Welcome to Noir-vember, a month long celebration of shady heroes, cunning femme fatales, ineffective police, and suspense!
Whether film noir should be considered its own genre or a specific set of loosely related tropes is up for debate; what’s not up for debate is noir’s lasting artistic impact and influence on television and film.
But I don’t want to gab about heavies like The Big Sleep or Out of the Past. I’m here for the hidden gems that have slipped through the cracks or deserve a second look. Maybe even a few things that wouldn’t even strike you as noir, schee? Here’s what I’m lookin’ at:
The Hitch-Hiker (1953), dir. Ida Lupino
The Hitch-Hiker tells the story of two men who just want to go huntin’ and fishin’ until their plans are interrupted by Emmett Myers, spree killer at large.
Ida Lupino’s entry into film noir is quite interesting. It scales back a lot of the more played-out tropes associated with noir. You’ll notice it’s missing many of the stereotypical tropes of noir such as a the femme fatale, the wise-cracking detective, and no obvious sexual motives thanks to Hayes’ Code. So what makes this a noir movie worth your time?
Lupino has a good eye for location and suspense. She turns the wide open desert — usually associated with freedom — feel like an absolute maze of terror, and then there’s being trapped with a serial killer within the confines of the sweltering vehicle. We’re treated to some eerie close ups and claustrophobic interior shots to create an atmosphere of anxiety. Of course, there is also Myers’ psychological torment of the two men. The two men sink further and further into despair with each failed escape attempt and by the end of the movie it’s clear the experience has destroyed their humanity.
The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947), dir. Peter Godfrey
By the time The Two Mrs Carrolls premiered, Humphrey Bogart was no stranger to the seedy underworld of noir: this was after his star making roles in Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep. His leading lady for this movie was another one of my favorites, Barbara Stanwyck who is likewise no stranger to the genre. So I wouldn’t blame you for having high expectations for this film.
Humphrey Bogart plays successful painter Geoffrey Carroll, and we learn pretty early that he’s already up to no good: for one, he’s seeing young Sally while still married. Fortunately, his wife dies after a long illness and he marries Sally…and still has extramarital affairs. Soon, Sally falls ill herself and she learns that she needs to be more worried about ending up like Carroll’s previous wives than any romantic indiscretions.
Wait a minute. Bogart is the villain? No fog on the streets, no detectives? Yes, this movie is one part gothic thriller and one part noir and combines the two together to make something that is pretty unsettling. I really love the atmosphere of this movie. The majority of it takes place in a secluded Victorian mansion while still drawing its cues from urban noir tropes. I also appreciate that it made Bogart about as evil as it possibly could with no apologies. This film is probably best remembered for using a little make up and Bogart’s real life ailments to create a vicious monster in human skin who psychologically torments his frail wife like a Hitchcock binge. While not terribly original, I still highly recommend this movie on the basis of making me afraid of large windows and milk.
Lord of Illusions (1995), dir. Clive Barker
Now we come to the world of neo-noir which is just like noir but with a few added touches, like colorization! And in some cases, some genre busting. The most victorious example of neo-noir is undoubtedly Bladerunner, but let me introduce you to a little piece of ’90s called Lord of Illusions.
Cynical occult detective Harry D’Amour finds himself mixed up with powers beyond his comprehension when he investigates the death of renowned stage illusionist Swann. This movie takes some latter day noir tropes and deconstructs them in the context of cosmic horror. Of course there’s a murder mystery, but was there even a murder? The femme fatale turns out to be not nearly as fatal as the evil forces at work. Harry isn’t ineffective but there’s only so much he can do against dark magic. This movie owes quite a bit to the aforementioned Bladerunner and a bit of Ida Lupino, while maintaining a very Clive Barker edge. Instead of cyberpunk, Barker melds his brand of splatterpunk and cosmic terror with pulp fiction to create something very unique.
Lupin the Third: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2013), dir. Sayo Yamamoto
Lupin the Third is a popular long-running anime series based on the manga by Monkey Punch. It’s been through a few incarnations (usually noted by Lupin’s different color jackets) but the basic premise of the adaptations has always stayed the same: Lupin III is a lovable thief with his band of rogues who end up doing good even when they’re trying to do bad, and they’re eternally pursued by world’s greatest detective Zenigata.
And then this series happened.
A Woman Called Fujiko Mine is the first adaptation to focus exclusively on a female character, in this case Lupin’s on-again, off-again love interest Fujiko Mine. Fujiko is a femme fatale of the highest order and she traipses around the world stealing fine goods and hearts just because she can. Fujiko’s origin has always been mysterious; here we learn that her backstory is quite dark and sleazy. Or is it? The show plays with the usual noir tropes and also completely flips over what Lupin fans have come to expect. Fujiko usually deceives Lupin right out of his loot but the implication is that she would never truly hurt or betray him. In this series, though, not only do Lupin and Fujiko regularly try to snuff each other out, but there is heavy emphasis on Fujiko using her sexuality to get what she wants. From the police force, common criminals, even school girls. Lupin’s lovable rogues are not so lovable and often out for themselves. Even Detective Zenigata has a little grime on him. In short, a perfect noir in thirteen episodes that subverts new viewers’ expectations, shocks old fans, then reaffirms both at the end.
Even without being familiar with the massive Lupin franchise, if you enjoy your noir dark and gritty, A Woman Called Fujiko Mine will give you what you asked for, then leave you covered in a slight sheen of the city’s filth and shame.