Criterion Shelf: Noir in Colour

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15 films take the silver screen's darkest genre to full colour with dangerous results.

Black and white cinematography was the natural ally for film noir from the moment the genre came into being. The shadowy images and even more shadowy characters were easily, and stylishly, coded by the silvery elements of monochrome stock. It’s impossible to see noir, whose very name carries with it this description, any other way. Life isn’t seen in black and white for most of us, so shooting noirs in colour should mean making a move towards naturalism, which nobody wants from this genre. When we sit down to a tale of Barbara Stanwyck screwing Fred MacMurray over or Humphrey Bogart getting snowed by Mary Astor as she hires him under false pretenses, we want things as unnatural as possible, from the light shining through the horizontal blinds to the glint off the femme fatale’s blond hair.
Naturalism, however, is not what colour noirs provide us. In fact, they’re quite the opposite. Colour cinematography doesn’t come anywhere close to looking anything like real life until at least the early 1970s, if ever. The photography in the Criterion Channel’s Noir in Color collection isn’t naturalism. It actually adds a dimension of artifice not available in the monochrome noirs. Following the victory of World War II and America’s taking over the planet as a superpower, the country’s idealized way of life became a product sold through popular culture. Movies in particular offered stories in which wests were won, good triumphed over evil and love conquered all. Colour cinematography became more ubiquitous for prestige projects, and the addition of Cinemascope in the 1950s meant that movies had to be as splashy as possible to keep viewers away from their television screens. Surely, the idea of adding Technicolor beauty to the moral darkness of detective stories meant compromising the integrity of the experience, but in examining the films in this collection shot between 1945 and 1958, this does not appear to be the case.

In colour noirs, themes of American superiority and the capitalist ideal of heterosexual, patriarchal family life are subverted. The beauty of the wild west is sullied by the presence of settlers, not saved by them, crime is punished by authorities who are as complicated as the criminals they are pursuing, and love is a psychological minefield that brings a great deal of danger. The gorgeous visuals of A Kiss Before Dying recall Sandra Dee vehicles but the plot suggests that post-war prosperity is running smoothly atop the murmuring implication of greed beneath the American dream, while Man of the West challenges the myth of Manifest Destiny (which sought to legitimize the presence of white settlers on colonized land) by suggesting that its characters are a cancer upon the terrain rather than its rightful owners. The usually heroic lives of cowboys are presented as a constant cycle of unresolved unending corruption. Going out of the country and upon the world stage, Foreign Intrigue has its American protagonist traveling through Europe and ironically thinking of people as “foreign” on their own home territory, while Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo suggests criticism of the post-war American occupation of Japan so subtly (all the white characters are either corrupt or useless, or both) that the U.S. army had no issues with taking part in its production. In the best film in this collection (and maybe one of the best films ever made), Leave Her to Heaven goes against the presentation of bad women as stock archetypes. It suggests that villains are made, not born.

In locating the corruption beneath the glamorous sheen of post-war prosperity, the colour noirs do something exciting with their women. The post-war culture that encourages women to become dutiful and voracious consumers is undermined here by characters who are ambitious to break out of their mold. Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven becomes a killer to reject the narrow life of domesticity available to her fertile and intelligent mind. Mary Astor’s career success in Desert Fury means she cannot be a traditional, and therefore upstanding, mother. Vera Ralston doesn’t want to get married in Accused of Murder and ends up, well, accused of murder. Does this make them great, admirable role models? No, and many of these characters are the source of frustration that inspired Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape, but they are fascinating and add a particularly interesting emphasis of moral complexity to the sub-genre being celebrated by this collection. - Bil Antoniou

Films are reviewed by Bil Antoniou except where noted by Rachel Ho and Barbara Goslawski. For the full list, head here: