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A Comedy of Noir: 5 Must-See Films

No Spoilers

Two silhouetted figures in The Big Combo (1955). The film's cinematographer was John Alton, the creator of many of film noir's stylized images. from Wikipedia

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the protagonists are more bad than good, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else.

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Film Noir features Femmes Fatales, women of questionable moral virtue. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares unwary males who are so drawn to her that they 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 protagonists of Film Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.

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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. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character, since their worldview is limited to that of the doomed male.

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 American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the classics). Many of the Film Noir of that period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as 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 story “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window) and novel I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films), and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Film Noir was not only popular with audiences, it was made by renowned directors: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, this is 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), and Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face). Unfortunately, Hollywood does not live by critical acclaim alone. It is an industry that thrives more on earnings than on awards. Enter a slew of films imitating the popular classics of Film Noir.

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Some of these imitators are bad, really bad, so bad that they actually manage to become amusing, although they are unintentionally so. Most often made by and starring unknown talents, Comedy Film Noir is often in black-and-white, but marred by jarring soundtracks, claustrophobic sets, and fragmented cinematography techniques that are ostensibly attempting to symbolize fractured or fragmented psychological states (see the Joan Crawford photo above).

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The femmes in these films are never sans makeup, and they sometimes change glamor gowns between takes of the same scene, jolting viewers out of the fictional world. Their back-seamed stockings never have snags or runs,

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négligées and peignoirs abound,

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and kitten-heels are de rigeur, even in the boudoir and powder room.

The doomed male protagonists usually appear in suit-and-tie, sometimes wearing the same suit throughout the entire film (sans wrinkles, of course, and sometimes with a rather casual belt), ocassionally sporting two-tone Oxfords that “scream vintage.” Our male protagonists wear their Oxfords with bathrobes, too.

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Male or female, the characters have the best-coiffed hair in history, and their hair never moves, no matter how fast they’re driving in convertibles, or how hard the tree branches above them are shaking.

Combine all of the above-named elements, throw in lots of inappropriate touching and panicked grabbing, season with sappy or melodramatic dialogue, and you’re heading deep into Comedy Noir territory.

In an attempt to restore dignity to some of these forgotten films, I’ve put together a short list of some of the more interesting Comedy Noirs, presented here in no particular order, with their prize-winning attributes at the end of each selection.

Drumroll…

And the Winners are…

♦♦♦

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Fear in the Night
(1947)

Operating on the fallacious premise that hypnotism can make people do things against their morals and their will, Fear in the Night is one of the more unintentionally humorous Noir films. From bizarro cinematic techniques to jarring music, the film features some of the best bad acting Hollywood has to offer. Virtually every scene takes place in a claustrophobically tight set, as if the director thought he was staging a play. The femmes don’t scream or shriek in this film, but that doens’t meant they’re not melodramatic.

Featuring DeForest Kelly in his film debut as the stone-faced, glassy-eyed protagonist forced to commit murder and then trapped in a nightmare of amnesia, his Voice-Over is just like the classics in Film Noir, only without any distinguishing or memorable characteristics.

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Winner
Silliest Noir

Fear in the Night

♦♦♦

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Guest in the House
(1944)

Anne Baxter does a scenery-damaging job in this psychological noir. As the Insane-Asylum-Inmate-Rescued-By-Her-Doctor, Baxter chews up more curtains, pillows, bedclothes, and men’s suit lapels than you can imagine. If the women’s Bride of Frankenstein‘s coiffures don’t have you laughing till the tears come, then the scenes with the bird are sure to slay you.

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From the time Baxter arrives are her fiancé-doctor’s family home to the time she decides she wants the house and the already-married-brother-in-law, you’ll be wondering how the other actors got through the scenes without rolling their eyes. The diary scenes are especially cringe-worthy, but the finale, with the birds, makes it all worthwhile.

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Winner
Scenery-Chewing Noir

Guest in the House

♦♦♦

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The Bigamist
(1953)

With an all-star cast to die for, including Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino (who also directed), Edmund Gwenn, and Edmund O’Brien, you’d think this film would have been a clear Oscar contender. Instead, the suspense fizzles out by the time you see the title: The Bigamist. Instead of viewers wondering what the protagonist is going to do about the two women he loves, the only mystery is how many times the women in his life can give him escape routes which he stupidly fails to take.

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This one will have you rollicking in the aisles by the time all the protagonists end up in court, if only because of their expressions during the judge’s didactic speech.

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Winner
Star-filled Noir Trifle

The Bigamist

♦♦♦

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The Last Movie:
A Film Noir
(2012)

The Last Movie is ostensibly an American film about people trying to make an American film which will be a remake of a Russian film which is an adaptation of the classic American film noir, Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, only nobody making the American remake of the Russian adaptation ever acknowledges the original classic.

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More about trying to make a film than an actual interesting film itself, the sound alone  in The Last Movie is bad enough to be laughable. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Laugh every time you catch yourself trying to figure out what they’re saying in the background when you just heard it about a half-minute earlier, in the foreground.

Winner
American Film about American Film adapted from
Russian Film based on American Noir Film Classic

The Last Movie: A Film Noir

♦♦♦

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The Man with My Face
(1951)

Despite the intriguing jpremise of a man’s returning home one day only to discover an identical look-alike has taken over his life, The Man with my Face, starring Barry Nelson as the horrified and confused protagonist as well as the nasty antagonist, quickly tosses out the suspense when it reveals which man is the imposter.

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The special effect of the Doppleganger is marred by always being blurry, but at least the director was trying to doing something unusual in an age before CGI made it all so much easier. Blackmailers run amok in this film, and all the femmes, whether fatale or not, display mucho bare shoulders, perfectly coiffed hairdos that never move in the wind, and the requisite kitten-heels.

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Most of the characters try to talk each other to death, if only because Attack-Doggie got bored and refused to cooperate until his agent negotiated a raise. If you’re not laughing by the time the protagonist attempts to muss up his crew-cut during the climactic shoot-out, you’re not paying attention.

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Special award for the Doggie.

Winner
Noir with Doberman

The Man with My Face

Note: Some of these films are available free on the internet, but please don’t support piracy of intellectual property. None of these films is in the public domain, and should not be posted in their entirety. Most of the films listed in this post are available for cheap (rent or purchase) on Amazon: all are available for free viewing to Prime members.

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Why HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE is not Shallow

Boy, does Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker dislike the female characters in the first season of HBO’s hit series True Detective. In her article “The Shallowness of True Detective,” (dated 3 March 2014 but already available online), she says the female characters are “paper-thin,” though she doesn’t insult the actors playing them, and that “none” has “any interior life.” She then compares them to female characters in shows we should like better, none of which I like at all. The problem with Ms. Nussbaum’s view of the show’s portrayal women seems to be her apparent lack of literary background — like classic noir-crime fiction and Southern Gothic — which is what the show (and its creator’s novel & stories) most resemble.

First of all, let me state most emphatically, that I am a feminist, though I’ve never been to see sexual harassment around every corner. That said, I adore classic and neo-noir-crime fiction, where the emphasis is virtually always on the male protagonists, usually narrated by them, and involves their getting involved with attractive women who are liars, whores, adulterers, predators, murderers, or all of the aforementioned, while said femme fatales maintain innocent exteriors. Don’t get me wrong: the males in noir-crime fiction aren’t angels, by any means, and that’s part of what I like about them: they’re interesting. But so are the women.

Think James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity. Think Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man, where the heroine is a liar, a murderer, a conspirator in a murder, and an unreliable narrator, to boot. Think anything by Jim Thompson, from The Killer Inside Me to The Grifters, from Pop. 1280 to A Hell of a Woman. Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston has the same kind of characters, though they’re more mature in True Detective. So do his short stories. Pizzolatto doesn’t seem interested in women unless they’re classic noir-crime fiction women, and that means they’re going to be badder than they initially seem.

So, calling Marty’s wife, Maggie — played well by Michelle Monaghan, “the only prominent female character on the show … an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides” and “an outline” is ignoring the fact that no other character in the entire show, besides Detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle (Harrelson and McConaughey, respectively) is developed (though Nussbaum does say that the show is only about those two characters, and I agree wholeheartedly with her on that, and she praises the actors’ performances). I didn’t even realize that the two black detectives interrogating/interviewing Hart & Cohle 17 years after their first investigation of the murdered Dora Lang even had names until my boyfriend, reading the credits one night, said, “Who are X and Y?” I had to look them up. They’re those detectives.  Tuttle, Ledoux, Charlie Lange, the other detectives — all male characters — are so cardboard, most of them don’t have names.

In fact, however, Maggie is developed, and not just a cardboard outline. She’s developed along the lines of the females in classic noir-crime fiction. And along the lines of Southern Gothic fiction, like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where sister Caddie, who’s not actually in the novel, has her story told by everyone but her: her retarded brother Benji who views her as a  mother figure, her older brother Quentin who views her as a love-worship object, and her younger brother Jason who views her as a whore (even while he wants to sleep with her himself). In True Detective — no spoilers here — what Maggie did to Rust Cohle in episode 6, and what she did to her husband Marty in the same episode, was calculated, cruel, and vicious. It’s also exactly what a noir-crime fiction femme fatale would do. Then she’d maintain her innocent façade. Ditto Maggie and other women in that genre of fiction.

Hart and Cohle are homicide detectives. They constantly see the bodies of dead victims, investigate the DBs (Dead Bodies), as they’re referred to in the show, and so the women and children in the show are objects to these detectives.  It’s a short step from seeing their victims and DBs as objects, to seeing all the women in their lives as objects. That includes Marty’s daughters, who, as teenagers, are clearly separated into the age-old, mutually exclusive Madonna/Whore categories. In classic noir-crime fiction, the woman is usually something to be won or possessed: she, too, is an object, even if she plays the villainous game better than most of the male protagonists in this genre do.

I love the show. Except for the convoluted Ginger-Cohle-Hart combo kidnappping & shoot-em-up scene in episode 4, which detracted from the show’s main forward drive, I think it’s some of the finest writing and acting since the first season of Damages or of American Horror Story. I gotta admit, though, that I also love FX’s Justified, where the women also take a backseat to the male protagonists. (Actually, this season, the female characters of Justified don’t even seem to be in the same car as most of the male characters, but that’s another post for another day.) I like intellectually and artistically challenging drama, and True Detective seems to be delivering that so far (except for the above-mentioned shoot-em-up, which bored me silly, but excited quite a few of the male fans, I hear).

Maggie’s not a “nothing-burger… with zero insides.” She’s just as calculating, deceptive, predatory, vicious, and morally shallow as Harrelson’s Martin Hart and McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle characters are. Maggie, her daughters, and the dead Dora Lange are also a lot more developed than the two African-American detectives re-investigating the original 1975 fetish-murder of Dora Lange, though every female except Maggie is quite a bit less well-developed, even if we’re comparing them to the females in classic noir-crime fiction.

And, I admit it, after all the bare behinds of the women in the show, I did appreciate the chance to get a good look at Matthew McConaughey’s well-developed glutes.

I’ll leave you with the opening credits of True Detective, about which Ms. Nussbaum claims this:

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

The opening credits are accompanied by the show’s theme song, “Far from Any Road” by The Handsome Family.

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