Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 4 – The Drama

The aforementioned Laura (1944) is as much a drama as a detective movie and as Film Noir is not a genre bound by plot or setting many of its entries are genre pictures with noirish attributes. The interest in ordinary people in extraordinary situations was the stomping ground of author James M. Cain whose novels The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity all became classic films noir. Eschewing the intricacies of the crime caper or the mystery of the detective or psychological thriller, dramas focus solely on the relationships of their characters. The dual nature of mankind and the light and the dark within every person makes for plenty of dark tales of jealousy, resentment and obsession.



“I’m ready for my close-up” – Gloria Swanson as the deranged has-been in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Mildred Pierce (1945) was a bold adaptation of James M. Cain’s tale of the titular single mother (Joan Crawford) struggling to provide for her two daughters. One of them – Veda (Ann Blyth) – is a complete brat who resents her mother’s blue collar status and ends up in a relationship with Mildred’s second husband. Despite Mildred’s desperate attempts to always do right by her children, the viewer can tell from the opening scene that murder is on the cards. In spite of the California beach houses and apple-pie restaurants, Michael Curtiz’s expressionistic direction provides a decidedly dark overtone for what is essentially a domestic drama.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was another James M. Cain adaptation and, as in Double Indemnity (1944), the plot focuses on the doomed relationship of a man and a woman who plot to murder the latter’s dull husband. Where it differs from Double Indemnity is in the smoldering chemistry between drifter Frank (John Garfield) and roadside waitress Cora (Lana Turner). The title is a clever allusion to the inescapability of fate. It is more than the Hayes Code at work here preventing the protagonists from getting away with murder.

Narrated by a dead man, Sunset Boulevard (1950) tells of down on his luck scriptwriter Joe (William Holden) who befriends faded actress Norma Desmond (played by real silent star Glora Swanson). Persuaded to aid in her futile comeback attempt, the penniless Joe moves into Norma’s crumbling mansion and a twisted and doomed relationship develops. As well as being a darkly tragic tale of loneliness and alienation, Sunset Boulevard is also a snide attack on the new Hollywood system and its treatment of yesterday’s fading stars.


My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

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