Paul Stewart steps into the shoes of his film Noir alter ego to become Bert Vandamm – even if it was for just the one night...
Staging a Shoot
I have always been drawn to the periods both immediately before and after the Second World War. To me they are stylistically superior; when a car from this era drives by, you cannot help but turn your head and stare; the clothing was made to fit and be flattering and the music was live and exciting and made to be seen and danced to. And so it was, that to get fully drawn into this piece, I took my car and a dame I know to a warehouse one night and staged a photo shoot. The car is my Singer Super Ten from 1947 and is about as original as they come. It has ‘suicide’ doors – thus named because they open front ways and into oncoming traffic or worse still, gunfire from an enemy or the cops! The huge round headlights and menacing chrome grille are reminiscent of those American sedans that sped round dimly lit streets but best of all, it all still works as it should.
We wore original clothes from our collections: me in a CC41 brown pinstripe two-piece suit, American 40s silk printed tie and a Fedora. Model Noelle went for an original 1930s killer chenille dress that reached down to the floor, long cascading hair and plum lips. It was a typically cold, dark November night and once the lights had gone down it was eerily quiet save for the odd dog barking or screeching car in the distance. Without a time machine to hand to transport us back to that gloriously gritty era, this was the closest to the real thing we could hope for.
The dark, sinister, brooding noir movies from the 1940s and 50s still hold their own today evidenced by the fact they boast some of the most quoted lines in cinematic history, and display some startling performances from arguably the golden age.
As well as the familiar hallmarks of dark alleys, dames, big saloon cars and cigarettes, it is perhaps the main motives of greed, lust and revenge that sets them apart from other good thrillers of the time. Lighting and music are put to such good effect that they become a second dialogue. Whole sections are shot in offices so dingy that the mere hint of a street light casts vast swathes of horizontal shadows made by obligatory Venetian blinds across faces and walls. Modern CGI and trickery doesn’t compare to the suspense that manifests from seeing a half lit hand creeping round a door while a cello bows and lurches out of the quietness. The darkness of a movie theatre where these would have first been seen could have only added to the tension. Our imaginations are our worst enemies when we’re only presented with partial facts and suggestion, and in this game, rarely is there a happy ending.
Long periods of quiet and darkness relies on a deeper understanding of the characters and evolving plot. Brian Donlevy’s performance in Impact (1949) is a lesson in remoteness, imprisoned by his situation as he realises his wife and her lover have conspired to kill him. Mildred Pierce (1945) is the perfect Sunday matinée gone bad and sees Joan Crawford’s sugary sweet daughter Veda (played brilliantly by Ann Blyth) capable of much evil to get the lifestyle she feels she’s been denied. The end sequence inside the seaside villa with its high ceilings, long shadows and gunshots will have you on the edge of your seat while people step over poor Zachary Scott as he lies face down in the shagpile.
There are hundreds to choose from and I will be disappointing many by not naming many favourites but there are a few that seem to have been marked out as blueprints for the genre. Somehow immune to the changing fashions that have come and gone since then, these masterpieces are still as crisp and chilling as the day they first flickered onto a movie theatre screen.
Perhaps the go-to movie for most is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). An encounter between insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and his customer’s wife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) ignites a fire between them. Driven by lust and greed, if they can pull off an ingenious scam and cash in, everything will be fine, right? Wrong. In this dark tale, loyalties are severed at the strike of a match and Stanwyck smoulders just by sitting and crossing her legs in front of poor Walter. The opening sequence is of a sedan car swerving and weaving through a quiet, misty city district at daybreak. It pulls up and out stumbles a figure in a raincoat clutching his chest, he staggers up to his office and slumps down in his chair. The tension is set in those first two minutes and never dips until the end titles roll. Stanwyck is the embodiment of the femme fatale with her perfectly manicured nails, lazy existence and sociopathic personality. Always stepping out of the shower, lighting a cigarette or wearing tight sweaters, her costumes for the film were designed by none other than Edith Head who’s client list would fill hundreds of red carpets. This alone illustrates how equal the playing field was even back then between style and substance.
Another choice has to be Too Late For Tears (also affectionately known as Killer Bait) 1949. Don’t let her silky blonde locks and svelte frame fool you – greedy wife Lizabeth Scott (note, no ‘E’) will stop at nothing to keep hold of a bag of swag that one night landed in the back of the open car she was travelling in. She bumps off men without getting a hair out of place and that includes her husband and the gangster who the cash belongs to. Even the six-footer, once cocky Dan (played by Danny Fuller) is reduced to booze and pills once he’s gotten involved with Scott. Does she get away with it in the end?
Murder My Sweet (1944) has it all – bar room brawls, guns, dames, a nightclub; even flashing neon lights across the street. It is also dripping with quotes and borders on comedy when Dick Powell as Det. Philip Marlowe delivers some of the best comebacks.
Probably stirred by the bitter end that met Bonnie and Clyde in 1934 and before them, the Al Capone massacre in 1929 – which was heightened by the rise in media attention, photography and reporting – movie makers and writers dined out on the public’s appetite for the sensationalism of crime. Regular titles like True Detective, True Crime, Police Detective and Women in Crime illustrated crime scenes with real photographs, plans of hotel rooms and the all-important murder weapon. On the covers, artists went to town with depictions of bloody scenes and young women wearing next to nothing. This was also fully exploited in the poster art for the films at that time often these were a mix of photography and bold portraits with huge type ripping through the centre. These have become incredibly collectable now and originals are scarce.