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DIY film fest: Why film noir is a style, not a genre

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Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC's Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, has joined Off-Ramp's team of commentators. Cogshell blogs at CinemaInMind and is producing a series of DIY Film Festivals for Off-Ramp listeners to throw in the comfort of their homes.

Here’s the thing about the genre known as film noir: it’s not a genre.

Noir is a style. It’s a set of aesthetic and narrative devices, themselves cobbled together from other cinematic languages and infused with uniquely American post-war sensibilities. This style can be applied to any genre — there are Western noir like "The Furies" and horror noir like "Cat People." At its core, "Citizen Kane" is a nascent noir.

There is also a distinction between the crime films of the '30s and film noir. Jimmy Cagney never made a film noir. Despite many visual and thematic similarities, for instance, "White Heat" is not noir. 

James Cagney in
James Cagney in "White Heat," which is NOT a film noir

Mr. Cagney’s characters aren’t chumps in-too-deep in a game they don’t understand. They’re gangsters and sociopaths.

If it’s in color, it’s neo-noir. "Chinatown" is retro-neo-noir. "Body Heat," from 1981, is a contemporary neo-noir, despite its constant references to "Double Indemnity."

If you’re a fan of the style, you already know the best examples of film noir: "The Maltese Falcon," "DOA," "Out of the Past," "Detour," "The Setup" and "The Red House." So I won’t mention them ... except that I just did, so consider them on the list, especially 1947's "The Red House," starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by Delmer Daves, who also wrote "Destination Tokyo," "An Affair to Remember" and the classic Bogie noir "Dark Passage."

But for this DIY Film Noir Film Festival, I’ve picked a few films that are unique for their cinematic  accomplishments as well as their interesting perspective on the world — sometimes literally.

1. "The Lady in the Lake" (1947)

This groundbreaking noir is both directed by and stars Robert Montgomery. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, the film is shot entirely from the subjective POV, with all the other actors playing directly into the camera. We only see Montgomery's Phillip Marlowe in mirrors. This is unnerving. Just think about it for a second: everyone in the movie is looking right at you.  Unnerving.

2. "They Live By Night" (1948)

Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) in
Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) in "They Live By Night"

This is director Nicholas Ray's debut film. In the opening scene, he uses the first helicopter shot in a feature film. "They Live By Night" stars Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, who are plainly prototypes for the James Dean and Natalie Wood characters refined later in Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause."

3. "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959)

Watch the club scene in "Odds Against Tomorrow"

Directed by Robert Wise, the film stars a young Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley, Sr., and was written by Abe Polonsky, blacklisted and writing under a pseudonym. This late noir is couched as a caper film with a heavy social context. All of the noir tropes are here. Gloria Grahame is the femme fatale, but race is a central theme. Robert Ryan plays a hardboiled, bigoted vet with a grudge against the world. Watch Ryan (a real boxer) sock Wayne Rogers (the serviceman) in the solar plexus early in the film. It was Rogers' first film.

Belafonte is a young black man resentful of a world that tries to tame him because he’s black. He plays the role as defiantly as Sidney Poitier ever played any, even when he slapped that judge in "In the Heat of the Night." At 29, Belafonte was also a producer of the film. Ryan was a staunch supporter of civil rights his entire life, though he did testify before HUAC — nobody is perfect. Which is the point of noir.

4. "Touch of Evil" (1959)

Last in our film festival is what some believe to be the last true film noir: Orson Welles’ "Touch of Evil." I know, Charleston Heston playing a Mexican cop. It was an ordinary affectation of the day, and I can live with it. I do know this: Welles was a great supporter of civil rights, and all peoples everywhere.

That’s it for this DIY Film Festival. You can put together any of the classics mentioned here to have a noir film festival of your own, but remember: noir is a style, not a genre.