The Criterion Shelf: Noir In Color

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 subgenre being celebrated by this collection.

Films are reviewed by Bil Antoniou except where noted by Rachel Ho and Barbara Goslawski.




Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)

The crown jewel of this collection is possibly the greatest colour noir ever made. It’s a brilliantly smooth combination of classic female melodrama with the dark underpinnings of the hard-boiled genre. The open spaces of New Mexico and the disturbingly quiet woods of the eastern seaboard provide ominous backgrounds to the romance that develops between novelist Cornel Wilde and the beautiful woman he meets on a train, played by Gene Tierney in her only Oscar-nominated performance. They marry and, almost immediately, he realizes that she is possessive and ruthless, desperate to remove any hindrance to their relationship to the point of pulling off some pretty coldblooded acts to do it. No one ever delivered more emotion behind a pair of sunglasses than Tierney does in the film’s most notable sequence.The Oscar-winning cinematography is a glorious celebration of the shadows corrupting the pristine furniture and crisp country air, giving us a fascinating criticism of post-war prosperity that is surprisingly sympathetic to its female lead. Rather than presenting her as a femme fatale archetype, Stahl’s direction suggests that a brilliant and beautiful woman being given nothing better to do than be the amanuensis for her husband’s desires wasn’t born bad; rather, there’s a psychological process that made her that way. Advice from everyone around her to devote herself to being as good a wife and mother as she can be, and hints about a problematic relationship with her father fill in the details, and Tierney’s masterfully controlled performance takes in all these frustrations without ever overplaying a single second of it, then expresses the character’s evil with exceptional calm.


Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

Rachel Ho: In her first leading role, Marilyn Monroe cemented herself as a sex icon. She solidified her trademark look (juicy red lips, a distinguished beauty mark, darkened and arched eyebrows, and alabaster skin), and this film’s Technicolor only enhances her beauty. Playing a sultry femme fatale who is plotting to kill her husband (Joseph Cotten) while on vacation in Niagara Falls, Monroe is absolutely stunning and dripping with charisma. Director Henry Hathaway uses the camera to linger over Monroe’s sensuality, resulting in a famous shot of her simply walking down the street, but beyond her allure, Niagara is a great movie for noir fans. There’s an element of sexy intrigue, sexy baddies, and of course, sexy melodrama. The thunderous nature of Niagara Falls complements Hathaway’s story and Monroe’s stature, making it a very fitting setting for the film. This was the true beginning of Monroe’s iconoclastic rise to fame. The markings of a shining star were all there.


House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

This terrific police thriller is shot in the gorgeous widescreen hues of your favourite Japanese period pieces of the 1950s, but has the moody, secretive plot movements of a classic noir. Robert Stack shows up in post-war Japan and starts throwing his weight around pachinko parlours, roughing up the managers and demanding protection money, until the American gangster who is running the streets of Tokyo (Robert Ryan) smacks his nose for interfering with his business. Impressed by Stack’s gumption, however, Ryan offers him a job as one of his goons and makes him his right-hand man on his heists, not realizing that our protagonist is not who he says he is and has other plans in store for his boss. Fuller often indulged in brutal violence but restrained himself from embossing it with unnecessary cinematic style, anyone shooting a gun is filmed in long shots to avoid any kind of emotional identification, the violence an unavoidable reality but not one to be celebrated and which lends an atmosphere of disapproval over the American post-war occupation of Japan that is just subtle enough to avoid any refusal from the army to take part in the project. The dense plot doesn’t quite equal The Big Sleep, there are a few knots untied too easily and without much imagination in the final third, but the climactic showdown at a rooftop amusement park is one of the most memorable sequences in the great director’s career. Look for future “Bones” McCoy DeForest Kelley in a supporting role.


Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955)

The most direct attack on American racism in this entire collection is this magnificent drama by John Sturges, better known for his later action epic The Great Escape. In a tight, streamlined script that doesn’t need more than 80 minutes to put across a rich array of characters and build unbearable tension towards its climax, it features Spencer Tracy in one of his finest performances as a war veteran who arrives in a dusty town in the middle of nowhere and is immediately treated with disdain by its residents. The man that Tracy is looking for, who has a Japanese last name, is nowhere to be found, and the rest of the town seems doggedly determined to make sure our hero stops looking for him. The violence is brutal, the dialogue interactions even more so. This is one of the finest films of its decade. Canadian subscribers please note that this film is only screening on the channel in the United States.


A Kiss Before Dying (Gerd Oswald, 1956)

Barbara Goslawski: Sinister, campy fun, this entertaining nailbiter is a chilling maniac-in-our-midst type noir. Looks certainly do deceive in this tale of wholesome respectability that masks lethal ambition. Shot in glorious Cinemascope, there’s a twisted satisfaction in watching that moral facade crumble into utter wickedness within its vividly coloured, cinematic veneer. Robert Wagner stars as Bud Corliss, a charming university student whose promising future is jeopardized when his girlfriend (Joanne Woodward in only her second screen appearance) announces she is pregnant. After hatching an elaborate scheme to do away with her, he finds himself enamoured with her sister, who is suspicious of the easy answers the police have provided. An heiress to a fortune, she unwittingly falls in love with Bud and the two plan to marry, but when she figures out the truth, she decides to confront him. The film is a highly stylized noir and danger lurks in every frame of this taut thriller. Oswald (in his directorial debut) deftly builds tension using long takes, and his creatively subversive use of depth of field in place of more conventional editing invigorates the storytelling, masterfully using spatial relations – and quite exceptionally in the final sequence – to underscore Corliss’ menacing resolve. Particularly notable for its possible influence on Orson Welles’ seminal Touch of Evil made just two years later, it predates its use of an extended long take tracking shot – coming in at three plus minutes in this case – to establish the film’s characters and scenario.


Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)

Barbara Goslawski:  Writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean Luc Godard declared this the best film of 1958 and it’s easy to see why. It toys with its genre origins and no doubt the nihilistic climax delighted him. In Anthony Mann’s final western, he turns his trademark allegory of redemption into a hardboiled story of one man’s fight against his darker nature. Brilliantly fusing noir and western conventions, the director transplants demented gangster characters into panoramic Cinemascope vistas, thereby coaxing us to rethink their foundations. Gary Cooper (in one of his final westerns) is Link Jones, a reformed outlaw, travelling with a bag full of money on a mission to hire a schoolteacher for his community. When his train is hijacked and robbed, he and two others, the fast-talking gambler Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London), are left by the side of the road. Link leads them to his former home, where his criminal uncle, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) still resides. He and his gang of thugs are planning their next caper and Link must join Tobin to save himself and his new friends. Mann anchors the necessary rise in tension to the film’s changing locales, the rapid-fire editing he employs while his characters are confined in the house is deftly contrasted by an unnerving and unshakable sense of peril that he conjures from within the vast landscapes. Cinematographer Ernest Haller, best known for his Academy Award-winning work on Gone with the Wind, is brilliant here. In a further stroke of narrative genius, Mann employs a strategy of humiliations. When the drunken men demean Billie Ellis at the house it is a welcome twist to see our hero turn that incident back on them. The calculated pacing is equally thrilling: Mann deliberately deflates the perceived strength of the bad guys. As the noir antihero, Link demeans each and every one of them, and then still rides off into the sunset like a proper Western hero.



Worthy Colour Noirs


Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947)

Director Allen has a lot of fury to contain in the film’s expansive setting, a gorgeously shot potboiler set in a tiny New Mexico town, where rebellious schoolgirl Lizabeth Scott has returned to live with her jaded saloon owning mother (Mary Astor). Bootlegger John Hodiak blows into town and Scott falls madly in love with him, getting more involved the more her mother objects, and resisting the attention of the good-natured cop (Burt Lancaster) who also wants to show her a good time. While resting on many of the easy tropes of the genre (particularly the ‘crime doesn’t pay’ moralizing), this one never goes soft, even when characters kiss and make up they do so with one eye wide open.


Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)

Another terrific example of photographing a western backdrop in bright, gorgeous colours to emphasize the shadowy presence of sinister human morality. Rhonda Fleming and William Ludigan emerge from the desert after the third member of their party, Fleming’s millionaire husband Robert Ryan, has fallen and broken his leg. They’ve told him they are going for help, but they’re actually having an adulterous affair and plan to leave him in the barren wilderness to die in order to get free of his interfering in their passionate arrangement. Back in civilization, they spin a bunch of lies to the authorities while Ryan plays out an all is lost prototype survival situation, crawling his way across the desert with a broken leg and doing his best to beat the odds and maybe get the opportunity for revenge in the process. Originally released in 3-D, this film features a very exciting fight scene in a burning shack in the third act that puts a terrific capper on what is already a very diverting experience.


The River’s Edge (Allan Dwan, 1957)

Debra Paget successfully transitions to tough broad territory as the wife of a cattle rancher (Anthony Quinn) who regrets her hasty decision to marry him to avoid her legal woes. A swanky con man from her past (Ray Milland) shows up in a pink Cadillac to get her back into their grifting games, but his desire to outrun the law sees him committing murder and they need Quinn to guide them all from their border town across to Mexico. The terrain is rough, the near-death experiences put loyalties to the test, and despite the fact that many of the outdoor locations look like sets. This is an effectively shot thriller whose dark personalities contrast beautifully with the bright vistas in the background.


Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958)

Rachel Ho: Unlike most film noirs, this one starts off with a musical number, but it’s also a pensive love story trapped beneath a fairly generic Chicago-based gangster noir. Vickie Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is a nightclub dancer and, while working a party one evening, she meets mob lawyer Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor). After a rather traumatic event, the two seek comfort in one another and begin a relationship. It’s a familiar gangster drama, although the performances from Charisse, Taylor and Lee J. Cobb (as Rico Angelo, Farrell’s boss) are all tremendous and lend some much needed gravitas. Director Nicholas Ray shot the film in CinemaScope, which gives Party Girl a truly cinematic effect including some delightfully vivid-coloured sequences. Ray’s ability to take a mediocre script and parlay it into something as fresh as this film is truly admirable.





Black Widow (Nunnally Johnson, 1954)

Johnson made this prestige dinner theatre whodunit the same year as his far superior Night People. Van Heflin plays a notable Broadway producer who is friendly to an aspiring writer (Peggy Ann Garner, making an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to transition to mature film roles) only to see his good intentions blow up in his face when she is found dead in his apartment. He was never anything more than friendly to her, but suddenly the cops are coming after him with accusations of having killed the young woman to hide their affair, which forces Heflin to run from the law and try to find the real killer before he’s put away for good. Part All About Eve, part Janet Green, pristine to look at and practically bankrupt of substance, this is a beautifully shot, shallow trip to the dark side made worthwhile by the actors involved. (Spoiler alert: the billing tells you who the killer is.)


Accused of Murder (Joseph Kane, 1956)

No noir retrospective is complete without a few titles from a Poverty Row studio, and this charmer is a delightful entry in this collection. Two police officers investigating the murder of a high-priced defense attorney zero in on the gangsters he defended in court as well as his classy nightclub singer girlfriend (former ice skater Vera Ralston). One cop thinks she did it, the other one falls in love with her and looks for any manner of proof that she didn’t. On the other side of the law, taxi dancer Virginia Grey blackmails a hoodlum suspect to provide him an alibi to the police, but in doing so brings some genuine danger upon herself (if you think her getting money stuffed in her mouth in The Naked Kiss a few years later is bad, wait until you see the punches she takes here). Simple in execution but entertaining and sincere, this little B-movie was filmed using an off-brand Technicolor knockoff that, in retrospect, makes it look like a comic strip panel come to life. The solid colours shine like freshly polished linoleum.


Foreign Intrigue (Sheldon Reynolds, 1956)

Rachel Ho: Dave Bishop (Robert Mitchum) is a press agent who has been creating false releases for his boss Victor Danemore (Jean Galland). When Victor passes away from a sudden heart attack in Dave’s arms, Dave begins unravelling the details of his former boss’ life and is soon thrust into a world of blackmail and espionage. Mitchum is reliably gruff and grumpy as Dave, lending a strong performance that carries the entire film, but the script can feel convoluted, even for the standards of the day, and the clumsy switches from European spy thriller to Nazi thriller to a love-at-first-sight romance story create a film that buckles under its own weight. However, what director-writer Sheldon Reynolds lacks in screenwriting, he more than makes up for in the actual construction of the movie. Clearly inspired by the colour being used on film, Reynolds uses the camera to create vivid and rich imagery that makes Foreign Intrigue a worthwhile visit for fans of the genre and of movie-making history, and naturally, for fans of the great Robert Mitchum, who turns in a pretty remarkable performance.


The Badlanders (Delmer Daves, 1958)

A year after seeing a 3:10 train off to Yuma, Daves sends his characters in the opposite direction. Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine are released from Yuma prison and, in a subtle criticism of American justice, find themselves unwanted, marked men despite having paid their debt to society. Geologist Ladd is looking to get revenge on the corrupt marshal who framed him for robbery and makes plans to steal gold from the marshal’s mines, which reside beneath the land that Borgnine’s family once owned and which was stolen from him by the man he got sent to prison for killing. Making a deal with a local fatcat to fund the operation in exchange for half the loot, Ladd experiences some bumps on the road to redemption that include a little bit of double-cross and a very explosive violent finale, but thanks to Borgnine’s helping out Katy Jurado from being assaulted by some nasty brigands, they have half the town’s population on their side. Ladd, only 44 and six years before his early death, seems worn out and mumbles a great deal of his dialogue, but still possesses the sincerity that contributed to his stardom in a film that is for the most part an exciting affair. Canadian subscribers please note that this film is only screening on the channel in the United States.


I Died a Thousand Times (Stuart Heisler, 1955)

Jack Palance fills in for Humphrey Bogart in this widescreen Cinemascope remake of High Sierra, playing a hood with a heart of gold whose soft feelings for a disabled girl inspire him to pay for her restorative surgery. He then goes in for that noir classic of plots, the One Last Job before quitting the criminal racket for good, planning to knock over a ritzy Los Angeles retreat whose lobby safe is full of the guest’s jewels. The scheme is complicated by his unruly cohorts Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin, and their getaway is further messed up by his lover Shelley Winters and their adorable dog.  Palance and Winters don’t have great chemistry and he never quite sells the character’s subtle vulnerability, he has an impressive physique but lacks the sensitive eyes surrounded by the hard face that made Bogie such a star. It’s stylish and fun, though, and the chase into the mountains at the end is exciting and beautifully shot. Fritz Lang always said that widescreen was only good for snakes and funerals, but here you can add mountain ranges to the images that are captured quite beautifully by the format. Canadian subscribers please note that this film is only screening on the channel in the United States.