Watching The Detectives: Film Noir's Enduring Influence on Style

Josh Sims tips his hat to a cinematic era in which style told half the story.
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, 1974. Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

There is a reason the detectives of 1940s and 1950s film noir always seem to wear a trench-coat. In film noir, it always seems to be threatening to rain. Darkness prevails - both climatologically and psychologically speaking. There are no heroes, just men and women trying to get ahead and, when that fails, as it usually does, going back to just trying to get along. Some are hiding, some are chasing. And tables turn.

“They’re all true - booze, brawls, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to”. Robert Mitchum - who was born a century ago this year - was speaking of his own life, but might just as well have been speaking of the noir characters - and in suitably hard-boiled language too - that defined his early career, in films the likes ofOut of the PastandThe Big Steal. Here, after all, was a man who did prison time for drug possession - he described jail as being “like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff”.

“When I realised I could get Robert Mitchum in the film, it became the movie of my dreams,” said Dick Richards, director of the 1975 version ofFarewell, My Lovely,which marked the actor’s return to Noir. “I always felt that [author Raymond] Chandler had Mitchum in mind when he developed the Philip Marlowe character. Mitchum is Marlowe - he’s that way in real life.”

Mitchum was less taken with his first spell of on-screen drinking, fighting, schmoozing and occasional detecting. It was a period of his life that he noted as being characterised by “the same suit for six years, the same Burberry trench coat - and the same dialogue”. But that suit - as well as the ones wore by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and Dick Powell - also defined a menswear archetype: the tough detective, sometimes on the force, more often of the private variety, always world-weary and typically less than enamoured of human nature. “All we’ve got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you,” as Bogart’s Sam Spade notes inThe Maltese Falcon(1941), often cited as the first of the film noir movies.


March 2017


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