Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Film Noir: The Beauty of a Genre

I’m a fan of movies from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, with the exception of musicals (they’re not my thing).  I have an exception there as well: I love Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. 

One of my preferred genres is “film noir” those crime dramas that were in their heyday from the early ‘40s through the late ‘50s.  I’ve watched many of these black-and-white beauties over and over, and despite knowing some of the dialogue by heart, I swear there are still new things to discover every time I watch.  My list, in order of release date is:
An early favorite is “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), with Humphrey Bogart in a role I find delicious: the detective Sam Spade.  The cast of characters is ridiculous, the story’s melodramatic, but the whole is great, I think.  John Huston directed. 

Another beloved film is “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) in which a young woman slowly grows to realize that the adventurous uncle she idolizes - her mother’s adored younger brother Charlie  - (played by Joseph Cotten)  is a murderer. Alfred Hitchcock directed.

Laura,” the 1944 detective noir directed by Otto Preminger is another marvelous example of the genre.  In this one, the detective (Dana Andrews) falls in love with what he thinks is a dead girl.  It’s also got great, fun roles for Clifton Webb and Vincent Price.  It’s a “whodunit” with a twist.  

Apparently, 1944 was a very good year for noirs…“Double Indemnity was filmed that year.  This is the one where Fred McMurray, as an insurance man, gets sucked into a let’s-murder-my-husband plot by Barbara Stanwyck.  Barbara is pure, sexy evil and Fred’s just stupid enough to fall into the trap.  Of course, it ends badly.  Billy Wilder directed.

In 1945, Wilder made “The Lost Weekend.”  In it, the alcoholic writer Ray Milland falls off the wagon, drinks himself out of house and home, gets thrown out of bars, steals money, and ends up in a psychiatric ward with the DTs in one long, binging weekend.  You may never drink again.

Nineteen forty-six was another banner year for film noir:  Notorious,” the famous Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman spy/love story, is another film from that year.   It’s got a Miami Beach party-girl recruited to spy for the Americans, Nazi spies in South America, and perhaps the most protective, evil mom in cinema history (Claude Rains’s mother, played by Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantin).  Hitchcock directed.  

Lana Turner is a true femme fatale in “The Postman Always Rings Twice(1946).  She’s married to an old man who owns a dilapidated gas station/diner.  After luring drifter John Garfield into her web, they kill the husband; but living “happily ever after” is not in the cards.

The Blue Dahlia,” again from 1946, is a complex whodunit.  It stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, two diminutive, good-looking actors who were well suited to each other.  Lots of twists and turns, and as in most noirs, mostly nighttime scenes.

In “The Stranger,” (1946), Orson Welles directs himself, Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson in the story of a high-ranking Nazi who hides out in a New England town and marries an unsuspecting woman.  Robinson is with the War Crimes Commission, and is unrelenting in tracking down his man.  There’s the psychological element of a fragile wife who doesn’t want to believe what she knows to be true about her husband; the young brother-in-law who’s in on the chase; the will-he-kill-her suspense, and an ending that is quite satisfying.   

I also enjoy “The Naked City,” from 1948, something rather different.  It’s a half-documentary that features voice-over narration, and the added attraction of actual New York City locations.   The plot revolves around the investigation of the murder of a young model.  An older cop, played by Barry Fitzgerald, plays the lead investigator.  There’s also a young cop who’s learning the ropes, and who gets to do the door-to-door investigating of routine police work.  

'Til next time.

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