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Jan 7th 2015

Black and White in Color

“He looked rather pleasantly, like a blond Satan.”

- "The Maltese Falcon" (Dashiell Hammett, 1929)

You must be a movie enthusiast if you love film noir.

Film noir reached its height of popularity during the 1940s. Some would claim that it originated from America. There was some truth to it.

Film noir was shot in black and white. The characters were entangled in a web of crime, as the shadows would suggest. It was a sinister set-up influenced by German Expressionism. Although the silent film industry in Hollywood had seen the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the other side of the Atlantic was no less impressive. Between the end of World War I and the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, the German film industry produced some of the most influential silent films. Filming took place inside a studio, with asymmetrical structures suggesting a twisted tale. This was the case of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920).

The countryside was looking forward to the carnival season, its main attraction was Dr. Caligari and his near-silent somnabulist, Cesar. The villagers have no idea that the latter had the ability to kill anyone. A young man named Francis saw this, and he rose to the occasion to save the rural folks from further terror. What was supposed to be a happy ending had a sudden twist in the end. Francis was telling his story to a friend. Both were patients in a mental asylum. Dr. Caligari happened to be one of the attending physicians.

Did the sequence of events took place at all? Was it a product of imagination? Some viewers would go farther and suggest that Dr. Caligari told everything that Francis said to his fellow patient. This sordid, if not manipulative, narrative would be constantly used in film noir.

This is how to watch

Humphrey Bogart was only 57 years of age when he died on January 14, 1957. He was relatively young, but he already accomplished much in his career. He was one of the big stars of film noir, having appeared in classics like "The Big Sleep" (1946). Most of these pictures were talky, even silly in some scenes. Bogart often portrayed a hard-boiled cynic, which hid a noble side.

"The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (1948) was one of his notable works, an adaptation of B. Traven's adventure novel. It was about the search for gold in the Mexican countryside during the 1920s, which wasn't the best time to travel. (The Mexican Revolution was about to come to an end.) Three Americans risked their lives for the chance to be rich, but Traven peppered his story with quotes. They were warnings on how gold brought the worst out of anyone.

The popularity of film noir began to diminish during the 1950s. The last few decades saw the rise of number of neo-noir films both in Hollywood and other countries. Fabián Bielinsky's "El aura" (2002) was one of those outstanding features. It was about an epileptic taxidermist often fantasizing about committing the perfect crime. It had something to do with his sheltered existence, of wanting to be the center of attention. The chance came, and he got away with it. His pet dog was the sole witness to it. If he could talked about it.

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