Memories of Film Noir

Pictured Above: Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past.

Pictured Above: Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past.

In 1946, French critic Nino Frank invented the neologism Film Noir to describe black and white dark movies of the 1940s, reflecting the murky milieu of shady people, wet streets and neon lights, or as Dashiell Hammett wrote, ‘Down those mean streets’.

In the beginning, circa 1930s, America published dozens of hardboiled pulp magazines, including Black Mask, which were on sale at Banba Bookshop on Rathmines Road over 50 years ago. From the mid ’30s to mid ’50s, Hollywood made hundreds of film noir movies, kickstarting many careers, including Bogart, Mitchum, Ladd and countless others.

In Film Noir, degradation and death lurked in every nightmare alley, behind every dirty curtain, in every shady apartment. The men in Film Noir were all anti-heroes and nasty brutes. Just think of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire and The Blue Dahlia, the chilling Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, and dozens more dystopian anti-heroes.

The female leads were even worse. All were femme fatales; capricious and solipsistic girls. Just think of Ava Gardner in The Killers, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and Camel cigarette smoking Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. The Mickey Spillane book and film Kiss Me Deadly had a truckload of duplicitous gals and the horrific Mike Hammer, who used one and all.

One of the biggest stars to emerge from Film Noir was Robert Mitchum. He started his acting career as a heavy in many Hopalong Cassidy cowboy movies and went on to make many Film Noir movies.

Yours truly had the misfortune to briefly meet Mitchum around 1969-70. I was with Mercedes-Benz and I’ll never forget that dreadful morning I met him. I was seconded to do a 100km oil consumption test on Lady Valerie Goulding’s 280SL Merc.

I was in Ballsbridge Motors collecting the documents and technical equipment for this intricate test. My late friend and colleague Mattie O’Sullivan (R.I.P) requested I pick him up at the Shelbourne Hotel that morning. He said he was delivering a new car to Mitchum.

When I arrived at The Shelbourne I knew something was wrong. Mitchum was pretty drunk. The table was full of drink, mostly Irish and American whiskey and lemon hart rum, and Mitchum would not sign the release auto papers Mattie had. Mitchum was in great form, shouting and roaring and happy in his alcoholic haze. Suddenly he lowered his voice and said, “Hey guys, we’re gonna have a swell time. The gals will be here soon.” This was turning into a nightmare. Some 30 minutes later Mattie got his signature and we made a hasty exit.

Older readers of NewsFour will remember what happened that week. All the Dublin morning and evening papers reported Mitchum and his drunken pal Richard Harris wrecked the bar in a Northside Dublin hotel. A brief note here to all motor folks. The answer is yes, Lady Goulding’s 280SL passed the oil consumption test with flying colours.

Many of you have your own Film Noir favourite. To name a few: Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The Sweet Smell of Success, The Big Combo, Sunset Boulevard and my number two Film Noir The Big Sleep. Who will ever forget Humphrey Bogart’s great line, “She always tries to sit on my lap, even when I’m standing up.”

My number one choice is the immortal The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett wrote this classic and John Huston directed the movie. The cast were the crème de la crème of Film Noir; Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, femme fatale Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr, Ward Bond and Sydney Greenstreet, who was a tea planter in Ceylon and ended up a movie star in his old age.

Above: Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

Above: Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

After 80 minutes of lies, cheating, murder and general mayhem in The Maltese Falcon, the final scene is classic Film Noir as Sam Spade (Bogart) hands Mary Astor over to the cops. Bogie says, “You killed my partner. Sure, you said you love me but I know you’ll betray me in the future. I’m no patsy. You’re taking the fall. If you’re lucky I might see you in 20 years.”

As the cops take her away, the camera pans around to Ward Bond, who is holding the fake Maltese Falcon. He looks really puzzled as he turns to Bogart and says, “Sam, what’s this? What’s it all about?” At this, Bogart smiles grimly, lights another Chesterfield cigarette, tugs at his ear and says one of the greatest lines in movie history.
“It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

By Noel Twamley