentified city—Fincher withholds establishing shots—soaked in perpetual rain and insistently noisy, which
was inspired by the gritty urban noirs of the 1970s, such as The French
Connection (1971) and Blade Runner (1982). Each crime scene they
go to is a shadowy and confusing labyrinth in which the visceral horror
of the serial killer’s “artistic” crimes is gradually revealed, but also partially obscured, allowing an audience’s imagination to work feverishly.
Se7en’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, an admirer of expressionism
as well as Gregg Toland, used a somber, oligochromatic color register,
composed of a very limited, closely related range of colors: white,
cream, gray, slate, ochre, beige, brown, black, and dirty, acidic greens,
to create what he called a “crepuscular aesthetic.”
The pursuit ends in a truly terrifying dénouement following a surprise move in which Doe gives himself up but will only plead guilty
if he shows Mills and Somerset his last two victims. In the only scene
shot in sunlight amid an out-of-town scrubland landscape, Doe has arranged that at seven on the seventh day, a package is delivered to Mills
containing the head of his artless wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). When,
despite Somerset’s pleadings, Mills shoots Doe, he becomes the sixth
sin (envy—he had talked of how much he envied Mills’s marriage) and
Mills the seventh: wrath. Mills has succumbed to Doe’s power and is
irredeemably damned. It was only at Pitt’s insistence that this ending
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was retained against studio pressure, but it provides a fitting if uncompromisingly bleak and chilling conclusion to this unnerving film. See
also VISUAL STYLE.
SIEGEL, DON (1912–1991). Don Siegel, whose lengthy career encompasses both films noir and neo-noirs, was predominantly an action director with a straightforward, uncluttered visual style, partly driven by
his limited budgets. Siegel used restricted camera movement and shot
mainly on location, making his films “taut and lean.” His films noir
focus on antiheroes, at odds with a timid and unambitious society, a
conflict that leads to the character’s isolation and his continual struggle
between violence and control. Siegel was thus temperamentally unsuited to his first noir, The Verdict (1946), a period detective drama
starring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, but he hit his stride
with The Big Steal (1949), a fast-paced chase thriller across Mexico,
designed by RKO to cash in on the popularity of the Robert Mitchum/
Jane Greer pairing from Out of the Past (1947). Riot in Cell Block 11
(1954) was an abrasive, violent prison noir that also made an appeal
for penal reform within its action setting. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was a noir hybrid, its science fiction framework imbued
with Cold War noir paranoia.
Baby Face Nelson (1957), his third collaboration with Daniel Mainwaring, starring Mickey Rooney as the diminutive gangster, has the
characteristic harsh, raw energy of all Siegel’s films, combining graphic
violence, action sequences, and a character study of psychopathology.
The Lineup (1958), based on Stirling Silliphant’s characters from the
television series of the same name for which Siegel had directed the pilot episode in 1954, was another fast-paced crime thriller with numerous
action sequences and an elaborate final chase. The criminals, notably
the psychotic Dancer (Eli Wallach), are antisocial outcasts, struggling to
retain a professional control that will channel their violence. Something
of an exception was Private Hell 36 (1954), much more of a character
study, focusing on two contrasting policemen, the emotionally repressed
Bruner (Steve Cochran) and sensitive family man Farnham (Howard
Duff), both corrupted by money.
Siegel’s late noir The Killers (1964) was a remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film, but with the focus much more on the contract killers
themselves and with a more brutal and alienated violence. Madigan
(1968) was an accomplished depiction of the corrupt cop starring a
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world-weary Richard Widmark in the title role, who recognizes that
his professionalism has been hopelessly compromised. In Dirty Harry
(1971), Siegel’s most celebrated film, the lone cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) operates his own system of quasi-vigilante
justice outside the normal rules. In this intricate and compelling pursuit
film, Siegel superbly orchestrates Callahan’s relentless tracking down
of the serial killer who is menacing San Francisco. Siegel does not
shrink from showing Callaghan’s disturbing brutality.
Siegel’s other noirs are Count the Hours (1953), Crime in the Streets
(1956), The Hanged Man (1964), Stranger on the Run (1967), and
Charley Varrick (1973).
SIEGEL, SOL C. (1903–1982). Sol C. Siegel was an experienced and
efficient producer (from 1937) who made Among the Living (1941) and
Street of Chance (1942) for Paramount, both of which helped to define
and establish a noir style and sensibility. He joined Twentieth CenturyFox after the war and assisted in the establishment of the studio’s
distinctive noir style through five further noirs that blended location
realism with melodrama: Cry of the City (1948), House of Strangers
(1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Fourteen Hours (1951), and Deadline U.S.A. (1952).
SIMENON, GEORGES (1903–1989). A prolific writer, best known for
his creation of the Parisian detective Commissaire Jules Maigret who
first appeared in 1929, the Belgian-born Georges Simenon was a seminal influence on the development of film noir in France and was also
adapted occasionally in Great Britain and in America. Like his American hard-boiled counterparts, Simenon took the detective novel away
from the English murder mystery and placed his ordinary characters in
realistic settings, downplaying action, suspense, and violence in favor
of atmosphere and a dreary quotidian actuality. His stories gradually
uncover the social and psychological pressures, the dishonesty, fear, and
guilt, which lead to crime and murder. In Simenon’s fiction there are
no long expositions; the past is evoked rapidly in a series of flashbacks
and the focus is always on the crisis, a turning point in the character’s
life. His killers often act in a dreamlike state that separates them from
their actions or crimes and demonstrates the fundamental alienation that
Simenon sees at the heart of existence.
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Three adaptations of Maigret novels in 1932 constituted the beginning of French film noir: Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du carrefour (Night
at the Crossroads), Julien Duvivier’s La Tête d’un homme (A Man’s
Neck), and Jean Tarride’s Le Chien jaune (The Yellow Dog). An adaptation of Les Inconnus dans la maison (Strangers in the House, 1942) was
one of the major noirs made during the Occupation and was remade in
Britain in 1967, as Stranger in the House. Panique (Panic, 1947) was
a typical Simenon story, focusing on the fear and suffering of an unattractive loner (Michel Simon) after he is suspected of murder. It was
remade in 1989 by Patrice Leconte as Monsieur Hire, starring Michel
Blanc. Leconte called Simenon a “false friend” because his novels are
full of what appear to be visual images but which are not translatable
into cinematic terms. Indeed, Simenon’s distinctive atmosphere, subtle
psychological states, sensory impressions, and minute details of everyday life are difficult to realize on film. However, Le Chat (The Cat,
1971) was one of the most successful adaptations, as was La Veuve
Couderc (The Widow Couderc, 1971), a portrait of village life and two
doomed lovers, Simone Signoret and Alain Delon. Bertrand Tavernier’s
L’Horloger de Saint-Paul (The Watchmaker of St. Paul, 1973) managed
to translate Simenon’s novel into a finely drawn portrait of ordinary
life in Lyon as a father (Philippe Noiret) tries to understand his son’s
reasons for murdering an industrialist.
In Britain, Lance Comfort’s Temptation Harbour (1947), based on
the novella Newhaven—Dieppe, successfully captured the Simenon universe using Otto Heller’s somber, gray cinematography; Robert Newton
gave a fine performance as the alienated victim drawn into crime. In
The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (U.S. title The Paris Express,
1952), Claude Rains engagingly played a drab little man, whose wellordered life is shattered by a chance encounter. The Man on the Eiffel
Tower (1949) was the first Maigret novel to be filmed in the United
States, but despite its Parisian setting, director and star Burgess Meredith fails to capture either quotidian realism or psychological torment.
Much more powerful was Phil Karlson’s adaptation of The Brothers
Rico (1957), one of Simenon’s American-set novels, which emphasizes
ordinary, everyday lives as much as gangsterism and how Eddie Rico
(Richard Conte) is inexorably pulled back into a criminal milieu.
Simenon’s fiction continues to be the basis for French films noir, including Feux rouges (Red Lights, 2004) and L’Homme de Londres (aka
A londoni férfi, The Man from London, 2007).
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SIN CITY (2005). Sin City decisively altered the relationship between
film noir and graphic novels. Director Robert Rodriguez referred to
the process as a “translation not an adaptation” and shot what is now
the film’s prologue—in which an unnamed professional hit man (Josh
Hartnett) kills a scarlet-clad woman—in order to persuade writer and
graphic artist Frank Miller that he could retain the integrity, the narration, and the dialogue but above all the visual quality of Miller’s fiction. Miller was persuaded to adapt his own fiction and eventually took
codirector credit. Quentin Tarantino was a “guest director” for one
sequence, and Rodriguez’s rearrangement of the stories’ chronology
recalled Pulp Fiction.
Sin City was “translated” from several of Miller’s graphic novels
and a short story that first appeared as a 13-part serial in the Dark
Horse Presents comic book from April 1991 to June 1992, under the
title of Sin City. It was one of the first films to be shot primarily rather
than occasionally on a digital backlot, allowing a faithful translation of
Miller’s artwork onto the screen, with many shots being almost exact
replicas of ones in the source novels. It was shot initially in full color
then converted back to high-quality black-and-white that facilitated
the classic noir chiaroscuro, stark blacks and whites with very little
gray tone. In this way Rodriguez created an utterly stylized retro-noir
universe, visually and thematically, but one that was also “modern and
savage,” invested with Miller’s customary grim, gallows humor and
extreme violence.
All the stories take place in Basin or “Sin” City, a fictional town in
the American northwest, which, like Dashiell Hammett’s “Poisonville”
in Red Harvest, is a dark version of the American city, ruled by the
Roark family, a dynasty of shady landowners and politicians with a corrupt police force and several criminal gangs. It has the usual panoply of
noir locations: a rundown neighborhood, a squalid waterfront area, Old
Town, a red-light district but run by women, a wealthy suburb, and a
focal bar/strip club, Kadie’s Club Pecos, creating the archetypal oppressive and labyrinthine urban environment, bathed in ubiquitous rain. The
characters are noir archetypes, with sexy femme fatales, battling victimheroes, corrupt cops, and psychotic villains. The outstanding creation
Marv (Mickey Rourke) in the second story, “The Hard Goodbye,” a
hulking, grotesque jailbird, is framed for the murder of the beautiful
Goldie (Jaime King) by the Roarks, who inflicts terrible violence in his
struggle to find her real killer.
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Sin City won the Technical Grand Prize at the 2005 Cannes Festival
for its “visual shaping.” Although it was admired for its style, Sin City
was also criticized for its excessive, graphic violence (which included
torture, decapitation, rape, and castration), its misogyny, and its failure
to make the characters empathetic. However, it was highly successful
commercially and a sequel, Sin City 2, is due to be released in 2010. See
also MEN; VISUAL STYLE.
SIODMAK, ROBERT (1900–1973). One of the most important émigré
directors whose work is at the heart of film noir, Robert Siodmak’s
themes are cruelty, betrayal, and death, combining a fatalistic existentialism with a powerfully countervailing romanticism, drawing on
noir’s Gothic and its hard-boiled lineage. His characters are divided
and ambivalent figures, gripped by sexual obsession. The men are
weak, self-absorbed, and usually destroyed by their desires; the women
are often stronger, more resilient, but also more duplicitous. Siodmak
began, along with his brother Curt, as a screenwriter before having a
successful directing career in Weimar Germany, including Der Mann,
der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man Who Searched for His Own Murderer, 1931). Both Voruntersuchung (Inquest, 1931) and Stürme der
Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion, 1931) anticipate film noir, the latter
an underworld tale of sexual obsession and betrayal with a scheming
femme fatale. Siodmak was one of a number of Jewish filmmakers
who fled from Nazi persecution, departing for Paris where he made
Pièges (Traps, 1939, U.S. title Personal Column), which, like Inquest,
focused on a man wrongly accused of murder, set in a seedy underworld milieu.
Siodmak moved to the United States in 1940, gaining a long-term
contract with Universal, where Curt was an established screenwriter.
He directed the Universal horror film Son of Dracula (1943) before
directing Universal’s first noir, Phantom Lady (1944), adapted from the
Cornell Woolrich story. Phantom Lady, as with Siodmak’s European
noirs, demonstrated a strong interest in psychological disturbance and
sexual pathology, as did Christmas Holiday (1944), a bold and intelligent adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham story. In this dark, “European” tale of obsessive love and corrupt passion, the location shifted
from Paris to southern Gothic New Orleans. Deanna Durbin and Gene
Kelly were both deliberately cast against type, as a vamp nightclub
singer and her weak-willed, homosexual husband, respectively. Both
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films show Siodmak’s preference for expressionistically shot and lit
studio settings, creating a claustrophobic intensity in which to explore
complex and dark psychological states. Both The Suspect (1944) and
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (aka Uncle Harry, 1945) have
middle-aged suburban male protagonists—Philip Marshall (Charles
Laughton) and Harry Quincey (George Sanders)—respectively. Each is
enshackled by gentility, their happiness threatened by destructive, castrating women, who look for freedom through the love of a wholesome
young woman, played by Ella Raines.
The Dark Mirror (1946), the first film made by the new UniversalInternational company, had higher production values. Olivia de Havilland plays identical twins whose dispositions are antithetical. Although
Siodmak’s visual style is assured, the scenes in which the psychiatrist
(Lew Ayres) provides an explicitly Freudian analysis of her condition
are dull and wordy. Siodmak had more freedom with The Spiral Staircase (1946), a Gothic noir, which, like Christmas Holiday, anatomizes
the corruption of long-established families. Siodmak’s next two films,
The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), show the influence of producer Mark Hellinger. Both are based on hard-boiled fictions set in
realistic, contemporary locations, but they demonstrate Siodmak’s continued fascination with obsessive love and pathological relationships.
Cry of the City (1948) was Siodmak’s most explicitly realistic
work and part of the semidocumentary cycle. It depicted the struggle
between a charismatic, amoral, and ruthless gangster, Martin Rome
(Richard Conte), and his Doppelgänger, the self-righteous Lieutenant
Vittorio Candella (Victor Mature), who also grew up in the teeming
neighborhood of New York’s Little Italy. Siodmak’s final American
film, The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), was his most subtle study
of duality and obsession. Cleve (Wendell Corey), another of noir’s
ground-down husbands, an assistant district attorney trapped in routine
and castrated by his dominating father-in-law, a judge, engages in a
liberating and enriching as well as destructive encounter with Thelma
(Barbara Stanwyck), another complex, divided character, both ruthless
and desperate.
Siodmak returned to Germany in 1952 and directed Nachts, wenn der
Teufel kam (The Devil Strikes at Night, 1957), announced as a “true story
from the secret archives of the Gestapo,” in which a mentally retarded
serial killer who is terrorizing Hamburg is used by the Nazi authorities
to garner public support for their policy of exterminating undesirables.
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His final noir, The Rough and the Smooth (1959, U.S. title Portrait of
a Sinner), was made in Great Britain, adapted from a novel by Robin
Maugham, in which the femme fatale Ila (Nadja Tiller) is a refugee. She
is the object of two men’s obsessive infatuation, a successful architect
(Tony Britton) and a shady businessman (William Bendix), forming a
disturbing triangular relationship. See also FREUDIANISM; NARRATIVE PATTERNS.
SOUTH KOREAN FILM NOIR. South Korean is the most recent of
the Asian film noirs, as the film industry only developed significantly
from the 1980s when severe censorship and state controls were relaxed,
becoming a commercial cinema that gained international recognition
from the 1990s. But, as in the Hong Kong and Japanese film noirs,
the conflict between old and new values, between Confucian ethics that
emphasize honor, duty, brotherhood, and family loyalties and an amoral
foreign materialism, is very strong. South Korean noir characteristically
dramatizes how traditional ways of living have been replaced by the
anomie and loneliness of the modern city. South Korea’s capital, Seoul,
has its own organized gangsters or jopoks.
A pathbreaking film was Janggunui adeul (Son of a General, 1990)
and its two sequels (1991 and 1992), the violent and slow-moving story
of Kim Du-han, a gangster and later politician who organized a militia
to fight against the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–45). Chorok
milkogi (Green Fish, 1997) was an archetypal noir tale of a troubled
veteran who becomes embroiled with gangsters on his return; Tellmisseomding (Tell Me Something, 1999) was a serial killer film that derived
from Se7en (1995). Fuyajo (Sleepless Town, 1998) was more distinctive, a beautifully photographed tale of the seedy back-alleys of Kubuchiko, starring the popular Takeshi Kaneshiro as a sleazy underworld
figure caught in gangland war and involved with an enigmatic woman
(Mirai Yamamoto). Chingoo (Friend, 2001) traces the story of four
friends over the turbulent period 1970–90, two of whom become rival
gangsters. Swiri (Shiri, 1999) was a high-budget thriller that depicted
the efforts of South Korean intelligence agents to foil the efforts of a
North Korean Special Forces unit with its deadly female assassin. Gonggongui jeog (Public Enemy, 2002), successful enough to spawn two
sequels (2005/2008), depicts a volatile corrupt cop who relentlessly
pursues an apparently upright businessman and family man whom he
suspects of being a psychopathic killer.
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Chan-wook Park’s bleak and violent trilogy, Sympathy for Mr.
Vengeance (2001), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
(2005), was also highly successful, especially Oldboy, which won the
Grand Prix award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Replete with flashbacks and brooding first-person narration, Oldboy is a dark, disturbing
tale of the victim-hero, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), an ordinary man
locked in a hotel room for 15 years without understanding his captor’s
motives, who finds he has been framed for his wife’s murder. He is
suddenly released and given five days to find out why, only to discover
even darker secrets in this bleak, compelling film.
SPANISH FILM NOIR. Film noir or cine negro had great difficulty in
establishing itself in Spain, a country that was predominantly rural and
ruled by a repressive fascist dictatorship, underpinned by inflexible
Catholicism. Spain lacked a tradition of indigenous hard-boiled crime
fiction, or even American translations, and American films noir were
treated with suspicion. A few low-budget urban thrillers (policíacas)—
including Brigada criminal (Crime Force, 1950) and Distrito quinto
(Fifth Precinct, 1957)—had occasional noir elements, while La corona
negra (The Black Crown, 1951) depicted a fallen, amnesiac woman
plagued by drink-induced flashbacks. Surcos (Furrows, 1951) was a
hybrid of Italian neo-realism and the American gangster film.
The first genuine Spanish noir was Juan Antonio Bardem’s Muerte
de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, aka Age of Infidelity, 1955), the story
of an adulterous couple, a paranoid, tormented male protagonist Juan
(Alberto Closas) and vengeful femme fatale, María José (Lucía Bosé),
whose relationship disintegrates after they kill a cyclist in their speeding black car. Bardem’s darkly lit tale weaves in a concern with the
past, so characteristic of Spanish noir, when Juan recognizes the spot
on which the cyclist died as a battlefield where he fought during the
Civil War. The cyclist’s death thus becomes part of his guilt at destroying the Republican armies. The dissident filmmaker Carlos Saura made
two noirs, Los golfos (The Delinquents, 1960) and La caza (The Hunt,
1965) to critique General Francisco Franco’s repressive regime, the latter depicting three troubled veterans who gather for rabbit shooting in
a desolate gulch that was a Civil War battlefield, an event that triggers
guilt, rivalries, and violence.
After Franco’s death in 1975 a Spanish neo-noir became possible,
partly based on the crime fiction boom of novela negra. In addition to
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being able to discuss openly sexual issues and illicit relationships, these
neo-noirs acknowledged the complexity of regional identities and analyzed the peculiarly Spanish theme of desencanto, the disenchantment
many felt after the hopes for democratic developments were not realized and state corruption came to light. El asesinato en el Comité Central (Murder in the Central Committee, 1981) deals with the changed
political landscape, specifically the reintegration of a newly legalized
Communist Party into political life. El arreglo (The Deal, 1983) tapped
into fears about the “reformed” forces of law and order, attitudes only
heightened after a failed coup in February 1981. In contradistinction
to other European film noirs, many Spanish neo-noirs have femalecentered narratives, a development that recognized the transformed role
of women. Both Adiós, pequeña (Goodbye, Little Girl, 1986) and Todo
por la pasta (All for the Dough, 1991) are set in Bilbao as a substitute
for New York, the former resembling Jagged Edge (1985), the second a
celebration of female solidarity, albeit in crime. Alejandro Amenábar’s
Tesis (Thesis, 1995) has a female protagonist who finds the snuff killer
she is seeking is a man to whom she is sexually attracted.
Retro-noir has a special place in Spanish cinema because it offers the
opportunity to explore a past that is uncomfortable and which could not
be addressed at the time. Vicente Aranda’s Tiempo del silencio (Time of
Silence, 1986) set in an ill lit, claustrophobic, and highly corrupt Madrid,
uncovers the unacknowledged 1950s. Si te dicen que caí (If They Tell
You That I Fell, 1989) revisited the Civil War, and Aranda’s celebrated
Amantes (Lovers, 1990), depicted the struggle between right- and leftwing forces through its story of the seduction of a weak man by a femme
fatale who persuades him to murder his fiancée. In Beltenebros (1991),
Darman (Terence Stamp), who executed a traitor in a clandestine Madrid Communist cell in the 1940s, has cause to question the victim’s
guilt when he returns to Madrid in 1962 to repeat the process, his mind
constantly flashing back to the events of the 1940s. Pedro Almodóvar’s
Carne trémula (Live Flesh, 1997), based on a novel by British crime
writer Ruth Rendell, also employs a complex flashback structure, shifting between past (the 1970s) and the present, in order to examine Francoism and the instabilities of memory and identity. Several of Almodóvar’s
other films have noir elements, notably Matador (1986) and ¡Átame! (Tie
Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990), which focus on destructive relationships,
and La mala educación (Bad Education, 2004), whose homme fatal,
Juan, is indebted to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley.
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Recent Spanish neo-noirs include Los horas del dia (The Hours of the
Day, 2003) about a disturbingly ordinary serial killer in the Barcelona
suburbs; El Lobo (2004), a political thriller; Hormigas en la boca (Ants
in the Mouth, 2005)—the title slang for “coming to a bad end”—set
in Fulgencio Batista’s repressive Cuba in the late 1950s, in which a
newly released political activist tries to track down his money and his
girlfriend amid the gangsters and corrupt politicians; and Solo quiero
caminar (Just Walking, 2008), a violent caper/heist noir.
SPILLANE, MICKEY (1918–2006). Mickey Spillane became one of the
world’s best-selling authors after World War II, whose books sold over
200 million copies. Spillane learned his craft writing for comic books
and then magazines and carried over that graphic, direct style into his
fiction. As the Cold War successor to the prewar hard-boiled writers,
Spillane’s distinction was to add more sex and to make the violence more
brutal and detailed. His serial private eye, Mike Hammer, is a toughtalking, hard-drinking, misogynistic bruiser, merging the investigator
with the vigilante in his right-wing and xenophobic hatred of “Reds”
wherever they may be found. Spillane’s first novel I, the Jury (1947)
was adapted in 1953 as a cheaply made “B” feature produced by Victor Saville, though graced by John Alton’s cinematography. Although
less sadistic than the novel, Harry Essex’s adaptation retained its basic
brutality, as Hammer (Biff Elliot) investigates the murder of his best
friend. Saville also produced My Gun Is Quick (1957), this time with
Robert Bray as a more world-weary Hammer. Saville directed another
Spillane adaptation, The Long Wait (1954), closer to the existentialism
and angst of noir, in which Anthony Quinn plays an amnesiac arrested
as a murder suspect who exposes the corruption of his hometown when
he tries to clear his name.
Ironically, in the most influential and celebrated Spillane adaptation,
Kiss Me Deadly (1955), director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.
I. Bezzerides, who both hated the original, turned Spillane’s world
inside out, exposing the chauvinism and brutality of Hammer. The
burly Spillane himself starred as Hammer in The Girl Hunters (1963),
a late noir made at MGM’s British studios, with Shirley Eaton as the
femme fatale. I, the Jury was remade in 1982, and Spillane’s work also
provided numerous noir television series, including Mickey Spillane’s
Mike Hammer (1984–86).
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STANWYCK, BARBARA (1907–1990). Barbara Stanwyck’s superlative, Oscar-nominated performance as Phyllis Dietrichson, the archetypal femme fatale, in Double Indemnity (1944) marked her as one of
the most iconic female performers in film noir. Stanwyck constructs a
character with an impenetrable hardness, whose harsh, insistent voice,
rigid body postures, steely smile, and unmoving blonde hair are the outward signs of an implacable ruthlessness, prepared to go to any lengths
to get her way. Only at the moment of her death does she display any
tenderness toward her victim Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), whom
she has treated as an expendable commodity. Stanwyck’s performance,
built on the character she had played in the noir precursor Baby Face
(1933), defined her subsequent noir roles as a tough, uncompromising
woman, determined to get on whatever the cost.
In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), she plays a ruthlessly
ambitious woman who harbors a guilty secret that drives her to dominate not only her weak husband Walter (Kirk Douglas) but also a whole
midwestern town. She played another heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number
(1948), who pays for her domineering destruction of another weak man
(Burt Lancaster) by death. It was another Oscar-nominated performance, requiring tremendous skill and technique in solo acting, for the
most part talking into a telephone in this adaptation of a celebrated radio
noir. Playing the title role in The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), Stanwyck was again hard and manipulative, but her character is presented
more sympathetically, confessing at her death that she had always been
two people: “All my life struggling, the good and the bad.” Stanwyck
played tough, ambitious, but also frustrated women in Fritz Lang’s
Clash by Night (1952) and her last noir Crime of Passion (1957). In the
latter, thwarted by the lack of drive of her policeman husband (Sterling
Hayden), she seduces and then kills his boss (Raymond Burr) in order
to advance her husband’s career.
Stanwyck’s other noirs are No Man of Her Own (1950), Jeopardy
(1953), Blowing Wild (1953), and Witness to Murder (1954).
STEINER, MAX (1888–1971). The Austrian-born Max Steiner, who became head of the Music Department at Warner Bros. in 1936, was one
of the most prolific of Hollywood composers. His practice of synchronizing musical effects very closely with events on screen, emphasizing
every action by music, was criticized by his detractors as excessive
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“mickey-mousing.” Steiner’s score for his first noir, Mildred Pierce
(1945), was one of his best, effectively combining the established lush,
late-romantic style with its large-scale symphonic motifs with more discordant notes, emphasizing the film’s hybrid status. Steiner’s score for
The Big Sleep (1946) showed his capacity to differentiate character: the
jazz rhythms for the wayward Carmen, agitated strings for her rational
sister Vivian. His swelling Wagnerian scores for the noir hybrid Pursued (1947) and for White Heat (1949) emphasized the tragic dimensions of their tales.
Other noirs: The Letter (1940), The Unfaithful (1947), Key Largo
(1948), Beyond the Forest (1949), Flamingo Road (1949), The Breaking Point (1950), Caged (1950), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), I
Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), and
Illegal (1955).
STERLING, JAN (1921–2004). Jan Sterling’s bleached hair, sullen pout,
and strident voice meant she specialized in playing hard-nosed women:
a gangster’s moll in Appointment with Danger (1951); Smoochie, one
of the hard-bitten convicts in the prison noir Caged (1950); the femme
fatale in Flesh and Fury (1952); or a scheming estate agent trying to
dispose of her rival (Joan Crawford) in Female on the Beach (1955).
Her best role came in Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951), in
which she plays the embittered wife of the man trapped underground
who colludes with reporter Kirk Douglas’s cynical machinations to
delay his rescue, sensing the opportunity to make money and escape the
mean life of running a roadside diner. As the scheme collapses, she effectively reveals the fear and emptiness behind her tough façade.
Sterling’s other noirs are Mystery Street (1950), Union Station
(1950), Split Second (1953), The Human Jungle (1954), and The Harder
They Fall (1956).
STEWART, PAUL (1908–1986). Paul Stewart was a highly regarded
character actor—a founding member of the Mercury Theatre Company
whose first film role was in Citizen Kane (1941)—who became typecast
as a suave, callous, and calculating villain in numerous noirs, beginning with Johnny Eager (1942), where he played a sinister criminal.
He played well-groomed, ruthless mobsters in several noirs, including
Kiss Me Deadly (1955). His most memorable role was in The Window
(1949), based on a Cornell Woolrich story, as the supposedly ordinary
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neighbor pursuing the child (Bobby Driscoll) who has seen him rob and
murder a drunken sailor. He starred in and occasionally directed some
episodes of noir television series, including Peter Gunn (1959–61).
Stewart’s other noirs are Champion (1949), Illegal Entry (1949), Edge
of Doom (1950), Walk Softly, Stranger (1950), Appointment with Danger
(1951), Deadline U.S.A. (1952), Loan Shark (1952), Chicago Syndicate
(1955), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), and In Cold Blood (1967).
STONE, SHARON (1958– ). Stone’s defining role was as the contemporary femme fatale, Catherine Trammel, in Basic Instinct (1992).
She reprised the character in the much delayed and long-awaited Basic
Instinct 2 (2006), set in a contemporary noir London of plateglass architecture, in which she manipulates and torments her new victim, psychiatrist David Glass (David Morrissey), who has been sent to diagnose
her. Stone had played a mysterious, inscrutable femme fatale in her first
noir Cold Steel (1987) but could play other roles, including a sexually
repressed woman in Scissors (1991), driven toward insanity by a doctor
trying to frame her for the murder of his wife’s lover. Stone was Oscarnominated for her performance as the attractive hustler and former prostitute, Ginger McKenna, who marries casino manager Sam Rothstein
(Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). Stone conveys
movingly how Ginger becomes trapped and alienated, taking refuge in
drug addiction, eventually dying alone of an overdose. She was also effective in Diabolique (1996), a remake of Les Diaboliques (The Devils,
1954), as the mistress of a cruel school principal (Chazz Palminteri),
who collaborates with his wife (Isabelle Adjani) in a carefully planned
and executed attempt to murder him in the Pittsburgh countryside.
Stone’s other noirs are Total Recall (1990), Diary of a Hitman (1991),
Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (1991), Year of the Gun (1991), The Specialist
(1994), and Gloria (1999). See also WOMEN.
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940). Often cited as the first
film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor was a hybrid of the horror genre
and the contemporary crime thriller, developed as a result of the decision of RKO’s Head of Production Leo Spitz to request producer Leo
Marcus, who ran the second-feature unit, to produce some topical “exploitation pictures.” Frank Partos’s story and screenplay are sub-Cornell Woolrich, depicting paranoid hero Michael Ward (John McGuire)
who partly narrates the story in stream-of-consciousness voice-over.
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Ward’s evidence convicts taxi driver Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.)
of a brutal murder. Beset by doubts over Briggs’s guilt, Ward dreams
that he is arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder of Albert Meng
(Charles Halton), his repulsive and interfering neighbor. In an extended
dream sequence, Stranger’s contemporary realism gives way to an
overt stylization, directly influenced by expressionism. In particular,
the abstract aesthetic of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) was the
basis for the design of the huge, distorted courtroom and condemned
cell by Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D’Agostino and for Nicholas
Musuraca’s severe chiaroscuro lighting where subjects are lit from
below, contorting features and objects. The dream deepens into a surreal nightmare, expertly orchestrated by director Boris Ingster who
was familiar with expressionism, as Ward sees the shadowy outline
of the trial judge transformed into a composite figure, scales of justice
in one hand, scythe in the other, a paranoid conflation of the law with
death. Ward is arrested, but his resourceful girlfriend Jane (Margaret
Tallichet) locates the real killer, a mysterious stranger (Peter Lorre),
a psychotic trying to avoid being taken back to an asylum who darts
in and out of the deep, threatening shadows. As a relatively unpublicized “B” feature, Stranger made little impact and it thus anticipated
rather than directly influenced the development of film noir. See also
VISUAL STYLE.
STRASSENFILM (STREET FILM). The Strassenfilm (street film)
was the second major influence on film noir emanating from Weimar
Germany. It differs from expressionism because it derived from Neue
Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, which replaced expressionism’s
Gothic scenarios with the social realities of contemporary German life.
The Strassenfilm cycle, 1923–30, was initiated by Karl Grune’s Die
Strasse (The Street, 1923), with its prototypical descent of a respectable,
middle-aged, middle-class protagonist, bored with bourgeois confinement, into the overcharged, heightened landscape—thrilling, fascinating, but dangerous—of city streets at night, with its deep, threatening
shadows and flashing lights. This proto-noir urban milieu of dreary
slums or tenements is populated by the dregs of city life: gamblers,
thieves, and con men, but above all the femme fatale who embodies the
temptation and threat of illicit desire. Other key examples include G. W.
Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925), set in Vienna
in a period of hyperinflation; Bruno Rahn’s Dirnentragödie (Tragedy of
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the Street, aka Tragedy of the Whore, 1927); Joe May’s Asphalt (1929),
the compelling tale of a young policeman who falls in love with a prostitute; Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Trip to Happiness, 1928); and the most famous, Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue
Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), with Marlene Dietrich as the nightclub
singer Lola Lola, the archetypal siren singing in the first German talkie.
See also GERMAN FILM NOIR.
SULLIVAN, BARRY (1912–1994). Tall, well-groomed, and goodlooking, Barry Sullivan could play tough guys, as in his gangster
turned scourge in The Miami Story (1954), but was more usually suave
schemers—as in Suspense (1946), Framed (1947), or No Questions
Asked (1951). He also played sympathetic if weak-willed victims in
Jeopardy (1953) and in Loophole (1954), where he is hounded by a
special investigator (Charles McGraw) who believes he is guilty of
collusion in a robbery. He was effective in a more complex role as
Shubunka, the low-level hood in The Gangster (1947), an existential
antihero who cannot find a meaning in his existence. In the underrated
Cause for Alarm! (1951), Sullivan played an insanely possessive suburban husband who turns his wife’s ordered world into a living nightmare. Sullivan also appeared in several noir television series, including
Police Story (1973) and The Streets of San Francisco (1972–77).
Sullivan’s other noirs are Tension (1949), Payment on Demand
(1951), The Unknown Man (1951), Cry of the Hunted (1953), Miami
Story (1954), and Julie (1956).
SYLOS, PAUL (1900–1976). Paul Sylos’s career as an art director was
unusual in that he worked for several different studios. His first work
on film noir was for Monogram—When Strangers Marry (1944) and
Suspense (1946)—his designs compromised by the minuscule budgets.
He had slightly greater scope on the Paramount “B” feature Fear in the
Night (1947), an adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story that features a
terrifying room composed entirely of mirrored doors. Sylos also worked
on the more ambitious remake, Nightmare (1956), set in New Orleans
where the exotic bayous and the nocturnal jazz bars on Bourbon Street
showcase the inventiveness of Sylos’s designs and his creative use of
space. His best work was for Max Ophüls on Caught (1949), where he
creates the shadowy, oppressive mansion in which the obsessive recluse
(Robert Ryan) traps his fearful wife.
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Sylos’s other noirs are The Great Flamarion (1945), Jealousy (1945),
Fear (1946), They Made Me a Killer (1946), The Pretender (1947),
The Gangster (1947), Ruthless (1948), Red Light (1949), Danger Zone
(1951), 99 River Street (1953), and The Big Caper (1957). See also
VISUAL STYLE.
–T–
TARANTINO, QUENTIN (1963– ). Quentin Tarantino was the 1990s
celebrity writer-director, closely associated with neo-noir. As a “film
geek” with an enormous knowledge of all forms of cinema, Tarantino’s
films are highly allusive, promiscuously mingling references not only
to Hollywood genres but also Hong Kong action cinema, spaghetti
westerns, Italian pulp horror (notably Mario Bava), and the French
New Wave. Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart in
homage to the fresh, improvisatory playfulness of Jean-Luc Godard’s
early films, which also characterizes his own filmmaking. Tarantino
populates his films with compulsive talkers, preoccupied with the telling distinctions that mark them as pulp connoisseurs. His first noir,
Reservoir Dogs (1992), made for only $1.2 million, established his
reputation by its inventive updating of the caper/heist noir and its
extreme violence. It was influenced by the Hong Kong film noir Longhu Fengyun (City on Fire, 1987), and the idea of using color-coded
criminals came from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).
But Reservoir Dogs had a deeper debt to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), and Lawrence Tierney’s crime boss provided a further
link to classic noir. In a complex plot, intercut with various characters’
flashbacks, Tarantino concentrates on the preparation and protracted
aftermath, not the crime itself.
The fractured chronology, multiple allusions, and set-piece scenes
of Reservoir Dogs were further developed in Pulp Fiction (1994),
Tarantino’s most successful and influential noir. In a change of tempo
and direction, Jackie Brown (1997), based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum
Punch (1995), was a character study, taking its tone and mood as well
as much of the storyline from Leonard but crucially making the heroine
Jackie, played by “blaxploitation” icon Pam Grier, black, not white. In
this leisurely paced, elegiac film noir, Tarantino subtly delineates the
hopes and fears of a middle-aged woman in a dead-end job who sees
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her big chance to make her getaway with $500,000 of stolen money.
Although she develops a tender relationship with bail bondsman Max
Cherry (Robert Forster), another middle-aged figure desperate to change
his life, he hesitates too long after she urges him to join her in flying
to Spain. Jackie, saddened but not defeated, drives off to the sounds of
“Across 110th Street” on the car stereo, which celebrates breaking out
of the ghetto. Jackie Brown was an answer to Tarantino’s detractors
that he possessed an adolescent sensibility, adored clever talk and edgy
violence (the film is less violent than Leonard’s novel), was incapable
of understanding women, and harbored racist attitudes.
However, Kill Bill, an epic revenge drama starring Uma Thurman
that was originally conceived as one film but released in two separate
“volumes” (in autumn 2003 and spring 2004) because of its running
time of approximately four hours, was a return to stylized ultraviolence.
It makes numerous allusions to Hong Kong martial arts movies, Chinese
“wuxia” films, Japanese samurai movies, especially Lady Snowdrop
(1973), Italian spaghetti westerns, “blaxploitation” films, and also
François Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black,
1968). Tarantino wrote and directed two episodes of the noir television
series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2005 and was a “special guest
director” on Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), directing the car chase
sequence with Clive Owen and Benicio del Toro.
TAXI DRIVER (1976). Taxi Driver, highly successful on its initial release, has become one of the most celebrated and influential neo-noirs.
It fused director Martin Scorsese’s Italian-American Catholicism with
its penchant for baroque spectacle with the puritanical Dutch-American
Calvinism of screenwriter Paul Schrader and was informed by their
wide knowledge of European and American cinema and culture. Fyodor
Dostoevsky’s anonymous narrator in Notes from Underground, John
Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), Irving Lerner’s hit
man in Murder by Contract (1958), and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket
(1959) all provided prototypes for Taxi Driver’s alienated antihero
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a troubled Vietnam veteran. Travis
conforms to Schrader’s conception of the late noir protagonist who
has lost his integrity and stable identity, now prey to “psychotic action
and suicidal impulse.” Travis’s diary was based on the one kept by
Arthur Bremer that was serialized in newspapers and published as An
Assassin’s Diary in 1974. Travis, angry and inarticulate—“I got some
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bad ideas going on in my head”—is the quintessential noir drifter, a
paranoid, psychotic insomniac driving his cab endlessly through New
York’s nighttime streets. His intermittent voice-over narration haltingly
tracks his deteriorating mental condition, expressed in his increasingly
intense misanthropy and bewilderment that fuels his determination to
purge the city’s sleaze and corruption.
Travis’s alienation makes him incapable of sustaining a relationship
with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the virginal Madonna dressed in white.
He can relax with Iris (Jodie Foster), the 12-year-old prostitute in her
hot pants, but he is unsure what he wants from her. In the penultimate
scene he “rescues” her from the pimp (Harvey Keitel) in what becomes
an escalating bloody massacre of the occupants of the bordello. In a
deeply ironic ending, this psychotic slaughter is rendered heroic by the
media and Iris’s grateful father, who congratulates Travis on returning
their daughter to them. In the coda, Travis is once again in his cab,
looking as he did in the opening scene, but driving Betsy, who shows a
far greater interest in this media celebrity. Travis’s smile is enigmatic,
giving the impression that although temporarily in control “any second
the time bomb might go off again” in his unappeased alienation.
Taxi Driver’s visual style deliberately hovers between dream and
reality, subjective and objective perspectives, what Scorsese referred to
as “that sense of being almost awake” and “a cross between a Gothic
horror and the New York Daily News.” The jump-cuts and edited
zooms, the frenetic handheld camerawork, apparent randomness of the
drifting narrative, and the jagged editing were all inspired by the French
New Wave directors. But Taxi Driver also shows a profound debt to
expressionism and classic noir. Cinematographer Michael Chapman
uses a wide-angle lens to capture Travis’s distorted view of the glare
and tawdry glamour of the neon signs in their saturated primary colors,
or the strange eruptions of smoke through the manhole covers. Bernard
Herrmann’s moody jazz score provides a further link with classic noir
and Alfred Hitchcock. See also MEN.
TAYLOR, ROBERT (1911–1969). Usually associated with romantic
and action-adventure roles, Robert Taylor made six noirs for MGM,
playing against type. He was a gangster in Johnny Eager (1942), whose
death on a wet, dark street was quintessential noir. In Undercurrent
(1946), directed by Vincente Minnelli, Taylor played an homme fatal,
who has killed in order to assume credit for inventions and is fearful his
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brother (Robert Mitchum) will betray him. High Wall (1947) offered
Taylor his most expressive role, as an amnesiac troubled veteran arrested for the murder of his wife. In The Bribe (1949), Taylor played
an American federal agent, but he was more interesting and effective
playing corrupt characters in Rogue Cop (1954) and Nicholas Ray’s
Party Girl (1958).
TELEVISION SERIES. During the 1950s, the impetus of the postwar
American film noir cycle migrated to television series, and numerous
creative personnel moved across, including John Brahm, Jonathan
Latimer, Ida Lupino, and Dick Powell. Although there are profound
similarities in style and subject matter between noir films and television
series—in particular a shared concern to depict the seamy recesses of
the noir city and the depiction of the lonely, troubled antihero whose
identity is under threat—because television series are ongoing their storylines are less fatalistic than their film cousins, if no less doom-laden
and angst-ridden.
Noir television series began with China Smith (1952–55) starring
Dan Duryea but became more prominent in the late 1950s when the
film cycle was in decline. Johnny Staccato (1959–60) is a celebrated
example, starring John Cassavetes (who occasionally directed) as a
New York jazz pianist turned private eye, trying to help those who ask
for his aid in a corrupt and duplicitous world. The voice-over, lighting,
expressionist mise-en-scène, and the haunted, world-weary Staccato
were a throwback to 1940s noir. By contrast, the private eye (Craig Stevens) of Blake Edwards’s Peter Gunn (1959–61) looked ahead toward
the suave “cool” of James Bond. The Man with a Camera (1958–59)
starred Charles Brosnan as a Weegee-style crime photographer, a
lonely, volatile figure, often perilously close to being sucked into the
world he captures on his camera. Others, notably Dragnet (1951–59),
inspired by Anthony Mann’s He Walked by Night (1949), and Naked
City (1958–63), indebted to the 1948 film The Naked City, continued
the tradition of the noir semidocumentary. The Fugitive (1963–67) had
a similar style, but for 120 episodes David Janssen, who had starred in
Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1957–60), played Dr. Richard
Kimble, the archetypal noir man-on-the-run, falsely accused of murdering his wife, who endlessly searches for the one-armed man whom he
thinks is responsible. Unusually, the series had a two-part finale, “The
Judgment,” in which Kimble was exonerated. The Fugitive was remade
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in 1993 as a feature film starring Harrison Ford. Occasionally, as in The
Twilight Zone (1959–64), television noir inhabited other genres, in this
case science fiction.
Noir television series were rare in the 1970s, though Janssen starred
in Harry O (1974–76), but returned strongly in the 1980s, notably with
Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (1984–89) and Crime Story (1986–88).
In the latter, set in a rundown, racially fractured Chicago of the 1960s,
Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) is a police lieutenant in charge of the
Major Crime Unit whose investigations into the criminal empire of
his nemesis Ray Luca (Anthony John Denison) constantly require him
to bend the rules. Immersed in the violence and corruption, Torello,
haunted by flashbacks and nightmares, is always on the verge of losing
his moral sense, even his own identity.
Miami Vice had a similar central theme; its vice squad policemen
Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael
Thomas) are also haunted by the past. Crockett is a Vietnam veteran,
and Tubbs is driven by trying to find his brother’s murderer. Both struggle to maintain a precarious balance between their actual identities and
their undercover masks. In the final season, Crockett’s identity seems to
merge with his undercover persona, Sonny Burnett, and he must come
to terms with the killer inside him. Shot on film rather than videotape,
Miami Vice broke new ground aesthetically, depicting a fast-paced,
ultramodern world in which most of the color was bleached out, leaving a seductive but unstable landscape of shimmering white beaches,
glistening office complexes, and pastel waterside mansions. This was
complemented by an innovative soundtrack blending reggae and pop
music that was more akin to a music video than film noir. This highly
influential series helped popularize neo-noir.
The 1990s began with David Lynch’s surrealist cult series Twin
Peaks (1990–91), whose complex generic hybridity—an allusive and
unstable blend of black comedy, horror, mysterious supernatural occurrences, and Lynch’s brand of surrealism—was highly influential, inspiring The X-Files (1993–2002), in which Federal Bureau of Investigation
agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate cases involving paranormal phenomena. The X-Files
producer, Chris Carter, was also responsible for Millennium (1996–99),
with a deliberately older investigator, freelance forensic profiler Frank
Black (Lance Henriksen), who has the unique ability to see the world
through the eyes of serial killers and compulsive murderers. Night
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Stalker (2005–06) had a similar mixture of sci-fi, horror, and film noir.
In Angel (1999–2004), a darker spin-off from the supernatural horror
series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the central character (David Boreanaz)
is a 200-year-old vampire who investigates the underworld of demons
and supernatural beings in a transformed Los Angeles.
The Sopranos (1999–2007), created and produced by David Chase
and inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), depicted the life
of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) who suffers
from a range of family and work problems revealed during his frequent
therapy sessions and in the numerous dream sequences that were a distinctive feature of this multi-award–winning series. Also highly popular
was 24 (2001– ) in which Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, an investigator for the Los Angeles Counter Terrorist Unit, an existentialist hero
battling with anxieties about loss of identity and meaninglessness in a
series that played on the fears of the “terrorist threat” following 9/11. Its
innovation was to present the investigation as if in real time, with each
series charting a day in the action, criss-crossing between the predicaments of various characters.
24 is one of a number of ongoing, internationally popular noir series—
others include Law & Order (1990– ) and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
(2000– ) featuring a team of Las Vegas police forensic scientists, which
spawned CSI: Miami (2002– ) and CSI: New York (2004– ). The huge
success of these series demonstrates that television continues to be an
important medium for the exploration of noir ideas and themes.
Other series include: The Edge of Night (1956–84), Mickey Spillane’s
Mike Hammer (1956–59), The Untouchables (1959–63), The Outsider
(1968–69), The Streets of San Francisco (1972–77), Police Story (1973),
Kolchak: the Night Stalker (1974–75), The Rockford Files (1974–80),
Hill Street Blues (1981–87), Moonlighting (1985–89), Spenser for
Hire (1985–88), Wiseguy (1987–90), Magnum P.I. (1980–88), Philip
Marlowe, Private Eye (1983), Gabriel’s Fire (1990–91), Nightmare
Café (1992), Fallen Angels (1993–95), L.A.P.D. Blue (1993–2005),
Boomtown (2002–03), The Shield (2002– ), The Wire (2002–08), Carnivàle (2003–05), Veronica Mars (2004–07), Dexter (2006–08), and
Southland (2009– ).
THE THIRD MAN (1949). The Third Man, one of the most successful
and influential films noir, was an international coproduction, an uneasy
alliance between Alexander Korda, head of London Films, and the
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American independent producer David O. Selznick. Korda was keen to
have a story set in Occupied Vienna and to reuse the creative partnership
of Graham Greene and director Carol Reed after the success of their
previous collaboration, The Fallen Idol (U.S. title The Lost Illusion,
1948). Selznick supplied the American leads, Orson Welles and Joseph
Cotten, which necessitated Greene’s two English ex-public schoolboy
friends becoming American buddies. As the last remaining conduit between East and West, Vienna was a magnet for smugglers, refugees, and
spies. The opening voice-over (by Reed), evincing the sardonic black
humor that pervades the whole film, plays up the contrast between the
“glamour and easy charm” of prewar Vienna and the divided, devastated postwar city in which everyone is involved in some kind of racket
and where amateurs “can’t stay the course like a professional.” Robert
Krasker’s bravura cinematography used extensive backlighting, extreme wide angles, frequent tilted compositions, and night-for-night
shooting to create a nightmare city where nothing is what it seems.
At its center is the enigmatic figure of Harry Lime (Welles), whose
faked death allows him to continue his career as a duplicitous racketeer
dealing in adulterated penicillin, his habitual haunt the labyrinthine
sewer system that runs underneath the city. Welles’s mesmerizing performance creates a charming, charismatic, but amoral figure, the dark
Doppelgänger of his boyhood friend Holly Martins (Cotten), a stolid,
dull-witted pulp novelist whose black-and-white morality is hopelessly
inadequate. In their central confrontation aboard one of the cars on the
Riesenrad’s Great Wheel, with its unstable, constantly shifting perspective, Holly receives his brutal education in the existential postwar sensibility, a world without heroes where anything is permitted. If Holly is
finally convinced of Harry’s villainy by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the beautiful refugee Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) remains loyal to
the man with whom she fell in love in what is a movingly tragic relationship. Reed’s accomplished direction is nowhere more in evidence than
in the superbly orchestrated sequence in which Harry is chased along
the sewers (brilliantly designed by Vincent Korda) and eventually shot
by Holly in a complex act of renunciation and betrayal. In the final
scene, set in the cemetery where Harry has been finally buried, Anna
walks right past the waiting Holly, a satisfyingly bleak ending, insisted
on by both Reed and Selznick against Greene’s more conventionally
romantic conclusion in which Holly and Anna were to be united, which
preserves the ironic skepticism that informs the whole film.
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The Third Man also benefited from the distinctive zither music of Anton Karas—a bold choice by Reed to forgo an orchestrated score—that
ranges from light and relaxed to violent and terrifying. The subsequent
record was a smash hit and contributed to the film’s popularity with
the public and critics. The Third Man won the Grand Prize at the 1949
Cannes Festival and Reed, Krasker, and editor Oswald Hafenrichter
were all nominated for Academy Awards, Krasker winning. Characteristically, Selznick reedited the American version, including a redubbed
opening narration (by Cotten). Selznick makes Holly a more orthodox
hero, emphasizing the legitimacy of the American presence in Vienna,
thereby undercutting the vertiginous ambivalence that pervades the British print, now recognized as the definitive version.
THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). This Gun for Hire was one of the most
significant early noirs, the best of Paramount’s initial experiments with
a new visual style and “tough” subject matter. It was adapted from
Graham Greene’s 1936 thriller A Gun for Sale, which offered the first
detailed delineation of the modern urban hit man, a new antihero that
expressed the feelings of doom, disillusionment, and social unease in a
society poised on the brink of war. Greene’s hired killer, Phillip Raven,
is an unattractive figure, his harelip constantly emphasized to explain
his resentment, his fear of women, and his cold, calculating ruthlessness, but he elicits some sympathy through Greene’s delineation of his
destructively dysfunctional family and his longing to be released from
his recurring nightmares.
Paramount acquired the rights to A Gun for Sale in 1937 but did
not develop a script until 1941, after Warner Bros. had released The
Maltese Falcon. Screenwriters W. R. Burnett and Albert Maltz retain
much of Greene’s novel, including the explicit Freudianism, but they
switch the action from London to the American West Coast and turn
the villains into Nazi fifth columnists selling chemical formulae to the
Japanese—This Gun for Hire was released after Pearl Harbor. However,
the key difference was to make Raven an attractive figure. His harelip
is replaced by a deformed wrist smashed by his stepmother, and he is
played by the handsome Alan Ladd in his first major role.
After completing a hit for the egregious epicure Willard Gates (Laird
Cregar), Raven finds he has been double-crossed and vows to get even.
He is befriended by Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a nightclub singer
and girlfriend of Raven’s pursuer Lieutenant Crane (Robert Preston),
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who has been enlisted as a government agent. Director Frank Tuttle
keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, but in order to save money
and comply with wartime restrictions, art designer Hans Dreier and
cinematographer John F. Seitz use odd angles, mirrors, low-key lighting, and fog-bound exteriors to disguise the relative economy of the
sets. Their innovative work is most evident in several set pieces, notably the freight yard at night where Raven and Ellen are hiding and
from which Raven makes his daring escape, darting in and out of the
pools of intense light from the police searchlights. Seitz’s expressionist photography helps create Raven’s feelings of schizophrenia and
entrapment by shooting him from low-angles with shafts of light falling
across his face and body. The ending is less bleak than Greene’s, with
Raven showing his love for Ellen by complying with her request to get
a confession from the villains, even at the cost of his own life. See also
VISUAL STYLE.
THOMPSON, JIM (1906–1977). Thompson was an unsuccessful screenwriter whose career was blighted by the blacklist. During his lifetime,
Thompson’s bleak, uncompromising, and despairing novels that dwell
on characters’ interior thoughts made him a difficult proposition to
adapt, even for film noir. Neo-noir directors have rediscovered his
work and there have been various adaptations, beginning with The
Getaway (1972), in which Thompson’s own screenplay was rejected
in favor of Walter Hill’s upbeat action script; the 1994 remake was
slightly closer to Thompson’s original. The Killer Inside Me (1976),
from the 1952 novel, was a genuine, if somewhat ham-fisted, attempt
to render Thompson’s sensibility, with Stacy Keach as Lou Ford, an affable small-town sheriff, aware that he is “split down the middle” and
unable to control his murderous impulses. Director Burt Kennedy uses
flashbacks, voice-overs, chiaroscuro lighting, mirror reflections, and
distorted, repetitive images from the past to convey Lou’s condition.
Even bleaker was Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979), adapted from A
Hell of a Woman (1954), which had been published in the Série Noire
series in 1967, proof of Thompson’s high standing in France. Thompson’s Kentucky is transposed to dismal, nondescript Parisian suburbs,
and Patrick Dewaere gives a mesmerizing performance as a down-atheel door-to-door salesman gradually transmuting into a schizophrenic
murderer. Pop. 1280 (1964) was adapted into Coup de Torchon (Clean
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Slate, 1981) directed by Bernard Tavernier, the action transferred from
the American South to colonial West Africa.
Thompson’s reputation underwent a revival in America, and there
were three adaptations in quick succession: The Kill-Off (1989), After
Dark, My Sweet (1990), and The Grifters (1990). The first was a lowbudget independent film directed by Maggie Greenwald, set in a decaying amusement park in a dead-end New Jersey seaside town, which
uses multiple viewpoints to convey how each of the various narrators
are trapped in their personal hells. After Dark, directed by James Foley,
starred Jason Patrick as “Kid” Collins, a brain-damaged ex-boxer
struggling to make sense of his existence and the deeper meaning of
the kidnapping scheme he has been sucked into. The intermittent firstperson narration and complex time shifts make this a challenging but
absorbing film. By contrast, Stephen Frears’s The Grifters presents
the action straightforwardly, using Thompson’s hard-boiled dialogue
often verbatim. The volatile, disturbing triangle between small-time
con-man Roy (John Cusack), his girlfriend and partner Myra (Annette
Bening), and his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) is powerfully realized, and Donald E. Westlake’s adaptation reproduces Thompson’s
existential bleakness.
An episode of the noir television series Fallen Angels (1993), adapted
from “The Frightening Frammis,” was authentic Thompson, but Hit Me
(1996), from A Swell-Looking Babe (1954), failed to capture the despair
or the dark humor of the original. Much more effective was This World,
then the Fireworks in 1997, directed by Michael Oblowitz, who uses a
surrealistic, Gothic style to render the strange, distorted world of Marty
Lakewood (Billy Zane) locked into a destructive incestuous relationship
with his sister Carol (Gina Gershon).
TIERNEY, GENE (1920–1991). Although Tierney appeared in Josef von
Sternberg’s noir precursor The Shanghai Gesture (1941), it was Otto
Preminger’s Laura (1944) that made her an important noir icon as the
incarnation of the ethereal, enigmatic, and utterly desirable woman.
She was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Leave Her to Heaven
(1945), a rare color noir in which she played an insanely jealous and
possessive wife whose husband (Cornel Wilde) resembles her late
father to whom she was devoted. Tierney’s powerful and convincing
portrayal was a notable study in an all-consuming obsession, her beauty
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blank and impenetrable. She was the typical victim heroine in the
Gothic noir Dragonwyck (1946) and in Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949),
in which a bogus psychologist (José Ferrer) tries to convince her she
committed a murder he had performed. Her later noir roles in Night and
the City (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), her third with Preminger, and Black Widow (1954) were bland and underwritten, a poor use
of her talents. See also WOMEN.
TIERNEY, LAWRENCE (1919–2002). Lawrence Tierney made his
name in the title role of Dillinger (1945) and went on to star in several
“B” feature films noir, mainly as psychopathic killers. His angular
handsomeness, thin lips, and stone-faced expression were perfect as the
ruthless villain in The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947). He was even more
memorable in Born to Kill (1947), in which he plays Sam Wild, a morose and moody murderer engaged in a perverse and fiercely destructive
relationship with Helen Trent (Claire Trevor). He had similar roles as
a crime boss in Shakedown (1950) and a pathological criminal in The
Hoodlum (1951); even his policemen in Bodyguard (1948) and Female
Jungle (1955) were unstable, volatile characters. He played crime boss
Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino’s calculated
attempt to link his caper/heist film with classic noir.
Tierney’s other noirs are San Quentin (1946), Prizzi’s Honor (1985),
and 2 Days in the Valley (1996).
TIOMKIN, DIMITRI (1894–1979). The Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin became a highly respected and prolific composer in Hollywood
from 1930 onward. His scoring tended toward the lush and sweeping,
but he was adaptable enough to compose a dozen noirs, including
D.O.A. (1950), for which his music is insistent and ominous. He worked
twice on noirs by Alfred Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and
Strangers on a Train (1951).
Tiomkin’s other noirs are When Strangers Marry (1944), Dillinger (1945), The Dark Mirror (1946), The Long Night (1947), Red
Light (1949), Guilty Bystander (1950), The Steel Trap (1952), Angel
Face (1953), and Jeopardy (1953).
TOTTER, AUDREY (1918– ). An attractive blonde with a distinctive
low voice, Audrey Totter could play both femme fatales and resourceful women with equal effectiveness. She portrayed capable profession-
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als in Lady in the Lake (1947) and High Wall (1947), but she was also
effective as an archetypal spider woman in Tension (1949) and as the
long-suffering wife in The Set-Up (1949). An interesting role came in
Alias Nick Beal (1949) as the pawn of Beal (Ray Milland), a modern
incarnation of the devil, which allowed her to be both manipulative and
sympathetic, a role she also played in A Bullet for Joey (1955).
Totter’s other noirs are Main Street After Dark (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Unsuspected (1947), Under the
Gun (1951), The Sellout (1952), Man in the Dark (1953), and Women’s
Prison (1955).
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). There were no great expectations of Touch
of Evil, an adaptation of a pulp novel, Badge of Evil, by actor-director
Orson Welles, whose star had dimmed. It was shot mostly on location
at Venice, west of Los Angeles, with its faux-Italianate colonnades
and canals. Venice doubled as Los Robles, a border town between the
United States and Mexico, not fully subject to the laws of either country,
where the boundaries between right and wrong, reality and nightmare,
sanity and madness are constantly blurred. At its heart is the racial and
cultural clash between the corrupt cop, police captain Hank Quinlan
(Welles)—a grotesque figure, with his vast paunch, pronounced limp,
and half-closed eyes, who routinely plants evidence to convict a suspect and who is eaten away by his failure to find his wife’s killer—and
upright, incorruptible Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Charlton
Heston), whose faith in rational systems blinds him to the deeper meaning of events. Vargas seeks to vindicate the young Mexican, Sanchez,
whom Quinlan has framed for the murder of an American businessman
with which the film opens.
Touch of Evil is a deliberately confusing, disorientating film, with
Welles orchestrating a calculated opacity that contributes to the sense
of waking nightmare throughout. The fluidity of the famous crane shot
that occupies the first three minutes of the film does not establish a clear
sense of space but rather a swirling, confusing sequence of disconnected
actions that ends in an explosion that happens off camera. Throughout, Welles encouraged cameraman Russell Metty to use extreme
low-angles or tilted compositions to disorientate the viewer; Metty’s
wide-angle lens distorted figures and buildings. Touch of Evil’s baroque
visual style, with its high-contrast chiaroscuro, is both intensely claustrophobic and agoraphobic, oscillating disconcertingly between the two
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because Welles dispenses with master shots or reaction shots that might
securely orientate the viewer.
In several key scenes the action takes on a surreal, oneiric quality
that is horrific. After Vargas’s wife Susie (Janet Leigh) is pumped full
of drugs (and possibly raped) by the teenage gang who descend on her
isolated motel, she wakes to find herself in a seedy hotel room where
the pop-eyed figure of the dead Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) lolls hideously over the rail at the bottom of her bed. Grandi, enlisted by Quinlan
to disgrace Vargas, was strangled by Quinlan in an earlier, unnerving
sequence, the action lit intermittently by a flashing neon light. In the
final scene, Vargas and Quinlan confront each other, but Quinlan is
betrayed by his sidekick Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), who has realized how corrupt Quinlan has become. Each kills the other in the final
severance of their long partnership, with Quinlan falling backward into
the garbage-strewn waters beneath the creaking oil derricks that pump
inexorably. Vargas is reunited with Susie, but the emphasis falls not
on his triumph but on Quinlan’s tragic destruction, with the inscrutable
Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) providing his epitaph.
After completion, a nervous Universal studio reedited and partly reshot the film and gave it minimal publicity and circuit bookings as the
lower half of a double bill. After being celebrated by French critics and
enjoying a two-year run in Paris (1959–60), Touch of Evil has gradually
become accepted as a noir masterpiece. A longer version (108 minutes
as opposed to the original 95), discovered in 1975, was released in 1976.
A third version has been edited by Walter Murch, who attempted to follow the instructions contained in Welles’s 58-page memo to Universal,
omitting reshot scenes (by Harry Keller) where these were not absolutely necessary. This version had a theatrical release in 1998 before
becoming available on DVD.
TOURNEUR, JACQUES (1904–1977). Jacques Tourneur acted as assistant director on his father Maurice Tourneur’s French sound films
before going to Hollywood in 1934. His formative influence was Val
Lewton, for whom Tourneur directed three films—Cat People (1942),
I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943)—that
anticipate many of the preoccupations and visual style of his films noir.
A subtle and meticulous director, Tourneur’s style is suggestive and
understated, drawn to complex, ambiguous stories that reflect the protagonists’ own doubts about their motivations, and even their identities.
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Experiment Perilous (1944), a Gothic noir set in turn-of-the-century
New England, starred Hedy Lamarr as the imperiled heroine trapped by
her insanely possessive husband (Paul Lukas). Out of the Past (1947)
also emphasized entrapment, with Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) unable to escape his past. Berlin Express (1948) was a noir hybrid, part
melodrama about neo-Nazis attempting to silence a famous resistance
fighter (Lukas) trying to reunify Germany, a documentary about conditions in Germany immediately after the war (the unit spent seven weeks
shooting in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin), and a characteristically Tourneurian film about terror, doubt, and failure.
In the British film noir Circle of Danger (1951), produced by Joan
Harrison, Ray Milland investigates the mystery of his brother’s death
in a British army command mission in Brittany in 1944. Tourneur
emphasizes the ambiguity and shifting motivations of those involved.
Nightfall (1957), adapted from a David Goodis novel, explores the
paranoias and melancholy fatalism of Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray), chased
by gangsters and suspected by the police of murdering his friend. Tourneur orchestrates a subdued, delicate film about an Everyman sucked
into nightmarish events, the plot revealed gradually over the course of
the film in sporadic flashbacks.
Tourneur made some distinguished episodes of noir television series,
notably “Into the Night” (1955) for The General Electric Theatre and
“Night Call” (1963) for the Twilight Zone.
TREVOR, CLAIRE (1910–2000). Claire Trevor’s film noir roles exploited her ability to be both vulnerable and hard. In Street of Chance
(1942), adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel, she played a femme
fatale capable of deceit and murder but also of warm emotion. She was
colder and more calculating in Murder, My Sweet (1944) as the sexy
Mrs. Grayle/Velma, a performance that, along with Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), defined the
femme fatale type. She reprised the role in Johnny Angel (1945), but she
was given a more sympathetic role in Crack-Up (1946) as a newspaperwoman who helps the victim-hero (Pat O’Brien) clear his name. In Born
to Kill (1947), she is a calculating widow, Helen Trent, attracted to the
violent and vicious Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) against her better
judgement in a powerful and dark story of doomed lust. As Pat, Trevor
narrates Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), constructing a deeply
moving portrait of a woman who knows that her love for Joe (Dennis
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O’Keefe) is constantly thwarted by her middle-class rival Ann (Marsha
Hunt). Her powerlessness to alter the fateful turn of events lends the
drama a tragic dimension. Her most famous, Oscar-winning, role was
in Key Largo (1948) as Gaye Dawn, a washed-up, alcoholic nightclub
singer, abused and humiliated by the sadistic gangster Johnny Rocco
(Edward G. Robinson).
Trevor’s other noirs are Crossroads (1942), Borderline (1950), and
Hoodlum Empire (1952). See also WOMEN.
TROUBLED VETERANS. Trained to kill but left rootless by their military service, returning veterans represented a major social problem after
the end of World War II. They were often disaffected and insecure,
unable to readjust to peace, and frequently exhibited an array of psychological problems. It is therefore unsurprising that the troubled veteran
became a central figure in the films noir of the immediate postwar period, most notably in Crossfire (1947), which contained the widest range
of maladjusted returnees and was set in the transition period before full
demobilization. The Blue Dahlia (1946), Raymond Chandler’s only
original screenplay, featured three disillusioned wartime comrades.
Their leader Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) finds his wife has been
unfaithful, and one of his buddies “Buzz” Wanchek (William Bendix)
is accused of murdering Johnny’s wife while suffering from a blackout
caused by his war wound.
Similarly unsettled and unpredictable figures, often subject to bouts
of amnesia, occur in Deadline at Dawn (1946), Somewhere in the Night
(1946), The Guilty (1947), High Wall (1947), The Crooked Way (1949),
and Undertow (1949). Bill Saunders (Burt Lancaster) in Kiss the
Blood off My Hands (1948) is a particularly unstable version: his long
incarceration as a prisoner of war has left him embittered, with shattered
nerves and a furious temper. After he accidentally kills a bar owner in a
fit of rage, Saunders becomes the prey to blackmailers and the denizens
of a nocturnal London populated by outcasts and criminals.
Disgruntled veterans are easy prey for gangsters: in Nobody Lives
Forever (1946), John Garfield plays a disaffected ex-soldier sucked
into criminal activities; The Chase (1946) has Robert Cummings as a
down-at-the-heel veteran who slides into a corrupting relationship with
a gangster (Steve Cochran); or The Bribe (1949) and Slattery’s Hurricane (1949), in which John Hodiak and Richard Widmark respectively have become smugglers. In Violence (1947), a domestic fascist
organization run by racketeers is composed of discontented veterans.
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Veterans are also resentful about wartime profiteering and the abuse
of comrades or loved ones—as in Cornered (1945) starring Dick Powell, Ride the Pink Horse (1947) with Robert Montgomery, Dead Reckoning (1947) in which Humphrey Bogart is on the trail of a murdered
comrade, Thieves’ Highway (1949) with Richard Conte, or Backfire
(1950), in which army veteran Gordon MacRae searches for his buddy
(Edmond O’Brien), who has become involved with gangsters. In The
Clay Pigeon (1949), Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) clears himself of collaboration by revealing the identity of another soldier who worked with
a corrupt Japanese prison guard, while in Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1949), Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a disabled and near-psychotic
veteran, wants revenge on his former commanding officer Frank Enley
(Van Heflin), who betrayed his fellow captives in a prison camp.
There are occasional disillusioned servicemen who are veterans of the
Korean campaign: Niagara (1953), Strange Intruder (1956), and The
Manchurian Candidate (1962). Neo-noirs sometimes depict Vietnam
veterans, as in Taxi Driver (1976) or Who’ll Stop the Rain? (aka Dog
Soldiers, 1978). Christian Bale plays a Gulf War veteran in Harsh Times
(2005), unable to adjust to civilian life and suffering from posttraumatic
stress disorder with flashbacks and nightmares about the killings he
performed during the war. Rejected by the Los Angeles Police Department, he reunites with an old buddy, and they fall back into their former
life of crime.
Other troubled veteran noirs include: Swamp Fire (1946), Boomerang! (1947), Singapore (1947), The Unfaithful (1947), The Woman on
the Beach (1947), Key Largo (1948), The Breaking Point (1950), Sound
of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1951), The Strip (1951), Three Steps
North (1951), Hoodlum Empire (1952), The Lost Hours (aka The Big
Frame, 1952), Macao (1952), Suddenly (1954), The Unfaithful (1954),
A Woman’s Devotion (1956), Thunder Road (1958), and Cutter’s Way
(1981). See also AMNESIAC FILMS NOIR.
TRUFFAUT, FRANÇOIS (1932–1984). Writer-director François Truffaut made a major contribution to the development of French film
noir and also influenced American neo-noir filmmakers. In common
with several other New Wave directors, including Claude Chabrol,
Truffaut had a passionate interest in American cinema, especially film
noir, as expressed in his essays as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, his
monograph on Alfred Hitchcock (1966), his screenplay for Jean-Luc
Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), and his direction of Tirez
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sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), which he adapted from
the David Goodis novel, Down There. Describing Tirez as “a respectful pastiche of the Hollywood B-films from which I learned so much,”
Truffaut transposed its setting from Philadelphia/New Jersey to Paris
and its environs. He cast Charles Aznavour as the melancholic pianist, Charlie Koller, the archetypal doomed noir hero whose isolation,
passivity, and self-doubt are very different from Goodis’s embittered,
brawling veteran. Tirez’s complex flashback structure, multiple ironies,
and enigmatic central figure owed much to Citizen Kane (1941), which
Truffaut deeply admired, but its combination of deep seriousness and
an ironic playfulness in an allusive, multilayered construction was thoroughly nouvelle vague. Truffaut is far less interested in careful plotting
than in exploring male desire and the complexity of relationships. Visually, Truffaut retains the iconography of classical noir, including the
chiaroscuro opening with its glistening streets, trench coats, cars, and
shootouts, but these conventions are used intermittently and often ironically, indicating the film’s self-reflexivity.
These qualities are also evident in his subsequent noirs—La Peau
douce (Soft Skin, 1964), La Mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black,
1967), and La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969), the
last two adapted from Cornell Woolrich novels. Truffaut’s final film,
Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours, aka Finally Sunday, 1983),
an adaptation of another hard-boiled thriller, Charles Williams’s The
Long Saturday Night, was also a deliberate return to black-and-white
cinematography, to “rediscover the sense of magic” that Truffaut’s
generation had found in American noirs. As usual, he mixed the serious
and the playful, and he re-created the classic noir mode with low-key
lighting and an urban underground of clubs, brothels, and gambling set
on the Provencal coast. It had Truffaut’s characteristically weak-willed
hero Julien (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and strong female figure, Barbara
(Fanny Ardant), who, echoing Kansas in Phantom Lady (1944), rescues
her boss from a murder charge. See also MEN; VISUAL STYLE.
–U–
ULMER, EDGAR G. (1904–1972). An Austrian Jew, Edgar Georg Ulmer had worked as a set designer—on Der Golem (1920) and M: Eine
Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Searches for a Murderer, 1931)—
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and assistant director in German cinema before moving to Hollywood.
He directed the Universal horror film The Black Cat (1934), which
demonstrated an unusual and distinctive noir sensibility. Ulmer moved
to Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in 1942, which gave him
enormous creative freedom but meagre budgets. He directed Tomorrow
We Live (1942), a convoluted crime tale about rival gangs and wartime
blackmarketeering, whose enigmatic central character “The Ghost” (Ricardo Cortez) is a noir figure. Bluebeard (1944), a noir hybrid, starred
John Carradine as a deranged artist who murders women after he has
finished painting their portraits, under a strange compulsion that he cannot control. In Strange Illusion (1945), a static murder mystery, a young
man, Paul Cartwright (James Lydon), suspects his father was murdered
by his mother’s suitor Brett Curtis (Warren William). The most powerful scenes occur in the asylum to which Curtis persuades his mother to
have Paul committed, a claustrophobic prison that almost drives him
insane. Detour, released eight months later, was Ulmer’s most compelling film, an existential nightmare that has become an acknowledged
noir masterpiece.
Ulmer left PRC, cowriting and directing The Strange Woman (1946)
for Hunt Stromberg Productions, where he enjoyed a more generous
budget. This neglected Gothic noir is set in Bangor, Maine, in the
1820s, a raw, occasionally violent boomtown in which Jenny Hager
(Hedy Lamarr) is roughly brought up and beaten by her drunken father.
Ulmer’s film presents a complex portrait of a woman determined to
use her beauty and intelligence to make something of her life. Ruthless (1948), made on a higher budget for Eagle-Lion, had handsome
set designs that reflected Ulmer’s training. It was another study of an
amoral figure, businessman Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott), who stops
at nothing to achieve his desire for wealth and power. Ulmer’s final
noir Murder Is My Beat (1955), made for Allied Artists, was his most
conventional story, told in flashback with a voice-over by Ray Patrick
(Paul Langton), a police detective in homicide who becomes convinced
that the chief suspect, Eden Lane (Barbara Payton), is innocent. Like
all Ulmer’s noirs, the most powerful moments occur when the central
protagonist makes an irrational choice he or she cannot explain. See also
ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL.
UNIVERSAL HORROR FILMS. Part of the major influence of expressionism on film noir was refracted through two cycles of horror films
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produced by Universal Studios. Several noir directors and cinematographers worked on these films, experimenting with light, shadow, mood,
and style in films whose slow pace allowed the subtle suggestiveness of
the mise-en-scène to create meaning. Universal, led by the German-born
Carl Laemmle, had a tradition of hiring Weimar talent, including Edgar
G. Ulmer, who directed the extraordinary The Black Cat (1934), a tale
of betrayal, vengeance, and lust that was set not in a Gothic past but in
a stylish, art deco future. The first Universal cycle was initiated by the
American Tod Browning’s Dracula and the Englishman James Whale’s
Frankenstein, both released in 1931. Whale, a sophisticated intellectual
with a feeling for Gothic forms, was the key influence, also directing
The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of
Frankenstein (1935). Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
was the most directly expressionist, with strong echoes of Das Cabinet
des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919) in its twisted
streets, oddly contorted houses that lean over the glistening cobblestones,
and gloomy shadows. The Raven (1935), which focused on sadism, murder, and torture, was set in contemporary America with Bela Lugosi as a
criminal neurologist and Boris Karloff as his accomplice.
Universal’s second horror cycle, beginning with Son of Frankenstein
(1939) and lasting until the mid-1940s, was lower-budgeted and visually less distinguished, but it also contributed to the development of
film noir. Black Friday (1940), with Karloff as a criminal surgeon and
Lugosi as a tough New York gangster, was set in an urban milieu and
photographed by Woody Bredell, working creatively with chiaroscuro
lighting. Robert Siodmak cut his noir teeth on Son of Dracula (1943),
as did Edward Dmytryk on Captive Wild Woman (1943). Calling Dr.
Death (1944), a psychological study in crime, House of Horror (1946),
depicting a murderer revived from the dead who seeks revenge, and The
Brute Man (1946), with its bleak world of deformed killers, helpless
victims, dark tenements, and squalid waterfronts, were all horror-thriller
hybrids, demonstrating the important similarities between horror films
and films noir.
–V–
VERTIGO (1958). Although only a moderate success on its initial
release, Vertigo is now recognized as a seminal noir and one of Al-
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fred Hitchcock’s finest films. A profound exploration of delusion,
obsession, and betrayal, Vertigo’s preoccupation with the nature of
perception and deceptive appearances is signaled in the giant eyes of
Saul Bass’s celebrated opening credits. Vertigo was based on the 1954
French hard-boiled thriller D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead )
by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the locale shifted from Paris
to San Francisco. Although set in the present, Vertigo is a tale obsessed with the past, with the European remnants of 19th-century San
Francisco. Hitchcock collaborated on the screenplay in detail with first
Maxwell Anderson, then Alec Coppel, and finally Samuel Taylor, an
indication of the complexity of the themes and the care that was taken
in their construction.
The central character is “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a detective with a fatal weakness, fear of heights, which in the opening
rooftop chase results in the death of a fellow policeman. Hitchcock
uses subjective shots of Scottie’s petrified gaze down at the horrifying
drop to the street below to indicate psychological trauma. In his damaged state, Scottie is approached by an old college friend, Gavin Elster
(Tom Helmore), to shadow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is
obsessed with Carlotta Valdes, her great-grandmother who committed
suicide. Scottie falls in love with the enigmatic and beautiful Madeleine,
who he saves from trying to drown herself. But his vertigo makes him
powerless to prevent what seems to be Madeleine’s suicide from the
mission tower they visit. Blamed by the coroner at the inquest, Scottie
becomes possessed by his own death wish. In an innovatively subjective
sequence, Scottie experiences a nightmare in which he advances toward
the open grave gaping to receive him. As he falls, the void becomes a
revolving tunnel round his disembodied head, then the dark silhouette
of a male figure falling through endless space, first toward the roof
where Madeleine died, then dissolving into nothingness, represented by
a blank white screen.
Scottie retreats into wordless catatonia, eventually wandering the
streets of San Francisco in the search for a woman he knows to be dead,
which, as Hitchcock witheringly remarked, is an act of necrophilia. In
a grim irony, he catches a glimpse of the woman, Judy, who impersonated Madeleine, and, unaware of the truth, he obsessively re-creates this
gauche working-class girl from Kansas as the “real” Madeleine, with
exactly the same clothes and hairstyle. Discovering the deception at
the heart of the film, Scottie, in a desperate act of exorcism, takes her
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back to the mission tower where Madeleine’s “death” was staged. For
Scottie it is not her part in the crime that must be confronted but her act
of betrayal toward him—“I loved you so”—that is bound up with his
determination to redeem his weakness and, in the great dream of the
noir protagonist, be free of the past. Judy, fleeing from a dark, shadowy
figure she mistakes for Madeleine/Carlotta, throws herself from the
tower in a “true” re-enactment of the faked death. Hitchcock ends on the
stark image of the dark shape of Stewart’s outstretched, etiolated figure
gazing down at her body, seemingly poised for a final plunge into the
abyss of death.
Vertigo’s bleak ending and its dark exploration of psychic trauma,
together with its radical narrative strategies, were too uncomfortable
for contemporaneous audiences, as was the score by Bernard Herrmann, who worked with Hitchcock several times. He deliberately
avoids a conventional melody. It is replaced by an insistent, but harmonically ambiguous, shifting, and unpredictable rhythm and tempo,
which reinforce the ambiguity in the film’s themes and visual effects.
Like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Hitchcock’s most radical
suggestion is that the whole story might all be Scottie’s compensating
dream as he is about to die ignominiously in the opening scene. A remastered print was re-released theatrically in 1996, making it possible
to appreciate the full subtlety of Hitchcock’s color scheme and restoring this masterpiece to its full beauty. See also FREUDIANISM; MEN;
MUSIC; VISUAL STYLE.
VIDEO GAMES. A number of video games have been based on an exaggerated use of film noir conventions. Mean Streets (1989) was one of
the first, a dystopian cyberpunk/noir hybrid in which the main protagonist, Tex Murphy, a down-and-out private eye living in a postapocalyptic San Francisco, is hired by a beautiful young woman to investigate
the death of her father who was working on a secret project. Discworld
Noir (1999), based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld comic fantasy novels, was a noir parody depicting a private investigator in the ancient and
corrupt city of Ankh-Morpork. In Dead to Rights (2002), the protagonist
is a good cop living in Grant City, the most corrupt town in the world.
He becomes a fugitive after being framed for murder while investigating the mysterious death of his father. By far the most successful noir
video game has been Max Payne (2001) and its sequel Max Payne 2:
The Fall of Max Payne (2003), which have sold more than seven mil-
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lion copies. Max Payne is a former New York Police Department cop
working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration after
his wife and unborn child were killed by thugs high on designer drugs.
Payne, equipped with a rapid-fire verbal idiom derived from Raymond
Chandler, moves through the murk of a rundown noir city, another
fugitive figure, framed for murder to forestall his investigations. The
stylish cinematography and choreography of the action is heavily influenced by graphic novels and Hong Kong film noir, particularly John
Woo. The sequel was more imaginative, frequently using an overtly
expressionist style and fantasy/drug-induced sequences, including the
arresting opening scene, where Payne has lost control, signified by
blurred vision and the on-screen avatar’s failure to respond to the controls. Payne has become a more deeply troubled and unreliable figure,
and his world correspondingly darker. A film version, starring Mark
Wahlberg, was released in 2008.
VISUAL STYLE. The central noir style—the one by which it is conventionally identified—is derived from expressionism, deploying low-key,
high-contrast (chiaroscuro) lighting, where deep, enveloping shadows
are fractured by shafts of light from a single source and dark, claustrophobic interiors display shadowy shapes on the walls, as in Robert Siodmak’s Gothic noir, The Spiral Staircase (1946). There is a pervasive
use of claustrophobic framing devices including doorways, windows,
stairways, and metal bed frames that seem to invade the space of the
characters, trapping them, as displayed in This Gun for Hire (1942).
Mirror images are prevalent, suggesting deceptiveness, doubling,
neurotic narcissism, and disordered fantasy, as in Fear in the Night
(1947). These decentered, unstable compositions are further distorted by
the use of unusual camera angles—“choker” close-ups shot right under
the actor’s chin or extreme overhead shots that dwarf the action—and
wide-angle lenses that distort faces and buildings, as in Carol Reed’s
The Third Man (1949). Conventional establishing shots are often
withheld, and exterior scenes are shot in inky blackness illuminated by
spectral backlights or the intermittent flashing of neon signs; fog or mist
often obscures the action, creating hidden and threatening spaces; Jules
Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) is a memorable example.
Much use is made of reflection: polished surfaces or the famous
rain-soaked streets splashed with a sudden downpour, which glisten
in the nighttime glow of the street lamps or car headlights, as in Otto
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Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). In certain intense
or highly charged moments, this style becomes more overtly expressionist, as in the nightmare trial sequence in Stranger on the Third
Floor (1940) or in Murder, My Sweet (1944), which uses subjective
camerawork, fogged lenses, and whirling dissolves to approximate the
drug-induced stupor of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell). Overall, the
expressionist style was a powerful element in creating noir’s distorted,
morally ambiguous, and confused universe.
Noir’s unconventional visual style was made possible by technological developments, notably the widespread use of faster film stock with
reduced graininess and a new range of lenses that allowed cinematographers to shoot at lower lighting levels. New lightweight cameras with
built-in noise dampening devices and more portable lighting equipment
allowed filming to take place in previously inaccessible positions. However, these developments also facilitated a countervailing style that was
profoundly influenced by Italian neo-realism and wartime documentaries, one that emphasized a quotidian actuality and the use of naturalistic lighting and location shooting. This led to the development of the
semidocumentary cycle of noirs, including The Naked City (1948) or
Kiss of Death (1947), where exterior scenes have a harsh, raw quality,
gray and subdued. Gradually, this style replaced the more studio-bound
expressionism and became the norm for 1950s noirs, not only the city
exposé cycle, such as Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential (1952),
but also conventional crime thrillers such as Crime Wave (1954).
There is no dominant neo-noir style. Initially, the use of color, zoom
lenses, highly mobile cameras, and widescreen compositions all served
to redefine noir’s visual style. Earlier neo-noirs, notably The Long
Goodbye (1973), showed a keen awareness of the potential of the zoom
lens that creates a very different sense of space from the tracking shot,
one of the cornerstones of the classic style. A forward or reverse zoom
abstracts space by flattening or elongating it and, because it does not
reproduce human perception, is overtly cinematic and self-conscious.
Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi
Driver (1976) have an exaggeratedly jagged, fragmented visual style
with numerous jump cuts and frenetic handheld camerawork that was
influenced by the French New Wave directors, Jean-Luc Godard and
François Truffaut. Point Blank (1967) and Chinatown (1974) experimented with color and widescreen formats that created a different, but
equally threatening, use of space. The gradual introduction of faster film
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stock allowed cinematographers to shoot in color at very low lighting
levels. The deep blacks punctuated by objects picked out using colored
gels created striking contrasts that resembled classic noir’s chiaroscuro,
as in Body Heat (1981). John Dahl’s accomplished first noir Kill Me
Again (1989) uses smooth, languorous tracking shots as femme fatale
Fay (Joanne Whalley Kilmer) drives into Reno where the nighttime
neon signs glide sinuously over the car windshield and blue-filtered
night exteriors are wreathed in mist as private eye Jack (Val Kilmer)
dumps the car to fake Fay’s death.
This reworking of classic noir has created a seductive, instantly recognizable look—known in the trade as “noir lite”—that has become a
standard feature of contemporary noirs. However, what characterizes
the overall style of recent noirs is that the tight economy of the classic
period has been abandoned in an intensification of the viewing experience: a spectacular, visceral mise-en-scène, hypermobile, often handheld
camera work, rapid zooms, shock cuts, and ultrafast montage sequences.
Disruptive spectacle is now preferred to classical noir’s coherent diegesis or causality. Instead of being solicited as the ideal observer of the
unfolding action, the postmodern spectator is now “engulfed” in an
often overwhelming sensory experience. Contemporary noirs are often
“modular,” consisting of loosely connected set pieces, as in Dahl’s
Unforgettable (1996), with its disorientating montages in which a kaleidoscope of images rush over the viewer in a whirl of disconnected
fragments that, in this instance, approximate the confusions of memory.
Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) uses this hyperbolic style to
explore multiple and unstable identities. Many noir hybrids, including
the Wachowski brothers’ future noir the Matrix Trilogy (1999–2003),
deploy a range of techniques made possible by digital technologies that
create a dizzying spectacle.
The other significant stylistic shift derives from the use of graphic
novels as source material. In some cases, including Christopher
Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), these fantasy scenarios provide the basis for further hyperbolic engulfment, but
in others, notably Roberto Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), shot entirely
on a digital backlot, the intention is to create a close approximation
of Frank Miller’s graphic art that provides an exaggerated version of
classic noir. The color footage was converted back to sharply defined
black-and-white to create a shimmeringly intense version of classic noir
chiaroscuro, in which occasional colored objects were picked out.
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–W–
WALD, JERRY (1911–1962). The most prolific producer of films noir,
Jerry Wald was a former journalist turned Hollywood screenwriter
in the 1930s who became a producer for Warner Bros. in the 1940s,
eventually replacing Hal Wallis as head of production. Wald continued
Warner’s tradition of hard-edged, socially orientated action melodramas, beginning with Mildred Pierce (1945), in which he encouraged
the scriptwriters to play up the crime elements. This was the first of
the five films noir that Wald made with Joan Crawford, the others being Possessed (1947), Flamingo Road (1949), The Damned Don’t Cry
(1950), and Queen Bee (1955), made for Columbia. Wald’s penchant for
melding crime and melodrama is also evident in The Unfaithful (1947),
a story of betrayal and infidelity in which a wife (Ann Sheridan) tries to
convince her troubled veteran husband (Zachary Scott) that the man
she murdered was a burglar rather than her lover, Key Largo (1948), The
Breaking Point (1950), and Dark Passage (1947), in which an escaped
convict (Humphrey Bogart) has been wrongly convicted of his wife’s
murder. Caged (1950) was a hard-hitting, socially conscious drama
about women’s prisons in which the liberal warden (Agnes Moorehead)
battles with the sadistic matron (Hope Emerson). Wald became independent in 1950, producing Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) and Josef
von Sternberg’s Macao (1952). See also WALD, MALVIN.
WALD, MALVIN (1917–2008). Brother of producer Jerry Wald,
Malvin Wald was a versatile screenwriter who came to prominence
with his Oscar-nominated story for The Naked City (1948). He coadapted James Warwick’s play Blind Alley as The Dark Past (1948),
a psychological noir, and contributed additional dialogue for Joseph
H. Lewis’s The Undercover Man (1949), a semidocumentary noir.
He joined Ida Lupino’s Emerald Productions and worked with her
on the screenplay for Not Wanted (1949) and on the original story for
Outrage (1950). Wald cowrote the 60-minute noir “B” feature Street
of Darkness (1958), the crime biopic Al Capone (1959), starring Rod
Steiger, and also episodes of several noir television series, including
Peter Gunn (1958).
WALLIS, HAL B. (1899–1986). In a long career as a creative producer
involved in all aspects of the production process, including casting,
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scripting, and editing, Hal B. Wallis produced a number of important
films noir. During his time as Head of Production at Warner Bros., Wallis made several noir precursors: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
(1932), City for Conquest (1940), The Letter (1940), adapted from a
Somerset Maugham short story in which Bette Davis plays a femme
fatale on a plantation in the tropics, and They Drive by Night (1940),
a tough melodrama about truck drivers. He also produced High Sierra
(1941) and the hugely influential The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Wallis resigned from Warner Bros. in 1944 to form his own production company, releasing films primarily through Paramount. Its
first film noir was The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring
Barbara Stanwyck, which emphasized characterization over action,
dwelling on psychological obsessions and neuroses. Wallis made two
further films with Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), from Lucille Fletcher’s celebrated radio play, and The File on Thelma Jordon
(1950). So Evil My Love (1948), produced for Paramount British, was
a Gothic noir that also had a woman lead (Ann Todd), who eventually
kills the homme fatal (Ray Milland), who has seduced her into criminal
activities. The Accused (1949) was another story of guilt and thwarted
romantic entanglements, with Loretta Young as a shy professor of psychology who accidentally murders one of her students when he tries to
seduce her and then conceals the crime. I Walk Alone (1948) and Dark
City (1950) were more conventional crime melodramas, but they also
emphasized corruption and betrayal.
WANGER, WALTER (1894–1968). Walter Wanger was a cultivated
and cosmopolitan producer, a progressive intellectual who believed in
cinema’s role to promote social awareness. As a creative independent
producer, Wanger was keenly involved in the choice of project and the
scripting and the casting of his films, as evident in the noir precursor,
Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), which Wanger saw as a serious indictment of the mob fury to which American democracy could fall
prey. He married the actress Joan Bennett in 1941 and together with
Lang they formed Diana Productions in early 1945, releasing through
Universal. Its first film, Scarlet Street (1945), was a huge financial
success, but differences arose between Lang and Wanger during the
editing and about the cuts made to appease the studio and the censors.
Diana’s second film, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), became a much
more fraught production, and Universal demanded it be recut after
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unfavorable responses from preview audiences. It was poorly distributed
and performed badly at the box office; consequently, Diana Productions
dissolved acrimoniously.
Wanger supervised the scripting, editing, and publicity for Reign
of Terror (1949), directed by Anthony Mann, which he produced
for Eagle-Lion. The film’s setting during the dark days of the French
Revolution contained an antitotalitarian allegory which, by implication, could be seen as an attack on the House Un-American Activities
Committee investigations as well as Cold War communism. Wanger’s
European sensibility and his preference for émigré directors was evident in The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by Max Ophüls, who had
come to the United States during World War II. It starred Bennett as an
upper-middle-class mother desperate to protect her daughter from being
blackmailed. Wanger produced two films directed by Don Siegel. The
prison noir Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) was prompted by Wanger’s
own incarceration for shooting his wife’s lover and was partly an indictment of the American penal system. The noir hybrid Invasion of
the Body Snatchers (1956) was another liberal allegory that showed
Wanger’s profound disillusionment with American ideals and his sense
that democratic values were being threatened. See also BLACKLIST;
LEFT-WING CYCLE.
WASHINGTON, DENZEL (1954– ). A major star of contemporary
American cinema, Denzel Washington has been long associated with
crime and noir films, beginning with the British film noir For Queen
and Country (1988), as troubled veteran Reuben James, a black British
paratrooper who returns from fighting in the Falklands to find a corrupt and racist East End of London where he has no place. He played a
World War II veteran in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), but here he embodied the character’s grace, self-confidence, and tenacity and his belief
in the resourcefulness of the black community. Always more powerful
as ambivalent characters, Washington won an Oscar for Training Day
(2001) as Alonzo Harris, a highly decorated but corrupt cop who has
become adept at manipulating the system, the charismatic leader of an
elite corps that has placed itself outside the law. He was also effective
as the disaffected and alcoholic ex-Central Intelligence Agency hit man
in Man on Fire (2004), who redeems himself by saving a kidnapped
child, and as another maladjusted veteran (from Desert Storm) in the
2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. In Ridley Scott’s Ameri-
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can Gangster (2007), Washington, who has portrayed several real-life
figures, played Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin who smuggled
heroin into the United States on U.S. service planes returning from the
Vietnam War. Pursued by his nemesis, the incorruptible Richie Roberts
(Russell Crowe), Lucas is a complex character: ruthless, organized, but
not entirely corrupt.
Washington’s other noirs are Ricochet (1991), Virtuosity (1995),
Fallen (1998), The Bone Collector (1999), Out of Time (2003), Inside
Man (2006), and The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009). See also AFRICANAMERICAN NOIR.
WAXMAN, FRANZ (1906–1967). The German-born composer Franz
Waxman worked in Weimar cinema from the 1920s onward, including
scoring Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man Who Searched
for His Own Murderer, 1931). He fled from Nazi persecution, going to
Hollywood via Paris. Waxman worked on the Universal horror film
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the noir precursor Fury (1936) before scoring his first noir Rebecca (1940), one of three films he made for
Alfred Hitchcock, the others being Suspicion (1941) and Rear Window
(1954). Waxman’s score for Rebecca showed the subtle and intricate
patterning of principal themes and individual motifs that characterized
his work, also superbly evident in his Oscar-winning music for Sunset
Boulevard (1950).
Waxman’s other noirs are Her Kind of Man (1946), Nora Prentiss
(1947), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Possessed (1947), Dark Passage
(1947), The Unsuspected (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Whiplash (1948), Alias Nick Beal (1949), Night and the City (1950), Dark
City (1950), He Ran All the Way (1951), I, the Jury (1953), and Crime
in the Streets (1956). See also ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL; MUSIC.
WEEGEE (1899–1968). Arthur H. Fellig, better known as Weegee, had
an important influence on film noir through his work as a freelance
news photographer (from 1935 onward) whose stark black-and-white
shots documented street life in New York City. Born in Galicia, he
came to New York in 1910 with his Jewish family and settled in New
York City’s Lower East Side. Self-taught, Fellig’s nickname was either
a transmogrification of “squeegee”—an early job was to remove the
moisture from photographs that were being prepared—or a phonetic
rendering of Ouija, the epithet coming from his knack of arriving at
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emergencies only minutes after they were reported to authorities. His
speed was the result of being the only New York newspaper reporter
with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio and his
habit of maintaining a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car.
Weegee’s photographs of crime scenes, murder victims, down-andouts, gangsters, and prostitutes, a nocturnal world of bars, nightclubs,
and cheap glamor, have a stark directness that was unprecedented.
Characteristic examples such as “Corpse with a Revolver” (1940),
“On the Spot” (1940), “One-way Ride” (1940), “Rocco Finds His Pal
Stabbed” (1941), “Murder on the Roof ” (1941), or “Accident on Grand
Central Station Roof ” (1944) have a scale and framing that is cinematic
rather than conventionally photographic. His compositions are too wide
or too tight or from an unusual angle, making them both dramatic and
unsettling, and which, along with the use of high-contrast lighting, anticipate the characteristic instability and sense of menace of film noir’s
visual style. His highly acclaimed first book collection, Naked City
(1945), where the photographs are accompanied by a caustic running
commentary, became the inspiration for The Naked City (1948) when
Mark Hellinger bought the rights and instructed director Jules Dassin
and cinematographer William Daniels to re-create Weegee’s style. Although Weegee’s influence was important and he worked in Hollywood
from 1947–52, his direct involvement in noir films, including The SetUp (1949), was marginal. Weegee’s work inspired the noir television
series The Man with a Camera (1958–59), and his own noirish life was
the basis of the neo-noir The Public Eye (1992), starring Joe Pesci. See
also THE CITY; NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY.
WELLES, ORSON (1915–1985). Orson Welles was extraordinarily
talented and had a major influence on the development of film noir
as an actor, director, producer, and writer. He worked extensively in
radio and formed the Mercury Theatre company in 1936. Its productions were experimental and espoused Welles’s lifelong commitment
to left-wing views. His first film, Citizen Kane (1941), is often cited as
the most influential example of “American Expressionism,” and its use
of distorted set designs, chiaroscuro lighting, mobile camerawork, and
point-of-view shots, Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography, and
the multiple flashback narration had a profound impact on film noir.
It provided a bridge between expressionism, with which Welles was
familiar, and indigenous American themes: Welles’s portrayal of an
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American newspaper magnate who loses his values. Welles had also
worked on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a
“Mexican melodrama,” The Way To Santiago, but these proto-noirs that
were to include considerable subjective camerawork did not find favor
at RKO and were not produced.
Welles’s first noir was thus Journey into Fear (1943), a wartime tale
of international intrigue and murderous Nazis, based on the Eric Ambler story. It showed Welles’s penchant for extravagant stylistic devices
and was permeated by an existentialist dread. The Stranger (1946) was
more visually conventional (though over 30 minutes were trimmed by
the studio), with Welles playing a fugitive ex-Nazi living in a small New
England town who is pursued by a government agent (Edward G. Robinson). Welles produced, directed, starred in, and wrote the screenplay
for The Lady from Shanghai (1948), though again this was extensively
cut by Columbia. Welles’s direction captures the dreamlike quality of
this fable of greed and includes the bravura sequence in the Hall of Mirrors. The film’s lack of success in America made Welles less attractive
to production companies, but he produced and directed a low-budget
expressionist adaptation of Macbeth (1948) for Republic.
From this point, partly through fear of being placed on the blacklist,
Welles lived a nomadic life, spending much of his time in Europe. He
continued to be sought after as an actor and dominated The Third Man
(1949) as the enigmatic villain Harry Lime, charming and amoral.
Welles wrote the screenplay of Mr. Arkadin (1955), which he also
starred in and directed. Gregory Arkadin (Welles), one of the richest men in the world, tries to eliminate all traces of his brutal past in
this study of corruption and greed. Its episodic narrative and baroque
visual style make Mr. Arkadin somewhat impenetrable, but Touch of
Evil (1958) intelligently deploys these qualities to produce an absorbing masterpiece, with Welles providing the screenplay, direction, and
one of his most memorable characters, the corrupt cop Hank Quinlan.
Welles directed and narrated the late noir The Trial (1962), a haunting
adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel using the deserted Gare d’Orsay
as the set.
Overall, Welles’s films noir depict the struggle between an innocent
protagonist and a dark and enigmatic world of corruption and duplicity
that ultimately consumes itself, a metaphor for a predatory capitalism
that Welles opposed as a left-wing intellectual. See also LEFT-WING
CYCLE; VISUAL STYLE.
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WESTLAKE, DONALD E. (1933–2008). Donald Edwin Westlake was a
prolific writer of crime fiction, both serious and comic, who published
under his own name and several pseudonyms, including Richard Stark.
Adaptations of his work formed an important bridge between film noir
and neo-noir, and Westlake has also written screenplays from others’
work. The first adaptation was Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A.
(1966), a very loose reworking of Westlake’s novel The Jugger, but
as Godard had not purchased the rights, Westlake successfully sued to
prevent the film’s distribution in America. Point Blank (1967) was John
Boorman’s radical adaptation of The Hunter, the first of Westlake’s
long series of novels about the tough criminal Parker, renamed Walker
in the film. The caper/heist film The Split (1968) and the revenge
thriller The Outfit (1973) stayed much closer to Westlake’s novels, as
did the British film noir Slayground (1983), another heist-gone-wrong
thriller but with the moral ambiguity that characterizes Westlake’s fiction. The most recent adaptations have been French: Je suis an assassin
(The Contract, 2004), and Le Couperet (The Axe, 2005), directed by
Constantin Costa-Gavras. Le Couperet was a successful black comedy
about a man who murders all his rivals in a desperate bid to get back
into professional employment.
Westlake’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Grifters (1990) was
an adroit adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel that deepened certain elements in the original while retaining its existential bleakness. Westlake
also coadapted Ripley Under Ground (2005) from Patricia Highsmith’s
novel, an acerbic black comedy that mirrored his own work.
WHEELER, LYLE (1905–1990). Lyle Wheeler was one of Hollywood’s
foremost set designers whose work made a distinguished contribution to
film noir. He received one (of 29) Oscar nominations for his design of
Manderley, the cavernous mansion that dominates Alfred Hitchcock’s
Rebecca (1940). Moving to Twentieth Century-Fox as supervising art
director, Wheeler collaborated on nearly all of Fox’s films, including
31 films noir, receiving Oscar nominations (with Leland Fuller and
Thomas Little) for Laura (1944), with Little and Maurice Ransford for
Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and with Little, John De Cuir, and Paul S.
Fox for The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Laura best exemplifies the
sophisticated, elegant, precisely evocative sets that Wheeler specialized
in, encouraging Otto Preminger to open the film with a long take that
took in every facet of the overfastidious apartment of Waldo Lydecker
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(Clifton Webb). Each dwelling in the film is expressive of its occupant’s
character, including that of Laura (Gene Tierney), narcissistically
dominated by her own portrait over the fireplace. Wheeler collaborated
with Preminger again on Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and The
Thirteenth Letter (1951).
Wheeler was also partly responsible for the evolution of Fox’s other
major strand of noirs, the semidocumentaries—The House on 92nd
Street (1945), Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), Cry of
the City (1948), and Panic in the Streets (1950)—which favored location shooting and a restrained naturalism in their settings and décor. In
two of Wheeler’s later noirs with Samuel Fuller, Pickup on South Street
(1953) and House of Bamboo (1955), this style is modified to incorporate Fuller’s more insistent mise-en-scène. The latter (in color and
CinemaScope) contains some of Wheeler’s best work in its pachinko
parlors, Great Buddha, and whirling globe, where the final confrontation takes place.
Wheeler’s other noirs are Hangover Square (1945), Circumstantial
Evidence (1945), Fallen Angel (1946), Shock (1946), Nightmare Alley
(1947), Road House (1948), The Street with No Name (1948), Thieves’
Highway (1949), House of Strangers (1949), Whirlpool (1949), No
Way Out (1950), Fourteen Hours (1951), Night without Sleep (1952), A
Blueprint for Murder (1953), Niagara (1953), Vicki (1953), and Black
Widow (1954).
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950). Where the Sidewalk Ends was
Otto Preminger’s most accomplished film and the definitive corrupt
cop noir, showing how this figure replaced the troubled veteran as
the vector for postwar social and psychological unease. It was based on
William L. Stuart’s novel Night Cry, expertly adapted by Ben Hecht,
with Dana Andrews as Detective Mark Dixon, the son of a mobster,
whose pursuit of criminals takes on a psychotic edge because he is always trying to expunge the taint of his father. This classic noir antihero,
haunted by his past, in Andrews’s tense, simmering performance, is
obsessed with capturing the gangster Scalise (Gary Merrill), set up by
his father. Symbolically, the man, Ken Paine, Dixon accidentally kills
while trying to extract information is a war hero with a silver plate in
his head from a shrapnel wound that leads to his death, a glamorous expilot with a “hatful of medals” but now a drifting lush. In an expertly
crafted moment as he stands over the body, Dixon’s instincts lead him,
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as he later confesses, to “cover it up like a mobster. I couldn’t shake
loose from what I was.” At that point he becomes a distracted, divided,
increasingly frantic man, “walking around half cop and half killer,”
as Scalise mocks. His torment is increased when he falls in love with
Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney)—the stars reunited from Preminger’s
Laura (1944)—Paine’s former wife and the daughter of the hapless
taxi driver suspected of Paine’s murder. In a final desperate attempt to
extract himself from his moral and emotional morass, Dixon prepares
for a “suicide” mission on Scalise’s headquarters, trying to get him
indicted for Dixon’s murder. Scalise dies and is deemed responsible
for Paine’s death, but Dixon confesses, convinced that Morgan will
wait for him.
Where the Sidewalk Ends carefully delineates its gritty, naturalistic low-life milieu: the dingy dive that Paine now inhabits, Taylor’s
working-class apartment, and the rundown East River parking garage
where the dénouement takes place. Joseph LaShelle’s photography is
assured, both on location and in the studio scenes. Preminger’s direction is fluent, the action kept taut and tense with studied close-ups of the
conflicting emotions on Andrews’s face and using persistent low-angles
that give a sense of oppression and claustrophobia. Cyril Mockridge’s
influential score is both edgy and haunting, with a repeated refrain that
captures the seductive ambivalence of city life.
WIDMARK, RICHARD (1914–2008). An accomplished radio and theater actor, Widmark made his film debut in Kiss of Death (1947), the
first film in his 12-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. Widmark
won an Oscar nomination for his performance in the supporting role as
the psychotic killer Tommy Udo. Widmark creates a complex portrait of
gleeful sadism and extreme instability, as in the infamous scene where
Udo laughs hysterically as he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair
down a flight of stairs. Widmark’s taut, lean body, his hard, angular
face, and cruel good looks together with his rather harsh, stabbing
voice and clipped delivery were exploited in a series of similar roles,
including gang boss Alec Stiles in The Street with No Name (1948),
overwrought, neurotic, and sexually ambivalent, or Jefty in Road House
(1948), another volatile mixture of sadism, sexual jealousy, and the need
to dominate and manipulate. In the controversial No Way Out (1950),
written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Widmark played another
conscienceless psychotic, Ray Biddle, a cheap, racist crook, the adver-
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sary of the young black intern at a large metropolitan hospital, Sidney
Poitier, whom he frames for murder.
Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) offered an exceptional role
as the hero, a public health service doctor in New Orleans who has to
track down a plague carrier (Jack Palance), but Widmark’s highly
strung, restless persona, imbued with a nervous, pent-up energy, was
more suited to villains or ambivalent antiheroes. In Slattery’s Hurricane
(1949) he plays a troubled veteran, selfish and confused, who eventually redeems himself. In Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950),
he gave an outstanding performance as Harry Fabian, a cheap nightclub tout who nevertheless possesses abundant imagination. Fabian’s
struggle to get to the top, his longing to “be somebody,” affords him
near-tragic status as he rushes headlong toward his inevitable doom.
Widmark was equally compelling in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South
Street (1953) as another energetic, restless cheapskate, Skip McCoy, a
New York pickpocket, devious and selfish but capable of finer feelings
even if he remains socially marginal.
In a long career, Widmark starred in several neo-noirs, notably Don
Siegel’s Madigan (1968), as the world-weary New York detective who
takes what measures he feels necessary to get results but who is troubled
by an existential fatalism that leads, obscurely but inevitably, to his
death in a pointless shootout. Widmark starred in the television noir
spin-off (1972–73).
Widmark’s other noirs are A Prize of Gold (GB 1955), The Trap
(1959), The Domino Principle (1977), Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977),
and Against All Odds (1984). See also MEN.
WILD, HARRY J. (1901–1961). A staff cinematographer at RKO, Harry
J. Wild had an important influence on the development of a recognizable noir style beginning with his celebrated work on Murder, My
Sweet (1944), which combined a mastery of suggestive lighting with
subjective camerawork and contorted reflections to create a strong sense
of disorientation and menace. He combined with Edward Dmytryk
again on Cornered (1945), also starring Dick Powell, which was darker
and less visually showy than its predecessor. Wild worked with Powell
for a third time on Pitfall (1948), which made effective use of location
photography, as did The Woman on the Beach (1947), directed by Jean
Renoir. After the demise of RKO, Wild worked on noir television series, including contributions to The Twilight Zone (1960).
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Wild’s other noirs are Johnny Angel (1945), Nocturne (1946), They
Won’t Believe Me (1947), The Big Steal (1949), The Threat (1949),
Walk Softly, Stranger (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951), Gambling
House (1951), and Macao (1952). See also VISUAL STYLE.
WILDE, CORNEL (1915–1989). Muscular and athletic, the Hungarianborn Cornel Wilde was more suited to costume films and Westerns, but
he appeared in several films noir in roles that combined strength and
weakness. After a minor role in High Sierra (1941), Wilde starred in
the Technicolor Leave Her to Heaven (1945), playing the husband of the
insanely possessive Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), his rugged strength
useless against her machinations. In Shockproof (1949), Wilde played
a parole officer compromised by a femme fatale. He was the foil to the
psychotic Richard Widmark in Road House (1948), in a love triangle
with Ida Lupino. He played a similar but more developed version of
this character in The Big Combo (1955) as a puritanical policeman, obsessed by the enigmatic society woman Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace),
the mistress of charismatic and sadistic gangster Richard Conte. Wilde
gives an absorbing performance as a man tormented beyond endurance
by the thought of her liaison with Brown, whom he despises and seeks
to convict by any means. In Storm Fear (1956), which Wilde also directed, he plays a self-destructive loser, a gangster-on-the-run, who, in
typical noir fashion, is plagued by doubts and tormented by guilt.
WILDER, BILLY (1906–2002). Along with Otto Preminger and Edgar
G. Ulmer, Wilder was the third Austrian-Jewish director who exerted a
seminal influence on the development of film noir, particularly through
Double Indemnity (1944), which, more than any other single film, defined the new sensibility. Wilder was as much screenwriter as director,
his formative influence working as a journalist in Berlin before writing
the German film noir Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man
Who Searched for His Own Murderer), directed by Robert Siodmak, in
1931. He left Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and,
after a brief sojourn in Paris, moved to America in 1934.
Through a partnership with Charles Brackett he established himself
in Hollywood as a screenwriter before expanding into a producerdirector team that included the noirish The Lost Weekend (1945),
which won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay and Sun-
WINDSOR, MARIE
• 327
set Boulevard (1950) (an Oscar for Best Screenplay), after which the
partnership dissolved. Sunset Boulevard is a highly distinctive noir, a
mordant satire of the vanities and superficialities of Hollywood itself.
Joe Gillis (William Holden), a young, down-and-out screenwriter,
whose body is discovered floating in a pool at the beginning of the
film, narrates the whole film in flashback as his corpse is fished out
of the water. Wilder’s original script, in which Joe wakes up on the
mortuary slab and narrates his tale to other cadavers, was deleted after
adverse preview reactions. Gillis has some affinities with Walter Neff
in Double Indemnity, weak-willed, rather superficial, and ultimately
shot by the woman with whom he is having an affair. In this case
the woman is a faded silent star, Norma Desmond (played by Gloria
Swanson, whose heyday was in the 1920s).
Wilder’s third and final noir was Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951), which he also produced. The most cynical of Wilder’s
films, Ace is set in the parched desert landscape around Albuquerque,
New Mexico, with its tawdry roadside café and souvenir shop. Charles
Tatum (Kirk Douglas), looking for a return to big-time journalism,
sees his opportunity by exploiting the plight of a miner, Leo Minosa,
trapped in a cave-in. Instead of allowing him to be rescued by tunneling, Tatum persuades Minosa’s slattern wife (Jan Sterling) to agree
to a lengthy drilling operation, during which time Tatum can generate
huge publicity for the rescue and resurrect his career. In the end Minosa
dies in Wilder’s coruscating exposé of the cynical and predatory nature
of American society and its amoral media looking for ratings. See also
ÉMIGRÉ PERSONNEL.
WINDSOR, MARIE (1919–2000). Tall, dark, commanding and with
a brassy, vulgar sexuality, Marie Windsor was a distinctive noir performer. Her first substantial role was in Abraham Polonsky’s Force of
Evil (1948) as the tough wife of the syndicate head who tries to seduce
Joe Morse (John Garfield). Her best performances came in The Narrow Margin (1952) as an undercover policewoman pretending to be a
gangster’s widow, engaged in a tense relationship with her protector
detective (Charles McGraw) because she cannot reveal her secret.
She had another strong role in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) as
Sherry Peatty, the sexually voracious wife of a small-time crook (Elisha
Cook Jr.) whom she eventually provokes into killing her.
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WISE, ROBERT
Windsor’s other noirs are The Sniper (1952), City That Never Sleeps
(1953), No Man’s Woman (1955), The Girl in Black Stockings (1957),
The Unholy Wife (1957), and The Outfit (1973). See also WOMEN.
WISE, ROBERT (1914–2005). After training as an editor at RKO—he
cut Citizen Kane (1941) and The Fallen Sparrow (1943)—Robert Wise
moved to Val Lewton’s “B” feature unit directing The Curse of the Cat
People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Wise’s later noirs show
the benefits of this training in their carefully composed mise-en-scène
and the evocative use of lighting, shadows, and camera angles. In the
first of four noirs for RKO, Born to Kill (1947), adapted from James
Gunn’s hard-boiled novel Deadlier than the Male, Wise keeps the focus on the intense, destructive, and perverse passion between a violent,
moody drifter (Lawrence Tierney) and a willful high-class woman
(Claire Trevor). The Set-Up (1949) was equally grim and violent, but it
was redeemed by the unconquerable spirit of the aging fighter (Robert
Ryan), who retains his integrity in a brutal and corrupt world. Wise’s inventive camera angles and Milton Krasner’s rich, dark tones combine
to make The Set-Up the best of the boxing noirs. Blood on the Moon
(1948) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) showed Wise’s ability
to maintain a somber, brooding atmosphere, even when the subject matter was very different, a Western and Gothic melodrama respectively.
Wise’s first film after leaving RKO showed his versatility. The Captive City (1952) initiated the cycle of city exposé films in semidocumentary style with Wise insisting that it was shot entirely on location,
in Reno, Nevada. However, the killing of the private investigator in a
shadowy, claustrophobic alley and the sleek cars prowling the nighttime
streets show Wise’s preference for the 1940s expressionist style. Wise
both produced and directed Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a subRififi caper/heist film based on the William P. McGivern novel. This
also combined the bleak realism of 1950s noir with the atmospheric
elements of the 1940s style. The striking beauty of the compositions
and the searching depiction of the tense relationships between the three
contrasting criminals demonstrated Wise’s skill, intelligence, and accomplishment as a director.
Wise’s other noirs are Curse of the Cat People (1944), Criminal
Court (1946), I Want to Live! (1958), and The Haunting (1963). See
also VISUAL STYLE.
WOMEN
• 329
WOMEN. The figure of the deadly female—the femme fatale or spider
woman—is the most conspicuous representation of femininity in film
noir. Overpoweringly desirable, duplicitous, and sexually insatiable,
the femme fatale has been interpreted as a symptom of male anxieties
about women, a creature who threatens to castrate and devour her male
victim. In a patriarchal culture, she also embodies a challenging female
independence, her intelligence, resourcefulness, and ruthlessness threatening male primacy and an explicit rebuttal of the postwar consensus
that women should be fulfilled by the roles of wife and mother. The
femme fatale’s appearance is always explicitly sexual, with long dark or
blonde hair worn loose, revealing costumes emphasizing long, sensuous
legs, and heavy makeup.
Although her cultural roots are deep, the femme fatale was a stock
type in hard-boiled fiction, and many of the most powerful screen
incarnations derived from this source: Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis
Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Claire Trevor’s Mrs. Grayle
in Murder, My Sweet (1944), or Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat in Out
of the Past (1947). Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
embodies the exoticism that was often part of the type. The femme
fatale’s most characteristic role is as a nightclub singer on the fringes
of the underworld, a modern Circe, trapping her victim through her seductive torch song; for example, “The More I Know of Love” sung by
Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in The Killers (1946). The proliferation
of mirror shots signals the femme fatale’s narcissism and duplicity, and
her enigmatic qualities propel the central narrative quest to understand
her motivations and to try to reassert rational male control, a doomed
project. Frequently encountered in 1940s noir, the femme fatale all but
disappears in the 1950s as noir’s focus became more explicitly social.
The antithesis of the femme fatale, often appearing in the same
film, is the figure of the innocent, wholesome homebuilder, the wife
or sweetheart who sees her role as support and solace for her man. In
Out of the Past, the wholesome sweetness of Ann (Virginia Huston)
is contrasted with the duplicitous Kathie or the venal Meta (Rhonda
Fleming). As befits her role, Ann is often statically framed as the
eternal, understanding listener, offering forgiveness and the promise
of a stable world of loyalty, faithfulness, and loving security. She is
associated with daylight, nature, and open spaces and is photographed
in conventional high-key lighting. Jane Wyatt in Pitfall (1948), Cathy
330 •
WOMEN
O’Donnell in Side Street (1950), Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947),
or Teresa Wright in The Steel Trap (1952) are further examples, but
they too are placed on the narrative margins, indicating the difficulties
that film noir had in portraying a virtuous and stable family life. One
way out of this narrow framework was to make the figure more active
as the beleaguered hero’s helpmate. Ann Sheridan plays a wife determined to help clear her husband’s name in Woman on the Run (1950),
while Ella Raines in Phantom Lady (1944) and Lucille Ball in The
Dark Corner (1946) are capable secretaries who have the resourcefulness the passive hero lacks.
Between these two poles is the “good-bad girl” who combines the
sexuality of the femme fatale with the fundamental decency of the
homebuilder. She can appear to be cynical, willful, and obsessed with
money, but this stems from disillusionment with men and the frustrations of a circumscribed life. Susan Hayward played the type as June,
a dance hostess in Deadline at Dawn (1946), who, jaded by the sleazy
corruption of city life, is mistrustful and cynical, reluctant to help the
amnesiac troubled veteran Alex (Bill Williams), whom she regards
as a hick. But her gradual involvement with this gentle, innocent, and
trusting man reawakens her fundamental faith in humanity. Other memorable examples are Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946), Veronica
Lake in The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Lizabeth Scott in The Strange
Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Pitfall.
Noir’s debt to horror included the figure of the imperiled female victim, notable in the early Gothic noirs where they are psychologically
abused and physically threatened by the deranged homme fatal—Joan
Fontaine in Suspicion (1941), Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944), Hedy
Lamarr in Experiment Perilous (1944), Gene Tierney in Dragonwyck
(1946), Dorothy McGuire in Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase
(1946), or Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door
(1948). This scenario was transferred to a contemporary setting as in
The Arnelo Affair (1947) or Cause for Alarm (1951), where suburban
housewives are the victims of their husband’s obsessive jealousy.
Neo-noirs both intensify existing female types and introduce others.
The femme fatale is still much in evidence, beginning with Kathleen
Turner’s Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981), even more duplicitous
and much more successful than her avatar Phyllis Dietrichson. Bridget
Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) lays waste to all the men who cross her
path in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994). Bridget offers a post-
WOOLRICH, CORNELL
• 331
feminist image of a strong and attractive woman who is both feminine
and feminist, if utterly ruthless, as did Catherine Tramell (Sharon
Stone) in the hugely successful noir sex thriller Basic Instinct (1992).
The relaxation of censorship regulations mean that Catherine now
has the opportunity to be more erotically uninhibited, allowed to talk
directly about sex in front of her police interrogators. Also unlike her
1940s forebears, the new femme fatale competes with her male victim in
the job market as well as seducing him: Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction
(1987) or Demi Moore in Disclosure (1994).
A more demonic form of the figure recurs as the vampiric psychofemme in “slasher-noirs,” such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
(1991), with its crazed nanny (Rebecca De Mornay), and Single White
Female (1992), in which the victims are primarily women. Single White
Female mingles lesbian desire with murderous intentions as Hedy
(Jennifer Jason Leigh), traumatized by guilt about causing the death of
her twin sister in childhood, attempts to steal the identity of her roommate Allie (Bridget Fonda) by first resembling, then destroying, her
rival. Several neo-noirs constructed a strong version of the “wronged
woman,” one who displays miracles of tenacity and courage to undertake her revenge: Mortal Thoughts (1991), Eye for an Eye (1995), or
Double Jeopardy (1999). Another new type was the female investigator (on her own terms, not as the hero’s substitute): Kathleen Turner
played Sara Paretsky’s serial private eye in V. I. Warshawski (1991);
Jodie Foster was a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent in The Silence
of the Lambs (1991); Betrayed (1988) and Impulse (1990) have Debra
Winger and Theresa Russell respectively as undercover investigators;
and in Bodily Harm (1995), Linda Fiorentino played a homicide detective. See also CRAWFORD, JOAN; GRAHAME, GLORIA; KEYES,
EVELYN; LUPINO, IDA; MALONE, DOROTHY; NOVAK, KIM;
PETERS, JEAN; RUSSELL, GAIL; STERLING, JAN; TOTTER,
AUDREY; WINDSOR, MARIE.
WOOLRICH, CORNELL (1903–1968). A prolific writer, Cornell
Woolrich used two pseudonyms, William Irish and George Hopley.
More films noir were adapted from his novels and short stories than
from any other writer, and his fiction was important as the source for
early noirs. Like other hard-boiled writers, Woolrich started writing for
the pulp magazines—his first crime story appeared in Detective Fiction
Weekly in August 1934—then graduating into novels. The Bride Wore
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WOOLRICH, CORNELL
Black (1940) was the first of six with “black” in the title that inspired
Marcel Duhamel’s Série Noire. Woolrich’s crime fiction is highly
distinctive and immediately recognizable, having a characteristically
neurotic intensity and pervasive sense of entrapment and paranoia.
Woolrich’s protagonists are ordinary men, not professional private
eyes, who are prey to morbid doubts as to their true natures, experiencing amnesia, nightmares, and hallucinations and an overwhelming fear
of death. Caught in a chain of frequently bizarre coincidences, Woolrich
males feel trapped and persecuted in a contingent, heartless, existentialist universe in which they are powerless. By contrast, his women are
more determined and resourceful, but not the central focus.
The first Woolrich adaptation was Street of Chance (1942), a paranoid amnesiac story in which an ordinary Joe (Burgess Meredith) discovers he has been leading a double life and may be a murderer. More
assured was Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), in which the
falsely suspected protagonist cannot corroborate his alibi and has to rely
on his resourceful secretary (Ella Raines) to clear him. The potential
of Woolrich’s fiction for “atmospheric” second features where low-key
lighting could hide their restricted budgets was recognized by several
studios, including Monogram, which produced Fall Guy (1947), The
Guilty (1947), and I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948), which captured
something of the Woolrich sensibility despite their limited budgets.
RKO’s Deadline at Dawn (1946) was hobbled by an unsympathetic
screenplay by Clifford Odets that was at odds with Woolrich’s vision.
However, United Artist’s The Chase (1946) was far more successful.
Philip Yordan’s screenplay dispenses with the lengthy flashback of the
original novel, The Black Path of Fear, but retains Woolrich’s sense
of paranoia and entrapment in this story of a down-at-heel troubled
veteran (Robert Cummings) who becomes accidentally involved with
a psychotic gangster (Steve Cochran). The Chase plays in the disturbing, liminal space between dream and reality, as does writer-director
William Shane’s Fear in the Night (1947), with its surreal opening
in which Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) experiences a nightmare
in which he murders a man in a mirrored room from which he cannot
escape. He falls into what seems like an endless tunnel before waking,
only to find marks on his body and clothing that suggests the dream
was true.
Shane remade the film as Nightmare (1956), but the 1950s shift
away from individual paranoia to more social concerns made this use
YORDAN, PHILIP
• 333
of Woolrich atypical, though Alfred Hitchcock used Woolrich’s story
for Rear Window (1954). However, his work was taken up by European
directors. François Truffaut made La Mariée était en noir (1968) from
Woolrich’s first novel The Bride Wore Black, followed by La Sirène
du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969) from Waltz into Darkness
(1947), which has an historical setting. Rainer Werner Fassbinder made
Martha for West German television in 1973, from Woolrich’s final
story “For the Rest of Her Life” (1968). Neo-noir filmmakers also find
Woolrich congenial material, including Union City (1980), adapted
from “The Corpse Next Door” (1937), starring Deborah Harry.
Other noirs adapted from Woolrich include: The Leopard Man
(1943), Black Angel (1946), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), The
Window (1949), No Man of Her Own (1950), Obsession (France 1954),
J’ai épousé une ombre (I Married a Dead Man, 1983), and Original
Sin (2001).
–Y–
YORDAN, PHILIP (1914–2003). Philip Yordan was a prolific screenwriter and also a sought-after script “doctor” and dialogue polisher
who acted as a front for various other screenwriters, including several
unable to work because of the blacklist. The first of his nine films noir
was When Strangers Marry (1944), a conventional wronged-man story
written to a strict deadline for the King Brothers, as was Suspense
(1946), which had a greater strength and intensity in its depiction
of male rivalries. The Chase (1946) was another low-budget second
feature, but Yordan’s screenplay was one of the best adaptations of
Cornell Woolrich, capturing the dark, oppressive atmosphere of the
source novel. Yordan cowrote Reign of Terror (1949), the brainchild
of producer Walter Wanger, with bravura direction by Anthony
Mann. Yordan considered that his device—the black book in which
Robespierre’s victims are recorded—provided a strong narrative thread
and stopped the film from becoming a series of set speeches about the
French Revolution. Yordan adapted Budd Schulberg’s novel for The
Harder They Fall (1956), one of the best of the boxing noirs, but his
finest work was the original screenplay for The Big Combo (1955),
directed by Joseph H. Lewis, a dark tale that crackles with sexual tension as well as menace and fatalism. Yordan’s other noirs are House of
334 •
YOUNG, VICTOR
Strangers (1949), Edge of Doom (1950), Detective Story (1951), and
Joe MacBeth (GB 1955).
YOUNG, VICTOR (1899–1956). Victor Young was a staff composer
with Paramount from 1935, and his prodigious output of scores included
numerous noirs, which, as with The Big Clock (1948), were effective if
not distinctive.
Young’s other noirs include: The Glass Key (1942), Ministry of
Fear (1945), Calcutta (1947), I Walk Alone (1948), So Evil My Love
(GB 1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), The Accused (1949),
Chicago Deadline (1949), The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), Gun
Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female, 1950), and Appointment with Danger
(1951). See also MUSIC.
–Z–
ZANUCK, DARRYL F. (1902–1979). Darryl F. Zanuck was an energetic and active writer turned producer who helped to form Twentieth
Century-Fox and forged its production policy. In the postwar period he
encouraged the development of lower-budgeted noir crime films, such
as Somewhere in the Night (1946), that would not interfere with his
more prestigious studio productions. He also encouraged the production of socially conscious noirs such as Thieves’ Highway (1949) and
No Way Out (1950). Zanuck disapproved of the blacklist and encouraged Albert Maltz and Jules Dassin as far as he could, sending the
latter off to London to film Night and the City (1950) in an attempt to
protect his career.
Zanuck’s other noirs are Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Dragonwyck
(1946), Boomerang! (1947), and The Snake Pit (1948). See also LEFTWING CYCLE.
Bibliography
Contents
General Studies
Cultural/Historical/Social
Crime/Gangster Films
Crime/Detective/Hard-Boiled Fiction
European Influences
The Blacklist
Film Noir
Reference Works
Collections of Essays
Early Studies
Theoretical Studies
Overviews
Books/Theses
Short Pieces
Neo-Noir
Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and Film Noir
Noir and the City
Noir and Gender
African American Noir
Visual Style
Music
Production and Marketing
Politics and Censorship
Characterization/Performance
Personnel
Actors
Cinematographers
Directors
Producers
Writers
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Studies of Particular Films Noir
Studies of Particular Neo-Noirs
Television Noir
Other
World Noir
General
Asian
Australasian
British
French
German
Italian
Latin American
Scandinavian
Spanish
Magazines and Journals
Audio-Visual
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Introduction
Film noir has been an object of intense interest and debate since its “invention” by
French critics immediately after the war and its consecration by Raymond Borde
and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir américain (1941–1953) (1955),
and it has now generated an extensive body of works, both scholarly and populist.
Although slow to mobilize, Anglo-American criticism came of age with the appearance of Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s seminal Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style in 1979 (a revised edition, retitled The Film
Noir Encyclopedia, with James Ursini and Robert Porfirio as additional authors,
was published in 2010), but although the bulk of the work on noir is in English,
the interest in noir is international. Included here are some of the major works that
have appeared in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
Discussions of “classic” film noir (1940–59) constitute the bulk of this bibliography, but this literature is clearly stronger in some areas than in others. There
have been numerous studies of directors but far fewer of other personnel: cinematographers, composers, set designers, and producers, whose influence on film noir,
one could legitimately argue, was equally important. Although male hard-boiled
writers are well represented, studies of women screenwriters are only just beginning to emerge, and the whole relationship of writers to film noir needs to be
rethought and redefined. Discussions of the city and gender in film noir abound,
BIBLIOGRAPHY
• 337
but there are far fewer that address issues of class and ethnicity, though the balance
is beginning to shift. Although textual analysis and interpretation—particularly of
individual films—is extremely well represented in discussion of film noir, much
less well developed is an attention to its conditions of production, exhibition, marketing, and reception. Although there are numerous studies of individual actors,
these are often journalistic, impressionistic, or biographical and there is a clear
need for more conceptually orientated studies of acting, stardom, and performance
in relation to film noir, ones that could extend Robert Sklar’s City Boys (1992),
which defined and mapped the development of a particular cultural archetype.
As noted in the main introduction, it is now impossible—in any meaningful
sense—to discuss film noir as a solely time-bound phenomenon, a period of American filmmaking that finished with Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959. Recent studies
of noir, such as those by Andrew Spicer (2002) and Mark Bould (2005), encompass
both noir and neo-noir. Richard Martin’s Mean Streets and Raging Bulls (1997) began the process of systematically mapping neo-noir, but, perhaps because of the lack
of an historical perspective, the terrain remains inchoate, lacking a strong center.
Studies of neo-noir have been shaped by the preoccupations that characterize studies of film noir and are prey to the same weaknesses, overwhelmingly privileging
texts over contexts and not often addressing issues of, in particular, marketing and
reception. However, a real strength has been to recognize the hybridity of neo-noir,
an understanding that many of the seminal films—for instance, Blade Runner (1982)
or Se7en (1995)—are meldings of, respectively, sci-fi and horror with film noir and
must be understood within the fluid context of contemporary generic production.
This, in turn, has made commentators more sensitive to the hybridity of classic noir,
to its commerce with melodrama, horror, the period film, and Westerns.
In addition to recognizing that noir continues to be an evolving phenomenon,
James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, first published
in 1998 and reissued with an additional chapter in 2008, decisively widened the
conception of film noir from a filmic to a cultural phenomenon, understanding it
as a mutable and multiple discursive construction rather than a genre. Naremore
used the term noir mediascape to designate the pervasive nature of noir and to
open the field to studies of other forms, including comics and graphic novels, radio, television, and video games. Naremore also identified noir as an international
phenomenon, though his actual discussion of this concentrated on how various
ethnic groups were represented in American noirs. However, recent studies of
noir have tried to locate its presence in other national cinemas, constituting a
significant shift away from understanding noir as a solely American phenomenon
and identifying its global presence. David Desser’s “Global Noir: Genre Film
in the Age of Transformation” (2003) was a useful overview, concentrating, in
particular, on the processes of global production, distribution, and consumption of
neo-noir and the rise of Asian noirs. Desser identifies a number of shared stories,
themes, characters, and settings and argues that there is a pronounced tendency to
338 •
BIBLIOGRAPHY
use multiple storylines and decentered disrupted narratives. The book-length collection edited by Andrew Spicer, European Film Noir (2007), contains nine essays
that chart the development of noir and neo-noir in five European countries. There
is clearly scope for many more such studies, particularly those that explore East
Asian noir further and those that identify and map other European and world noirs,
including Latin America. Thus an interest in film noir now needs to encompass its
geographical, historical, and cultural reach, a more complex understanding than
the one that informed earlier studies of black-and-white American crime thrillers
of the 1940s and 1950s, but one that arguably produces a better appreciation of
the nature of noir.
Because the bibliography is extensive, containing a comprehensive listing of
writing about film noir, it has been divided into a number of sections that will, it
is hoped, allow the reader to locate particular studies easily. It begins with General
Studies, containing works that are not centered on film noir but that either analyze noir in the course of a wider survey or provide an indispensable contextual
discussion. The first section—Cultural/Historical/Social—lists very broadly based
studies, including discussions of genre, gender, film techniques and aesthetics,
representations of the city, ethnicity, and cultural types such as the serial killer,
and important historical and cultural studies. For instance, Brian Neve’s Film and
Politics in America (1992), John Orr’s Cinema and Modernity (1993), and Robert
Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness (2000) valuably locate film noir (or neo-noir)
within broader generic, political, social, and cultural configurations.
The next two sections are more self-explanatory: Crime/Gangster Films and
Crime/Detective/Hard-Boiled Fiction contain discussions of what Borde and
Chaumeton identified as the “immediate context” for film noir. Many of the
studies of crime and gangster films—including Colin McArthur’s Underworld
USA (1972) and Jack Shadoian’s Dreams and Dead Ends (2003)—contain important analyses of film noir. The section on hard-boiled fiction includes studies
of the work of seminal authors—James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell
Hammett, Jim Thompson, and Cornell Woolrich—whose work was extensively
adapted for film noir. The next section—European Influences—lists works that
consider the impact expressionism has had on the genesis and development of
film noir, including discussion of German émigré personnel whose importance is
difficult to overestimate. Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After (2000)
is a particularly valuable account of this complex (and reciprocal) relationship.
Ginette Vincendeau’s “Noir Is Also a French Word: The French Antecedents of
Film Noir” identified the cultural and intellectual importance of poetic realism for
American film noir. Because the impact of the investigations of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and the production of the blacklist was
so pronounced on many noir personnel, there is a final section that lists the most
important literature on this subject.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
• 339
The remainder of the bibliography consists of works devoted solely to film noir,
with the exception of the African American and World Noirs sections, in which
more general material has also been included that contextualizes those discussions. There are now a number of reference works on noir, in addition to Silver
and Ward’s An Encyclopedic Reference. Some are clearly populist but often lively
and informative. The collections of essays either bring together work scattered in
journals, as is the case with the four volumes edited by Alain Silver and James
Ursini, or have specially commissioned essays, as in Ian Cameron’s The Movie
Book of Film Noir (1992) or Joan Copjec’s Shades of Noir (1993). For ease of
reference, individual essays from these collections have been included in their
relevant sections throughout the bibliography. Ed Gorman et al.’s The Big Book
of Noir (1998) is particularly wide-ranging, containing short pieces on radio and
television and comic books as well as fiction and film. R. Barton Palmer’s Perspectives on Film Noir (1996) contains most of the early French studies. These are
listed separately in the next section, which brings together the pioneering work on
film noir, not only Borde and Chaumeton but also Raymond Durgnat’s “Paint It
Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir” (1970) and Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film
Noir” (1972) that inaugurated the Anglo-American interest in this fugitive form of
filmmaking. The section labeled Theoretical may strike some as otiose (surely all
studies of noir must engage, at some level, with the conceptual problems in defining the term?), but the aim is to group together works that make these issues their
principal focus. Marc Vernet’s pithy “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom” is a salutary interrogation of whether the term has validity, while Christopher Orr’s “Genre
Theory in the Context of the Noir and Post-Noir Film” (1997) deftly reconsiders
the perennial difficulty of noir’s problematic status.
The long Overview section has been divided between book-length and shorter
studies in order to separate out the major works that have attempted to define and
discuss noir as a whole. Carl Richardson’s Autopsy: An Element of Realism in
Film Noir (1992) is an uneven but nevertheless important study that contextualized noir within wartime and postwar developments in more realistic forms of
filmmaking, considering the impact of documentaries and Italian neo-realism.
Paula Rabinowitz’s Black & White & Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism (2002)
is a genuine attempt, like Naremore’s seminal study, to widen the parameters of
noir studies, surveying its imbrication in an eclectic array of media forms. Sheri
Biesen’s Blackout (2005) scrupulously traced the emergence of noir during World
War II, thereby decisively critiquing the conventional view that it was a postwar
phenomenon. The shorter pieces offer an eclectic but rich variety of different takes
on noir, but the ones listed in this section all take noir as a whole as their focus.
Such eclecticism also characterizes the work on neo-noir, but those studies were
grouped together partly to show how extensive the literature now is and also to
locate studies of neo-noir conveniently in one section.
340 •
BIBLIOGRAPHY
By contrast, the following sections have a narrower focus, organized around the
major preoccupations that have characterized the study of film noir: its relationship with hard-boiled fiction and its representation of the city and gender. Edward
Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (2004) is the most conceptually sophisticated study of noir’s urban focus, delineating an important historical
shift between the 1940s and 1950s. Film noir and the femme fatale have been provocative issues for feminist scholars. E. Ann Kaplan’s Women in Film Noir—first
published in 1978 but revised and reissued in 1998—was the pioneering collection
with a range of incisive contributions, though Elizabeth Cowie’s “Film Noir and
Women” (1993) remains the best single overview. The aberrant, paranoid males
who litter film noir have also attracted much attention, and Frank Krutnik’s In a
Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991) remains the best single study.
Readers should note that these sections need to be cross-referenced with the one on
neo-noir as there are many studies that explore the ways in which later noirs provide more extreme representations of the city and gender. As noted, discussion of
ethnicity has been far less pronounced in studies of noir, but the African American
section contains a number of significant studies focusing on both representation
and on production cycles. Dan Flory’s recent Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir
(2008) is the first book-length study, an indication of the growing importance of
this concern with ethnicity in film noir.
Janey Place and Lowell Peterson’s pioneering “Some Visual Motifs in Film
Noir” (1974) identified the importance of lighting and camerawork to film noir,
but set design and costumes need more attention. Music and sound design is becoming a more important area for film studies as a discipline, and noir studies are
beginning to reflect this, notably David Butler’s book-length Jazz Noir (2002). As
noted, the most disappointing area of noir studies has been that of production and
marketing. Although studies of individual noirs often discuss their production and
reception context, there are few overview studies that have this as their principal
focus. Mike Chopra-Gant’s Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir (2006) goes some way
toward looking at how noirs were received in the postwar period, but much more
work needs to be done. J. P. Telotte’s “Film Noir at Columbia: Fashion and Innovation” (1992) showed how Columbia was attempting to compete with, to “outnoir,” other studios, and it would be very useful to have comparable studies of
other studio outputs, including “poverty row” companies such as Monogram and
Republic. Studies of these studios exist, but there is a need to focus specifically
on their films noir. As also noted, the paucity of studies that consider stardom and
performance in film noir is equally disappointing.
The studies of individual actors—the first of the Personnel sections—go some
way to addressing this lacuna, but they are often primarily descriptive and biographical. Considerations of particular directors are often much stronger with Tom
Gunning’s The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (2000).
BIBLIOGRAPHY
• 341
Further studies of cinematographers, composers, and producers would be welcome, and also of writers, though many detailed studies are listed in the section
on hard-boiled fiction and noir. The listed studies of particular films—always a
key strength of noir literature—has also divided what was potentially an unwieldy
list between noir and neo-noir. A number of book-length analyses of the most
celebrated noirs have been published in the BFI’s Film Classics and Modern Classics series, and it is often here that issues of production, marketing, and reception
are analyzed.
One of the most encouraging recent developments has been a focus on film
noir’s presence in other forms. The pioneering work by Jeremy Butler on Miami
Vice (1985) showed the importance of television noir, but further work emerged
only slowly. It is hoped that the collection edited by Steven Sanders and Aeon J.
Skoble, The Philosophy of TV Noir (2008), will be the first of many that remap and
redefine this important area. It appears that there are only two essays on radio noir:
Mark Dawidziak’s study of Howard Duff (“Radio’s Sam Spade”) and William
Nadel’s more general piece, both in The Big Book of Noir. The time is therefore
ripe for scholars to examine radio as an important vehicle for film noir and thus
explore further the interconnectedness of noir forms. Hopefully, this will extend to
further studies of comics and graphic novels, an area of intense debate and interest
for aficionados but lacking, at present, sustained and systematic scholarly work.
As with any other area of study, much material is now available and accessible
online. The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) is an indispensable source
of information about personnel, films, and television series generally and includes
a list of films noir. It is not definitive and needs to be checked against other sources
as there are occasional inaccuracies. Often the anonymous users’ reviews of rarely
seen noirs are particularly helpful. The most useful noir-specific sites have been
listed at the end of the bibliography. Many of these have a wealth of visual material and are often lively and interesting, but most are populist and tend to recycle
the same ideas and information about film noir/neo-noir.
GENERAL STUDIES
Cultural/Historical/Social
Alloway, Lawrence. Violent America: The Movies, 1946–1964. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.
Bade, Patrick. Femmes Fatales: Images of Evil and Fascinating Women. London:
Ash & Grant, 1979.
Barefoot, Guy. Gaslight Melodrama: From Victorian London to 1940s Hollywood. New York: Continuum, 2001.
342 •
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–
1960. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993.
Bergfelder, Tim. “The Nation Vanishes: European Co-productions and Popular
Genre Formulae in the 1950s and 1960s.” Pp. 139–52 in Cinema and Nation,
edited by Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie. London: Routledge, 2000.
Beverly, William. On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe. London: Paul Elek, 1975.
Bondanella, Peter. Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys, and
Sopranos. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Branigan, Edward. Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Cinema. New York: Mouton, 1984.
Browne, Nick, ed. Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Bruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London:
Routledge, 1997.
Butler, Margaret. Film and Community in Britain and France. London: I. B.
Tauris, 2004.
Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and
Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Corber, Robert J. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis
of Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
Cormack, Michael. Ideology and Cinematography in Hollywood. London: Macmillan, 1994.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.
Deming, Barbara. Running Away from Myself: A Dream Portrait of America
Drawn from the Films of the Forties. New York: Grossman, 1969.
Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in
America. London: Verso, 1987.
———. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth
Century. London: Verso, 1997.
Dettman, Bruce, and Michael Bedford. The Horror Factory: The Horror Films of
Universal 1931–1955. New York: Gordon Press, 1976.
Diawara, Manthia, ed. Black American Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.
Diawara, Manthia, and Mia Mask, eds. Black American Cinema Reconsidered.
London: Routledge, 2009.
Dijkstra, Bram. Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Basingstoke (UK): Macmillan, 1987.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
• 343
———. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York:
Routledge, 1991.
Donald, James. Imagining the Modern City. London: Athlone, 1999.
Eyman, Scott. Five American Cinematographers. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1987.
Farber, Manny. Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies. New York: Praeger, 1971.
Flinn, Caryl. Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Frisby, David. Cityscapes of Modernity: Critical Explorations. Cambridge: Polity
Press, 2001.
Gonthier, David, Jr. The American Prison Film since 1930. Lewiston, NY: Edwin
Mellen Press, 2006.
Grindon, Leger. “Body and Soul: The Structure of Meaning in the Boxing Film
Genre.” Cinema Journal 35, no. 4 (Summer 1996): 54–69.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Halttunen, Karen. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Henriksen, Margot A. Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the
Atomic Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Higham, Charles. Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light. London: Thames and
Hudson/BFI, 1970.
Keating, Patrick. Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2009.
Klein, Norman M. The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of
Memory. London: Verso, 1997.
Klinger, Barbara. Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the
Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2000.
Kooistra, Paul. Criminals as Heroes: Structure, Power, and Identity. Bowling
Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.
Kozloff, Sarah. Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in the American Fiction Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Lafferty, William. “A Reappraisal of the Semi-Documentary in Hollywood,
1945–1948.” Velvet Light Trap 20 (Summer 1983): 22–26.
Lev, Peter. Transforming the Screen: 1950–1959. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Mann, Denise. Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Marmorstein, Gary. Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and its Makers, 1900–
1975. New York: Schirmer, 1997.
344 •
BIBLIOGRAPHY
May, Lary. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
———. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way.
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Moreno, Julio L. “Subjective Cinema: And the Problem of Film in the First Person.” Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television (1953): 341–58.
Neale, Steve. “Film Noir.” Pp. 151–78 in Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000.
Neumann, Dietrich, ed. Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner.
London: Prestel, 1999.
Neve, Brian. Film and Politics in America. London: Routledge, 1992.
Orr, John. Cinema and Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.
———. Contemporary Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
Palmer, Christopher. The Composer in Hollywood. London: Marion Boyars, 1990.
Polan, Dana. Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema,
1940–1950. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Pomerance, Murray, ed. City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Pratt, Ray. Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.
Renov, Michael. Hollywood’s Wartime Woman: Representation and Ideology.
Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1993.
Saxe, Robert Francis. Settling Down: World War II Veterans’ Challenge to the
Postwar Consensus. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
———. Boom and Bust: American Culture in the 1940s. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1997.
Shiel, Mark, and Tony Fitzmaurice, eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Societies
in a Global Context. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
Simpson, Philip L. Psychopaths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University
Press, 2000.
Turim, Maureen. Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History. London: Routledge,
1989.
Walsh, Andrea S. Women’s Film and Female Experience 1940–1950. New York:
Praeger, 1985.
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Wolfenstein, Martha, and Nathan Leites. The Movies: A Psychological Study.
Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1950.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
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Crime/Gangster Films
Biesen, Sheri Chinen. “Reforming Hollywood Gangsters: Crime and Morality
from Populism to Patriotism.” Pp. 259–76 in Gangster Film Reader, edited by
Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight, 2007.
Brode, Douglas. Money, Women and Guns: Crime Movies from Bonnie and Clyde
to the Present. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1996.
Brown, Jeffrey A. “Bullets, Baddies, and Bad Guys: The ‘Action-Cop’ Genre.”
Journal of Popular Film and Television 21, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 79–87.
Clarens, Carlos. (Updated by Foster Hirsch.) Crime Movies: An Illustrated History of the Gangster Genre from D. W. Griffith to Pulp Fiction. New York: Da
Capo, 1997.
Conquest, John. Trouble Is Their Business: Private Eyes in Fiction, Film, and
Television, 1927–1988. New York: Garland, 1989.
Delamater, Jerome H., and Ruth Prigozy, eds. The Detective in American Fiction,
Film, and Television. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Derry, Charles. The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.
Everson, William K. The Detective in Film. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1972.
Fuller, Graham. “Right Villains.” Film Comment 26, no. 5 (September–October
1990): 47–48, 51–52.
Gates, Philippa. Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.
Grievesen, Lee, Esther Sonnet, and Peter Stanfield, eds. Mob Culture: Hidden
Histories of the American Gangster Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “American Nightmare: The Underworld in Film.” Journal
of Popular Film and Television 6, no. 3 (1978): 240–61.
Hughes, Howard. Crime Wave: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Crime Movies.
London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.
Karpf, Stephen Louis. The Gangster Film: Emergence, Variation and Decay of a
Genre 1930–1940. New York: Arno Press, 1973.
King, Neal. Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1999.
Le Sueur, Mark. “The Private Eye: Second ‘Golden Age.’” Journal of Popular
Film and Television 7, no. 2 (1979): 181–89.
Leitch, Thomas. Crime Films. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Mason, Fran. American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
McArthur, Colin. Underworld USA. London: Secker & Warburg, 1972.
McCarty, John. Bullets over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the
Silents to “The Sopranos.” New York: Da Capo, 1997.
Miller, Don. “Private Eyes: From Sam Spade to J. J. Gittes.” Focus on Film, 22
(Autumn 1975): 15–35.
346 •
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Mitchell, Edward. “Apes and Essences: Some Sources of Significance in American Gangster Films.” Wide Angle 1, no. 1 (1976). Pp. 219–28 in Film Genre III,
edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Mullen, Anne, and Emer O’Beirne, eds. Crime Scenes: Detective Narratives in
European Cinema since 1945. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 2002.
Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from
Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Nochimson, Martha. Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong
Kong. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1978.
Rubin, Martin. Thrillers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Ruehlmann, William. Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye. New
York: New York University Press, 1974.
Ruth, David E. Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture,
1918–1934. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film. 2nd
ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, eds. The Gangster Film Reader. New York:
Limelight, 2007.
Waller, Gregory A. “Mike Hammer and the Detective Film of the 1980s.” Journal
of Popular Film and Television 13, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 109–25.
Warshow, Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Partisan Review (1948). Pp.
127–33 in The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1962.
Wilson, Ron. “The Left-Handed Form of Human Endeavor: Crime Films during
the 1990s.” Pp. 143–60 in Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, edited by
Wheeler W. Dixon. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Yaquinto, Marilyn. Pump ’Em Full of Lead: A Look at Gangsters on Film. New
York: Twayne, 1998.
Crime/Detective/Hard-Boiled Fiction
Bell, Ian, and Graham Daldry, eds. Watching the Detectives: Essays on Crime
Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Bourdier, Jean. Histoire du Roman Policier. Paris: Editions du Fallois, 1996.
Cobley, Paul. The American Thriller: Generic Innovation and Social Change in
the 1970s. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
Collins, Max Allan, and James L. Traylor. One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s
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Press, 1984.
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Décharné, Max. Hardboiled Hollywood: The Origins of the Great Crime Films.
Harpenden (UK): No Exit Press, 2005.
Docherty, Brian, ed. American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre. Basingstoke
(UK): Macmillan, 1988.
Dooley, Dennis. Dashiell Hammett. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.
Duncan, Paul. Noir Fiction: Dark Highways. Harpenden (UK): Pocket Essentials,
2000.
Durham, Philip. Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler’s
Knight. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.
Ewert, Jeanne. “Hardboiled (Had I But Known).” Paradoxa 16 (2002): 11–25.
Forter, Greg. Murdering Masculinities: Fantasies of Gender and Violence in the
American Crime Novel. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Fox, Terry Curtis. “City Knights.” Film Comment 20, no. 5 (October 1984):
30–49.
Frieburger, William. “James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, and the Politics of the Los Angeles Crime Novel.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 17, no. 2 (1996): 87–104.
Geherin, David. The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction. New York:
Frederick Ungar, 1985.
Geyh, Paula. “Enlightenment Noir: Hammett’s Detectives and the Genealogy of
the Modern (Private) ‘I.’” Paradoxa 16 (2002): 26–47.
Haut, Woody. Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War. London:
Serpent’s Tail, 1995.
———. Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction. London: Serpent’s
Tail, 1999.
———. Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2002.
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Hoopes, Roy. Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain. 2nd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
Lambert, Gavin. The Dangerous Edge. New York: Grossman, 1976.
Marling, William. The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler.
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McCann, Sean. Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and
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Naremore, James. “Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection.”
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Nevins, Francis M., Jr. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New
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Nyman, Jopi. Men Alone: Masculinity, Individualism, and Hard-Boiled Fiction.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.
Orr, Christopher. “Cain, Naturalism and Noir.” Film Criticism 25, no. 1 (Fall
2000): 47–64.
Polito, Robert. The Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1996.
Reid, David, and Jayne L. Walker. “Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the
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Hyperion, 1998.
Thomson, Brian Lindsay. Graham Greene and the Politics of Popular Fiction and
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Watson, Priscilla, and Manina Jones. Detective Agency: Women Rewriting in the
Hard-Boiled Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Willett, Ralph. The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA. Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1996.
European Influences
Andrew, Dudley. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
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Bahr, Ehrhard. Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and
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Brook, Vincent. Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of
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———. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. London:
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———. “Ethnicity, Authenticity, and Exile: A Counterfeit Trade? German Filmmakers and Hollywood.” Pp. 97–124 in An Accented Cinema: Exilic and
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Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.
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Koepnick, Lutz. The Dark Mirror: German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Langman, Larry. Destination Hollywood: The Influence of Europeans on American Filmmaking. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
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Morgan, Janice, and Dudley Andrew, eds. “Introduction: European Precursors of
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Morrison, James. Passport to Hollywood: Hollywood Films, European Directors.
New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Munby, Jonathan. “The ‘Un-American’ Film Art: Robert Siodmak and the Political Significance of Film Noir’s German Connection.” Iris 21 (Spring 1996):
74–88.
———. “Heimat Hollywood: Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Edgar Ulmer, and the
Criminal Cinema of the Austro-Jewish Diaspora.” Pp. 138–62 in From World
War to Waldheim: Culture and Politics in Austria and the United States, edited
by David F. Good and Ruth Wodak. New York: Berghahn Books, 1999.
Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
O’Brien, Charles. “Film Noir in France: Before the Liberation.” Iris 21 (Spring
1996): 7–20.
Petrie, Graham. Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America, 1922–
1931. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.
Phillips, Alastair. City of Darkness, City of Light: Émigré Filmmakers in Paris
1929–1939. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003.
Phillips, Alastair, and Ginette Vincendeau, eds. Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood. London: BFI Publishing, 2006.
Phillips, Gene D. Exiles in Hollywood: Major European Film Directors in America. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1998.
Steinbauer-Grötsch, Barbara. Die Lange Nacht der Schatten: Film Noir und Filmexil. Berlin: Bertz, 2000.
Taylor, J. Russell. Strangers in Paradise: The Hollywood Emigrés 1933–1950.
London: Faber and Faber, 1983.
Vincendeau, Ginette. “Noir Is Also a French Word: The French Antecedents of
Film Noir.” Pp. 49–58 in The Movie Book of Film Noir, edited by Ian Cameron.
London: Studio Vista, 1992.
The Blacklist
Andersen, Thom. “Red Hollywood.” Pp. 141–96 in Literature and the Visual Arts
in Contemporary Society, edited by S. Ferguson and B. Groseclose. Columbus:
350 •
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Ohio University Press, 1986. Reprinted with an Afterword, 225–75, in “UnAmerican” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era, edited by Frank
Krutnik, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield. New Brunwick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Buhle, Paul, and Dave Wagner. Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees
in Film and Television, 1950–2002. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
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FILM NOIR
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Collections of Essays
Cameron, Ian, ed. The Movie Book of Film Noir. London: Studio Vista, 1992.
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Early Studies
Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. Panorama du film noir américain
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Frank, Nino. “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: l’Aventure Criminelle.” L’Ecran
Français (28 August 1946). Translated as “A New Kind of Police Drama: The
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Kracauer, Siegfried. “Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American
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(29 June 1949). Pp. 28–29 in Perspectives on Film Noir, edited by R. Barton
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Theoretical Studies
Conard, Mark. “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir.” Pp. 7–22 in
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Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Copjec, Joan. “The Phenomenal Nonphenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir.”
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Dimendberg, Edward. “Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Hollywood’s Terror Films,’ and the Spatiality of Film Noir.” New German Critique 89 (Spring/Summer 2003): 113–43.
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Overviews
Books/Theses
Arthur, Paul. “Shadows on the Mirror: Film Noir and Cold War America 1945–
1957.” Thesis (PhD), New York University, 1985.
Biesen, Sheri Chinen. “Film Noir and World War II: Wartime Production, Censorship, and the ‘Red Meat’ Crime Cycle.” Thesis (PhD), University of Texas,
1998.
———. Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Bould, Mark. Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. London: Wallflower, 2005.
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Brion, Patrick. Le film noir. Paris: Nathan, 1992.
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———. L’heritage du film noir. Paris: Editions de la Martiniè, 2008.
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Clayton, Leigh. “Authentic Heroes: Existentialism and Film Noir.” Thesis (PhD),
University of Aberdeen, 1996.
Crowther, Bruce. Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror. London: Columbus,
1988.
Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film
Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Duncan, Paul. Film Noir: Films of Trust & Betrayal. Harpenden (UK): Pocket
Essentials, 2000.
Fay, Jennifer, and Nieland, Justus. Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the
Cultures of Globalization. London: Routledge, 2009.
Gifford, Barry. Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Guérif, François. Le film noir américain. Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1999.
Guerri, Alberto. Il film noir: storie americane. Rome: Gremese, 1998.
Hare, William. Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
Hibbs, Thomas S. Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.
Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2008.
Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo
Press, 2009.
Holm, D. K. Film Soleil. Harpenden (UK): Pocket Essentials, 2005.
Kaufmann, Kai. Das Geschlecterverhältnis im amerikanischen Film noir. Alfeld/
Leine: Coppi-Verlag, Aufsätze zu Film und Fernsehen, Bd. 45, 1997.
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Editions L’Harmattan, 2009.
Lyons, Arthur. Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir. New York:
Da Capo, 2000.
Marasco, Roberta. Il Tempo nel cinema: il film noir. Pavia: Universita degli studi,
1994.
Meehan, Paul. Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir. Jefferson,
NC: McFarland, 2008.
Muller, Eddie. Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. London: Titan Books, 1998.
Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. 2nd ed. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2008.
356 •
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Oliver, Kelly, and Benigno Trigo. Noir Anxiety. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. New
York: Twayne, 1994.
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(PhD), Berkeley, University of California, 1979.
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York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Richardson, Carl. Autopsy: An Element of Realism in Film Noir. Metuchen, NJ:
Scarecrow Press, 1992.
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1999). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
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(Kieler Beiträge zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik). Berlin: Königshausen &
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Simsolo,