by John Pecoraro, Assistant Director
Autumn is here, and with the nights growing longer it is the perfect time to explore the darker side of film. The term film noir, or dark film, was coined by a French movie critic in 1946. As a genre, film noir had its heyday in the mystery and crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s.
Critics haven’t always agreed on whether a film can be classified as noir, what elements films in the genre share, or if film noir can even be defined as a genre. Some critics determine films in the genre by their tragic conclusions, while other critics point to a distinctive visual style. Still others emphasize plot and character type, or mood and attitude.
Manhattan Public Library has an extensive collection of DVDs and Blu-rays, including many film noir classics. There are several collections that are excellent choices if you are new to the genre. “Film Noir: 10-Movie Spotlight Collection,” for example, includes ten classic films on six discs. Titles include “Double Indemnity,” “Black Dahlia,” and “Touch of Evil” to name a few.
“5 Film Noir Killer Classics,” is another six disc set. In addition to the five movies, the sixth disc includes the special feature “What is film noir?,” as well as 38 classic film noir trailers. Movies included in this collection are “D.O.A,” “Detour,” “Stranger,” “Scarlet Street,” and “Killer Bait.”
Lists of the most popular film noir titles include a mix of classic examples from the 1940s and 1950s, along with more contemporary titles. “The Big Sleep,” from 1946, features on most lists of the best film noir. Humphrey Bogart stars as private eye Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall portrays the older sister of a woman being blackmailed. Along with blackmailers, there are plenty of other unsavory characters in this film, including murderers, pornographers, night club rogues, and the spoiled rich.
Several film noir classics feature the femme fatale, or fatal woman. This mysterious and seductive woman charms her lovers, and leads them into compromising, dangerous, and even deadly situations. Jane Greer is a murderous femme fatale using her wiles against Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past.” Mitchum plays private detective Jeff Bailey, hired to find Kathie Moffat by the man from whom she had stolen $40,000 dollars in addition to shooting him. Of course once Bailey finds Kathie, the sparks fly.
Contemporary movies made in the film noir tradition are often referred to as neo-noir. “L.A. Confidential,” (1997) is one example. Three detectives in the L.A. police force of the 1950s uncover a conspiracy behind the shotgun slaying of customers at an all-night diner.
“Chinatown,” (1974) is another neo-noir film. Jack Nicholson is private investigator Jack Gittes, hired to trail a Los Angeles Water Department engineer by his wife. Soon Gittes is in over his head, stumbling into a web of intrigue involving a water diversion scheme, murder, and more than he can handle in Chinatown.
Alfed Hitchcock directed several classic film noir pictures. “Greatest Classic Films Collection. Hitchcock Thrillers,” features four of them. In “Suspicion,” rich socialite Joan Fontaine falls in love with dashing Cary Grant, and slowly comes to suspect that he is out to murder her for her inheritance.
Orson Welles is another director of classic film noir. In “The Third Man,” an American novelist in Vienna learns that an old friend has been killed in an accident, and discovers that his friend was more than he appeared.
Many of the classic noir movies have literary connections, being based on novels or stories by Raymond Chandler (“The Big Sleep”), James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), and Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich’s published works provided the basis of thirteen films in the genre, including “Black Angel,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”
In addition to titles on DVD and Blu-Ray, MPL’s streaming service, Hoopla, also features several film noir titles, including “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Scarlet Street,” “Pitfall,” and “Mulholland Falls.” Your library card is good for 5 checkouts every month on Hoopla.