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NOIR IS French for black, but the genres are pure American. According to Merriman-Webster, noir is characterized by hard-boiled and cynical characters inhabiting bleak and sleazy settings.
Whether it’s film, radio, TV, literary fiction or non-fiction, noir is ironically good fun.
Film noir thrived in Hollywood from the early 1940s to late 1950s. A French cinema critic, Nino Frank, coined the term. The reference work Film Noir identifies its influences as “German Expressionism, McCarthyism, and nuclear-age uncertainty.”
In cinema terms, it’s best defined in black and white, typically in shadowy darkness. There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in “these mean streets, lit intermittently by flashing neon lights.”
The book gives full details of production, plot and cultural influence of the films. One of my favorites is The Maltese Falcon, 1941, in which Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) out-finesses the likes of Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and the latter’s psychotic gunzel Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.).
The film, one of several versions, is based on a Dashiell Hammett detective novel, originally serialized in Black Mask magazine in 1930. There are also two radio versions playing on SiriusXM’s “Radio Classics” channel.
Another favorite is The Big Sleep, 1946, which did for Los Angeles noir what The Maltese Falcon did for foggy San Francisco. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) tries to make sense out of the tangled lives of Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) and other double-dealing Sternwoods.
This film, again not a unique rendition, is based on the hard-boiled novel of Raymond Chandler published in 1939. The plot is sufficiently murky that its twists and turns weren’t fully understood during its filming.
It’s said director Howard Hawks queried author Chandler as to who killed the chauffer. Chandler later wrote a friend, “They sent me a wire… asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.”
A third favorite is Chinatown, a 1974 noir homage by director Roman Polanski. Private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) gets involved in the dirty dealings of Noah Cross (John Huston) and the Los Angeles Water Department during the late 1930s.
Jake’s client Evelyn Mulwray is a phony; Faye Dunaway plays the real one—and her relationship with her father Noah Cross is complex indeed.
To my eye, the film’s only shortcoming is its being in Technicolor.
On a related neo-noir note, Akashic Books is issuing a series of noir paperbacks, each in itself a collection of short stories taking place in a particular geographical area. Titles include Baltimore Noir, Barcelona Noir, through Las Vegas Noir and Los Angeles Noir to Venice Noir and Wall Street Noir. See http://goo.gl/ZKz8nj for a complete listing.
If you seek reality in your noir, I recommend John Buntin’s L.A. Noir. This account of mid-century Los Angeles pits William H. Parker, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, against Mickey Cohen, the city’s preeminent underworld boss.
Buntin notes that whereas Parker was morally unflinching, Cohen was unflinchingly immoral. It was Parker who supported Jack Webb in his radio and later TV Dragnet series.
Parker’s agenda and tactics—not always of the purest—involved him with J. Edgar Hoover, Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.
By contrast, Mickey Cohen came up through the rackets as an enforcer for Bugsy Siegel.
Buntin notes that “Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, and Sammy Davis, Jr., palled around with him; TV journalist Mike Wallace wanted his stories; evangelist Billy Graham sought his soul.”
As with any proper noir presentation, in retrospect it’s not clear who—if anyone—triumphed. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013