Everyone else has their choices of the first noir flicks. Most go with THE MALTESE FALCON, and though I bow to the masses, weakling that I am, I’m only agreeing that that’s the movie everyone else thinks is the first noir. It’s not very noir, actually.
If film noir is an attitude, not a genre, then it stands to reason that that attitude must be expressed visually. Enter German Expressionism, flowing in from overseas.
There are other contenders for the roots of noir, but these are the ones you don’t have to be told look like what later became noir–these are the actual beginnings.
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)
A man wrongly accused of murder, a stranger (a FOREIGN stranger!) who talks funny, and lighting and photography used to express the hero’s situation. It’s not about realism; it’s about expressing a point of view, TELLING the audience something, visually. Watching this for the first time after years of watching noir classics was a shocker.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Laugh if you want, but how much darker can you get than a man wasting his whole life chasing something he never gets, in the shadows, haunted by his past? Gregg Toland, working under detailed instructions from Welles, used deep focus and hard light; Welles used all the special effects toys available to him at RKO (the movie has a lot of effects shots). All of it made a bible for how light and dark can be manipulated to express character, and how environment can tell the audience things they wouldn’t get through dialogue or performance–all useful in infusing deeper meaning into crime stories.
I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941)
This sure looks a lot more like noir than the same year’s MALTESE FALCON. The movie’s prevented from being a hardcore noir because of the ‘rising starlet’ drama and the love story. Cut them to the minimum and this could’ve been better known. Other than the look there’s the creepy villain played by Laird Cregar, a stalker whose final revelation is a real surprise: he didn’t kill the victim, he just wanted to make sure the wrong guy hanged for it. How do you win when the cop who’s after you KNOWS you didn’t do it and is trying to hang you?
THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)
The genre’s getting some fine-tuning, thanks to a Grahame Greene script. The characterization is key here–fourth-billed Alan Ladd is Raven, the killer without a conscience. There’s a bit of 40’s social relevance here, as we see Raven likes a kitten and sees that even if Veronica Lake’s Ellen is not romantically into him, he still stands up and helps save her. The drive of the story, the characters–Lake, too, is more layered than just The Girl–and the visuals are all cohering.
MURDER MY SWEET (1944)
My pick for the first real, through-and-through noir. Based on a Chandler novel, it’s a perfect example of why Chandler was different from Hammett–Chandler’s hero was still a hero, a good guy. Edward Dmytryk’s direction and Harry Wild’s cinematography create a noir night world into which this not-impervious hero goes.
Just see it.
PHANTOM LADY (1944)
Contains two of the great scenes in film noir: The night walk, and the drum solo.
The last two are fine-tunings of the misunderstood gal, femme fatale, the detective, and the sap:
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
And here we are: noir has arrived.