It’s autumn and a great genre for fall is the film noir (translated from the French as “black cinema”). Sometimes I really get in the mood to watch a noir. There are rules that must be followed. Of course, a noir should only be watched at night—late at night is even better than when the sun just goes down. Out of the Past (1947) is classic noir and is a wonderful example of what makes these films such fun.
Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a small town mechanic who gets recognized by some big city tough and is forced to face his past as a private detective. Bailey gets embroiled in a series of events that has multiple people out to get him—this is a noir so you know going in that it’s not gonna be pretty for him to get out of the predicament.
For me, good noir has to have some key elements and Out of the Past has a bunch of them: beautiful black and white photography, lots of shadows and darkness in the frame, murder, manipulative dames, double crosses, trench coats, people shot in the back, hats askew on heads with cigarettes dangling from lips, seedy joints, elicit affairs, no nonsense guys who take zero guff from anyone or they will punch you in the face, following people in a cab, blackmail, double crosses on the double cross, hard boiled dialogue, frame ups, dirty cops, women getting slapped on the cheek and they usually have wonderful, lurid posters with lots of colorful details from the movie (check Out of the Past’s poster out for proof of that).
I’m of the opinion a noir movie has to be in black and white. Some films in recent years have been called noirs—Body Heat, The Last Seduction, and even the 1984 remake of this Against All Odds—but to me those aren’t “true” noirs because of two reasons: they were shot in color and they were made many years after the post WW2 epicenter of the noir heyday.
You wouldn’t call a just released boundary pushing film from France a member of the “French New Wave” or a gritty Italian film about despair and struggle “neo-realist” would you? Well, you might but you’d be wrong. The point is, those film moments happened and were great but they are over. The same should be said of a classic “noir”. A new film might be “noir-like” to me but it will never be real noir because that was the 1940s and early 1950s and those days, just like the French New Wave, Spaghetti Westerns, Italian Neo-Realism and other film movements, are done and gone.
I still enjoy the good films that come out now that ape some of the elements of classics like Out of the Past but they aren’t as good. They don’t capture the authentic, seamy behavior and love stories ripe with danger the way a taut, tense little film like Out of the Past does so effortlessly. When autumn hits and it’s late at night, I’ll veer for the 1940s when I want my dose of noir.