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DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL : Shedding a little light on films that were made in the noir

September 05, 1993|ELIZABETH HANSEN | Elizabeth Hansen is a Los Angeles-based playwright and free-lance writer

So I'm sitting on the couch, watching this thing they call TV. I'm as tight as a new pair of support hose (I'm not really; it just sounds good), so I tune into "Fallen Angels," the new anthology series on Showtime. It's got great-looking dames and rough-talking guys, who no matter what, can't seem to say or do the right thing. But they wear the right thing, and that's what's important.

Some guy and some girl are in love, but the guy's a little shady and the girl well, you know the kind. But the cards ain't with 'em and they just can't get it right. (We call couples like that dysfunctional, now.) "Fallen Angels" is a nice little updated piece of film noir.

Hey, wait a minute. Time out! Film noir ? What is that? I jump up from the couch as I remember the Aug. 1 issue of TV Times (I keep all my back issues, don't you?) with a cover story on "Fallen Angels." And right there, in black and white, it's clearly film noir .

OK, is this term film noir confusing, or is it just me? (It's usually just me, which is why I ask.) Is film noir an art form or merely badly lit movies?

It was time to bring in some experts for questioning.

My father: Weren't they Humphrey Bogart movies?

My friend Pam: Isn't that when you watch movies in the dark?

My mother: I don't know.

It was time to go to that handy little French dictionary I've had since high school.

Voila. The phrase comes form the word film meaning, well, film and noir meaning black, dark or gloomy. Ah, perhaps we are onto something here. Black, dark or gloomy films.

It was time to bring in the heavy artillery. OK, Mr. Leonard Maltin of "Movie Video Guide and "Entertainment Tonight" fame: What is film noir ?

At last a definitive answer: "The term was coined to describe those tough, hard-boiled, usually private eye-related films that came along in the late '40s that always seemed to be taking place at night. Most people seem to agree that 'Out of the Past' starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, is the definitive film noir. "

So, I guess film noir refers not only to a style of film, but to the period in which it flourished. An era when the good guys weren't as good as you thought they were and the bad ones weren't as bad.

Or then again, maybe they were just badly lit movies.

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