Thursday, December 30, 2010

Some Film Noir Recommendations/ Discussion

This is kind of fun.  CanadianSimon has asked that I put together a list of recommendations for noir cinematic viewing.

I don't pretend to be an authority on Noir, and, in fact, feel like I'm just getting on the learning curve about the mega-genre.  At best, I feel like I've taken some noir classes at the community center, whereas I feel like I'm in my second year of PhD work if you wanted to talk Superman (or Masters level in DC Comics).  I feel like I'm just dipping my toes in the water here, so I'm very reluctant to say much more than "yeah, I liked that movie".

But its fun to talk about.

One thing that's become clear to me is that Noir isn't just lighting, it isn't just guys in natty hats and ties, it isn't just tough, good looking dames...  It definitely can have all those things (and good looking dames never hurt), but it seems its as much about a mood that was going on in the culture that a lot of cinema of the crucial 1940-1960ish era was pushing under the rug.  Its interesting that the push starts just prior to WWII, and less surprising that its at full boil as GI's came back from overseas and had ideas about what people might really be like that didn't fit in with the domesticity of post WWII America.

I also think there's a difference between a gangster or crime movie than Noir.  It doesn't mean that they can't share qualities or share a whole lot of real estate on a movie Venn Diagram, but a movie like, say...  Goodfellas doesn't say Noir to me (that doesn't mean I don't love Goodfellas, by the way).  Nor would I categorize The Godfather as Noir - and I think few would.  I think its interesting that when you get to the Warner Archive sets you can buy at Amazon, the WB curators clearly think there's a difference, too.  The Cagney movies show up as Gangster pictures (White Heat = Gangster picture.  The Roaring Twenties = Gangster Picture), whereas the Noir pictures tend to be a smaller scale and more personal (and rarely follow someone over years, Mildred Pierce as an obvious exception and reminder that Joan Crawford was a stunningly good actress.  Jamie and I fell into Mildred Pierce a few weeks ago on cable, and I'd forgotten how much I liked it.).

Here's Volume 1 of the Film Noir Classic Collection.
Here's Volume 1 of the Gangster Films Collection.

Detective pictures aren't, by default, Noir.  Clearly a lot are.  The Big Sleep seems to me to be a great place to show where the two genres synch up to the point where there's no real difference.  But you get near Sherlock Holmes territory or even The Thin Man, and not so much. 

Double Indemnity is often held up as a sort of quintessential Noir.  I like Stanwyck as much as the next guy, but it isn't a detective picture or gangster picture.  Its an insurance agent who falls for the wrong (married) girl and it ends poorly for everybody.  Similarly, Eddie Muller came to the Alamo this summer and lectured on The Prowler, and I'd say that movie still rattles around a bit in my head as a sort of archetypical noir, about an amoral cop using his position to get what he wants, everyone else be damned, but its not a detective or gangster movie.

So its hard to pin it down. 

In a lot of ways, asking "what is "Noir?" hits the same depths as when you say "what is a Western?".  Anyone who spent more than ten minutes with the genre knows that "Western" has a certain indefinable quality, but the plots and themes are all over the map.  Shane is not The Cowboys is not McClintock! is not High Noon is not Paint Your Wagon is not High Plains Drifter.

I should also mention, I've read the original book of some Noir films and so I tend to get a bit confused by plot points if they deviate significantly (see:  The Big Clock), and some I've not ever seen the movie (They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - which, oh my gosh, great book, which is why I've avoided the movie).

Watching The Big Heat, it occurred to me that Noir presses a lot of the right buttons for me not just aesthetically, but as much as I like a good, character driven movie or TV show (see:  Mad Men) I also really like to see well constructed stories where the pieces are there for a reason and every part is used.  It may be that Noir comes up from short and often cheap books where a lot of story was packed into a limited amount of pages, or the writing flair of Chandler and Hammett to say everything you needed to know about a character in a cutting half-sentence, but a lot of these movies trade on the idea of narrative economy. 

Cross-pollination is also a lot of fun.  Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner saw a sci-fi cop story make the full-blown transition to something resembling sci-fi Noir (its not a mistake the producers decided to add what was supposed to be a Marlowe-esque voice-over to the proceedings for the original theatrical release).  Stuff like that is kind of cool, or more subtle variations like The Big Lebowski's subversion of the genre.

So what do I like?

The Asphalt Jungle - a group heist flick, directed by the great John Huston.  I rented this in college and it broke my fragile little mind.
The Killing - the kind of movie that I think a lot of people think they're making, but somehow just can't seem to pull off.  Early Kubrick, by the way. 
The Killers - I rented this because I loved (LOVED) the Hemingway short story of the same name that it uses as its set-up.  And then the rest of the movie was good, too.  Maybe there's a secret noir story behind Hills Like White Elephants that I just haven't seen envisioned yet.
Sunset Blvd - A shame that I just saw this for the first time this year because...  wow.
The Big Sleep - probably a great place to start for your classic detective Noir story.
The Prowler - Which isn't available, so go rent Double Indemnity, which is as good as they say it is.


JAL said...

Detour is excellent, as is Pick-up on South Street.  A fine old/new noir double feature would be Kiss Me Deadly and Lost Highway.  A highly overlooked modern noir is Wayne Kramer's Running Scared, which features Lost's Juliette in a chilling role.

The League said...

This is exactly why we keep JAL around. Of these, I've only seen Kiss Me Deadly, and its a really good one.

I keep seeing Running Scared show up on HBO, realize it features no Gregory Hines, Billy Crystal or the music of Michael McDonald and thusly I tune away. That appears to have been a mistake.

J.S. said...

Chinatown? Also, for cross pollination I would throw Brick in for consideration. A controversial choice, perhaps, but worthy of discussion, no doubt.

The League said...

Yes and yes! Chinatown certainly isn't forgotten, but like Brick, despite the fact that it is definitely Noir, it doesn't get lumped in with the original wave of Noir pictures, but came back to making Noir in a self-aware sort of way. And, I guess, that disqualifies it somehow? Only not really?

Obviously there's a lot of math involved.

Simon MacDonald said...

Thanks for the post, if you've just taken a few college classes in Noir then I'm still in kindergarden. I'm going to start checking out some of these movies and I will report back on what I like.