Favorite classic movies genres film noir defined

 Edward G. Robinson (right) in a cropped screenshot from the trailer for the 1931 film Little CaesarThere is a debate by movie scholars as to the definition of Film noir. Film Noir literally means "black film" in French, was coined by French film critics who noticed the trend of how 'dark', downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many  American crime and detective films released in France to theaters following the war.  Movies such as "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Murder, My Sweet" (1944),  "Double Indemnity" (1944), The "Woman in the Window" (1944), and "Laura" (1944).  The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the "classic period" of American film noir.

Dark style or dark mindset?

Some equate Film Noir to a cinematic style of an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background. Film noir films were marked visually by expressionistic lighting, interiors with low-key lighting, and dark gloomy appearances. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets with deep shadows.

The primary moods of classic film noir were disenchantment, desperation and paranoia, with cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting. The Femme fatale was a key element in many films. The disillusioned or somehow dysfunctional male character encountered a beautiful but mysterious and potentially double crossing female character.  Femme fatale literally means "killer woman."

The plots and themes taken from American literary works, from best selling pulp and crime fiction novels from authors such as Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, were used in many crime drama films.

Art Imitates Life: The American Gangster.

The 1930s were an interesting and violent time in American history. The economy was at its worst, reeling from the great depression. Crime was also at new heights as an epidemic of bank robberies in the Midwest  was orchestrated by colorful criminal gangs who took advantage of superior firepower and fast getaway cars to avoid arrest.

Criminals such as John Dillinger "Baby Face" Nelson, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, were making news, and to some, becoming American Folk heroes.

John Dillinger became famous for leaping over bank cages and his repeated escapes from jails and police traps), Dillinger's crimes were sensationalized across the nation, and his numerous escapes and robberies fed many urban legends in the United States.

On July 22, 1934, the ultimate crossover of art and reality, Dillinger had gone to see a gangster movie, Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable. Tipped off by Anna Sage, the so-called "woman in red", the Bureau of Investigation were waiting as Dillinger left the movie theater, and gunned him down in the streets of Chicago.

The "War on Crime" of the 1930s, led to the Bureau of Investigation's powers being broadened and it was re-named the Federal Bureau of Investigation becoming an independent service within the Department of Justice in 1935.  J. Edgar Hoover made a name for himself as well as the first FBI Director, and would serve in that position until his death in 1972.

Some believe Film noir was derived from the earlier gangster movies of the 1930s such as "Little Caesar" (1930),  "Public Enemy" (1931), and "Scarface" (1932).

Example of film noir

Perhaps film noir can be seen as a reference point for follow up discussions rather than a cut and dried type of movie genre. Here's the Guru's rating of some popular film noir.

Key Largo  (1948)

"Key Largo" is as close to perfect as a Film Noir gets. This was the fourth and final film pairing of married actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the movie a Key Largo hotel run by James Temple played by Lionel Barrymore is taken over by a gang of mobsters. Veteran actor Edward G. Robinson plays the classic gangster to perfect as Johnny Rocco. Humphrey Bogart as World War II hero Frank McCloud saves the day, and gets the girl Nora Temple played by Lauren Bacall.

TheGuru's Rating 9.0 /10

His Kind of Woman (1951)

Released the same year as "The Racket" while this movie stars Robert Mitchum in his typical tough guy with an attitude role, the lead character Dan Milner, is a bit more interesting.  The lead character is not a cop, or government official, but a drifter, gambler, looking to make a buck. While you know Milner is being set up by the mob, the story is fuzzy enough from the beginning to keep you wondering a bit as to where it will take you.

Set in a Baja Mexico resort, with a bit of mystery about the other characters in the mix, there is enough going on to keep the story interesting.

A lot of familiar faces in the cast.  Jane Russell plays the mysterious Lenore Brent, like the lead character, you know there is more to her that what appears on the surface. Vincent Price, known to many for horror flicks, has a major supporting role.

Raymond Burr (Ironside, Perry Mason) as the mobster and Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo, Giligans Island) as one of the guests at the resort add to the interesting cast of characters.

Enough mystery with a fine cast of characters to keep it interesting, with a classic guy get girl ending.  Pretty good Noir. 

TheGuru's Rating 8/10

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

The first half of the movie is set in a big city, super tough cop with an extreme attitude Jim Wilson, played by Robert Ryan, beats his suspects to a pulp. Way too angry with the world, Jim is sent upstate on a murder case in order to get away from the city for awhile.  The actual area portrayed in the film is not made clear, the city scenes look like a tough downtown Chicago, but when Jim goes upstate, it looks more the the Rocky Mountains that any mountains I have seen in the eastern US.

As a genre Film-noir movies are full of extremes and stark contrasts, as compared to other movies, but this one takes some of the extremes to the point of absurdity. Jim is sent to the mountains to help track a murderer.  All the law enforcement officers are dressed in hunting gear, with rifles. Jim is in his big city trench coat, with a hand gun. The series of events where Jim gets separated from the posse of law enforcement officers, and ends up with the crazed father of the murder victum, who is armed with a shotgun, in tracking down the killer, was just a bit too much.  From there our leading man Jim Wilson goes from the worlds most angry cop, to a sentimental sap over night.

Some Film-noir's work better than others, I've watched quite a few, this one just did not work for me.  

TheGuru's Rating 6/10

The Racket (1951) 

Maybe just a bit too typical, not much of a plot beyond the straight forward gangsters behaving badly and cops trying to arrest gansters.

Stars Robert Mitchum as the police captain in one of his typical tough guy with an attitude roles.

Familiar faces include William Conrad as a detective, (go figure). For those not familiar with William Conrad, he starred in the 1970's tv series "Cannon" as a private eye and the 1980's tv series "Jake and the Fatman" as a crime solving district attorney. 

It is not so much as there is nothing to like about this movies, as just that it is a Very typical cops versus mobsters Film-Noir. 

TheGuru's Rating 6/10


Graphic: Edward G. Robinson (left) in a cropped screenshot from the trailer for the 1931 film Little Caesar