Greg Fleming considers the lasting legacy of Film Noir, where often the best you can hope for is to die last

I'm not usually one for nostalgia, but the fact is, many of my favourite films were made long before I was born and remain influential on current film makers, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Nicolas Winding Refn.

But for me, nothing beats the originals. I'm talking about films such as Laura (1944), Out of The Past (1947), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Killers (1946) and — perhaps the darkest of them all — Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1956), starring Humphrey Bogart in a truly chilling performance.

All of these broadly fall into the category of film noir (literal translation: black film) and most are available here cheaply on DVD or have popped up in full on YouTube.

These are films of anxiety, paranoia and desperation that mirrored the fraught pre- and post-war era in which they were made.

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... men who fall in love with the wrong woman, good guys who cut corners, hustlers who meet their match, two-time losers after one last score...

They can also be seen as a belated response to the Great Depression of the '30s — and many have renewed resonance in the era of Trump.

The films are all sinew and bone, often made quickly to tight budgets, in studio sets or shot on the streets of LA (check out the much-underrated Crime Wave (1954), which gives a great sense of LA at the time.)

Novelist James Ellroy describes them as "bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority", while novelist Laura Lippman's broader definition of noir literature —"dreamers become schemers" — is just as apt.

Noirs focus primarily on character, dialogue and plot; milking the tension and futility of their characters' situation; men who fall in love with the wrong woman, good guys who cut corners, hustlers who meet their match, two-time losers after one last score.

Often there's enough double-crossing going on to make you giddy.

The dialogue's downbeat and deadpan; the scenes — which were often shot by emigre cinematographers — are full of moody silhouettes and dark shadows. The characters are jaded and disillusioned; their cynicism often masking a fatal sensitivity.

Much of this shows the influence of the "hard-boiled" school of writers — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain — whose dialogue fuelled many films of the era.

One can sense Cain's hand (he's cited as one of three writers) in this classic back-and-forth from Out of The Past: "I don't want to die," pleads femme fatale Jane Greer.

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To which Robert Mitchum, in one of his finest roles, replies: "Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I'm going to die last."

It's a world where love — as critic Roger Ebert once put it — is just "the final flop card in the poker game of death".

Redefining heroes and villains

Stephen Whitty, a long-time noir fan and writer for NJNext.com believes the films retain their interest for modern-day audiences because they stand apart from the "routine Hollywood product".

"They don't seem to be made to a rigid template, where heroes and villains have to behave a certain way, or a story or romance fit a traditional mode. Most importantly, though, I think it's the mood — because film noir is more a mood than a genre — a certain disappointed romanticism, a kind of cynicism. And if you dig deeper, a true existential sense of hopelessness."

Film critic Stephen Whitty.
Film critic Stephen Whitty.

"The fact that many of these films were being made on low-budgets and under the radar certainly helped, although a number of the greatest noirs were thought of as being top-of-the-line films (like most of the Bogart movies) and some went on to win mainstream acclaim (like Crossfire, the first B-picture to be nominated for an Academy Award).

"Certainly a factor was the era — you don't really start to see noirs until the early '40s, and the genre takes off mid-decade, as a kind of post-war disillusionment set in. And you can't underestimate the feelings of the people making them — many of them European refugees, steeped in the expressionist traditions of '20s German film, and most of them leftists with a very sceptical view of American authority figures and institutions.

"To look at the credits of the great noirs of the mid-to-late '40s is to see a long list of directors and actors who would soon be blacklisted."

Whitty says that the essence of noir is "suddenly realising that the world doesn't work the way you thought it did, that there are people and powers out there driving you in ways you never knew".

"It's about suspecting that whatever you do, you're never going to win. And still doing it anyway, because you can't respect yourself if you behaved any other way."

While Whitty enjoys many neo-noir films he is not a fan of empty homages.

"The best of art always comes from the creators' own authentic and original feelings, rather than any sort of homage.

"Chinatown said something that felt very real to director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne — about politics, about fate. That's why it's a classic.

"The Coen Brothers' noirs — Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo — very much reflect their disappointed view of people's behaviour.

"On the other hand, Body Heat is a terrifically entertaining movie — but does it really tell us anything about how Lawrence Kasdan views women and relationships? Or is it just his clever re-booting of Double Indemnity?"

Noir must-sees

Laura (1944)

Gene Tierney is perfect as the preppy, ambitious beauty Laura, but Clifton Webb as the obsessed, obstreperous columnist Waldo Lydecker steals every scene he's in. An oddity, in many ways as it is essentially a New York drawing-room drama, but its wonderful script and moody cinematography are all noir.

Out Of The Past (1947)

Hard-core noir about a man who tries to escape his past — with a razor-sharp script — most of which was penned by B-movie writer Frank Fenton. Starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.
A remake, Against All Odds, was a hit for Taylor Hackford in 1984.


The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Once you've seen this you'll never forget right-wing New York newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and seedy press agent Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis).
A film which has only grown in stature since its release and one that should be viewed again in light of the current US administration.

Check out these neo noirs:

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Curtis Hanson brought James Ellroy's serpentine 1990 novel to the big screen and used an Aussie and a Kiwi actor in the lead roles. Hard to say who's better — Russell Crowe as damaged cop or Bud White as wily, career-climbing Ed Exley.
Hanson had to fight hard to cast the then-unknown actors. It's now considered one of the finest American films of the '90s.
A TV show is currently in production.

Red Rock West (1993)

Nicolas Cage is great as a drifter who becomes a killer for hire. Although he is almost upstaged by the late character actor J.T Walsh.
Directed by John Dahl it also features stand-out performances by Lara Flynn Boyle and Dennis Hopper.