SCOPE NOIR

Black-Widow-1954-20th-Century-FoxWhen we think of film noir we habitually think black-and-white cinematography. We also think of the classic 1:37 aspect ratio, which translates to a square shape, or, at the very least, the subsequent standard 1:85 aspect ratio, which is slightly rectangular. Nevertheless, there were not only a number of color noir thrillers produced during the 1940s and 1950s, but there were even a select number of noirs photographed in anamorphic CinemaScope.

Nunnally Johnson’s glossy crime melodrama Black Widow (20th Century-Fox 1954) has the luxury of both DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope, and the staging (below two frames), as typical of 1954 ‘scope productions, is designed to emphasize that anamorphic format.

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The following year, Samuel Fuller directed House of Bamboo for Fox on location in Japan, and DeLuxe Color/CinemaScope were again the chosen formats, although the hard lighting and shadows are reminiscent of monochromatic cinematography.

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In 1955, Warner Bros. remade Raoul Walsh’s 1941 crime classic High Sierra as I Died a Thousand Times, and this time CinemaScope was blended with the (mercifully) short-lived WarnerCrolor:

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Forget the 1991 Matt Dillon-Sean Young version. The real A Kiss Before Dying stars Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward (United Artists 1956) and is filmed in CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color. The young stars are both pictured below (top frame) and seconds before the evil Wagner sends the pregnant Woodward over a building ledge (bottom frame).

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During a rare visit to M-G-M, director Nicholas Ray made Party Girl in CinemaScope and Metrocolor. Although the music numbers and women’s hairstyles are strictly 1958, this cult crime thriller is set during the 1920s Prohibition era. Robert Taylor (top frame) plays a mob lawyer and John Ireland (bottom frame) a mob trigger man.

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Not all ‘scope noirs were in color. Russell Rouse’s taut prison escape thriller House of Numbers (M-G-M 1957), starring Jack Palance as twin brothers (!), offers an example of film noir in black-and-white CinemaScope.

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Jack Arnold’s Man in the Shadow (Universal-International 1957), filmed in B&W CinemaScope, starred Jeff Chandler (top frame) as a small town sheriff investigating the killing of Mexican braceros. His investigation brings him into the unwelcome territory of ruthless land baron Orson Welles (bottom frame). This undervalued film noir received a rare DCP screening in January at Manhattan’s Film Forum.

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Two ‘scope noirs released towards the end of the original noir cycle were Murder, Inc. (20th Century-Fox 1960), co-directed by Stuart Rosenberg (top frame), and the guilty pleasure Man-Trap (Paramount 1961), directed by actor Edmund O’Brien and filmed in the then-new Panavision anamorphic process (bottom frame, co-star Stella Stevens).

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But the greatest of all ‘scope noirs is Robert Rossen’s masterpiece The Hustler (20th Century-Fox 1961), stunningly photographed in B&W CinemaScope by Eugene Schuftan, and starring Paul Newman as a pool hustler desperate to bring down rival player Jackie Gleason.

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3 thoughts on “SCOPE NOIR

  1. I recently watched and reviewed Black Widow over at my blog and plan to watch House of Bamboo this weekend! I have a few of these other films loaded on my DVR including The Hustler and A Kiss Before Dying. I’ll be looking for the others you mentioned. Thanks for the article.

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  2. One cannot overlook Brian DePalma’s ‘Femme Fatale’ (2002) with Rebecca Romjin; Antonio Banderas and Peter Coyote.. He knows his Hitchcock but there’s noir to spare on the widescreen!

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