I Know Noir, But What Am I?

Who is cooler than Lee Marvin, anyway?

Who is cooler than Lee Marvin, anyway?

I was thinking about how it’s been a year since we lost Jules Dassin and Richard Widmark, both of whom lived into their nineties and died within a week of each other. Dassin, of course, was blacklisted in the famous McCarthy-influenced purge in Hollywood but moved to France and had a tremendous career. Widmark is one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen, from his debut as psychotic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death through a litany of westerns, war films and crime movies. In 1950, they collaborated on Night and The City, about a street hustler who tries to gain control of the wrestling racket in London, but of course is way over his head. It was a brilliant film, and like most noir features less-than-savory characters trying to make a move, and getting tantalizingly close before everything starts to fall apart. In a way, these are twisted morality plays, but I was first attracted to the genre because the stories seemed to be far more realistic than the typical Hollywood happy ending.

The noir era was before my time, but as an avid reader I devoured books by Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, and when lucky enough to catch them on pre-cable TV I would be mesmerized by Double Indemnity and D.O.A. and Out Of The Past. Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is a masterpiece, and one of the first instances of retelling of the plot from each character’s perspective. Now, thanks to cable channels like TCM and AMC, many of these films found a whole new audience, and the advent of DVD made most available for fans like me. With few exceptions, these aren’t going to be at Blockbuster, but I’m thrilled to be able to buy and enjoy them in my own home. Recently both Fox and Warner Brothers issued film noir series, and apparently sales are good, because more surface every day. The Criterion Collection also releases many noir titles and they’re meticulous about print quality, bonus features and whatever extras (booklets, interviews, etc.) they can assemble to present as complete an experience as possible. Their releases can be a bit pricey, but you can find many of them at decent used rates, and better library systems will probably carry quite a few.

One of my favorites, and a steal even at the retail price, is The Killers, with both the 1946 film starring Burt Lancaster and the 1964 TV movie directed by Don Siegel and starring John Cassavetes and Lee Marvin, the latter having one of the greatest closing lines in movie history. Oh yeah, and there was this Ronald Reagan guy playing a bad man, which some Americans swear he did again years later in real life. And today – the event that led up to all those thoughts about noir and Widmark and Dassin – Criterion announced the April release of one of the best post-noir classics, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. I am geeked!

I could list dozens of great films and probably fill a book about my love of film noir…and perhaps I will someday. But I wanted to use today’s blog feature to pay tribute to some of my film heroes like Widmark, Mitchum, Marvin, Lancaster and Cassavetes, as well as directors like Dassin, Sam Fuller, Don Siegel and Jean-Pierre Melville. I am so thankful that they were inspired to create such wonderfully vivid stories that are as thrilling to watch today as they must have been at the time. So if you are one who can appreciate that a great film is a transcendent journey, I encourage you to make the time to immerse yourself on the dark side of the street.

A series of noir and neo-noir films are being featured by Criterion  right now.

FOX studios has a noir series.

Warner Brothers does too.

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