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Favorite Film Noir


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Can someone please explain to me, just what is film noir? What is the best definition you have heard? Or is it like the term classic (at another post) which just seems to be "a classic is whatever you think it is." Some say that a classic must be a certain age and others say it may have been made yesterday. Anyway, the definition of "classic" seems to be up for grabs - on these boards anyway.

 

So, what is film noir?

 

I don't see how some of the films mentioned on this thread could be considered film noir (whatever the definition). Leave Her to Heaven? Mildred Pierce? Sunset Boulevard? Film noir? These are all mainstream films with huge studio productions, major stars and major budgets. How do they fall into the film noir category?

 

Or is it (here we go again), film noir is whatever you think is film noir? If I think Harold and Maude is film noir, does that make it so? How about Don't Bother to Knock? Or Seconds (with Rock Hudson)?

 

Thanks - I'd really like to know.

 

Ralph

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The following is just my personal opinion. I would like to be able to give a solid definition of ?film noir?, but I don?t think I can. I think Ralph is right, it?s whatever someone thinks it is. It is subjective to the personal opinions of the individual movie fan.

 

However, I think the French, who coined the term originally, probably meant it more specifically for crime and gangster type pictures which are ?dark? or ?black? in two ways: one way is visually (a lot of low-light dark scenes, what is known as ?available light?, the type of light we would find on a real street scene late at night, or inside a room that has only one or two light bulbs in it), and the other way is symbolic, meaning ?dark? like dreary, sad, and gloomy.

 

So, I think we should probably start by thinking of the ?most noir? movies, such as ?The Third Man? or even ?On the Waterfront?. Visually, ?The Third Man? would probably be considered more ?noir? than ?On the Waterfront?, since ?Third Man? has more ?dark? scenes in it that are lit by a minimum of special side-lighting and a few spotlights which are supposed to simulate ?available light?, whereas ?On the Waterfront? tends to have more ?flat? lighting, more well-lit scenes including a lot of daylight scenes. However, both films are ?noir? in their symbolism and bleakness.

 

So I think there are probably ?degrees of noir? on a double scale: 1) on a 1-10 scale for lighting, and 2) on a 1-10 scale for bleakness.

 

And it seems to me that many films have some noir qualities, at least in some of their sequences, but they are not considered to be fully noir films, such as ?Citizen Kane? and even the Western ?High Noon?.

 

Anyway, this is Art. In Art, each individual viewer can express his and her opinion about what style they think a film has.

 

Regarding the concept of ?available light?, this is a photographer?s term started by still photographers. It basically meant no light provided by the photographer, such as no flashbulbs. They had to use the light that was available when they took their pictures, and the term usually refers to nighttime scenes and indoor scenes.

 

In a non-noir film, an indoor set will usually be lit by a bunch of floodlights so the room is well lit and evenly lit. In a noir type film, the room is usually only partially lit, and it is lit as if the only light is coming from the light bulbs inside the room, such as from table lamps, or sometimes from the lights of neon signs coming in through an open window. In the film business in the old days, they had special light bulbs, such as small 500 watt bulbs that could replace a 60 watt bulb in a table lamp. So, in a noir movie, they could make an indoor set seem as if it is lit only by the natural lights inside the room. If there were any unwanted shadows, such as on faces, they could light the faces with spotlights that are just outside of camera range. In other words, they would use the natural lighting of real light bulbs on the set, and they would augment that light with some off-set special lights, such as spotlights. They had all kinds of spotlights, and they often used small ones to light up specific parts of an indoors set.

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Fred, that?s as good an attempt as anyone I?ve read to define film noir?my absolute favorite film genre. I?ve read several books on it, and I can?t find any two authors who really can agree on what constitutes true film noir, although almost everyone seems to agree that it mainly encompasses a lot of Hollywood B movies made directly before, during, and right after World War II. You rightly placed the first one as Stranger on the Third Floor, and a lot of books claim Touch of Evil (1958) more or less closed the era.

Frankly, my own personal criteria would be the following: (1) Never a happy ending; (2) Nearly every character is highly flawed, if not downright despicable; (3) Weak-minded men, usually led down the road to destruction by sexy, unscrupulous women; (4) Characters drawn to their behavior by circumstances they can neither control nor understand; (5) A lot nighttime scenes, mostly in urban areas, where lighting and background play as much a role as characters and script.

As far as titles are concerned, I?m kind of a purist. It?s hard for me to include the big studio films with major stars, e.g. On the Waterfront, although I agree with you that many of those films have noir qualities. For me, the quintessential films noir are D.O.A., Out of the Past, Double Indemnity (which admittedly violates some of my above criteria, but any movie where Fred (My Three Sons) MacMurray can so convincingly play a noir protagonist has my utmost respect), and one other one I don?t believe anyone has mentioned yet: Nightmare Alley. Talk about the ultimate noir?Tyrone Power playing so much against his normal film characters, Joan Blondell, abandoning her heart-of gold roles, and Helen Walker as the pure personification of betrayal, all within a circus background!!

Anyway, everyone here has mentioned all the other great ones, and my candidates for the noir acting Hall of Fame are: Mitchum, Widmark, and Lancaster (from the 1940s), and a whole group of actresses who never reached major stardom, but absolutely created classic noir femme fatales: Marie Windsor, Ann Savage, Yvonne DeCarlo, Jane Greer, Gloria Grahame.

And my final thought on defining film noir: my standard coincides with the Supreme Court Justice who once said years ago when asked to define pornography: ?I can?t define it, but I know it when I see it.?

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FredCDobbs,

 

Your second paragraph mentions the French coined the term "film noir" and...they made 'em (movies).

 

For anyone that might want to explore mid-twentieth century French film noir--I suggest starting with Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Quai Des Orfevres" from 1947.

 

"Quai Des Orfevres" is a murder mystery with many of the noir elements mentioned in this thread. What it also has (as do so many other European films) is a way of presenting characters and plot that is different than most Hollywood productions--somewhat melancholy, sometimes sardonic and very entertaining.

 

French film noir--worth at least one DVD or VHS rental. I bet you won't be disappointed.

 

Rusty

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?Frankly, my own personal criteria would be the following: (1) Never a happy ending; (2) Nearly every character is highly flawed, if not downright despicable; (3) Weak-minded men, usually led down the road to destruction by sexy, unscrupulous women; (4) Characters drawn to their behavior by circumstances they can neither control nor understand; (5) A lot nighttime scenes, mostly in urban areas, where lighting and background play as much a role as characters and script.?

 

Rick, that is a very good definition. It is different from mine, but equally valid.

 

Your item #3 makes me wonder..... how many of us guys here on this board, who like film noir movies, would fit into that category at least at some time during our lives? Would any men here like to confess about being ?led down the road to destruction by sexy, unscrupulous women??

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I think some of the most amazing acting by MacMurray in Double Indemnity was when he just looked at someone while gritting his teeth. I could see his jaw muscles clinching. I could feel the knots that were developing in his stomach and his chest pains as he finally began to realize that the dame was a crooked lying conniver. I?ve never seen a guy on film say so much without speaking a word.

 

And his narration was great too, like when he said he couldn?t hear his own footsteps.... it was the walk of a dead man. Geeze, while watching that movie, I feel everything he feels because of his excellent acting and his tone of voice during his narration.

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"Your item #3 makes me wonder..... how many of us guys here on this board, who like film noir movies, would fit into that category at least at some time during our lives? Would any men here like to confess about being ?led down the road to destruction by sexy, unscrupulous women??"

 

Geez, Fred, that sounds like a topic for a whole different thread. . .more like a whole different message board! Let me just say that any roads of destruction I have embarked upon in my life, unfortunately I can't blame on any femme fatales, only my own frailties. The woman in my life has spent years trying to get me away from those roads. . .and now I only walk down them vicariously by watching old films noir on TCM!

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> I think some of the most amazing acting by MacMurray

> in Double Indemnity was when he just looked at

> someone while gritting his teeth. I could see his jaw

> muscles clinching. I could feel the knots that were

> developing in his stomach and his chest pains as he

> finally began to realize that the dame was a crooked

> lying conniver. I?ve never seen a guy on film say so

> much without speaking a word.

>

> And his narration was great too, like when he said he

> couldn?t hear his own footsteps.... it was the walk

> of a dead man. Geeze, while watching that movie, I

> feel everything he feels because of his excellent

> acting and his tone of voice during his narration.

 

I agree completely; it's almost impossible to believe this is the same actor who was in such Disney films as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber; what a waste, he could have had a great career as a villain, especially in the hands of the right director. While we're on Double Indemnity, let's not forget how great Eddie G. was (when wasn't he great?) in the role of Keyes.His scenes with MacMurray are terrific, and my favorite one is after the murder, when Robinson rattles off all the ways people commit suicide, every possible statistical variation, until he drops the punch line: "No one has ever committed suicide by jumping off a train moving less than 5 miles an hour!" And of course at the end where he lights MacMurray's cigarette after all the times MacMurray had to light Keyes' cigar. What a Hall of Fame film noir, from first scene to last!

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?While we're on Double Indemnity, let's not forget how great Eddie G. was (when wasn't he great?) in the role of Keyes.?

 

Yes, he was absolutely terrific. I can?t imagine any one else trying to play that role.

 

I think the film is important for several reasons. Not only the good story and the good acting, but the basic lesson it tells us about men.... some of us men will do the most stupid things just to get a date with a hot good-looking dame. How many times have we told ourselves, ?I?d better leave that one alone... she?s looks like trouble,? and then we go and make complete fools out of ourselves over the dame and she knows it because she?s had that very same experience with many other men.

 

?His scenes with MacMurray are terrific, and my favorite one is after the murder, when Robinson rattles off all the ways people commit suicide, every possible statistical variation, until he drops the punch line: "No one has ever committed suicide by jumping off a train moving less than 5 miles an hour!"?

 

Yes, that was a brilliant script and he said the lines brilliantly. It seemed like he was really the true character speaking the lines for the first time. And while he spoke them, old Fred was gritting his teeth and realizing what a danged fool he was.

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Thanks stoneyburke -

 

I went over to wikipedia and read the article you referenced. I now know more than I did before.

 

Also, all the postings since your reply have been helpful and thought-provoking.

 

Again, it seems to be a case of "whatever you think it is" for some of the people on these boards. Same as "classic." Same as "geniuis." No criteria, just whatever you think. So if I think that "Leave Her to Heaven" is film noir, "Hobson's Choice" is a classic, and that Jack Warner was a genius - does that make it so?

 

I cannot - and will not - believe this. There must be rules/guidelines/expectations. There is black and there is white. Everything is not a shade of grey. There is true and there is false. Good and bad. Shame and honor. It's just too easy to join the "anything goes" school than to really use your brain and come up with an answer (and "whatever you think it is" is not an answer).

 

If there are no answers, why ask the questions?

 

When did I get the authority to decide what is a classic? Or what is film noir? Or who is a genius? What are my credentials? Simply that I am alive and breathing? Is that enough? I think not.

 

There are too many people on these boards who throw around words like "classic" and "genius" and pretentious phrases such as "film noir" who haven't the slightest idea what they are talking about. Can we talk about the auteur theory?

 

"On the Waterfront?" Elia Kazan would get a reak kick out of knowing that he had directed a film noir! He also did "Pinky," "East of Eden," "The Arrangement," "Viva Zapata," "Streetcar Named Desire," "Baby Doll," and many more film noir classics. The man was a genius!

 

Well! I'm glad I got that off my chest. I feel much better now, doctor. Thanks for your time.

 

Ralph

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LAURA - probably the first noir film I ever saw. Always great.

 

The Robert Montgomery- Audrey Totter film, LADY IN THE LAKE, a fascinating experimental film with a classic noir plot about a detective, a blonde, and several murders - all taking place during a Christmas weekend.

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Eddie G. as Keyes....so true, Rick. I loved his references to the 'little man in his stomach' (paraphrasing), that is so true. I've oftentimes used that line, and people just stare at me.

 

On dames....gee, Fred, I wish there were still men around who called wimmen dames! Kidding...well, almost. But you're right, that's another message board altogether. Although I do think Dana Andrews is tres attractive when he says: 'a dame in Washington Heights once got a fox fur outta me' (again paraphrasing).

 

You're right, Ralph. We've seen that in another thread. When Tootsie becomes a classic, we all become film historians and TCM becomes AMC. What we are talking about is our opinions, and as we've seen, with opinions comes emotion.

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I watched "The Glass Key" last night and it is TRES film noir, despite its happy ending. You may or may not know, (or care) that "Miller's Crossing" was based on the same story. It is interesting to look for the similarities as well as the differences between those films.

 

The very sad truth is that it appears that TCM regards "Tootsie" as a classic as well as "The Birdcage", "Victor, Victoria", "The Karate Kid", "Back to the Future" "Benji" anime and Bollywood etc. What is even sadder is that there are so many here that accept it without question.

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I'd add to the defintion of Film Noir movies that they're morals illustrated through characters transforming from immoral to moral, and vice versa; a conceptual play on the film's visuals of shadow and light. Without that noir story element, it's just another black and white movie.

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No, I didn't know that, constarkel. I'll have to rewatch it (yes, of course I care!).

 

Even sadder is that I now have 39 films I have noted but don't have taped. TCM may or may not show them in the coming years, dependent of course on their Anime Alley and 'classic' film scheduling.

 

Oh, and it seems the idea of a customized menu selection of cable stations is gaining ground. Let's see, I'll try to be positive on it....GOSH, what a great idea, I'm sure it will mean nothing but good things for the cable customer.

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Hello,

 

Ordinarily, I would not repeat myself in the same thread but, because Edward G. Robinson is my favorite actor (oh hell...the best actor ever) and everybody is talking about him...my copy and paste (from an earlier "favorite film noir" post) of my original copy and paste (from another source):

 

Barton Keyes: "Walter, you're all washed up".

Walter Neff: "Thanks, Keyes. That was short anyway".

 

 

Rusty

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I'd also like to add SCARLET STREET and SWEET SMELL

> OF SUCCESS to the mix.

 

Two great choices. Absolutely have to be on any Top Ten all-time noirs. Joan Bennett in Scarlet was never more sexy in her entire career. . .or more evil. And Eddie G. and Duryea round out one of the most perverse love triangles in noir history.

 

So much of the dialogue in Sweet Smell is memorable, but my personal favorite is:

 

J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) to Sidney Falco (Curtis): "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

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