Seeing as 2012 is drawing to a rapid close, this is likely going to be my last article of the year. It’s been the first full year blogging on the new site and I have to say it’s all turned out far better than I could have anticipated. I consider myself very fortunate to have built up a loyal little band of followers and the feedback that I’ve been consistently receiving is both gratifying and informative. My last entry, on western stars, offers ample evidence of that, turning out to be the most popular piece I’ve posted by some considerable margin. I’d mentioned that I was intending to do something similar on my other great cinematic passion, film noir, and so it’s time to make good on that. Again, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to ten stars who made an impact on cinema’s shadowlands. Film noir isn’t a genre like the western; it’s a more nebulous form where the convergence of melodrama, crime and fate all become bound up in the creation of a cinematic demimonde that defies definition yet is immediately recognizable. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on only ten men and women who portrayed so many memorable cops and private eyes, grifters and chiselers, dames on the make and hoods. Anyway, here’s my selection.
Mitchum’s omission from my western list sparked a good deal of comment. He started out playing cowboys, and there’s a case to be made that his western roles are by and large superior to his noir ones. A number of his noirs are weak or flawed productions, particularly those made when Howard Hughes was running the show. However, even when a film was less than successful, it would be difficult to single Mitchum’s performance out for criticism. Besides that, he took the lead in two of the finest noirs: as the classic dupe in Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and as the evil killer in the oneiric The Night of the Hunter.
Lancaster made his debut in what I reckon is one of the top three film noirs, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. This flashback reconstruction of what led one man to lie in a darkened room, calmly awaiting those who have come to murder him showed that Lancaster had the kind of soulfulness and sensitivity that can be used to such great effect in film noir. He would return to the dark cinema frequently, producing fine work in the likes of Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success.
One of the best known features of film noir is the figure of the femme fatale. Not every picture has one, but if you asked the average film fan to list the characteristics of noir you’d likely hear the name. Barbara Stanwyck has the distinction of playing arguably the greatest deadly woman of them all in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. She did a lot of work in noir, and I’m very fond of her turn as the panicked and bedridden heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number, Anatole Litvak’s study in mounting paranoia.
Edward G Robinson
This mild and cultured man made his name in the early 1930s in Warner Brothers gangster pictures, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar. He worked successfully in a variety of genres throughout that decade but really hit his stride in the 40s with two films for Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and one for Wilder (Double Indemnity). While those three roles are quite different, they do share one common feature – Robinson was playing men who, in one way or another, are trying to close off their minds to unpleasant realities, and all of them are ultimately tragic figures. This actor was among the best Hollywood ever produced, and his efforts in the world of noir are highly significant.
With some actors, it’s fairly easy to pick their best work. When it comes to Robert Ryan though, I find myself so spoiled for choice that it’s nearly impossible. His 40s and 50s output is peppered with excellent performances in noir pictures made for Dmytryk, Renoir, Wise and Ray. Even a piece of flummery like Beware, My Lovely benefits from Ryan’s intense presence. However, I’m going to single out Robert Wise’s tight and economical The Set-Up for attention. Ryan’s portrayal of a washed up fighter (he was once a boxer himself) determined to bow out with dignity, even if it kills him, gave him a break from playing the heavies he’s so often remembered for.
Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite with noir fans, her unique brand of sexuality managing to blend quirkiness and vulnerability with a hint of inner steel. Perhaps her part as the good time girl deformed by an enraged Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat sums up that aspect of the actress best. She also brought something special to her role in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, opposite a fiery and abusive Humphrey Bogart – I’ve heard it said that the relationship depicted had parallels with her marriage to Ray at the time.
Another guy who had strong claims for inclusion on my recent western list, Glenn Ford started out strong in film noir playing off Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Ford had that everyman quality and, as I’ve remarked when discussing some of his roles on other occasions, a vague sense of discomfort with himself that was ideal for noir pictures. I think Lang brought out the best in him in The Big Heat; his avenging cop is almost a force of nature and his barely contained rage is something to behold in a film that’s got a real mean streak running through it.
A little like Ford, Dana Andrews was another actor with whom you could almost see the wheels going round just below the surface. He too seemed to exude some of that inner dissatisfaction that translated into fatalism and disillusionment on the screen. His series of movies with Otto Preminger in the 1940s represent his noir work best. Laura may well be the best known, but Where the Sidewalk Ends offered him a meatier part and stretched him more as an actor. That movie, along with The Big Heat and On Dangerous Ground would make an interesting triple bill on violently unstable lawmen.
The queen of the B noirs, Marie Windsor had good roles in both Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin. She had a real knack for playing the cheap schemer better than anyone else I’ve seen, and her role in Kubrick’s The Killing was a perfect fit. As Sherry, the wife of everybody’s favorite sap and loser Elisha Cook Jr, her greed sees her trying to play everybody off against each other and is instrumental in bringing a tragic end to the heist.
And so I come to the last, but by no means the least, of this brief selection. After a long apprenticeship in supporting roles, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon saw Bogart define the noir lead for the next decade and a half. Tough, chain-smoking and moody, he seemed to encapsulate all the weary cynicism that the war and its aftermath ushered in. His portrayal of Sam Spade was, and remains, hugely influential, and then he went one further and truly nailed the essence of the private detective in The Big Sleep. In fact, I find it impossible to read Chandler’s text now without hearing Bogart’s distinctive delivery in my mind.
So there we have it. When I made that western list I made the point that I wasn’t claiming it as any kind of definitive one. I’ll say the same again here – these are just the ten names that I feel offered something of worth and value to film noir over the short span of its classic period. In their different ways, I think these people helped sum up what noir was all about and shaped its development. I’ll admit I struggled to decide on ten actors for westerns, and this was actually tougher. The fact that I included both actors and actresses meant that my options were increased while the overall parameters remained the same. Of course I could easily have split this into two sections, or expanded it to twenty. However, in the end, I decided to stick to ten as it forced me to apply a more ruthless approach, and give it all a lot more consideration, than I might otherwise have done. Once again, all comments, arguments and protests are most welcome.