Sinister Cinema: Lorre Noir

Valentine’s Day again — one of the birthdays of noir. In 1930 — 81 years ago today — Knopf released the first edition of The Maltese Falcon in hardcovers. As I maintain in the short essay “San Francisco Noir” (and to my knowledge no one has yet offered a counterargument), in that novel Hammett was the first to set up all the hallmarks of the form and bring off what we now think of as noir. Yes, various elements — Poe, people — hovered around for many years before Hammett wrote the Falcon. But in the Sam Spade novel Hammett nailed down the form, and it marks a nice double-whammy that the 1941 John Huston-directed film starring Bogart as Spade is usually credited as the first true example of film noir.

Of course, noir fans quibble, always trying to push the format further back into history. The earliest movie I know of that some people put forward as film noir is Fritz Lang’s M from 1931 — a full decade before Huston’s directorial debut. I have no big problem with that one as a contender, although it lacks certain stylistic touches, notably a femme fatale, that when push comes to shove I think are necessary to make true film noir. But as I say in “San Francisco Noir,” it’s an interesting point that the 1931 M and the 1941 Falcon both put Peter Lorre on screen — I believe it was Halliwell in his famous guide to film who once wrote that there is no movie Lorre ever appeared in that isn’t worth watching just for his performance.

And now noir fans are trying to put another movie forward as the first true film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor from 1940. They’re playing it up big at the Noir City festival, currently doing a run in Seattle before moving on to other cities around the country. Hey, if this one is “noir,” then M is noir — but isn’t it cool that Stranger also stars Peter Lorre? Go on, pick the original noir movie, any original noir movie, that doesn’t have Peter Lorre in it. . . .

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