69. Noir

Tapehead no 69

It was the forties, just after the war, recalls the wise-guy narrator of The Film Noir Story, sounding just like someone out of GoodFellas: “Goin’ to the movies was like goin’ to a candy store: somethin’ for everyone. Popular films were romances, melodramas, musicals – a big song an’ dance.”

Cue chintzy dance scene: all very lovely. 

“But that’s not my kinda movie.”

Cue clips of our narrator, Richard Widmark (for it is he), pushing old ladies in wheelchairs down stairs.

Widmark liked noir: “Tall stories about life on the streets; shady characters, crooked cops, twisted love and bad luck.”

Not to mention the hats (lots of hats).

Film noir was precisely of its time and this American-made documentary explains exactly why, with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and many of the original noir greats, contributing.

Post-war nihilism/displacement was one factor (cue clip: “We’re used to fightin’, but now we just don’t know what to fight for.”)

The emergence of the new science of psychiatry was another (cue clip: “Please ! Please ! I’m sick. Can’t ya see I’m sick.”)

Not to mention the sexually-convent modern woman/sex siren – “Kiss me,” says the fox in Gun Crazy. “I want you to kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says I love you.”

Great noir (films like The Big Combo, Force Of Evil and Detour), the film concludes, is based on the question: why me ? 

Errol Morris provides the answer. “For no reason at all.”

“The shadows are still deadly,” says Widmark at the close. “Love and violence still share the same bed.”

Tapehead’s bed knows exactly what he’s talking about.

Fallen Angels, an American series of half-hour mini-noirs produced by Sydney Pollack, which follows, certainly goes for super-stylish start (like a French perfume commercial), as a femme fatale empties her purse in black-and-white slow-mo: nail file, cigs, handcuffs – the usual stuff.

“Many men want to be talents in bed,” she breathes sultrily, before unwisely opting for a rather bizarre attempt at modern symbolism. 

“As for me, I take my lesson from the recent war in Europe: meet power with the power and the powerful relent.”

Episode one is based on a short-story noir-ette by James “Demon Dog” Ellroy and star James Woods as Mickey “The Mickster” Cohen and Gary Busey as Buzz Meekes, Ellroy’s “ex-cop, ex-fixer, ex-bookmaker, ex-armadillo poacher” – all ideal credentials.

But the result, predictably, is an absurdly ersatz representation of Ellroy’s speeding demons.

Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson) is not nearly sleazy enough and Woods is wildly stagey. The story is vaguely comprehensible but all the juice and the dialogue have been lost. 

Ellroy would be groaning – and cheering at the size of the cheque.

You can’t help thinking James Ellroy would love The Bill this week (and every week ).

Under The Doctor (Fri) even deals with Dexedrine – one of Ellroy’s personal favourites – as a dodgy doctor is suspected of peddling dexys to slimmers “dahn the community centre.”

“Is he a doctor ? I’ve lost two stone. I don’t care if he’s a dustman,” one housewife suggests, admirably.

On Thursday’s Presumed Guilty, the photo-fit is the key: suspect or witness. Dodgy dealings down The Pike’s Head hint at a brilliant denouncement.

But Tuesday’s episode, In Control, is as close to modern noir as you can get.

Sun Hill sex siren, ex-mode, Roxanne De Silva (“I even did a TV ad in ’89”) has been mixing with bad men, dealing brown powder and “getting into chasing the dragon.” (“I wuz scared.”) In short, Howard Hughes’s kinda girl.

According to one of her neighbours, Roxanne has been receiving too many visitors.  

“She’s not a tart exactly,” he says helpfully.

“Well what is she ?” asks PC Slater.

“She’s trouble I’d say.”

Raymond Chandler, eat your heat out.


The Film Noir Story: Fri, 11.50pm-12.45am, BBC2

Fallen Angels: Fri, 11.15pm-11.45pm, BBC2

The Bill: Tue/Thurs/Fri, 8pm-8.30pm, Carlton

The Big Combo: Fri, 12.45am-3.15am, BBC