Oh, film noir. The French idiom that means either film of the night, or more literally “black film”, as much for its usually monochrome appearance as its tenebrous, shadowy outlook. The genre’s unmistakable signifiers are peeling motel rooms, blinking neon signs, brown paper bags, blood-red lipstick, tilted fedoras, urban underbellies, plumes of cigarette smoke, and of course, the charismatic, yet flawed protagonist.
As Paul Duncan, the editor of Taschen's Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites, a comprehensive cross-examination of the genre, puts it: “Film Noir is the cinema of unease, of uncertainty, a universe of danger, sexual tension, and betrayal.” Who could help but become irresistibly intoxicated? I think to myself, before swilling down another mouthful of scotch and gazing furtively over my shoulder. “Although the clothes, and settings, and speech, and photography may change over the years, the basic psychological and emotional conflicts inherent in noir will always be relevant to the audience”, Duncan continues. “Can I trust this girl? How can I survive in a world where somebody is bigger, stronger and more ruthless than me? When everything is against me, will I be a stand up guy and do the right thing, or will I betray the people I love and respect? These questions are exaggerations of situations that we encounter in everyday life. This is why we still make and watch films like Black Swan, The Dark Knight, and Drive.
Though it always seems to be the enigmatic, gravitational main character who provides the enduring image of film noir, even if they do vary. “The most popular is the American hardboiled character, epitomised by Dashiell Hammett's private eye Sam Spade, a knight prowling the mean streets, a man with a code of honour, a selfless man who rights wrongs without regard to his personal feelings,” Duncan explains. But then there’s also the victims, or even the femme fatale. “Much has been written about Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and the usual noir suspects, but there are many other brooding protagonists to consider..”
So here is a list of our favourite film noir leads – as selected by Paul Duncan – who could brood with the best of them.
A deft hand as light comedy, and intense menace (the corrupt cop in I Wake Up Screaming), his greatest performance was also his last film, as George Harvey Bone in Hangover Square (1945). A timid but talented composer, Bone falls for a scheming showgirl and is cruelly manipulated by her. But he enters a fugue state and, controlled by his unconscious desires, he kills the girl and disposes of her body in a bonfire. Wracked with guilt, Bone composes his greatest music as he is consumed by flames.
A real-life hero – he was an OSS agent during World War Two – Hayden appeared in two key heist noirs of the 1950s – The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The Killing (1950). In both, he pursues a dream, to make enough money so that he can escape the criminal world and do something decent and pure. But the universe is a moral one – in both films the heist succeeds, but the characters sow the seeds of their own downfall. Hayden, stoic and resolute throughout, a straight guy, a professional, has to resign himself to a world that has the deck stacked against him.
EDWARD G. ROBINSON
Although he came to prominence as the doomed gangster in rags to riches allegory Little Caesar (1931), and worked on that dominating persona for more than a decade, Edward G. came into his own with The Woman in the Window (1945) and its companion piece Scarlet Street (1945, same director/stars and similar story but different attitude). Here Professor Wanley (Robinson) is a weak intellectual, tempted by his libido into a nightmare scenario of murder and blackmail. As the web tightens, and the tension mounts, the only way out for Wanley is to take his own life…
After Tony Soprano, Nucky Thompson and Walter White, it now seems commonplace for an evil man to be the protagonist of a TV series, but it was a real shock to build a film around a lowlife in 1950. Richard Widmark's film debut as despicable Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947) – he pushes a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs - won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. For Night and the City (1950), Widmark plays Harry Fabian, a hustler who lures unsuspecting visitors to high-priced, lowlife nightclubs. But Fabian is a minnow among sharks, and he is soon swallowed whole – the film ends with Harry propelled into a watery grave.
An actor primarily known for his charm and lightweight roles, Ray Milland was cast as alcoholic writer Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1945) and took it seriously. He spoke to author Charles R. Jackson about the disease, lost weight, and spent a night at the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York. The result is one of the darkest recreations of alcoholism on screen. It was so effective that Milland won an Oscar, and was forever plagued by rumours that he was an alcoholic offscreen as well as on.
The Swedish beauty arrived in Hollywood and had 11 hit movies in a row, culminating with Notorious (1946) where she plays the disgraced alcoholic daughter of a Nazi spy. Out of love for T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) she agrees to spy on a group of Nazis holed up in Brazil, putting herself at considerable risk. It's a heady mix of erotic tension, guilt and danger, with Bergman willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Gravel-voiced Constantine became famous playing Lemmy Caution in the French noir Poison Ivy (1953). It was the first of eight adventures for the suave FBI agent, which has the action, speed, exotic locales and knowing winks to the audience that predates the James Bond style by a decade. Constantine's disarming performance, even in the face of death, hides the serious intent of his endeavour.
The beautiful form of Alain Delon as Tom Ripley masks a devious mind in Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley stalks Philip Greenleaf, living off him, slowly acquiring his voice, his walk, and his chequebook, before finally taking over his life. Delon's performance is akin to a lethal predator, watching cold-eyed and impenetrable.
T-Men (1947) is a documentary-style noir following two Treasury agents going undercover to smash a counterfeiting ring. Dennis O'Keefe plays one of the agents who must watch in horror as his partner is caught, tortured and murdered, powerless to do anything about it. This performance led to O’Keefe heading a number of other noirs like Raw Deal, Walk a Crooked Mile, Cover Up, Abandoned, and Woman on the Run.
In Force of Evil (1948) criminal lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) oversees the expansion of a gangster's numbers racket at the expense of his brother's smaller concern - a clear admonishment of the practices and tactics of big business to crush the individual. Garfield brings an animal magnetism and intelligence to his role, as he did to a plethora of film noirs, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Body and Soul.
Taschen's Film Noir: 100 All-Time favourites is out now, buy here.