Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur looks at film noir, cinema's shadowy celebration of cynicism, pessimism, fatalism and corruption.
The instant expert: film noir
THE BASICS Film noir ("black film" in French) is the term for a genre of mainly American films of the 1940s and the 1950s that stylishly explore the dark underside of life. It's a world of tough guys and doomed heroes, of double-crossing dames and deadpan dialogue, of light and shadow and cigarette smoke, of high heels clicking along on wet pavements, of hard-boiled private eyes in trench coats and fedoras. Get the idea, sweetheart?
THE FRENCH INFLUENCE They later inexplicably idolised the buffoonish American comic actor Jerry Lewis, but French critics should be applauded for applying the term film noir to Hollywood films in the 1940s, though it wasn't until the 1970s that it became widely used. Most noir titles are so classified in retrospect; at the time they were labelled melodramas.
A SEMINAL ANALYSIS In a 1946 essay, The Crime Adventure Story: A New Kind of Detective Film, the French critic Nino Frank wrote of dark new films that told "of certain disagreeable realities that do in truth exist". In short, the French, suddenly viewing Hollywood films that had been unavailable during the Second World War, understandably embraced stories about world-weary individuals in a hostile universe.
SOME COMMONALITIES If a Hollywood film from roughly 1940 through to 1958 has low-key lighting, stark contrasts, dramatic patterning, skewed camera angles, a convoluted story, flashbacks, voice-over narration, murder, greed, jealousy and an alienated protagonist - well, sister, it's film noir.
SOME TITLES Criss Cross, Force of Evil, Touch of Evil, The Naked City, The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, They Live by Night, The Lost Weekend, The Big Clock, The Big Heat, The Big Sleep, The Killers, Kiss of Death, This Gun for Hire, The Woman in the Window and so many more similarly evocative titles - it ain't Busby Berkeley, baby, it's film noir.
SOME LEADING MEN Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, John Garfield, Sterling Hayden, Burt Lancaster, Victor Mature, Robert Mitchum, Tyrone Power - masculine but vulnerable, laconic but passionate, dangerous but lovable, these tough guys would put some lead in your guts and then dance with the devil.
SOME LEADING LADIES Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Gloria Grahame, Jane Greer, Rita Hayworth, Ida Lupino, Ann Savage (perfect name), Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner - with curvy figures, sultry voices, eroticism and mystery, these broads would cut out your heart, eat it for breakfast and not smudge their make-up.
SOME PROMINENT CHARACTER ACTORS If Elisha Cook Jr or Peter Lorre is in it, it's likely to be film noir. If they're both in it, as in The Maltese Falcon, there's no doubt, doll face.
SOME LITERARY SOURCES James M Cain, Raymond Chandler - the pulp writers' formula of intricate schemes, wisecracks, private dicks, crooked cops and fake blondes with great gams translated perfectly to the screen.
OTHER NOIR Proto-noir, neo-noir, science fiction noir, stoner noir, psycho noir, horror noir, superhero noir, noir westerns, noir comedies - there's seemingly a sub-genre for every kind of film fan. Knock yourself out, angel puss.
The best noir
There are scores, perhaps hundreds of lists of film noir classics. One that seems to be included in everyone's Top 10 is Double Indemnity (1944). Here's why it's so good:
THE DIRECTOR Billy Wilder shows his legendary genius. The film's keen pacing, subtle humour and crackling drama and tension are sublime.
THE SCREENWRITERS Wilder and Raymond Chandler make magic with a gripping plot and smart, witty dialogue.
THE SOURCE MATERIAL The writers, shrewdly, were faithful to the brilliant James M Cain's hard-boiled novel.
THE LEADING MAN Fred MacMurray, cast against type, excels as the insurance agent with a larcenous heart who is seduced by a sultry housewife into killing her husband and making it look like suicide.
THE FEMME FATALE Barbara Stanwyck is icy, evil and irresistibly alluring.
THE TENACIOUS INVESTIGATOR Edward G Robinson is perfectly gruff, canny and nobody's fool.
AND ALSO A jangling score by Miklos Rozsa, gritty cinematography by John Seitz, costumes by Edith Head and seedy real-life Hollywood locales enhance the appeal.