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Defining film noir and other film-buff stuff for the casual movie watcher
Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, the detective and the femme fatale, in the film noir classic "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). - photo by Chris Hicks
Recently some friends asked about a term they saw on a Netflix movie listing but had never noticed before: Film noir.

Film buffs often get so wrapped up in their own lexicon that they forget there is a much larger movie-watching audience that simply wants to escape for a couple of hours and isnt as devoted to cinema as they are.

As a consequence, there are lots of words and phrases we casually toss off that may have little or no meaning to the rest of you.

So, for the uninitiated, the term film noir (French for dark film) is generally applied to a movie with a fatalistic plot laced with wisecracks and gallows humor, typically with the central character being a world-weary police detective or private eye, or just an innocent sap who becomes obsessed with and is eventually led astray by a stunning femme fatale.

There are many variations on the theme, of course, but the prototypical private eye and femme fatale are Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon.

And the best example of the naive regular guy and the femme fatale are Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in the Double Indemnity (1944).

And since Im dropping another movie-buff term here, lets define femme fatale. From the French for fatal woman, it refers to a woman who uses her sexuality, and often the prospect of ill-gotten gains, to lure a man into ruin.

Oh, yeah. Men dont have a chance in these pictures. Even if they dont die or go to prison in the end, they are emotional wrecks.

Were talking such big-star pictures as Out of the Past (1947, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming), Murder, My Sweet (1944, Dick Powell, Claire Trevor), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, John Garfield, Lana Turner) and Laura (1944, Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb), all of which can be found readily on DVDs and streaming sites, and which I cant recommend highly enough.

But then there are also the low-budget, no-stars Detour (1945, Tom Neal, Ann Savage), Gun Crazy (1950, John Dall, Peggy Cummins), The Narrow Margin (1952, Charles McGraw, Utah native Marie Windsor) and many, many others that are more obscure but thoroughly entertaining, most of them also readily accessible.

There are films from the 1930s that generally qualify, and post-1960 there are also examples, including such famous pictures as Chinatown (1974, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston) and Body Heat (1981, William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna).

There were also color film noirs in the 1940s and 50s, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Cornel Wilde, Gene Tierney) and Vertigo (1958, James Stewart, Kim Novak), which work wonderfully and are quite striking in the vivid use of their respective color schemes.

But there was something about the use of black-and-white cinematography, and the artistic juxtaposition of light and shadow, the less-than-subtle use of the shafts of light casting rays between shadows of half-drawn blinds to simulate prison bars; the backlit femme fatale seen as a benign dark shape until she steps forward to reveal a handgun pointed at the hero (or antihero); the alleys and corners that always seem to be hiding someone in the dark.

All of them have the same message, by the way: Crime doesnt pay. And in these films, that lesson is learned the hard way.

Im a real sucker for these movies, especially the classic age of film noir, meaning the era of the 1940s and 50s. During those decades, film noirs were being churned out by the dozens as both the major studios star-studded box-office attractions and the "poverty row" studios no-budget, no-stars programmers that played on the bottom half of double bills.

Double bills, of course, is another phrase for double features. Back in the Golden Era, movies were shown in pairs, two for the price of one.

The Golden Era is generally acknowledged as the 1930s and 40s, when Hollywoods Big Five studios had big-budget soundstages and would spend two or three months shooting a major movie. But they also had lower-budget facilities that would grind out Westerns and slapstick comedies and mysteries in a couple of weeks, each playing in tandem with their more important features.

But at the same time, many more of these quickly filmed, low-budget wonders were being cranked out by the "poverty row" studios and often filled out the second-feature spot.

The Big Five were the five major studios of the Golden Era: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), RKO Radio Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.

Back then, Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures were considered the Little Two, a step or two or three down from the Big Five.

If youre wondering about the prolific Walt Disney Studios during this period, it may surprise you to know that Disney had no distribution arm until the mid-1950s. So during this era, all Disney shorts and features were released by one of the Big Five, RKO.

And the best-known poverty row studios were Monogram Pictures, Republic Pictures, Grand National Films and Producers Releasing Corp.

OK, got all that? Class dismissed.
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