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The best of the worst humanity has to offer

A Critic's List Covers All The Noir Bases: Crimes Without Conscience, Good Guys Bordering On Bad, And Dames Who Inflict The Distress.

September 10, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

HELLO, my name is Ken and I'm a noir-aholic.

Put a dark end of the street up on-screen and I'm there. Have characters specialize in wised-up dialogue -- "I wouldn't give you the skin off a grape" or "He's as shifty as smoke, but I love him" -- and I'm in my element. Throw in a fatalistic ending and drop-dead black-and-white cinematography and I'm sticking around for the second show.

And don't ask about the books. "The Noir Style." "The Art of Noir." "The Dark Side of the Screen." "Blackout." "Hard-Boiled." "Dark City." "More Than Night." "Dreams and Dead Ends." Even "Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir." And that's not all. If they print it, I will come.

Like many things we love, film noir can be a little hard to pin down. It's not a genre like the western or the musical but a style, a state of mind that can permeate any film. The golden age of noir, however, was Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s, an era of wartime and postwar disillusionment. The films made then strike an uncannily familiar note of hopelessness and cynicism, taking what critic and director Paul Schrader called "a harsh, uncomplimentary look at American life ... with its emphasis on corruption and despair." Without a doubt it is a style whose time has come again.

Film noir didn't get its proper name until 1946, when French critics, having missed Hollywood films for half a dozen years because of the war, saw them all in a rush and detected what could be called a darkening of tone, reminding them of the American hard-boiled fiction published in a paperback line called Serie Noire. It was, French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton said in their landmark 1955 study, "the revelation of a new kind of American film."

Film noir represented a darkening not only in the thematic sense but also in terms of plain black and white. For these are dark, dark films that are shot in a way that unsettles the viewer, filled with heavy, deep shadows that blot out in one fearful swoop body and soul. "Hell, we didn't know what film noir was in those days," Robert Mitchum once said. "Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts."

If the men of film noir are lonely, cynical and enigmatic with unknown pasts and untrustworthy futures, the women are more so. The tough, canny men who people these films ought to know better than to believe these women, but they fall in love anyhow, fatalistically unable to help themselves. When someone in "Out of the Past" says of Mitchum's character's old flame, "She can't be all bad, no one is," he replies, "She comes the closest."

No matter which way you turn in film noir you run into a heartbreaker of a film, a grim, often unsentimental, always unforgettable little gem. Given that, choosing favorites is a hopeless business. You could pick "Chinatown" or "L.A. Confidential," the masterpieces of modern noir. You could go with great performances: James Cagney in "White Heat," Robert Mitchum in "The Night of the Hunter," Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon." You could go with noirs by auteur directors, films such as Sam Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" and John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle," or choose between Robert Siodmak's "The Killers" and Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing."

Though all those films are deserved classics, I've picked an additional group of five, not because they are better but simply because these are the ones I love most, the ones, made mostly on the fringes of Hollywood, that made me the noir-aholic I am today. In alphabetical order:

"Detour." This is probably the blackest, most doom-laden film noir ever made. In only 70 minutes, it relates the devastating tale of what happens to Al (Tom Neal), a musician, when he tries to hitchhike across the country and runs into Vera, a fury incarnate. Ann Savage's sensational performance in that role, combined with the real-life mistakes of Neal, who ended up going to prison for murdering his wife, have made this Edgar G. Ulmer-directed film the noir to end all noirs, what critic Andrew Sarris calls "this most despairing and most claustrophobic of all B pictures."

"Double Indemnity." Fred MacMurray was aces as an insurance agent seduced by Barbara Stanwyck, the ultimate noir heroine, into terminating her husband to collect the insurance money. But they don't factor in Edward G. Robinson as a claims adjustor who never sleeps. James M. Cain's novel is heightened by dialogue courtesy of director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Said critics Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg: "A film without a single trace of pity or love."

"Kiss Me Deadly." Ralph Meeker goes wild as Mickey Spillane's alter ego Mike Hammer -- "a midget among dwarfs," says one observer -- who wreaks all sorts of havoc in his search for a mysterious device that leads to one of the most celebrated finales in noir history.

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