A Cinematic Gold Mine Made on Poverty Row: The Forgotten Films Noir

You take a deeper and deeper dive into noir’s murky stories. The more obscure, the more forgotten, the less known, the better. A cinephile is truly an explorer. You want to discover a film on your own or at least follow a tip to find a film and maybe keep it to yourself a little longer before you tell the world. Discovering a new film you have never heard about and nobody talks about is the greatest joy.

“Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were
just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars [at RKO]
got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”

Robert Mitchum

“We were just making movies.” One of the reasons I love noir films so much is that they have hardly ever been referred to in terms of “best” films. They were films for actors, not stars. The directors and cinematographers had to be inventive and innovative (it’s where many of them cut their teeth in and created their filmmaking style) because the budgets were limited and the time-frames were short. They presented a world somewhere between pulp fiction and existentialism where life had low values and an even lower running time, a world where love is replaced by obsession and fatal desires, but found a streak of poetry in the light coming out of a street pole in a dark alley or in the smoke of the omnipresent cigar, captured the interest with an odd angle, a glowing haunted face or a sharp line of dialogue, got under the viewer’s skin with deadly femmes fatales. They were made on Poverty Row, but they revelled in their cheapness, creating their own language, honing such a distinctive and definitive cinematic style “where one did not exist before”. It’s more than a genre, it’s called making movies.

In Arthur Lyons’ Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, I have found an even bigger and new-found interest in forgotten noir films. There is no In a Lonely Place, Shadow of a Doubt, Gun Crazy, The Big Heat, Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, The Big Sleep in the book’s filmography. These are some of my favourite noirs and they will always be. But then again, a cinephile never rests on what he/she already knows, has already seen. The noirs presented in its pages may not be among the best, but that is not the point. They are a world in themselves and those who love movies know what to look for even in a bad movie. With Arthur Lyons’ book is like I have been tipped off to some foreign and lost world only a handful of people, the truly passionate, know about.

Noir, this particular type of cynical American thrillers beginning roughly from around 1939 and continuing until about 1959 (two decades of cinematic gold mine), and which will return in one form or another in the 1970s, 1980s and the present day as neo-noir. Defining noir is not that simple and I like how the author goes beyond the usual categorization and beyond the essential qualities of noir as agreed on by historians “such as its dark, brooding visual style typified by deep-focus photography, chiaroscuro lighting, odd camera angles, the presence of crime in the plot, particularly murder, an urban setting, and the free-use of voice overs and narrative flashbacks”.

Lyons brings into discussion other important elements such as new post war reality (set against not only a nocturnal urban underworld, but also in a roadside diner – The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946 – or a mine in the middle of nowhere – Ace in the Hole, 1951), the advent and popularity of detective stories magazines, the invention of the paperback in 1939 (“easily held in hand, disposable, portable, meant to be read in a short time, for entertainment”, the perfect medium for whodunnits and mystery literature), and the flood of foreign directors in Hollywood before and during WW II, who brought with them the visual style of German expressionism. And, most importantly, he deems “the hard-bitten, cynical tone and their thematic content” (where the protagonist, whether cop, private eye or criminal, is a rootless and marginal man and has a flexible morale, is out of control and “knows he is one step from his final one”) as the only two factors that unite all noir films. “Story and only story defines film noir. Director tastes and techniques have nothing to do with the archetype noir tale,” Lyons further quotes Gerald Petievich (contemporary film noir screenwriter and novelist, To Live and Die in LA, Boiling Point).

Maybe that’s another reason why I enjoy so much film noir: experiencing a world of danger, vice and darkness, but only from a safe distance. We all have a dark side. “Even the private eye, the protagonist closest to being a noir hero, is not exempt from his fate.”
More stories: Film Noir Style: Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy / To Live and Die in LA: Renaissance Woman and Dance Hall Days in the Alienated City / Gloria Grahame in Film Noir

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