As this is posted, it’s 71 years since the release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which is based, of course, on Raymond Chandler’s work (I know, the ‘photo isn’t from that film. Please read on…). It may not be the first film noir, but it’s certainly one of the best-known. And it consistently makes lists of the top films noir of all time. There’s something about this sort of film that draws the viewer in, even though one knows that things are not going to go well. And the film context can capture subtleties and tension that it’s harder to portray in a novel. Little wonder that there are so many out there, and they’re still being made.
Laura, for instance, is Otto Preminger’s 1944 adaptation of the Vera Caspery novel of the same name. In it, NYPD detective Mark McPherson investigates the death of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt. As he gradually builds a picture of her life, McPherson learns the kind of person she was, the people who surrounded her, and the reasons that there might have been to kill her. There are some surprising twists in the film, as anyone knows who’s seen it. And there’s plenty of unreliable narration, as well as characters who aren’t what they seem.
In 1944, James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity was adapted for film by Billy Wilder, and many critics consider it the gold standard for a classic noir film. In the film, insurance company sales representative Walter Neff (played by Fred McMurray) falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of his clients. Incidentally, the ‘photo is of those two actors in those roles. Neff is so besotted by Phyllis that he falls in with her plot to kill her husband. But he hasn’t counted on the sort of person she is, and he hasn’t counted on claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Everything soon spins out of control, and those who’ve seen the film know that it doesn’t end on any happier a note than the novella does.
There are plenty of other classic films noir out there; I’ve only had time to mention just a few. But it’s a very popular sub-genre. So popular, in fact, that the noir film is still being made today, and very successfully. There’ve been plenty of more contemporary, neo-noir pictures; Here are just a few.
Curtis Hanson’s 1997 L.A. Confidential is a sort of loose adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. Like the novel, the film follows the fortunes of three LAPD officers: Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes, who are living and working in 1953 Los Angeles. Also, like the novel, the film portrays the ‘Bloody Christmas’ murders of seven civilians by LAPD police officers, and, later, a shooting at a diner called the Nite Owl. There are plenty of differences between the film and the novel. But both show that noir isn’t confined to the 1940s and 1950s.
Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone was adapted for film in 2007 by Ben Affleck. As fans of both book and film know, it’s the story of what happens when Amanda McCready goes missing. PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro get drawn into the search for the girl when they’re hired by her aunt. They discover that this case isn’t what it seems on the surface. There are several differences between the original novel and the film. But, like the novel, the film raises important questions of moral ambiguity, and there are several people in it who aren’t what they seem.
The same could certainly be said for Bryan Singer’s 1995 film, The Usual Suspects. While this particular film isn’t based on a book, it does have a connection to classic cinema, as the title is taken from a very famous line that Claude Rains says in Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film, Casablanca. The Usual Suspects is the story of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, and his involvement in murder and arson aboard a ship. He’s interrogated by US Customs agent Dave Kujan, As the interview goes on, we learn in flashback about Kint’s involvement with a team of hijackers, smugglers and drug lords. Saying much more than this will give too much of the film away. But fans know that very little in this film is what it seems. And there are several places in it where it’s clear that the film format tells the story perhaps better than a novel might.
And then there’s Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 No Country For Old Men. If you’re a neo-noir fan, you’ll find the title familiar, as the film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. The film’s focus (perhaps more than the book’s) is hitman Anton Chigurh, and what happens when Llewelyn Moss comes across money that Chigurth has been hired to recover. That slight difference aside, the film’s quite faithful to the book. And it has all of the ingredients you’d expect in a modern noir film. There’s a desolate landscape, untrustworthy people, danger, and things spinning out of control. The Coen brothers have done other fine neo-noir pictures, too (right, fans of Blood Simple?).
As I mentioned, these are only a few examples of films noir. Want more? Sure ya do. Go visit Sergio, who blogs at Tipping My Fedora. He’s an expert on this and other genres of film. You want to follow his blog if you don’t already. In the meantime, which films noir have you liked the best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Swallow Tattoo.