By Michael Morgan
A shadowy silhouette of a man moves down the street. His shoulders and the top of his felt Stetson fedora are briefly lit in the pools of light beneath the street lamps as he passes. His face is a constant shadow. He pauses at the corner, and a quick flare of light exposes his features for an instant before he extinguishes the match he used to light his cigarette. Turning, he walks off into the gloom…
American Noir film was a genre originating in the early 1940s that was quite distinct from other film styles of the day. The use of darkness and shadow combined with even darker story lines that pitted determined tough-guy heroes against clever villains with a generous mix of the mysterious femme fatale thrown in for a bit of sizzle. Nobody is clean, morality is fluid, and everybody is playing an angle.
Many of Hollywood’s’ top talent made their marks in Noir films.
Two figures step out of a doorway to block the passage of the figure trailing cigarette smoke down the street. The faint light from a first floor window reveals a package changing hands before the trio separate. The smoker continues down the street as the others climb into the Buick parked against the curb. The engine roars to life, and the car slinks away from the curb as a light rain begins to fall…
We can’t forget the dames. Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, and Joan Crawford all made their marks on the dark side.
Of course, the unforgettable Ingrid Bergman steamed up the screen with Bogart in “Casablanca”.
Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall became one of the silver screens true power couples thanks to films like “The Big Sleep”, based on Raymond Chandlers gripping story.
The apartment door opens on a dark apartment. The dim light from the hallway briefly reveals an untidy room before the figure steps across the threshold and closes the door behind himself. The switch clicks loudly several times, but the lamp isn’t working. A stumble, the sharp sound of something fragile hitting the floor, and a match flares revealing the man’s face below the brim of his fedora. He raises the match, and finds himself staring at a hand holding a pistol…
These movies set the standard for American suspense films that would last to the 21st Century, and influence the suspense genre the world over. The influence of the original American Noir period is still alive thanks to efforts by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez in their rendition of Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novels.
The small cast of characters and simple plot lines successfully made the transition to the television screen. Much like Bela Lugosi’s performance as “Dracula” in the 1930’s, the adventures of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe still thrill us today.
“You know how to whistle don’t you?” ~ Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not”, 1944
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