By Annette Cole Mastron
According to Noir Alley on the TCM channel, it’s true. They claim the 1st film noir was Stranger on The Third Floor, made in 1940. It’s a cult favorite. It helps that Peter Lorre & Elijah Cook, Jr. are the co-stars. True to noir, the spunky girlfriend solves the crime while the male protagonist is unavailable.
Some say the first is Maltese Falcon, released in 1941, because it made so much of an impact in defining the genre. One of the best articles on film noir is by Eddie Muller who writes, "The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy, and revenge—which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul-crushing despair, and a few last gasping breaths in a rain-soaked gutter. But damned if these lost souls don't look sensational riding the Hades Express."
A show of psychological dread, sweaty paranoia, expressionistic imagery, search for demonism, amoral characters, devious behavior, smart mouth sarcasm, and a cynical world view is essential for a true film noir story.
Cry Danger starring Dick Powell was shot in the Bunker Hill section of downtown LA and a seedy trailer park in the same area during the late 1940’s and 50’s. The comedic conversation with dead-pan delivery by Powell makes a wonderful example of film noir at its best. Screen writer Bowers delivers a script that encompasses all the components of classic film noir with a few twists to the normal noir story.
No Questions Asked, a 1951 noir movie starring Barry Sullivan involved in an insurance scam recovery tale. Sidney Shelton wrote the screenplay from an adaptation of Bernie Giler’s story. Giler went on to write television episodes as did Shelton. Shelton then become a popular novelist. In “No Questions Asked," Shelton wrote cynical and amusing twists built into the story that can be seen in his later move into novels.
Of course, who can forget the value of a film noir character almost always present, “TB with the H of G” (Tough Broad with the Heart of Gold)? Sultry, Lauren Bacall epitomizes that as she turns just prior to leaving the room and says to Humphrey Bogart (in the noir movie To Have and Have Not), "You know how to whistle, Steve, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow". It’s the sassy dialogue that makes this film memorable. The book of the same title was written by Ernest Hemingway, and the screenplay was written by William Faulkner. It is not surprising with these authors' talents that it’s considered a cream of the crop film noir.
I’ve recently read a number of current “psychological thrillers” that seem to get a lot of there story ideas and some structure from the classic film noir plots. The Last Mrs. Parrish, The Wife Between Us, The Woman in the Window, The Lying Game, and The Woman in Cabin 10 all have elements of film noir stories. The difference is the expansion of characters' behaviors and interactions with other characters to keep the reader reading. When all is said and done in the end, like in film noir, there will be revenge, retribution and resurrection of the cast of characters.
Watch a couple of film noirs and see what you think. Does it compare to the latest book genre, psychological thrillers?