Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Color Noir

Mike Harvkey over at True/Slant has compiled a list of the fifteen best "color noirs." Of course, this brings us back to the matter of definition--can a color film be a film noir, or is noir defined by sharply delineated chiaroscuro cinematography? I come down on the side that says film noir is more about attitude, plot, and characterization than cinematography--but I'll also admit that part of my laxity when it comes to definition is that I'm a big softy who wants to include color films that I like.

I should add that black and white cinematography is the most beautiful art form I have ever encountered. While I love many color movies, I worship at the altar of Alton.

Still, Harvkey's list is an interesting one. Herewith are some thoughts on a few of his choices:

1. Desert Fury- One of the all time great bad movies. Total camp, totally over the top, but a lot of fun. Added bonus: it stars Lizabeth Scott in one of her few color films. She looks breathtaking.

2. Farewell My Lovely- (Harvkey misidentifies the name of the novel) This one is an odd choice since it's not that great a movie, and it's got some particularly muddy cinematography. Stars a too-old-for-the-part Robert Mitchum. Mediocre retro-noir. You're better off reading the book or watching Murder My Sweet, the 1944 b&w version with Dick Powell.

3. The Grifters-One of the great neo-noirs, a perfect adaptation of a superb Jim Thompson novel. If you haven't seen it, then get cracking. It's a sheer delight.

4. Leave Her To Heaven- I'd rate this as the great color noir. Gene Tierney stars as the worst obsessive girlfriend ever. And I mean, Ever. She looks amazing in color, though. Gotta give her that. Here's a clip of Martin Scrosese introducing the film in front of a live audience.

5. Chinatown-What can you say? A full-on masterpiece. One of the greatest films of all time. I could heap more superlatives on it, but I'll just say that not even my contempt for the director nor my exasperation with the star has dented my love of this film. Would it have been better in b&w? Maybe...

6. The Killers (1964)- Don Siegel's film is more of a remake of the Siodmak film than an adaptation of the Hemingway short story. It's got some terrific parts--namely the brutal performances of Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as a couple of hitmen (is it me or did Tarantino clearly pattern Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent on Marvin and Gulager?). The movie also features Cassavettes being grumpy--always fun--and Ronald Reagan as a bad guy with a head full of pomade. Still, this is decidedly not a great movie. It's clunky in too many places, and it has way too much cheap back projection. It's good remake of a masterpiece. See the masterpiece first.

7. The Long Goodbye-I'll say it: I hate this movie. Maybe it's because I love Raymond Chandler's novel, and this film is a deconstruction of the book and the character of Philip Marlowe. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like. I mostly find it boring. (One added gripe: because Elliot Gloud stars as Marlowe here, someone picked him to read all of Chandler's novels on audiobook, and he does an awful job. Someone please record new versions of the books. My pick for an audio Marlowe? Campbell Scott.)

8. Vertigo-I don't know if I'd call Vertigo a film noir. I don't know what it is--except for, possibly, the best movie I've ever seen.

9. Le Samourai- I really like this stylish Jean-Pierre Melville hitman classic, but I have the same criticism of it that I have of many older hitman movies: the assassins don't seem particularly good at doing their jobs. Here, the hitman's plan is basically to stroll into a crowded club and commit a murder. Surely there's a smarter way to do this.

10. After Dark, My Sweet- Another brilliant Jim Thompson adaptation. Stars Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern. It's romantic, suspenseful, inventive, and tragic. After seeing it, you'll wonder why Jason Patric never became a huge movie star. Rachel Ward is sexy and sad at the same time, and Bruce Dern--well just remember the Bruce Dern Rule: any movie with Bruce Dern is automatically worth seeing. After Dark is a massively underrated film that no crime geek has any excuse to miss.


Unknown said...

Leave Her to Heaven is definitely the quintessential color film noir-- what's funny is that all of the colors are so bright, especially that red lipstick! It's like the opposite of what noir is supposed to look like but has the same feel anyway!

Great post!! :D

Laurie Powers said...

I haven't seen all of the older films, but love The Grifters and Chinatown. Thanks for the list.

Unknown said...

I glad I'm not the only one who hates
Altman's the Long Goodbye. I don't understand how it ends up on so many best of lists and I'd like to smack Elliot Gould in the face with a snow shovel for screwing up such a great character for an entire generation

Jake Hinkson said...

Kate-I love the bright colors in the fifties. It has something to do, I've been told, with the three strip color process they used back in the day.

Laurie-Check em out. You'll dig em, I think. Leave Her To Heaven is a creepy movie, all the movie creepy for being so pretty.

Rawson- One of these days you and I need to crack open a case of scotch, grab some shovels from the garage, and hunt down Gould.

Paul D Brazill said...

Leave Her To Heaven is a fave. Love The Grifters.

Mike said...

Hi Night Editor,
I think you know more about noir than I do! Some great points here. It's funny that you hate The Long Goodbye; I can definitely see why. Altman and Chandler? What? It's a very strange movie, but for me it's got its charms. Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

Mike Harvkey