Film Noir: Meet the Cast

Lauren Bacall

Inspired by Cornerhouse’s latest exhibition, Toby Hood investigates the greatest collection of talent from Hollywood’s golden age…

Crooked cops, twisted fates, a plethora of timely one-liners and clouds of mystifying cigarette smoke: these are the iconic tropes of the style we have come to identify as ‘film noir’. Realising I could study the Hollywood crime genre as one of my modules at university next year, I’ve started researching the classics, eagerly digesting each drama and noticing the enormous influence cast on popular culture by this golden age of cinema.

As if to prove my point, Cornerhouse Gallery’s latest exhibition, Double Indemnity, has thrown this classic genre back into public consumption; showcasing contemporary artists’ interpretations of the noir tradition, alongside screening seminal contributions to the epoch. Along with their films, the original icons of noir again become relevant: stars like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame and Jane Greer, whose whole personas were originally managed by the Hollywood hype machine, or ‘star system’.

With my interest in these stars well and truly ignited (and in true ‘40s paparazzo style), I decided to ‘get the scoop’ on the most iconic actors and directors who helped define this golden age of cinema;  selecting three people whose personal stories, I discovered, were often more fantastic than those depicted on screen.

“Chandler originally began writing after losing his job, due to his excessive drinking, promiscuity, absenteeism and apparent threatened suicides”

Firstly, a writer so utterly synonymous with detective fiction: Raymond Chandler. Acclaimed with defining noir through his literary works in the 1930s and 40s, including the creation of ultimate detective Phillip Marlowe, Chandler originally began writing after losing his job in 1932 as an oil company exec, due to his excessive drinking, promiscuity, absenteeism and apparent threatened suicides. After his departure, and desperate for income, he turned to fiction, beginning his writing career as a novelist; his Marlowe detective series inspiring many noir adaptations in their own right.

Chandler later took on the role of screenwriter, reworking James M Cain’s thriller Double Indemnity with the help of Hollywood big-shot, Billy Wilder. The two forged a conflicted collaboration as both egos struggled to fit in the same space; Chandler at one point refusing to be in the same room as Wilder. Tension — which was interpreted by Wilder as his writing partner’s repressed jealousy of his own successes with women — between the reticent novelist and the cavalier playboy became inspiration for Wilder’s next film, The Lost Weekend, a story about an alcoholic writer on a descent into madness. Despite all behind-the-scenes friction, the film went on to be a critical and commercial hit, raking in $5million at the box office and nominated for seven Academy Awards. Despite the film not winning in any of those catagories, and Chandler being furious at not being invited to the ceremony, the picture has made its way into the history books as a definitive contribution to the genre.

“Welles scorned Humphrey Bogart for fighting in public, and claimed Marilyn Monroe was just a stock actress”

Perhaps the ultimate film noir idol was the irreverent Orson Welles, who brought his own brand of sadistic, brutish charm to the silver screen. Immortalised at the age of 26 by the success of his feature Citizen Kane, Welles paved the way for the future of filmmaking in taking on the roles of actor, writer, director and producer; a first in Hollywood history. One of the biggest stars of cinema had troubled beginnings; after the death of his mother, and the debilitating effects of alcohol made his father an unsuitable guardian, Welles was alone. At the age of 10, he ran away with his foster family’s youngest daughter, and they were later found dancing and singing for money on the street. Good practice, perhaps, as Welles‘ career started on stage, acquiring his first role on the back of the false claim that he was already a Broadway star. Reviews of his celebrated performance made their way to Hollywood, and Welles soon followed to live out his destiny as one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

The recent memoir My Lunches With Orson exhibits the less modest attributes of such a successful personality; a side to the star that was always prevalent but less sardonic than perhaps first perceived. According to the mealtime tape recordings that lend the book its title, Welles scorned Humphrey Bogart for fighting in public, and claimed Marilyn Monroe was considered just a stock actress before she met him. He also criticises noir’s greatest asset, the Master of Suspense himself, Mr Alfred Hitchcock, as ‘egotistic and lazy’. A rather hypocritical slight from a man who was two weeks late for production on The Third Man, and refused to be filmed in the Viennese sewer with the rest of his cast.

“After an illicit love affair with co-star Humphrey Bogart, Bacall soon became a household name”

But what of the ultimate femme fatale? For me, it has to be Lauren Bacall. Starting out as a teenage model for the popular Harper’s Bazaar magazine, she was noticed on its cover by the wife of filmmaker Howard Hawks, and cast in his romantic war adventure, To Have And Have Not, at the age of 19. After an advised name change from Betty Joan Perske, and an illicit love affair with co-star Humphrey Bogart, Bacall soon became a household name. ‘The Bogie and Bacall years’ mark the most memorable period of film in the twentieth century, including the definitive noir adaptation of  Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

In her autobiography, Bacall recalls the couple’s emotive beginnings in a stolen kiss in her dressing room: “He was standing behind me — we were joking as usual — when suddenly he leaned over, put his hand under my chin and kissed me.” The two went on to enjoy one of the most successful Hollywood marriages to date, producing two children and a generation of on screen memories. Sadly, the 25 year age gap between the two would precede an end to the relationship on Bogart’s death in 1957. In her later years, Bacall typified her career as an aging actress by appearing in commercials for discount clothes-lines and cat foods, while her ventures onscreen varied in their success. However, the now 89 year-old actress has experienced recent critical acclaim for her roles in Dogville and Walker. Today, Bacall is still in work and has been rumoured to appear in Tom Konkle’s noir throw-back Trouble Is My Business (not to be confused with Chandler’s book of the same name).

Catch Cornerhouse’s free exhibition, Double Indemnity, from now until 5th January 2014 

Posted on 28/11/2013 by thedoublenegative