Dark, rain-glistened streets. Ominous shadows hover in trash littered alleyways. Cats screech in the distance. Gunshots ring out and a body slumps into the gutter.
The world of film noir.
As a kid, these were the second show in an afternoon at the movies. The “B” movie. Always in black and white, less than 90 minutes. Featuring the nearly-stars such as Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden.
The titles were straightforward. “Where The Sidewalk Ends”, “This Gun For Hire”, “Kiss of Death”, “The Street With No Name”, “The Narrow Margin,” and “The Killers” among other small films now considered film noir classics.
The people were familiar too. The P.I. (Private Eye). He usually had a five o’clock shadow, chain-smoked, drank cheap whiskey out of the bottle or a paper cup. He worked in a dingy second floor office. The client? Usually a husky voiced, chain-smoking, heavily made up siren out of the Mae West Drama Academy. The P.I’s secretary? A snarky, but good-natured woman who didn’t take crap from her boss, the cops or hoodlums. The Bad Guys? Sleazy, menacing, and homicidal. Think young Richard Widmark, William (Pre-“Life of Riley”) Bendix, Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Jack Lambert, and probie villain, Lee Marvin. These guys loved to kill.
There were no happy endings in these film noir classics. The female lead usually was a two-timer who got killed or took the fall in the closing minutes. Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy was straight out of central casting when Bogie’s Sam Spade turned her over to the cops in “The Maltese Falcon.” Spade liked her, but not enough to risk a bullet in the back one lonely night.
Robert Mitchum’s Phillip Marlowe wondered “Why does everything I touch turns to shit?” in the 70’s reboot of “Farewell, My Lovely”.
I loved the fatalism of these movies, far removed from the glossy romantic dramas featuring Gable, Tracy, Flynn and other major stars of old Hollywood.
Lately, we’ve been watching Netflix’s stable of dark crime dramas. They come from around the world.
They all share a world-view that includes lots of death, depression, depravity, brutal murder, and minimal — if any — humor. Locale doesn’t matter. It could be Los Angeles, Denmark, the English countryside, or Sweden. It’s one, dark grim world, everywhere you look.
Thanks to an old friend, we’re currently watching a British series, “MidSomer Murders”. It’s set in a small, English village. There are multiple murders in each episode. We’re into season five and the bodies keep piling up. Marilyn and I wonder if they’ll have to bring in people from other small villages to keep the murderers in business.
“MidSomer Murders” is balanced with humor from its continuing characters and the guest stars. I’ve noticed familiar faces like David Warner, Nigel Davenport and Richard Johnson among the guest stars. The plots are nicely developed, well-acted, and written with sly wit. The show is still running after 17 seasons, so Marilyn and I look forward each night to a batch of lovely murders with quirky, amusing characters.
I still love those dark and dangerous film noir folks. But these days, real life is often sufficiently grim. I prefer my murders with a bit of laughter.