When Noir Meets Colour

I should start by saying that I will always prefer black and white movies and that black and white cinematography is one of the most beautiful forms of art. This is especially true with noir films – films that are characterised by sharply delineated chiaroscuro photography, but which are not that easily definable as they appear. I do believe that plot, attitude and characters are the most essential noir features, which is why as soon as you watch Leave Her to Heaven or Chinatown, you automatically define them as noir films. Today I am revisiting four favourite noirs shot in colour. There is much more than what meets the eye behind voluptuous colours or the sparkling blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
 
Leave Her to Heaven 
Leave Her to Heaven (1946)

Despite the dark plot, there is much luscious beauty in Leave Her to Heaven, the quintessential noir in colour. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s masterful use of colour, brightly lit and edged with somber hues and shadows, makes each image pure pleasure for the eye and has the same impact as the black and white that defines Hollywood film noir. The photography mirrors tempestuous Ellen (Gene Tierney), whose extreme beauty highlights her psychotic streaks and changes. Tierney’s angelic beauty and unblinking cruelty are a daunting combination. Tierney dominates every scene she is in, both physically and emotionally. The boat scene is one of the most perturbing sequences in the history of Hollywood. Gene Tierney’s face is like a perfect composure, reinforced by the beautiful, peaceful setting. At her darkest, she seems at peace, and this makes her character one of the most cold-blooded femmes fatales in the history of cinema, and provokes a disquieting feeling in the viewer, one that is impossible to forget.
 
Dial M for Murder 
Dial M for Murder (1954)

In his first film featuring Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock used all the tricks he had mastered over the years to get the public’s undivided attention, starting with the striking use of colour (this was only his third colour movie). He uses it in an interesting way in terms of costumes: you see Grace in a skirt and cardigan in the palest shade of pink, almost white, in the first scene, having breakfast with her husband, and then in bright red, a few seconds later, with her lover, Mark (Robert Cummings), and the contrast of those two moments, with the two men in her life, is very strong.

The set design is beautiful, every frame is perfect, and the film is altogether beautifully filmed by Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s cinematographer on no less than twelve movies, who masters some of the trickiest shots in Hitchcock’s filmography (the action is mostly confined to one room). But, coloristically speaking, the experiment with Grace Kelly’s costumes is the most striking. Her clothes go from bright to somber as the plot thickens and her innocence starts to be questioned. As opposed to the colour palette of her previous clothes, which brought out the blue in her eyes, the faded colours she wears later on are intelligently used to make her eyes look grey, too, in tune with the grey days coming. Hitch always knew how to guide his audience through the story, and the dialogue played the smallest part in it.
 
Chinatown 1974 
Chinatown (1974)

Roman Polanski said that, in Chinatown, he tried to create that Philip Marlowe atmosphere, which he’d never seen in the movies the way he got it in the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Indeed, Chinatown is not only a one of a kind film noir (because this is the feeling you get, that it’s an original noir, not neo-noir, and that’s why it’s included here), but a complete film and one of the best movies of all time. The style of the 1930s, when the story is placed, is conveyed by a “scrupulously reconstruction of decor, costumes, and idiom, not by a deliberate imitation, in 1973, of thirties film techniques”. This is exactly what makes Chinatown fascinating: it evokes the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood, without losing itself in nostalgia or turning into another overly stylised version of that era. The look of the film is nothing less than a work of art. I never get tired of those golden tones of the film and that bright, desert light of Los Angeles – John Alonzo’s creative, beautiful cinematography made it look like a classic black and white movie magically transposed to colour. It’s like Los Angeles is a character in itself and is trying to tell the viewer that it will continue to exist, in that punishing light, despite the desert, despite the dark secrets, despite its bleak reality.
 
Plein soleil Alain Delon 
Plein soleil (1960)

Plein soleil is a visually beautiful film – Patricia Highsmith described it as “very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect” – and its style reminds me of Hitchcock’s works. Clément himself was a technician, too, who had trained as an architect and made his debut in cinema as a cameraman, and if you watch the film, you’ll be able to observe all these influences on each frame. In fact, he was named the French Alfred Hitchcock after he made this film. The cinematography, by Henri Decaë, is exquisite and the sun-drenched mise-en-scène (the picture was shot entirely on location, in Rome, Naples and the vicinity islands) sharply contrasts the themes of envy, deceit and murder. What is so fascinating about it is that it is an unusual noir: all is bright and in the open, inviting the viewer in its aesthetic rapture… and into a story of crime and masquerade. In this same regard, I will always prefer the French title: Plein soleil. The English translation, Purple Noon, is misfortunate, because it fails to capture that very inescapable feeling of sun-drenched Mediterranean savoir-vivre, despite the intense dark plot.

Of course, part of the film’s dazzlingly beautiful quality is Alain Delon in the role of Tom Ripley. One memorable sequence is when Delon is strolling through the fish market in Naples. I think he’s at his most charming then, a display of subtlety in portraying the darkness of the character – he embodies a cool, elegant and handsome anti-hero (so different from the other Tom Ripley embodied on screen by Matt Damon, who is driven by complexes and dark instincts), and you almost get to identify with him. Almost. His aimless stroll, linen jacket slung over his shoulder, face basking in the afternoon sun, is extremely revealing of Ripley’s ambiguity. The essence of the entire film and of the character seems to be captured in that seemingly purposeless scene for the plot – that mixture of ravishing beauty and inhumanity.

photos: 1-Leave Her to Heaven (Twentieth Century Fox) / 2-Dial M for Murder (Warner Brothers) / 3-Chinatown (Paramount Pictures) / 4-Plein soleil (Robert et Raymond Hakim, Paris Film, Paritalia)

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