DISCLAIMER: It is important to remember that noir was not the only Hollywood product genre of its time. Certainly there were others, each with aspects that can be examined as reflective of society. Noir cannot claim a privileged access to the American psyche of its time, but it is one lens with which to look at particular problems in post-war America.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Dir. Billy Wilder
written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain
Starring Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff) and Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson)
Although this movie was produced in 1944, I have included it in this discussion because by the time it came out, it was clear that the US would win the war, and Hollywood had begun its transition away from wartime propaganda films.
This film follows the flashback convention, with Walter Neff dictating the entire story into the world's longest dictaphone message to his boss. Neff is an insurance salesman sent to sell insurance to the Dietrichsons, but Mr. Dietrichson isn't home, and Walter is captivated by the allure of the young Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). He finds her first in her towel having just gotten out of the shower, and every time we see her after that the camera zooms in on her legs coming down the stairs, fetishizing the anklet she wears. Although captivated, Walter almost immediately suspects that she wants him to help her kill her husband so she can collect on the insurance, so he walks out. He knows that this wasn't the last time he would see her, however, and is not surprised when she shows up at his apartment later that evening. She cries and he gives in. They plan the perfect murder. Everything comes off seamlessly, until Walter's boss, Keyes, gets suspicious and sets investigators on the claim. Phyllis refuses to give Walter a way out, and so shoots her before the police arrive, but not before she has shot him in the arm. Neff makes it back to the insurance office to dictate the letter to Keyes. This brings us up to the present, when finally Keyes walks in on Walter just as he is finishing his message. Walter tries to escape, but can't because of a gunshot wound he sustained earlier to his arm. Even though Keyes obviously has a great deal of affection for Neff, he has to turn him in in the interests of justice. He has no choice, and Neff knows it too. In Wilder's original ending, Neff receives the death penalty and Keyes is there with him throughout the whole ordeal. This was cut because it made the film too long and because of Production Code constraints. The film, as it is, ends with Keyes lighting a cigarette for Walter. This gesture had been the symbol of their father-son affection throughout the movie and is particularly touching here.
THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
Dir. Howard Hawks
Based on the Novel by Raymond Chandler
Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman
Starring Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe) and Lauren Bacall (Vivien Rutledge)
Much lighter fare than many others in the genre, this film concerns "a private dick on a case" (Marlowe) hired by the dying General Sternwood to investigate a blackmailing racket involving his daughter Carmen Sternwood. Marlowe's investigation of Carmen leads to the discovery of a dead body. Murders lead to other murders, and the case seems to involve a former employee of the Sternwoods' who apparently ran off with a mobster's wife. The plot is rather confusing, and motivations are not always clear, but the dialogue is crisp in the usual Hawksian fashion. Marlowe is not a superhuman or omniscient agent of the law. He has as much difficulty understanding what is going on around him as the audience does. Sometimes he has to work around the law, which, as is usual in these movies, is rather heavy-handed and obstructionist. Marlowe ends up falling in love with Sternwood's mysterious other daughter, Vivien Rutledge (divorced), who while she does *not* double-cross him in the end, it is sometimes ambiguous as to which side she is on. In the end, it turns out that Carmen had been involved in a pornography ring and had shot the man Marlowe originally finds. There is a shootout in the end, in which Marlowe uses the blackmailer's own thugs against him.
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948)
Starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
Written, directed, produced by Orson Welles. (Adapted from the novel by Sherwood King) This may sound like an ego-fest for Welles, but is actually an incredible film. The cinematography is fantastic--the use of shadow and light are especially effective in the fun house scene.
The film takes the form of an extended flashback. It follows the story of the stoic sailor, Michael O'Hara (Welles), whose life is changed when he saves Elsa Bannister from a gang of muggers in Central Park. When he finds out she is married, he wants nothing more to do with the situation. However, her lawyer-husband enlists him to work on their yacht (the Circe!) and will not take no for an answer. O'Hara goes to work for the couple against his better judgement, and filled with foreboding. Later, O'Hara is sucked into a plot with Banister's law partner that sounds good at first, but of course goes horribly wrong. The law partner wants O'Hara to make it look as though O'Hara has murdered the law partner. That way he can collect on this insurance money. Since there will be no body, O'Hara won't be able to go to jail for the crime, and the man promises to pay Michael for his efforts. This sounds great except that Mr. Bannister's law-partner ends up murdered, and O'Hara becomes the fall-guy. Strangely, Mr. Bannister defends Michael in court. Bannister deliberately makes a mockery of the court and gets Michael convicted. Because the court is bumbling and obtuse, Michael manages to bust out and infiltrate another jury walking down the street, escaping unnoticed. He ends up in some kind of Japanese theater and then goes to the fun house where they have the final shootout in the hall of mirrors. This ends with Elsa and Bannister dead, and Michael walks away unharmed. As he leaves her behind, she tries one last time to enlist his help. "I don't want to die! I don't want to die!" she screams at him as he walks out. The lines of good and bad are hazy for much of the movie. Initially, the yachting party merely seems insane, but later, this takes on a more sinister aspect. The trailer for this film places inordinate emphasis on the villainy of Hayworth's siren Elsa. The movie is deliberately ambiguous about her role in the events until the very end, and even then, the issues are not as simple as the trailer would have them seem.
THE KILLERS (1946)
Dir. Robert Siodmak
Starring Burt Lancaster ("the Swede") and Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins)
Based on the story by Ernest Hemingway.
In the beginning of the film, we watch as the Swede (Lancaster) is inexplicably gunned down as he lies in his bed. A friend had warned the Swede that the gunmen were coming for him, the Swede refuses to run. Why? the friend wants to know. "Because I did something wrong. Once." An insurance claims investigator decides to find out why the Swede did not put up a fight, so he follows up on all the people who knew the Swede, starting with the woman the Swede left his insurance money to. This film is structured as a series of flashback stories collected from the various witnesses he encounters. The investigator follows the trial all the way to its source, which turns out to be a heist six years earlier of a hat factory. He also finds Kitty Collins, the woman who provided the Swede's motivation. Before the hat factory robbery, the Swede had gone to jail for her. She double crosses him so that she and her boyfriend can get all the money from the robbery without the other participants knowing that her boyfriend was involved. She tells the Swede that the others were planning to cut him out of the deal. He goes berserk and takes all the money and runs off with her to Atlantic City. A couple days later, she leaves with all the money and he wakes to find her gone. In the end, she tries to get her husband to cover for her, just as the Swede had, earlier, but he can't or won't, as he is dying. "Tell them Kitty is innocent!" she screams at the dying man. This time her "would be fall guy" is dead and can't save her. The movie ends here, but it is implied that she goes to jail for a long time for her participation in the crimes and murders.
OTHER FILMS NOIR FROM THE IMMEDIATE POSTWAR ERA
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Deadly is the Female (1949)
The Big Heat (1953)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)