Mum would prepare the popcorn. The quintessential staple. No microwaves back then. The kernels clapping against the side of the pot. No butter flavours in bags. Traditional only. Served up in a (now retro) wooden bowl on a table with a tablecloth. On occasion, dad would smoke his pipe. On some occasions purely because mum enjoyed the smell of the smoke. If dinner had been early, or it just never happened there would be something resembling a charcuterie board or other fanciness. As fancy as the 70s spilling over into the 80s could be. Our family Friday night film night. Sometimes it would be what the TV schedule offered, sometimes it would be VCR night. We would all gather in the living room. Our living room then were cowhides on the floor (which mum and dad collected humanely during their travels around Australia when they immigrated from Germany), tassel lamps, beige cotton-velvet wingback couches with baroque buttoning and of course the tube television and VCR. I assume most people would have film memories, and it may well define elements of their lives as it has done for mine.
Then the drinks. Mum would make two cocktails, something different every time. One for dad and one for herself. Whatever she had grown a fancy to from the pages of a Woman’s Day. My sister and I would be served the G-rated equivalent. A Brandy Alexander for us would be chocolate milk in a thickly blown martini glass. Once we were old enough (pre-teens I think?) we were even trusted with the breakables. Kir Royales were Ribena in a champagne flute, sometimes with a twist of lemon.
In Australia, this was the era of Bill Collins presenting us with his picks of daytime cinema classics and for us Friday night film night. John Wayne, Doris Day, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Cary Grant. Mesmerised and enchanted by Hitchcock, Westerns, slap-sticks, Agatha Christie’s and Pink Panthers. Sometimes film noirs, although it can, at times, be such an ambivalent genre. Our exposure to noir back then primarily consisted of Hitchcock. Perhaps that’s why noir now intrigues me so. A time to embrace the noir underdogs. Only underdogs in the context of the shadow of the Hitchcock spotlight. Not through talent or esteem by any means. Louis Malle, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, Claude Chabrol. No CGI deluge in those days. Not that I phewy CGI. It is brilliance in its own realm. Digital vs analogue. There doesn’t need a be a vs. But the films of those days. They couldn’t be painted over with Command K for keystroke. Sleight of hand and illusion had to be troubleshot and deciphered. They were the days of angst hunched over rolls of tri-acetate fed through a Steenbeck. Cutting room floor and all that cliche. Sure, there were methods like Day for Night, MacGuffins and set perception but cellulose was unforgiving, there was no ‘we’ll fix it in post’. In those days I’m sure it was more like the counter statement of ‘we’ll need to see how bad that is in post’, ‘let’s shoot it again’.
There is cinema noir that is explicit in its violence with sub-genres such as giallo (Italian horror) or noir that focuses on crime such as the French film policier sub-genre. Arguably, noir directors have an ability to utilise the trades of cinema to illustrate story more effectively than other genre directors. Such as their manipulation of shadowplay and lighting to imply violence or suspense. Evidently, the use of sound is key for any piece of cinema but noir provides the thriller backbone and enables the distinction of sound to deliver an intelligent mystery rather than gaudy horror. Likewise, the archetypal love scene within a noir, its narrative played out in the landscape of gun holstering, sleuthing, back doors and rear windows. And of course, there are the neo-noirs such as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway (David Lynch) and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick). With age, I feel more affinity for the classics rather than the pastiche endeavours.
Memories of Noir
My noir exposure of those cherished days, or nights as it was, centred around the auteur himself, Hitchcock. Although my favourite thriller perhaps not a film noir, although I would easily slip it into the noir section of the catalogue, was Charade by Stanley Donen. At times referred to as ‘the best Hitchcock that Hitchcock never made’. I tend to agree. Perhaps the set was not as dark as a classic noir, but the psychology sure was. I can’t recall how old I was when that was first screened on one of our film nights but I remember having nightmares for a few moons and then it evolved into ‘play it again’.
Cocktail hour in a film noir is as much a staple as femme fatales, cigarettes, cutting shadows, signs flickering to an abstract beat and men Who Knew Too Much. The drinks in noir are typically hardball: Whiskies and cognacs. No salt rims or paper umbrellas. In the 30s and 40s, the prime noir era, and in the wake of prohibition, speakeasies were loose cannons. To me, cassis is the sophisticated darkness of the 30s and 40s. The dark, thick and sickeningly sweet allure of cassis sits pretty while watching pearls break, faces slapped in lust, and detectives catch their man. As a male, a whisky straight would be on the cards of course. As a female, it seems so much more satisfying to enjoy The Third Man or Les Diaboliques with a Kir Royale in hand and fireplace of course. Creme de Cassis is traditionally from Burgundy, France and the classic blackcurrant Noir de Bourgogne berries are slowly macerated in alcohol to produce the final liqueur.
I now like to revisit the film nights my family shared, in my own solitary manner, on occasion inflicting it onto others. I pull out my Josephine glasses, add something sparkling and a touch of something dark and blackcurrant in flavour. Cassis and a film noir. No better pairing. Oh and a charcuterie board of course. I save the popcorn for Doris Day and Jerry Lewis. Although those times are rare. Hitchcock, anything with Cary Grant (I believe I may have stalked him had my years coincided with his) and Pink Panthers (the originals of course) are the most frequent. Frequent being when I have the time, which isn’t frequent at all.
Film Noir Directors
I’m by no means a noir habitué but here are three directors worth exploring in my view:
Peak filmmaking period: 1930s-1950s
Known for his amalgamation of morphing human with animal and exploring the connection between man and beast. Nocturnal scenes are prevalent and a talent for utilising lighting sources within the mise en scène. His directorial focus was consistently on creating the atmosphere. Although performance didn’t play second fiddle, Torneur relied on more naturalistic acting. His powerplay with the art of suggestion contributed significantly to his auteurist style.
Berlin Express (1948)
Out of the Past (1947)
Peak filmmaking period: 1940s-1950s
One of the few directors who aroused envy in Hitchcock. The perceived political skew common in Clouzot’s films often resulted in a public backlash that Clouzot could never quite shake. His autocratic on-set behaviour often led to his cast having to actually experience the macabre scenes that they were ‘acting’ out. With Clouzot’s meticulous nature it may have been to psychologically maim and debilitate his actors so as to more realistically portray the film’s plot. At times his taste for violence bleeding from his scripts into his directorial life. Clouzot’s passion, insomnia and persistent drive to emulate the dingy and decrepit lower realms through his films may have led to his death at age 69.
The Assassin Lives at Number 21 (1942)
Quai des Orfèvres (1947)
Peak filmmaking period: 1960-1970s
His work also featuring comedy with an emphasis on portraying intellectual plots rather than palpable progression through chronological events. Truffaut often used the psychological tapestry of his films to illustrate his political bent at the time. He floated between explicit and implicit cinema; the contrast of what goes on behind closed doors and the wider world. Mental anguish and societal parading.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Jules and Jim (1962)
You can enjoy a Crème de Cassis based elixir with the recipes below:
1 part Creme de Cassis
9 parts champagne
1 part Creme de Cassis
9 parts red wine
1 part Creme de Cassis
6 parts Dry Vermouth
Fill glass with soda