[Just to note, you should probably see all of these before you read this. Seriously, anyway]
So. I'm here to answer one simple question- for myself, more than anyone else: What is the best noir of the 1940s? I have cherry-picked a luscious list of four genre classics, and now- I gotta decide between them. Excluding The Third Man, if only for its Great British roots- here are today’s contestants.
- The Maltese Falcon [41’ – John Huston] (review)
- Double Indemnity [44’ – Billy Wilder]
- The Big Sleep [46’ – Howard Hawks] (review)
- Out Of The Past [47’ – Jacques Tourneur]
Well then, shall we dance?
First off- Huston’s exceptional film debut: The Maltese Falcon. I find this one a tad out of place with the others. Whilst the film does employ many noir conventions, and is indeed rooted in place with the brutally effective insolence of Sam Spade (Bogey)- I find it to be, as The Third Man is, more of a crime story than true noir. The genre’s key trait is a story arc that coils back upon itself- in that with each passing instant rattling off into the future, comes more revelations about the past. Perhaps best exemplified, naturally, by Out Of The Past- here, where Tourneur devotes near the entire picture to playing the past of Bailey, rather than developing the story of the present, or rather the direction of his character’s future. In near the same way, in Double Indemnity, Wilder explores the past throughout the film, a story told in post, through countless flashbacks to the real story- a semi-cheat- but a superb innovation. One could argue that Tourneur does the same in his film, but Wilder explores the past as a means of storytelling, whereby the present- in the form of the bleeding Neff- is not truly necessary- at least to me. In contrast- Tourneur’s use of Bailey in the present is integral to the flow of his feature, as the story centers on criminal regrets, as well as the integrity of his love and life now, in contrast to that of his past.
Outside of all of this, The Big Sleep also develops as a straight crime story, if a rather inconceivable one. I must admit I never really struggled with Out Of The Past’s plot myself, but many complain of its convulsions- and I can see why. Though, much like in Hawks’ film, the characters take center stage. The Big Sleep is one vivid, inspired and ignited dreamscape, whilst simultaneously being a languid descent into a long, dark slumber- a spiral staircase into the jaws of oblivion, as the other films are- but none truly capture the mood of it quite like Hawks, if only in a more unique way, save a superior one. The whole film just feels dreary and droll, and yet keeps us awake through its character; and especially writing.
Speaking of which- crackling screenplays are as important a piece to a noir as any, and for the life of me picking the finest of four as fine as they can be is next to impossible. The Maltese Falcon develops its own superb crime story, weaving in and out characters, through the delightfully morbid whimsy of Spade- and in doing so creating a maze-like rabbit hole we are more than happy to dive down. Wilder brings his classic comedic air to his feature, even if it starts with Neff in his climactic death throes. True it does lose his fiery spark later on, but then stages a somber bathos that really resonates, despite the abject criminality of his characters. In that regard, Wilder’s piece succeeds perhaps above any others in making such vile, putrid morality sexy- as is in noir’s nature. He certainly explores the exploitative nature of the human race the finest, and again, the black soul of our people is another genre defining trait- pulled off remarkably there.
In the same way, The Big Sleep may owe its magnetic nauseam to the tone Hawks so brilliantly holds throughout, but there is no denying the crackling wit and again apparent sleaze its script radiates. The sexual tensions oozes out of each frame, each girl Marlowe meets another conquest in a trail of fire across the nation. Perhaps its rampant misogyny- but Bacall’s all-consuming aura speaks otherwise. Again- it is not so much the plot here that makes this a masterful work of prose- but rather the sizzling art of the dialogue, and the general melancholy it gives off in all-consuming waves. Speak of the devil.
By far my favorite script, if not technically the best, stems from Tourneur’s picture. Out Of The Past has some of the most outrageously, though unintentionally, wacky dialogue that is so noir it kills. One short scene on the beach, introducing Bailey and his love, is just back and forth rat-a-tat-tat Boston typewriter bullshit, a one for one slooze-fest of snappy, if hardly vintage, whippy lines. That’s just one short scene of the film. Double Indemnity, when I first saw it, averted me to narration over classic films, but Tourneur’s feature made me grow to love it, and in doing so grow to appreciate the genius in Wilder’s work also. Everything in the film is just so wry, so devilishly dark and seductive, and then cold, jarred and miserable as the nostalgia of the past catches up on our protagonist. It may not be the best screenplay of these four, but I still love it to death.
Best protagonist? Phillip Marlowe- next question.
Best leading lady…
Sorry, allow me to consolidate. All I have already said about Hawks’ feature here speaks volumes for just how great this hard-boiled hard-case is- but rest assured that everything I have said in this post speaks for the guy just as well. Every sentiment I hold for The Big Sleep again oozes out of Marlowe’s very being. The droll, gravelly voice- the sparkling lines- the zappy insolence. For me, nothing tops this guy. Spade is pretty damn great too. Never thought all that much of Neff, though I must commend MacMurray’s against-type performance. Bailey is great too (Mitchum has just the best fucking face in cinema), though again- nothing on Hawks’ leading man.
Leading lady? Another sweep for The Big Sleep. It’s gotta be Bacall. Again, she personifies the silky, seductive air of the film so purposefully, and with such deceit, malice and pure fucking power- that it’s truly hard to choose anyone else. Wilder’s woman gets a shout out also- superb, again. Well then- now that… that- is settled: Tone. Noir is a genre famous for its atmosphere, shadows sheathing minds and faces, revealing disillusionment and dread. Shall we begin?
Huston first, with The Maltese Falcon. Slashing its way through a series of rooms, rather than any vast array of locations as Tourneur or Wilder did, the film succeeds in spades in painting a lavishly thick atmosphere, though more of tension than mystery or madness, instead filling its canvas with empty streets, dangerous men prowling them- watching and waiting. Wilmer and Cairo’s numerous erratic actions throughout also lay the cement for a tense picture, but the problem I always find with The Maltese Falcon is that the tension isn’t truly palpable. Spade is always so utterly in control of his situation, but the writers did not mine the man’s impeccably insufferable charisma to its limits, and are thus left with a meandering absence of any real threat. He steals guns on a whim, and laughs in the face of them. The only moment in which Huston breaks this cloying emptiness is when Spade’s drink is spiked, leading to a moment of total environmental and physical helplessness- that truly serves to hold the film afloat, at least at the lofty heights it had already attained. Darkness and mystique? With The Maltese Falcon, it is sad to say I found them few and far between.
Wilder’s noir may have succeeded more than admirably in bringing to life the visceral greed, envy and barbarism of its criminal leads, but I always feel the atmosphere pales in comparison to his next [arguable] noir- The Lost Weekend. The deliciously devilish characters and the director’s trademark whimsically charged pace and tone make for a stylish and seductive feature- but again one that never truly mines anything to its limits. Many film noirs were and still remain pulpy ventures, even if they are considered the best, because they were not trying to be pure cinema, as these clearly were- not push a bar or boundary in film, rather just try to meet it. Double Indemnity is certainly not one of those films, and it is a damn good one, but the shadow, the sass and the scandalous seductivity of their wicked ways only stretches so far. A superb film, but not a noir that either bathes itself in darkness, both or characters and setting; nor engrosses itself in an intangible mystery no-one could hope to solve…
So onto Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Once again, I admire it almost above all else in this department. Everything churns out mushy mix of morose movement and break-neck dialogue. It’s truly one of the most beautiful juxtapositions of its decade. The Big Sleep is a viscous, amorphous mass that slowly sinks its jaws into a colossal cake of the plot, one so insurmountable not even Bogey could stomach it. Speaking of Bogey again- take into consideration the truly palpable tension here. Aided by the fact that almost everything else means nothing at all, the danger is Omni-present and snaps howling at Marlowe at every turn as he descends further into this nightmarishly massive mess. Tommy guns rattle at his door, invaders approach armed and absolutely livid, ready to tear into him. The man is clearly unsettled, frightened even. Again the partnership of a lazy detective for one half and a jittery, truly afraid one of the other simply serves to heighten the dense atmosphere Hawks lays down, dicing it to ribbons as the bullets fly through and the climax draws ever closer. The Big Sleep does not employ shadow and light quite like the best either, but it is still damn gorgeous to look at, and it’s seedy, sultry and suitably languid opening credits speak volumes for what the film is, before its first frame has even slid onto screen. Masterfully executed, but truly masterful?
And so, that brings us onto Tourneur’s Out Of The Past, for the last time. Sewing together not only a sublime sense of dread as Bailey drives onward towards the inevitable end of his future, indeed through the odyssey of murder and subterfuge that was his past, this film brings us the knock-out noir experience, atmosphere wise. Each frame is filled with shadows that cut and jut across the character’s faces, their features transformed unto rocky crags, each lost in their own worlds with their own inescapable problems. Even the quietest, most inviting scenes too share this wicked camera-work, darkness encroaching on Bailey’s beach-side love-nest so that even their one moment of intimacy is invaded by the grim and grubby fingers of their pursuers, itching to claw them back into separate cages of her marriage and his job. Tension lies thick, buried and ready to strike, rising almost as the dead throughout the film at a slow, steady pace before the final lunge for the jugular. In terms of evoking pathos and fear for our protagonist well- we should all know how Out Of The Past ends… Even before it begins! The cold inevitability that drives Bailey and his stories forward, constantly rummaging into his past for some proving fact that he was even alive, before his death- is what makes Tourneur’s film stand out from the pack. This is noir, at its most menacingly morbid, but also genuinely affecting. You feel for the life Bailey and his lover are starved of, could one say the same of Spade, Marlowe or even Neff? Out Of The Past wins out atmosphere by a long shot. The perfect presentation of what is perhaps the perfect noir.
All of these films are unmistakably great, but for the reasons above, I have to gift the title of the best noir of the 1940s to just one winner, not by far, but by a little ways above of the competition.
So now then- the final verdict:
The Maltese Falcon A-
Double Idemnity A
The Big Sleep A
Out Of The Past A+
Tourneur’s gorgeously complex canvas painted in the throes of deepest regret- and by the bruised, cynical hand of a master- wins out over everything else.
Post your favorite noir in the comments below! 40s, 50s, 30s- anything! I would do another of these on neo-noirs, though I hope we can agree there is one, undisputed winner on that front, so much so that trying to defend anything else in its face would be near-futile. Also- Chinatown is, kinda, my favorite movie ever- so just a teeny tiny tad of bias there ;)
+1 if you liked. Comment if you disagree, or just got something nice to say- or both!