The night was on the rocks. And getting the cold shoulder from Velda didn't make it any warmer. I scanned the movie page for something appropriate to see. Something with tough guys, cold dames and murder.
The French had a name for those flicks: Films noir. They got it watching Hollywood fare from the '40s and early '50s, when the war was in the bag and we had only ourselves to fight. Noir films weren't detective films exactly, nor were they gangster films, though many had gumshoes and mobsters in them. Typically they featured regular Joes with an attitude problem, often caused by some double-crossing doll in their past. I knew just how they felt.
My movie page bubbled with promising titles: "Fatal Attraction," "No Way Out" (a remake of "The Big Clock"), "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Suspect," "The Big Town," "The Big Easy." I wasn't fooled. They were ringers. Instead of real men like Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Alan Ladd, they starred Matt Dillon, Michael Douglas and Cher.
Time to hit the video store, I muttered. It was there I'd find the real thing.
Laura (1944, CBS-Fox, $79.95) -- You can't blame detective Dana Andrews for falling for a class act like Laura (Gene Tierney). The dead girl's stunning portrait haunts her apartment, the way the live article haunted the men in her life, particularly Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. Otto Preminger's masterpiece smolders with passion, perversion and wit even before Laura walks in on Andrews' reverie, very much alive.
Double Indemnity (1944, MCA, $29.95) -- Forget 20 years of Disney films and "My Three Sons." That Fred MacMurray guy can act. Playing an insurance salesman seduced into committing murder, MacMurray more than holds his own alongside would-be widow Barbara Stanwyck and investigator Edward G. Robinson. One of the best movies ever made, cleverly written and beautifully directed by Billy Wilder.
Mildred Pierce (1945, CBS-Fox, $29.95) -- If Joan Crawford had spoiled real daughter Christina like she does movie daughter Ann Blythe, there would have been no Mommie Dearest. Mildred sacrifices a lot for the ungrateful whelp, who still makes off with sleazy gigolo Zachary Scott. Joan ignites a sterling adaptation of James L. Cain's classic.
Gilda (1946, RCA-Columbia, $29.95) -- "Women are the most numerous creatures on Earth," broods Glenn Ford. "Next to insects." Maybe so, but heading down to Buenos Aires to forget Rita Hayworth was a bad idea. Worse still when she turns up as the wife of Ford's casino-owner boss (George Macready). The fine line between love and hate doesn't get any finer, cinematically speaking.
The Blue Dahlia (1946, coming soon from Paramount) -- Mr. Hard-Boiled himself, Raymond Chandler, wrote this sizzling variation on a popular theme. War hero Alan Ladd hunts for the killer of his unfaithful wife while the cops hunt him. Getting picked up by Veronica Lake makes life on the lam a lot cozier. Classic line: "Every guy's looking for a girl like you. The trick is to find you."
Out of the Past (1947, Nostalgia Merchant, $19.95) -- If you see no other noir film, check out this gem about lust, greed and femme fatalism. Robert Mitchum fits the genre like John Wayne does a horse. Here, he's got racketeer Kirk Douglas to outfox and volatile vixen Jane Greer on his mind. Told in haunting flashback style (a noir specialty), director Jacques Tourneur's classic is cinematic poetry. Ineptly remade in 1984 as "Against All Odds."
Key Largo (1948, Key, $19.98) -- Humphrey Bogart is the star and Lauren Bacall the female lead, but Key Largo is really Edward G. Robinson's film. Robbie plays a legendary gangster who torments a handful of hotel guests until he can escape to Cuba. Slow and talky, true, yet still a fascinating noir-gangster hybrid, directed by John Huston.
The Lady From Shanghai (1948, RCA-Columbia, $59.95) -- It's barely possible to follow the plot of this Orson Welles nightmare. But getting lost among the bizarre situations, grotesque characters and outlandish camera angles is just as much fun. In Welles' only film as a dashing hero, he gets led astray by an imaginatively-photographed Rita Hayworth, the director's ex-wife.
His Kind of Woman (1951, RKO, $29.95) -- Humor crept into some later noir entries, here from an unlikely source -- Vincent Price. Price is delightful as a ham movie star helping American expatriate Robert Mitchum thwart Raymond Burr in a remote Mexican resort. Jane Russell looks great with moonlight in her hair. Classic line: "If you used that needle for sewing, you'd be a much happier woman."
Body Heat (1981, Warner, $24.98) -- The best of the film noir imitations succeeds thanks to a terrific cast of pre-stars (William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke) and writer-director Lawrence Kazdin's genuine affection for the classics. Kathleen Turner, temperature-raising sultry, is the perfect successor to Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck and other great vamps. Classic exchange: Hurt: "I need tending ... " Turner: "Get married." Hurt: "I just need it for tonight."