Noir Nook: In Living Color Noirs
If there’s one thing that’s certain about film noir, it’s that it encompasses a lot of uncertainty. All noirs don’t have femmes fatales. They’re not all set in urban areas. They don’t all have detectives or Joe Normal characters led astray by bad women.
And they’re not all in black and white.
For my money, film noir is all about the feeling, the mood, the STORY – not whether or not it’s in color. Although the vast majority of classic noir features are in black and white, a color film with all the other markings of noir is still film noir. In other words, with a nod to Shakespeare, a color noir by any other name will still have you on the edge of your seat.
This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at my Top Five noirs that are in vibrant, living color. Check ‘em out and see if they give you that noirish feeling…
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
My favorite color noir, Leave Her to Heaven (1945), stars Gene Tierney in her Oscar-nominated performance as Ellen Berent, a more-than-slightly unhinged socialite whose intense, possessive love impacts all of those around her. The hapless humans under her spell include her father, whose passing before the film’s opening is attributed to Ellen by two of the film’s characters – one says that Ellen “loved him too much,” and the other states quite plainly that Ellen “pressed him to death.” Another victim of Ellen’s unique brand of love is her husband, Richard (Cornel Wilde), who Ellen meets on a train and marries after a whirlwind (and that’s putting it mildly) romance. While initially entranced by Ellen’s beauty, poise, and charm, Richard soon finds that Ellen doesn’t want any interferences in their union, whether it’s from her sister and mother, Richard’s disabled brother, or their own unborn child.
Set at – you guessed it – Niagara Falls, Niagara (1953) centers on a love triangle between the vibrant and excruciatingly sexy Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe), her unstable older husband, George (Joseph Cotten), and her luckless lover, Patrick (Richard Allan). Turning the triangle into a quintet, of sorts, are Ray and Polly Cutler (Casey Adams and Jean Peters), a homespun honeymooning couple who become more involved in the lives of the Loomises than they may have desired – an involvement that eventually includes more than one murder.
Slightly Scarlet (1956)
This film’s colorful title refers to titian-haired sisters Dorothy and June Lyons, played by Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming. As Slightly Scarlet (1956) opens, Dorothy, a kleptomaniac (not to mention a nymphomaniac), has just been released from the pokey into her sister’s custody. Besides having to deal with her troubled sibling, June also finds herself in the midst of a scheme by local hood Ben Grace (John Payne), who wants to exploit Dorothy’s prison record to circumvent the mayoral candidacy of June’s fiancé, played by Kent Taylor. And matters are further complicated when Ben double-crosses his boss, Solly Caspar (the always great Ted deCorsia), who plans to use Dorothy in his attempt for revenge. It’s sometimes convoluted, but you’ll have a noirish good time.
House of Bamboo (1955)
A remake of the 1948 Richard Widmark starrer The Street With No Name, House of Bamboo (1955) is set in Japan and stars Robert Ryan as Sandy Dawson, a highly intelligent but callous leader of a gang of thieves. Dawson selects his crew from a specialized pool – they’re all ex-cons who were dishonorably from the Army. But he finds that he’s too smart for his own good when he meticulously investigates and hires a young American, Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack), for his number-one man, only to learn that Spanier isn’t what he appears to be. The film’s climax features an unforgettable scene involving the revolving planet Saturn on top of Tokyo’s Matsuya department store.
A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
In A Kiss Before Dying (1956), based on the novel by Ira levin (which won the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel), Robert Wagner is Bud Corliss, a charming, crafty, and highly ambitious college student who is determined to lift himself above his station. However, Bud’s painstaking plans for a future with wealthy fellow student Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) come crashing down when she tells him she’s pregnant and likely to be disinherited by her father. Bud’s no quitter, though – he promptly comes up with an alternative plan; unfortunately, that plan doesn’t bode well for Dorothy.
If you’ve never seen a color noir (or you’re in the camp which maintains that a color film simply can’t be a noir), check these out. I think you’re going to like what you see.
– 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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