Film Noir


A rough overview of film noir begins in the early 1940s with films like The Maltese Falcon , which presented a new, darker perspective on the characters and themes of hard-boiled fiction. Two earlier films, the 1931 The Maltese Falcon and the 1936 Satan Met a Lady , had been based upon Hammett's novel of the same name. Both handled crime in the lighthearted manner typifying detective films in the 1930s. John Huston's (1906–1987) 1941 film brought a new, grim tone to the material. RKO used Chandler's novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940), as the source for The Falcon Takes Over , a 1942 film in the earlier detective mode. Only two years later, the same studio used Farewell, My Lovely as the source for Murder, My Sweet but that film's noir style gave it an entirely different atmosphere. The flowering of film noir came with mid-1940s films like Double Indemnity , Scarlet Street , Mildred Pierce , The Blue Dahlia , The Killers (1946), Out of the Past, Detour , The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and The Big Sleep (1946). At times, as in The Stranger (1946) and Crossfire (1947), films noirs moved beyond tormented, interpersonal issues and explicitly engaged contemporary social problems, such as fugitive Nazis and anti-Semitism. In the late

b. Bridgeport, Connecticut, 6 August 1917, d. 1 July 1997

Robert Mitchum's extraordinarily long and fertile Hollywood career developed chiefly around his association with film noir . As an actor, the tension between his half-asleep, dreamily indifferent expression and a powerful, broad-shouldered physical presence enabled him to dominate scenes while also seeming abstracted from them. He appeared to confront either success or doom as if he didn't really care, which made him ideal for film noir .

After his Academy Award ® nomination for portraying the heroic, doomed lieutenant in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), he was signed by RKO Studios, where he starred in important films noirs such as Out of the Past and Crossfire (both 1947). Even the westerns he made at this time, such as Pursued (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948), were noted for their noir -ish tone.

Out of the Past is possibly the most iconic film noir , with its voice-over narration, atmosphere of doom, chiaroscuro lighting, emasculated men and femme fatale, and strong influence of Freudian concepts upon character construction and narrative organization. Mitchum plays a man whose hidden past catches up with him. A former private detective hired to find a femme fatale, Mitchum's character falls for her, an act that sends his life spiraling into murder, betrayal, and death. Having failed in his attempt to build a new life, he orchestrates his own death. Mitchum's haunting portrayal of a man losing everything important to him is one of his most eloquent.

Mitchum's rebellious off-screen reputation, culminating in his arrest for possession of marijuana in 1948, seemed to blend with his darker roles. This image was enhanced by his skill at playing unregenerate, psychotic villains in films like Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1962), and in the television series A Killer in the Family (1983). A less-discussed counterpoint to this aspect of his image was his career-long effectiveness at playing socially responsible authority figures in films like Crossfire , The Enemy Below (1957), The Longest Day (1962), and in the popular television miniseries The Winds of War (1983).

Long after the era of film noir ended, he contributed to the neo- noir revival of the 1970s, starring as Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). These films were remakes of classical films noirs ( Murder, My Sweet [1944] and The Big Sleep , 1946), films in which Mitchum could have credibly starred thirty years earlier. By the 1970s, his very presence in a film carried with it evocations of film noir . While hosting a 1987 Saturday Night Live show, he even parodied his film noir image. Although he was at times mocked for sleepwalking through roles, he developed a singularly diverse and often nuanced repertory of performances.


The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Pursued (1947), Out of the Past (1947), Crossfire (1947), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Thunder Road (1958), Home From the Hill (1960), Cape Fear (1962), El Dorado (1966), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), A Killer in the Family (TV series, 1983)


Belton, John. Robert Mitchum . New York: Pyramid, 1976.

Eells, George. Robert Mitchum: A Biography . New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.

Mitchum, Robert. Mitchum: In His Own Words , edited by Jerry Roberts. New York: Limelight, 2000.

Roberts, J. W. Robert Mitchum: A Bio-bibliography . Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

Server, Lee. Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care." New York: St. Martin's, 2001.

William Luhr

Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947).

1940s, documentary style entered film noir with films like T-Men (1947) and Naked City (1948). In the 1950s, film noir incorporated anti-communist ( Pickup on South Street , 1953), anti-nuclear ( Kiss Me, Deadly , 1955), and socio-medical ( Panic in the Streets , 1950) concerns.

By the early 1960s, with the decline of black-and-white cinematography and the collapse of the studio system, film noir was dying out. Various films have been cited as marking its last gasp, including Orson Welles's (1915–1985) Touch of Evil (1958), Alfred Hitchcock's (1899–1980) The Wrong Man (1956), Samuel Fuller's (1912–1997) Underworld U.S.A. (1961), and Blake Edwards's (b. 1922) Experiment in Terror (1962). Although the commercial viability of film noir was declining in Hollywood, its international influence was growing. This is particularly evident in films of the French Nouvelle Vague , such as À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960), Alphaville (1965), Tirez sur le pianiste ( Shoot the Piano Player , 1960), and La mariéeétait en noir ( The Bride Wore Black , 1968). That influence later appeared in the New German Cinema, the Hong Kong Cinema, and various Latin American cinemas, among others.

By the 1970s, neo- noir films acknowledged film noir as a past form, either by setting themselves during the 1930s–1950s era or, for those set in the present, making clear references to earlier films, as for example, Chinatown (1974), Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1984), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Mulholland Falls (1996). Neo- noir also includes remakes of earlier films noirs , like Farewell, My Lovely (1975), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), D.O.A. (1988), and Kiss of Death (1995). Just as film noir was parodied during its canonical era in films like My Favorite Brunette (1947), so it was later parodied during the neo- noir era in films like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).

Beginning in the 1980s, neo- noir began linking noir with dystopian science fiction in films like Blade Runner (1982), Radioactive Dreams (1985), the Terminator series of films, and Minority Report (2002). Film noir presents a world gone sour and presumes the failure of utopian Modernism; similarly, an enduring strain of science fiction evident since George Orwell's 1948 novel, 1984 , has depicted the future as a failed past. The central character of the futuristic Blade Runner speaks with a world-weary cynicism that evokes that of 1940s hard-boiled detectives.

Extensive crossover influences have appeared in other media. While film noir was thriving, numerous radio series drew upon its noir conventions, including the Philip Marlowe , Sam Spade , and Richard Diamond , Private Detective series. Television series, from Peter Gunn to Dark Angel , have done the same thing. Novels, such as those by James Ellroy (b. 1948) ( The Black Dahlia , 1987), have been called film noir fiction, and graphic novels by writers like Frank Miller (b. 1957) ( Sin City ) also draw extensively upon noir stylistics. Similar patterns exist in other media.

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