What springs to mind when you hear the term noir? A deserted cobbled street blanketed by silver fog, a male silhouette lounging by a dimly lit lamp post or the mewing of a mangy cat through a dark alcove? For me, all these images conjure up the sinister voices of the pulp fiction forefathers like Raymond Chandler, James Cain or Dashiell Hammett. These were authors who wove plot patterns so dense they could make a rubix cube look like a postman pat jigsaw. Their detective protagonists were normally fast-talking hardmen scanning the streets with gimlet eyes, their female leads weren’t just females-they were femme fatales.
But perhaps all you picture when you hear the term is that ungodly Mcvities creation lying alone in the biscuit tin-the dreaded Cafe Noir (they taste like a cake decoration you weren’t supposed to eat). If so then you are in the right place, I have composed the Top 10 book to film adaptations for the Noir genre, including one sneaky wild card*.
1. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) director: Billy Wilder
Tagline: From the moment they met, it was murder!
Originally a James. H. Cain novel of the same name, director Billy Wilder adapted the story for cinema with none other than Raymond Chandler in 1944. The story is one of an insurance rep that falls for a disgruntled housewife, one eager for her husband to pop his clogs. Double Indemnity takes its title from an insurance clause which allows double the payout if a persons spouse dies accidentally. I see where this is going…The film stars Fred MacMurray as insurance salesman Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, the sultry female lead who’s dialogue is peppered strangely classy innuendos. As Walter is seduced and manipulated by Phyllis to help murder her husband, the tension of the insurance investigation takes hold. Never have has there been more palpable film suspense than when Phyllis has to cower behind Walters door to hide their affair from the insurance investigator-the only one who has pegged Phyllis for a fraud.
2. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) director: Robert Altman
Tagline: Nothing says goodbye like a bullet.
All of Raymond Chandler’s work is synonymous with just about every term in the noir family, so its not surprising that his name will appear numerous times in this list. THE LONG GOODBYE is based on Chandler’s 1953 novel. The story features recurring character Phillip Marlowe, the epitome of the noir protagonist, Marlowe is a slick, match-chewing private detective whose only friends include ‘a gangster and a cat’. Here Marlowe is played by a young Elliot Gould. The film carries themes of loss, betrayal and loneliness. Marlow is man of moderate decency trying to make sense of a society where the moral compass spins like a dradel. His friend Terry Lennox rocks up to his apartment, a wreck, begging for Marlow to drive him to Tijuana after a vicious fight with his wife. But Lennox’s wife is dead. Days later, its reported that Lennox has committed suicide down in Mexico. But like any good Chandler yarn, all is not as it seems. Marlow is sure their was a darker side to the death. While searching for the truth he his hired to find drunken author with Brian Blessed style charm and has a shake down from a malicious gangster Marty Augustine.
So strong is Gould’s performance in this movie, I still shed a tiny tear every time I see him play the dad in friends.
3. THE THIRD MAN (1949) director: Carol Reed
Tagline: Hunted by men….SOUGHT by women/He’ll have you in a dither with his zither! (there are more, but you don’t want to know)
Dodgy taglines aside, this adaptation of Graham Greenes 1949 novella is one of the standfirsts of British film noir history. A story of subterfuge, racketeering and deceit, all in the gritty yet regal landscape of post-war Vienna. American pulp Western writer Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) arrives in the city in search of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who has promised him work. Holly arrives to discover that Lime has supposedly been killed by a passing truck. The more Holly probes locals about the tenuous circumstances of his friend’s ‘accident’, the more unsavory details he uncovers about Harry Lime’s dealings in Vienna. The playful and menacing sound of the zither provides the perfect soundtrack to mirror Orson Welles’ character in this story. The original score, written by Anton Karas topped the charts in the 1950s. Despite THE THIRD MAN novella embodying all the same meaty plot twists and clever characterisation of the film, author Graham Greene never intended it to be considered as a stand alone work, instead using it as a basis for the screenplay. He insisted that it be billed as ‘entertainment’ rather than an example of his literary works and reported that the film was a far superior representation of the story. THE THIRD MAN was only published after the films release. Watch the video below for one of the most famous slices of dialogue in film history:
4. THE BIG SLEEP (1946) director: Howard Hawks
Tagline: The type of man she hated . . . was the type she wanted.
Here we go again with that old chestnut, yes another revered take on Raymond Chandler classic. While Elliot Gould was learning to ride a bike, Humphrey Bogart was spouting cynicism and slugging gangsters as the first on screen Phillip Marlow . The plot of THE BIG SLEEP is so convoluted it seems frivolous to put into a paragraph. Lets just say Marlowe follows a complex case involving books, murder and blackmail. As much as Bogart captured the smart-assed essence of Marlowe, to me there was something more appealing about mellow listlessness of Elliot Gould, who didn’t even have to try to own the role. For the romantic side of THE BIG SLEEP, expect punchy exchanges of lines between Bogey and a startlingly austere Lauren Bacall, who plays Vivian Rutledge. See the video below for Bacall at her best during a musical scene, a rarity for any noir story:
5. THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947) director: Orson Welles
Tagline: The Story Of A Reckless Woman
The Hollywood eccentricity that surrounds the birth of this production can often overshadow its cinematic importance. It is more famous for starring Rita Hayworth as a short haired blond rather than the visually stunning finale, which takes place in a hall of fun house mirrors. Welles originally pitched the film to Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn in a pressured bid for fast-cash. At the time Welles was directing an elaborate stage play of Around the world in eighty days which had soared over budget. Allegedly, Welles saw a girl in the theatre holding a copy of Sherwood King’s novel If I Die Before I wake (a novel he had never read) and proposed to Cohn that he write, star in and direct the film adaptation of King’s story. Cohn stumped up the cash and, eventually, Welles kept to his word and made THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI as an adaptation without further fee. Presumably he read the book, but one can never be sure. Welles’ script was verbose and cryptic in its style of storytelling. Cohn was reported to find the first cut of the feature so confusing that he offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain it to him. But the adventurous camera techniques, faithful noir style points and sophisticated dialogue set this film apart from others in the genre. Never has there been a femme as fatale as Rita Hayworth. Admittedly, Orson Welles’ twiddle-dee-dee Paddy accent as lead man Michael Ohara would make any Irishman cringe. Once you have passed his near-comical intro, “ara, big boob that I am, I thought I could escape her”, his cultural misgivings are all but forgotten. The video below houses the one of the more powerful scenes of the movie:
6. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) director: Alfred Hitchcock
Tagline: It begins with the shriek of a train whistle and ends with shrieking excitement!
Hitchcock adapted the story of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN from the 1950s novel by Patricia Highsmith who also wrote The Talented Mr.Ripley. It begins will a chance meeting between Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Bruno, an impertinent stranger in Guy’s train carriage gets a little too comfortable with Guy having recogned his face from the news. After probing about Guy’s rocky marriage, he proposes a macabre concept of the perfect murder. Two strangers would agree to kill for each other, leaving no motive for either crime. In their case, Bruno would murder Guy’s troublesome wife and he, Bruno’s father without consequences, or, as Bruno puts it, “I do your murder, you do mine-criss cross”. Guy is perturbed by the meeting but does not take Bruno’s proposal seriously. Days later, his estranged wife has been found dead, strangled. Stress begins to consume the tone of the film as Bruno infiltrates Guy’s life with a psychotic flirtation, urging him to keep his side of he deal and kill his father. A unique plot with a superb performance from Robert Walker. If you look closely at the beginning of the film, you’ll see Hitchcock’s trademark cameo, getting on the train whilst carrying a double bass.
7. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) director: John Huston
Tagline: A guy without a conscience, a dame without a heart!
Introductory credits: ‘In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain,by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels. But pirates seized the galley carrying with them this priceless token. The fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day’.
Luminary of Hard-boiled fiction, Dashiell Hammet provided the inspiration for this film with his 1929 novel of the same name. The story follows straight-talking detective Sam Spade. The predecessor of Phillip Marlowe, Spade was a recurring character in Hammet’s writing. THE MALTESE FALCON was originally released as a series of short stories in pulp magazine Black mask. The on screen version is regarded by many as the first ever film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade in one of the best performances of his career. Everyone is in pursuit of the elusive falcon and they are willing to stare down the barrel of a gun to get it. Expect suspicious deaths, deceit and a lusty Mary Astor inciting men to murder with a swing of her hips. If you want to hear more about the history of the FALCON, have a listen to Sydney Greenstreet, hes a better speaker.
8. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) director: Tay Garnett
Tagline: Their love was a flame that destroyed!
The 1934 novel of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain was an important breakthrough for crime writing. At only 100 pages long, the provocative content caused a serious stir in 1930s America, even causing it to be banned in Boston. The story has been adapted to screen 4 times (including a 1980s version with a lecherous Jack Nicholson as the male lead) but only the 1946 adaptation really conveys the moral subtext of the novel. The animalistic affair between Cora and Nick (played by Lana Turner and John Garfield) allows Hollywood lust without sleaze. Cora convinces Nick to help her murder her elderly husband so they can begin a life running his diner business. The incompetent pair cock up two murder attempts, shaking the foundations of their trust for one another as the pressure mounts. A more innocent time, the vaguely sadomasochistic element to the affair is omitted from Garnett’s version of the story.
9. BRICK (2005) director: Rian Johnson
Tagline: A detective story
Ok now, this one is fairly atypical as noir novel adaptations go, considering that the story isn’t implicitly based on any one book. But given that this is the best representation of neo-noir I have ever seen, it has to make the list. The story jumps right out of Dahiell Hammett’s lap with Joseph-Gordon Levitt scouring the highschool hierarchy for his missing ex-girlfriend. Despite being a self-professed loner, Levitts character, Brendan, is like a bespeckled Sam Spade. Films like KISS KISS BANG BANG have previously attempted the whiplash dialogue and shotgun speed of the noir style. Few managed to execute it with the bizzaro brilliance of Johnson. Instead of Brendan being pegged as the obsessive loser, the outcast is an object of intrigue for the cool kids. He is a god damn rogue. In search of the girl, Brendan gets himself entangled in a teenage crime ring. The film has the manic feel of a Twin Peaks episode with every character entrenched in the essence of noir, they are all up on the 40s detective speak. The girls aren’t high school bitches, they are femme fatales. The guys don’t have nicknames, they have titles, ‘The Brain’, ‘The Pin’ are all encountered on the path of Brendan’s investigation. The whole homage could easily be kistchy, but somehow, it works.
10. THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010) director: Michael Winterbottom
Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel THE KILLER INSIDE ME spawned one of the most ruthless male characters in fiction. The story’s narrator Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in a small Texan town. Beneath his banal everyman surface, he is harboring a psychopathic persona and a callous desire to kill. The movie is inherently faithful to the book, particularly in the development Ford’s character, though the film lacks the transparency into Ford’s background. The novel delves into Ford’s initial exposure to sadomasochistic sex as a young boy, where as the film touches upon the subject with fleeting flashbacks. With his high pitched voice and unassuming demeanor, Affleck was born to play the painfully polite killer , “around here you catch a man with his pants down, you apologise, even if you have to arrest him.” Winterbottom was slammed at Sundance over his depiction of violence against women. This movie does anything but gratify violence. Instead, Winterbottom bravely presents it for what it really is, gruesome, horrifying and impossible to watch. Winterbottom juxtaposes meandering shots of the Texas landscape with a vicious, never ending pummeling of Jessica Alba’s face. Contentious, yes, but nevertheless, its a wonderful noir adaptation. See the trailer here:
*THE WILD CARD:
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988) director: Robert Zemeckis
Tagline: It’s the story of a man, a woman, and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.
Yes, its true, the softboiled antihero is a bunny and the femme fatale is more paper and ink than lipstick and silk. Even so, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? is no less a noir than any of the above. Bob Hoskins may not be able to compete with Bogart, but he was working with immortal toon co-stars, so I think he deserves some credit. Before you protest, this was indeed an adaptation.Gary K. Wolf penned the basis for the story in 1981 with novel WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT? The film used the basic premise and character names, but other than that, the film is less than faithfully adapted. Pulp-fiction with flair to say the least. See our animated noir vixen in action here:
And so concludes the run down of the the best film noir adaptations. If you haven’t seen all ten, hunt them down, grab a beanbag and lock yourself away with a days supply of quality street. You can thank me later.