Dark rooms with sunlight slicing through Venetian blinds, alleyways littered with garbage, abandoned warehouses where dust fogs the air, rain-slickened streets, seedy detective offices overlooking bustling streets, and cigarettes, always cigarettes: this is the stuff film noir is made of – a perfect blend of form and content, where the desperation and hopelessness of the situations is reflected in a visual style that drenches the world in shadows and only occasional bursts of sunlight. Occasionally acerbic, usually cynical, film noir gives us characters forever trying to elude some mysterious past that continues to haunt them, hunting them down with a fatalism that teases and taunts before delivering the final blow.
OUT OF THE PAST is an archetypal noir about a man trying to escape his past (he ran away with his partner's girlfriend). Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a seemingly good guy, but one bad turn has made his life a hell from which he can never completely free himself. His nemesis is a racketeer (Kirk Douglas) who needs to use Jeff and does so by baiting him with one of the great femmes fatales, Jane Greer. And she consumes him.
Greer is one of many femme fatales who populate film noir - others include Rita Hayworth in LADY FROM SHANGHAI, Veronica Lake in THE BLUE DAHLIA, Joan Bennett in SCARLET STREET, Peggy Cummins in GUN CRAZY, Gloria Grahame in HUMAN DESIRE, Lizbeth Scott in DEAD RECKONING, Ava Gardner in THE KILLERS, and Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. These women are black widows who slowly draw in men with come-hither looks and breathless voices. Communicating a danger of sex, the femme fatale knows how to use men to get whatever she wants, whether a little murder between lovers (DOUBLE INDEMNITY) or a wild, on-the-run lifestyle (GUN CRAZY). And in one case (MILDRED PIERCE) we even get a femme fatale-tte, a teenager (Ann Blyth) who threatens to destroy her mother (Joan Crawford).
The protagonists of film noir (usually males) forever struggle to survive. Some learn to play by the rules of film noir and survived by exposing corruption (Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP, Dick Powell in MURDER, MY SWEET). But more often than not, they're simply poor saps done in by love (Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Edward G. Robinson in SCARLET STREET), a past transgression (Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST), or overly ambitious goals (Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY and Sterling Hayden in THE KILLING).
Film noir first appeared in the early '40s - STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is often cited as the first full-fledged noir, but others say that title goes to THE MALTESE FALCON. So while soldiers fought a war on foreign soil and dreamed of returning to pretty wives, cute houses and peaceful lives, film noir introduced tales about characters fighting the dark side of life back home, balancing the optimism of Hollywood musicals and comedies with seedy, two-bit criminals and doom-laden atmospheres. While Hollywood sought to help keep public morale high, film noir gave us a peek into the alleys and backrooms of a world filled with corruption, sporting evocative titles like PITFALL, NIGHTMARE, KISS OF DEATH, EDGE OF DOOM, NIGHT AND THE CITY, SIDE STREET, HILL'S ISLAND, and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE that convey in just a few words the very essence of film noir: an overpowering force that can't be avoided.
Film noir remained an important form in Hollywood until the late '50s. Films such as Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) closed out the cycle. By then, the crime and detective genres were playing out their dramas in bright lights, while film noir had become fodder for film buffery.
A page happily devoted to words of misery, depression, melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, despair, desperation, cynicism, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation, paranoia, and existentialism.