Wednesday 22 December 2021

Best Film Noirs – Part 1

(Actually, my favourite noirs)

We begin at the top with the perfectly executed films based on works by the two kings of hardboiled crime fiction, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel. Dashiell Hammett was one of the seminal creators of detective fiction. Raymond Chandler said, "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse."  

John Huston’s directorial debut, it stars Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade and Mary Astor as his femme fatale client. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet co-star, Greenstreet making his film debut. The story follows Sam Spade’s dealings with three unscrupulous characters, all of whom are competing to obtain the Maltese Falcon, a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette. 

Hammett once worked as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco, and he used his birth name "Samuel" for the story's protagonist. He wrote of the book's main character in 1934: 

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached. 

Other characters in The Maltese Falcon were based on people whom he met or worked with during that time.

The Thin Man (1934)

Donald Westlake: "When I was 14 or 15 I read Hammett's The Thin Man and it was a defining moment. It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn't known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that; three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess. Nabokov was the other master of that."

Based on Hammett's novel of the same name, and the same year, the film stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as cocktail swigging sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles. Nick , a retired detective, and his wealthy wife Nora, live in San Francisco but are visiting New York City for Christmas. There, Nick is asked to look for an old acquaintance who has mysteriously vanished. 

The Thin Man was Hammett's final novel. The characters seem to be based on himself and his lover, writer Lillian Hellman. The film's screenplay was written by married couple, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Lots of fun behind-the-scenes trivia here. For example, MGM didn’t want Loy and Powell to be in the film. One of the ways they tried to prevent Loy from being cast was by telling director W.S. Van Dyke that he could have her only if she was finished in three weeks to begin shooting another film. Dyke managed to shoot the film in 12 days on a tiny budget. 

The Big Sleep (1946)

Raymond Chandler had been a bookkeeper and auditor, but his alcoholism and the Depression culminated in him being out of work. He taught himself how to write by studying the work of Dashiell Hammett and the Perry Mason story formula of Erle Stanley Gardner. 

His 1939 novel was adapted into this classic, directed by Howard Hawks. Bogey is back, as Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe. He is summoned to the mansion of General Sternwood for a straight forward job that turns out to be more than it at first seems. Bogart stars opposite Lauren Bacall. William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman co-wrote the screenplay. 

Murder, My Sweet (1944) is a closely followed adaptation of Chandler's novel Farewell, My Lovely (released in the UK under that title). Directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Dick Powell, it was the first film to feature Chandler's private detective Philip Marlowe.


Along with Double Indemnity, it’s one of the first film noirs, and a key influence in the development of the genre. RKO's studio boss, Charles Koerner, recognized the value of Chandler's style and the Marlowe character, and he assembled a creative staff who were ready to make the move up from B-movies. For example, the film's screenwriter, John Paxton, only had one full-length feature credit, My Pal Wolf, a girl-and-her-dog film.

Koerner revitalized the career of Claire Trevor – who was making Westerns in which she had fourth or fifth billing – playing her against type as the film’s femme fatale. He was also responsible for transforming Dick Powell's career. Powell had been known in the 1930s for light comedies and musicals, but for ten years he had been trying to break away from that typecasting, which he felt he was too old for; he had wanted to play Fred MacMurray's part in Double Indemnity. Chandler’s original title indicated a Dick Powell musical, so the film's name was changed from Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet.

Marlowe is hired by the quite insane tough guy, Moose Malloy, to locate an old girlfriend he’d lost track of while doing time, and things spin out of control from there.

The Glass Key (1942)

Following The Maltese Falcon, Hammett wanted to try something more literary and wrote The Glass Key in 1931, a tale of big-city political corruption. It was made into the 1942 noir starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake made several movies together, including two other great noirs: This Gun for Hire (1942, based on a Graham Greene thriller), and The Blue Dahlia (1946, Raymond Chandler's only original screenplay). 

Share thoughts and your own lists!

Part2 coming soon