You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it: shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (and these are sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Many Film Noir of that early period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as these:
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely
Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window)
I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films)
Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.
Popular with audiences, many Noir films were made by renowned directors, including,
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (a disputed title in the Film Noir canon)
Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend)
Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Rear Window)
Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face).
Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Virtually every character is more bad than good, however, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else. The story involves a Guy, who becomes entangled with a Dame, and the story is really theirs, though others, like the Good Girl or the Unsuspecting Husband, sometimes get crushed under the wheels of whatever is driving the Guy and the Dame to their own destruction.
Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a convict (The Postman Always Rings Twice), an unwary insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), a government investigator (The Stranger), or an unfortunate victim of circumstance (D.O.A.), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. The male protagonist has had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the femme fatale, but the male is almost always portrayed as the victim of the femme. Since Film Noir features Voice-Over narration mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, the viewers are kept clearly on the side of that character: their worldview is limited to that of the doomed male.
The Dame of Noir films is the femme fatale, a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl,” the “girl next door,” or “the marrying type,” who loses the Guy to the dangerous femme fatale,
a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations… A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure… In social life, the femme fatale tortures her lover in an asymmetrical relationship, denying confirmation of her affection. She usually drives him to the point of obsession and exhaustion so that he is incapable of making rational decisions.
Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. While the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart. The femme fatale refuses to play expected societal roles.
She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.
One of the most striking Noir films of the 1940s is Gilda (1946), and “No film noir course would be complete without it, in part because it’s at once prototypical and highly unusual.” While gambling in back alleys in Buenos Aires, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) unexpectedly meets a stranger, who rescues Farrell from robbers, then invites Farrell to visit a high-stakes, though also illegal, casino. When Farrell goes to the casino and tries his usual thuggish con, he is brought before the gangster-owner: Ballin Mundson (George Macready), the stranger who saved Farrell in the alley.
Mundson admires Johnny’s braggadocio and hires him as his right-hand man. Like any clever crook who wears formal clothes, Johnny quickly rises in the institution’s hierarchy and becomes close friends with the Boss. When Boss Mundson returns from a short trip, he announces that he has fallen in love and impetuously married a beautiful woman, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
Gilda and Johnny seem to immediately dislike, even despise each other, though each denies any antipathy to Mundson. Gilda enjoys herself at her husband’s casino: gambling,
drinking and dining,
and dancing, once in a strapless black dress so iconic it has its own Wikipedia page.
When she begins to enjoy herself a bit too much, dancing too closely to one of the attractive guests, Mundson orders Johnny to keep her in line. Johnny reluctantly becomes Gilda’s “keeper.”
That’s when it becomes clear that Gilda and Johnny have a previous relationship, and it obviously didn’t turn out well. Gilda is as angry at Johnny as he is at her: viewers don’t know exactly what happened between them, or who broke up with whom, but it’s clear that they really do hate each other.
Unfortunately, that hate is exciting — more so to Gilda than to Johnny — and when she begins to have sexual relations with everyone but her husband, openly flaunting her infidelity, Johnny takes it upon himself to protect the Boss from the Dame by becoming her bodyguard, re-igniting “one of the most erotic and tortured relationships on film” [synopsis].
Just when you think you know where the film’s story is going, it changes direction abruptly, which is no doubt one of the reasons it’s become a classic. Mundson disappears, and the relationship between Johnny and Gilda takes an unexpected turn. To this point, Gilda has been portrayed as a monster albeit a monster with really amazing hair, but we learn that her seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, is really a
layer of bravado that masks deep insecurity… [and] it’s strongly implied that Johnny’s behavior in their prior relationship is largely responsible for her twisted psyche.
After Mundson’s disappearance, Gilda’s vulnerability is revealed, as is Johnny’s innate ruthlessness and cruelty. In an unusual twist for Film Noir, Gilda, the femme fatale, becomes the sympathetic protagonist while Johnny, the supposedly doomed male, becomes the unrepentant and quite horrific villain. And then, when you think you know where this new storyline is heading, the story changes direction again, when an unexpected character arrives.
Noted for its frank portrayal of sexuality, complete with homoerotic hints from the Boss toward the Guy, Gilda is available for rent for $2.99-3.99 (SD/HD) from Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay, iTunes, and Vudu. Available for purchase from these sites as well as from TCM, where Gilda is free for subscribers.
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