We don’t normally start our articles with a caveat, but we’ll make an exception for this one. We’re not considering Casablanca a noir film for this one, mainly because it doesn’t quite have the necessary cynicism in many of the characters that noir embodies.
Having said that, we can move along.
It seems that, over the past few years, a very good chunk of our posts regarding the 1001 films one must view before the grim reaper arrives have been about noir in one form or another. It’s pretty much to be expected, as we’re traversing the golden age of the genre, the mid forties.
We’ve seen some films that we liked, a few that played with the expectations, and at least one which was just that little bit too dense to be enjoyable. Hell, we even thought we’d finally found the be-all and end-all of noir film.
We were wrong. The best noir film ever made is The Big Sleep (1946), and the reason it beats out To Have and Have Not is twofold. The first part of the explanation is that the producers built on a formula that was pretty much perfect. They took the same insanely talented group of actors and writers and applied the lessons that they and everyone else had learned over the intervening two years–and though two years might not sound like much, remember that there was more noir going on in those two years, than any time before or since.
The second reason is that, though we’re including To Have and Have Not among our noir films, it’s actually, to a certain degree, more aligned with Casablanca than with The Maltese Falcon.
But there’s no doubt about The Big Sleep. As soon as Marlowe walks in, you know it’s the real deal… almost by definition. In fact, we’re going to establish a new definition for noir: it has to contain either Marlowe, Hammer or Spade. There. We said it.
But even if the main character was some other detective, we’d have allowed this film in. The plot twists and turns like a corkscrew, and you need to pay attention, or you’ll miss just what the heck is going on.
The women are beautiful–even the ones that aren’t Lauren Bacall–and the fact that the characters inhabit a world where night never seems to end is an inspired artistic decision.
Unusually, there are two versions of this film, one from 1945 and this one. The ’46 version is one in which the studio made a bunch of alterations… and, in an unusual turn of events, is actually better than the director’s original vision (more Lauren Bacall can never, ever be a bad thing, can it?).
So, if you are going to watch only one noir film in your life, this might be it. It is film noir fully grown up and using all the tricks it learned in adolescence.