Noir Nook: 75th Anniversary Noir
There are so many noirs out there – some are good, some are not so good. Some are great.
And some are legendary.
This month, the Noir Nook is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the release of five legendary films from the classic noir era. A generation has passed since these features were first seen by those people out there in the dark, but they are iconic, unforgettable, and timeless – the kind of movies that you can see again and again, and never get enough.
The Big Sleep (1946)
I admit it – half the time, I don’t know what’s going on in this film. But I don’t care. It may have more twists than a Chubby Checker video, but it’s Bogie and Bacall! In a nutshell, the plot centers on private dick Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), who’s hired by an elderly invalid, General Sternwood, to resolve gambling debts racked up by his reckless younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). This seemingly uncomplicated assignment morphs into something far more unwieldy, involving a cast of characters that include Sternwood’s smart and sexy older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall); local racketeer Eddie Mars (John Ridgely); luckless grifter Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.); and Sean Regan, an Irishman hired by Sternwood to “do his drinking for him,” who flees before the start of the film and never makes a reappearance.
Trivia tidbit: This was the final film for Charles Waldron, who played General Sternwood. He died before the premiere of the film.
Gilda is another film with plot points that escape me – but, again, who cares? In the title role of the tantalizing temptress, Rita Hayworth is simply mesmerizing. She’s in nearly every scene, and when she isn’t, you’re eagerly awaiting her return. The film is set in Argentina and opens with an introduction to the two male characters who, along with Gilda, form a dangerous triangle of passion, deceit, and murder. We meet small-time gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) on the streets of Buenos Aires. When a group of locals realize that he’s cheated them out of their cash, Johnny is rescued from a certain beatdown by casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready), and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Johnny has talked himself into a job with Mundson, eventually working his way up to the position of Right-Hand Man.
Trivia tidbit: The black dress that Hayworth wore in her famous “Put the Blame on Mame” number was designed by Jean Louis. He was reportedly inspired by the controversial 1884 painting by John Singer Sargent, entitled “Portrait of Madame X.”
The Killers (1946)
This film opens with one of my favorite scenes in all of noir. No matter how many times I see it, it always leaves me breathless. Two menacing dudes – played to perfection by William Conrad and Charles McGraw – show up in a small town looking for one Pete Lund, better known as the Swede (Burt Lancaster). The men make no bones about their motive: they plan to kill The Swede and, unfortunately for him, he’s not hard to find. After the killing, it’s discovered that the Swede left behind a life insurance policy, and investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) is assigned to find and pay off the beneficiary, a hotel maid who once saved the Swede from committing suicide. After talking to the maid, Reardon continues his investigation, tracking down the Swede’s friends and associates – including a treacherous femme named Kitty (Ava Gardner) – in order to unearth the story behind his murder.
Trivia tidbit: Virginia Christine, who played the Swede’s girlfriend before he met and was mesmerized by Kitty, gained fame years later as Mrs. Olson, the TV spokesperson for Folgers Coffee.
One of the first noirs I ever saw, The Postman Always Rings Twice is among my favorites from the era. The story is straightforward: a drifter has an affair with the wife of a roadside diner owner and the two plot and carries out the murder of her husband. It’s a simple description that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the shadowy delights this movie has to offer. There’s gorgeous Lana Turner as the duplicitous wife, Cora Smith; John Garfield as Frank Chambers, the drifter who allows his passion to be converted into murder; and Cecil Kellaway as Cora’s hapless hubby. And to spice things up even further, we have Leon Ames as the district attorney who’s not fooled by the couple’s innocent act, Hume Cronyn as the wily defense attorney, and Audrey Totter in a small but pivotal role as Madge, a lunch counter waitress who catches Frank’s eye. From Lana Turner’s nearly all-white wardrobe to the steamy chemistry between the murderous couple, to the film’s unexpected conclusion, there is just so much about this movie to love.
Trivia tidbit: As in the James M. Cain novel on which the film is based, Madge’s initial occupation in the movie was a lion tamer. (Seriously.) A scene was actually filmed where she introduces Frank to her lions, but the idea was later scrapped and she became a waitress instead.
This movie stars two of my favorite noir femmes: Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott, making it an automatic winner in my eyes. Toss in the uber-talented Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas, and you’ve got the makings of a cinematic gem. As this feature begins, we’re introduced to three of the principal characters as children: Martha, who is being raised by her wealthy, much-hated aunt, and her two friends, adventurous and exciting Sam, and mousy Walter, the son of her aunt’s sycophantic advisor. During a confrontation on a dark and stormy night (really!), Martha strikes and kills her aunt, blaming the murder on a mysterious fleeing intruder. As an adult, we learn, Martha (Stanwyck) has become the powerful proprietor of a mill empire and Walter (Douglas) is her district attorney husband. We also learn that years before, when a former employee of the family was arrested for a hold-up, Martha and Walter conspired to accuse the man of her aunt’s murder and secure his conviction and execution. Meanwhile, Sam (Heflin), now an itinerant gambler, returns to town – not realizing that Martha and Walter have incorrectly assumed that he knows the truth about her aunt’s death – and a curious quartet is formed when Sam befriends a local down-on-her-luck girl, Toni Marachek (Scott).
Trivia tidbit: This film marked Kirk Douglas’s big-screen debut.
Treat yourself to a celebration of these legendary films that were released 75 years ago – watch one or watch them all! You’ll be glad you did.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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