During my first week of training at a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a man handed me a card and told me he was a private detective. He probably just settled domestic disputes, but it still floored me: It was 2013, yet the gumshoe persevered. It made me think back to the days of film noir, when people took private detectives seriously though they said things like, “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you, you're 20 minutes.” (Ace in the Hole, 1951)
Whether watching them on Netflix, the Turner Classic Movies channel or four-for-one DVDs from Target, noir films have entertained generations since the genre’s birth in the 1940s. I’ve had a thing for them since high school, back when anything romantic and hard-boiled spoke to me. Despite the hackneyed themes and dated gender roles, I still love the drama and mystery of the black-and-white noir. And hell, there are a few lessons we can learn from a good noir flick. Here are 10:
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
“You don't yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck.”
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is the queen of delusional noir characters. As an old silent film star turned recluse, Desmond is obsessed with her moment of fame before “talkies” got big. When Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles upon her home — a mansion he assumes was abandoned by owners on the run from debt collectors — Desmond invites him to stay. Gillis is aware that there is something a little off about Desmond, but he is desperate and plays along with her hopes of a comeback. It isn’t easy living with Desmond, who is often on the defense with phrases like, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And although Desmond’s crazy-eyed-shenanigans are hilarious, it becomes clear that waking Desmond out of her delusions may be bad news for her and everyone she grows attached to, including Gillis.
Lesson: Don’t mess with other people’s delusions.
2. The Killing (1956)
“I don’t think I’ll have to kill her. Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat, that’s all.”
In The Killing, George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) gets involved with Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and a group that plans to have a day at the races — stealing $2 million from the track. When George’s wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) catches wind of the money he might get, she snoops on a meeting between the guys and gets caught, putting both of their lives at risk. The threats of mutilation and jail time become worse than death, but in noir, big risks come with big rewards and threats worse than death are a natural part of it.
Lesson: There are threats worse than death.
3. Ace in the Hole (1951)
“Bad news sells best, ‘cause good news is no news.”
Sometimes terrible stories get exploited in the name of journalism — after all, according to Didion, the writer has to betray his or her subject at some point. When New York City journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) gets fired for slander, adultery and all-around jerk-ness, he gets stuck working for an newspaper in Albuquerque. Chuck gets desperate for a juicy story that will redeem him and earn his place back in New York, but he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous scoop that may cost him his life. But anything for a good story, right?
Lesson: People get a thrill from hearing terrible things.
4. Spellbound (1945)
“My dear girl, you cannot keep bumping your head against reality and saying it is not there.”
Psychologist Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) discovers that her boss at the Green Manors mental asylum is actually an amnesiac imposter (Gregory Peck). You would think Petersen would be terrified, but she instead falls in love with the new Dr. Edwardes and tries to help him. Turns out that Constance isn’t the only one in denial at Green Manors; after all, there are always several sides to a story, several realities to bump your head against before finding the truth — if you should be so lucky.
Lesson: Facing reality may be hard sometimes, but denial is a bitch.
5. The Third Man (1949)
“A person doesn't change just because you find out more.”
When Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna with the promise of a new job from his longtime friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), the locals tell him that Lime is dead. They all give different stories, but Martins manages to find Lime’s girl, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). He feels lost but stubborn enough to stick around and figure out exactly what happened. Turns out that Lime has been keeping secrets from everyone — except for two accomplices, who seem to know a completely different Lime than Martins recalls from back home. Lime’s death stops feeling like a strange coincidence and more like a betrayal. Some friendships are better from a distance.
Lesson: You might not always want to get to know people so well.
6. Double Indemnity (1944)
“I picked you for the job, not because I think you're so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You're not smarter, Walter ... you're just a little taller.”
The same good looks that got Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) hired as an insurance salesman are the ones that get him involved with Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a married woman who happens be home alone, wearing only a towel when Neff makes a housecall. The two fall madly in love and, naturally, try to sabotage her husband. Walter is reluctant at first, but Phyllis’ good looks are persuasive, making him weak. It’s proof that good genes are powerful, but they don’t make people invincible.
Lesson: Good looks are persuasive, and people with good genes often get the benefit of the doubt.
7. In a Lonely Place (1950)
“It was his story against mine, but of course, I told my story better.”
In true noir fashion, the bad temper of screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) gets him mixed up in a murder trial when police realize that he was one of the last people to be seen with the victim, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a young hatcheck girl. Even though Dix’s story flies, people continue to suspect him for the crime, including his girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). It’s hard to trust a man who writes stories for a living, especially when other people’s takes start becoming more convincing.
Lesson: There are always a different sides to the story, but sometimes one is just more convincing.
8. The Big Sleep (1946)
Vivian: “Why did you have to go on?”
Phillip: “Too many people told me to stop.”
When private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to resolve his gambling debts, Marlowe falls in love with Sternwood’s eldest daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). The case turns from gambling debts to a missing person’s case, and things get violent — and thrilling. Marlowe knows he’s close to answers as danger mounts. (Fun fact: William Faulkner was one of the writers behind this screenplay.)
Lesson: Sometimes you have to be fearless to get answers.
9. Out of the Past (1947)
“All women are wonders, because they reduce all men to the obvious.”
Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hires private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) to track down his wife Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) after she shoots him and robs him of $40,000 — but the most worrisome detail is that Sterling still wants to mend things with her. Of course, Moffat seems innocent enough when Bailey finds her, falls in love with her and decides to run off with her, but he learns the hard way that she’s more than he could have imagined.
Lesson: The femme fatale is almost always one step ahead of the men.
10. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
“Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be.”
It really doesn’t get any more noir than The Maltese Falcon. Bogart, being the tough yet righteous detective that he often plays, sticks to the case through the trials and tribulations of finding, then guarding an expensive bird statuette. Of course, there’s more to the story, including lust, betrayal and murder — or as Sam Spade would put it: “a reasonable amount of trouble.” After all, in noir, nothing is what it seems.
Lesson: It’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big time foodie who knows her cheese.