Noir Nook: Not Your Average Noir
What are the characteristics of film noir?
Femme Fatales? Voiceover narration? Flashbacks? Cynical anti-hero? Deep shadows and single-source lighting? Urban setting? Unique camera angles? Hard-boiled detective?
Yes. And no.
You won’t find every one of these qualities in every film noir. And not having any or all of these qualities doesn’t mean a film isn’t noir.
In this month’s Noir Nook, I’m taking a look at a film that doesn’t have many of these typical characteristics, but which I maintain is nonetheless indisputably noir: Ladies in Retirement, a 1941 Columbia feature starring Ida Lupino, Louis Hayward, Elsa Lanchester, and Evelyn Keyes.
What’s it about?
Lupino plays Ellen Creed, who works in the English countryside as a live-in housekeeper and companion to former actress Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom). Ellen also is the caretaker – from a distance – for her two sisters, who are eccentric at best, and borderline criminal at worst. When her sisters are threatened with eviction from their London lodgings because of their bad behavior, Ellen relocates them to her employer’s home, but the solution turns out to be less than ideal. And Ellen’s woes are exacerbated by the unexpected appearance of a distant relative (Hayward) who’s clearly up to no good.
What’s not noir?
- Far from a modern setting in a city like San Francisco, Chicago, or New York, Ladies in Retirement takes place in rural England during the Victorian era.
- The story is presented in a straightforward fashion, with no flashbacks and no narrator.
- There’s no detective or similar authority figure driving a criminal investigation, nor does the film contain a character who serves as an anti-hero.
- Although her motivations leaned more toward necessity and desperation than avarice and desire, Ellen is clearly a fatal femme. Unlike many femmes of this type, she didn’t use her feminine wiles to bamboozle a hapless male; instead, she took matters into her own hands. Literally.
- With the exception of a few scenes, the primary action in the film takes place within the confines of Mrs. Fiske’s home, where atmospheric shadows serve to underscore the film’s tension. Outside, an ever-present mist adds to the constant sensation of apprehension.
- The cinematography deftly utilizes close-ups on the faces of the characters, particularly Ellen’s. In each instance, this device allows the viewer to experience the character’s growing anguish and dread.
What’s the bottom line?
Ladies in Retirement certainly isn’t your garden variety noir, but it contains several strong noirish elements. Most importantly, in addition to these characteristics, the film operates from the opening scene under a feeling of impending doom – the sensation that things are not going to turn out well. And that’s the unmistakable mark of film noir.
– 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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