Black Angel, The Movie (1946)

No author furnished more material for the classic film noir era than Cornell Woolrich. And none of his novels got a better straight noir adaptation than his 1943 classic The Black Angel. Universal’s 1946 movie version, Black Angel, (I don’t know why they lopped “The” from the title) is as quintessentially Woolrich as his adaptations get. Yes, Rear Window is a better movie, but it’s distinctly a “Hitchcock movie,” while Black Angel is 100% a “Woolrich movie” from the era he helped to define. Phantom Lady (1944) established what a Woolrich novel could be on screen; Black Angel (1946) is the full maturation of Woolrich film noir and is on my shortlist for the best of the style from the 1940s.

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Noir at Its Zenith: Criss Cross (1949)

The big studio film noir hit its peak during the final years of the ‘40s. What had started slowly at the beginning of the decade and burst open in 1944 became feverish and brilliant during 1947–49. Few films represent this zenith better than 1949’s Criss Cross, a personal noir favorite. 

Criss Cross is one of the most noirish film noirs ever to noir. It’s as essential as Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947). It’s the best movie from director Robert Siodmak, who helped usher in the grand age of film noir with Phantom Lady (1944) and The Killers (1946). All three films, by the way, are currently streaming on Criterion Channel as a Siodmak noir trilogy. 

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Phantom Lady: The Novel

This post discusses major plot points and the ending for the novel Phantom Lady

Author Cornell Woolrich has often been on my mind this summer. He’s a poet for isolated times, a preacher of anxiety. He also had a potent influence on my writing and was one of the catalysts for the creation of Turn Over the Moon, but that’s a subject for later. After watching the movie version of Phantom Lady (1944) last week, Woolrich’s 1942 novel pulled me back for the first time in years. Although one of his best known books and an important icon in noir—the title itself conjures visions of classic film noir—it’s an odd work I’ve never embraced as fully as many of his other novels from the same period.

Phantom Lady first appeared under the title “Phantom Alibi” as a six-part serial in Detective Fiction Magazine for 1942. Lippincott published the hardcover in August, with Woolrich using the “William Irish” pseudonym for the first time. The book was an immediate success and Woolrich sold the movie rights to Universal in October. This set up “William Irish” to develop a parallel career to Cornell Woolrich as a top suspense writer, even though anyone who looked at the serial version and saw Woolrich’s name on it would’ve known what was up.

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The Emergence of Film Noir: Phantom Lady (1944)

What’s the first film noir? The Maltese Falcon (1941) is most often given that honor, but you can make a strong case for Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and the obscure B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). The latter is the one film historians most often tag as the first “true” film noir.

Whatever its starting point, 1944 is the year when film noir emerged as a major cinematic style. (I prefer Alain Silver’s designation of film noir as a style rather than a genre.) Nobody knew the term film noir yet; it would take post-War French critics to recognize the changes in the Hollywood crime film and give it a beautiful name. But the success of several stylish psychological melodramas in 1944 created the phenomenon that would extend to the end of the next decade. Double Indemnity, Laura, and Murder, My Sweet are among the big titles of the 1944 film noir wave and were three of the movies that inspired French film critic Nino Frank to coin the term film noir two years later.

But the first film noir to reach screens in 1944 was Phantom Lady, a work from two influential figures in the style: director Robert Siodmak and writer Cornell Woolrich, author of Phantom Lady’s 1942 source novel and the most important writer of literary noir. Add Siodmak’s expressionist visuals to Woolrich’s existential urban suspense tale and you have film noir fully realized. The film’s success boosted Siodmak to A-list director status after work in programmers, and it made Woolrich into a hot property for Hollywood studios, with twenty more feature film adaptations during the classic noir cycle.

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Western Noir: Man of the West

I never made a better investment in a streaming service than subscribing to the Criterion Channel when it premiered last April. Criterion Channel is the streaming platform extension of the Criterion Collection, the famous home video line of high quality classic and contemporary films. The Criterion Channel library contains great films of every era, genre, and country. I’ve mostly watched their cult films (glad I got to experience Demon Seed, God Told Me To, and Phase IV, because … wow, those are nuts) and classic Hollywood movies, in particular the deep dives they take into film noir. Since signing up for Criterion, my knowledge of film noir feels like it’s doubled.

This month Criterion Channel is presenting a topic that’s personal for me: the influence of film noir on the Hollywood Western. Film noir was not recognized as a genre during its main period of the 1940s and ‘50s. It was French critics who first used the term as they started to study the US-American crime films they had missed during World War II. Not until the 1970s, after the original noir moment was long over, did the phrase “film noir” become established in the movie lexicon. Whether film noir is a genre or not is still a hot topic of debate among film scholars. I like Alain Silver’s definition of it as a “style” rather than a genre. That definition helps to understand how noir influenced an established genre, the Western, that would seem to have nothing in common with it. What we might call the “Western noir” isn’t as much a transplanting of crime film tropes into the Western as it is the dark style and troubled psychology of film noir affecting common Western stories. The two film types do have one important element they share: most are about crime, and often the criminal is the protagonist.

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