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Why film noir is perfect for lockdown 

Black and white image of a man and a woman in glamorous outfits in a mirrored room.
22 Jun 2020
3 min read

Cinema Curator Tamara Anderson discovers a treasure trove of gems.

Perhaps like me you're avoiding Newsnight and – early to bed early to rise – are getting up early... I mean, really early. If so, let me speak up for the humble pleasures of Sony Movies Classics (Freeview Channel 50).

Admittedly, this channel shows some of the worst movies ever made (which, if you're in the right mood, hold their own fascination), as well as some of the worst adverts (cheap wine, fungal nail treatments). But if you can pick your way through them, there's some real gold to be found, particularly film noir, and particularly in the 6am slot. 

I confess, my first early-morning matinee felt weird, very weird, but then… what doesn't right now? Several weeks in, I've watched and enjoyed The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947), The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949), On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951) and The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952) and more, all at unholy times of the morning. 

Initially I thought this new film diet was just a chance outcome of the channel’s schedules. Or perhaps I was finding my way to these films because, as director and critic Paul Schrader says in his 1972 essay on film noir, “picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly-selected silent comedy, musical, western.” Instinctively I feel this to be true. But finally, I understand that if I’m feeling drawn towards noir, then it is probably because it’s such a good match for the present times. 

Film noir is generally understood as embodying a strain of pessimism and disillusion that crept into the American psyche with the Great Depression and Second World War. Then, after that, a collective sense of uncertainty during the McCarthy and Cold War years, with their climate of suspicion, accusation and tension, and fears of covert communist infiltration and atomic annihilation. Not unrelated, it can also trace its origins back to the hard-boiled crime fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich.

Pessimism and uncertainty are feelings I can relate to just now, and in fact a dash of “bleak” first thing in the morning fits well into a day punctuated by news bulletins. Noir – as hinted at in the titles – can tell us a lot about a sense of entrapment (Caught, Cornered, No Way Out); the role of accident and chance in life (Detour, Suddenly); anxiety, fear and alienation (Nightmare Alley, I Wake Up Screaming, In a Lonely Place); and about how even a tender expression of affection can be fatal (Kiss Me Deadly). My own personal favourite title: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. 

But look, if it’s all so unremittingly bleak would I actually be getting up at 6am to watch this stuff? I notice my Ingmar Bergman boxsets are untouched. No, as well as chiming with the general mood, these films typically deliver up some truly zinging dialogue that will, I promise, pep you up for the rest of the day. Here are just a few, from Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947): 

On men: “All women are wonders, because they reduce all men to the obvious.”
Reply: “So do martinis.” 

On dames: “Nice!”
Reply: “Awfully cold around the heart.” 

On gambling (or, perhaps, life): “Is there a way to win?”
Reply: “There’s a way to lose more slowly.” 

So, what can I say? When this is all over and we meet again, expect me to be tired, very tired, by 4pm, full of hard-boiled repartee and – having so regularly imbibed all those sponsorship messages – a raging thirst for Casillero del Diablo ("wine from the devil's cellar")!

This article is featured in the July 2020 Guide. LINK

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