EMMET MEARA

Classic film noir ruined the American dream

Posted June 03, 2011, at 1:09 p.m.

Any chance I had at being a good old Norman Rockwell-style American boy pretty much vanished by the time I was about eight years old and my sainted mother took me to the movies in downtown Boston. This was no Disney double feature.

No, this was “The Big Sleep.”

For those of you who have forgotten, “The Big Sleep” was directed by Howard Hawks, adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler with a little screen help from a southern writer named William Faulkner. It starred Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and a teenager named Lauren Bacall as the femme fatale.

“She was worth a stare. She was trouble,” Bogie said.

I was ruined. Naturally, I had not heard the term “film noir,” a species of novel and film in which everyone, pretty much, is doomed — but the women, even when they send their man to hell, are all worth it.

My personal favorite is “Double Indemnity,” when the leggy Barbara Stanwyck (a long way from “Big Valley”) convinces Fred MacMurray (a long way from “My Three Sons”) that killing her husband for his insurance money would be a swell idea.

“No problem,” gulped Fred. “She liked me. I could feel that. The way you feel when the cards are falling right for you, with a nice little pile of blue and yellow chips in the middle of the table. Only what I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t playing her. She was playing me, with a deck of marked cards and the stakes weren’t any blue and yellow chips. They were dynamite.”

I would have killed a small village to impress Stanwyck. Most guys I know would.

As I grew older, I would stay up watching reruns of those old movies until sign-off (remember that?) The rest of the family was in bed — another reason to stay up. I loved the fedoras, the shootouts on the stairways (in which nobody seemed to aim) and the lovely, doomed ladies.

Bogart was the king of those movies, of course. He always was doomed and loved it — must have been Irish. In the 1950 classic “In a Lonely Place,” he was hopelessly (naturally) smitten with Gloria Grahame, as Lauren Gray.

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks when she loved me,” he said.

Perfect.

Otto Penzler, who used his time on Earth to become a film noir scholar and author, rated that quote as the best of all. Since he is a scholar and author and I am not, I choose not to argue.

His No. 5 quote is also one of my favorites. When Ned Racine persisted after the (sort of) married Matty Walker in “Body Heat,” she said, “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.”

I stumbled across a website by Derek the Director, who spends his time collecting noir quotes. Never met the man, but I like him a lot.

In “The Big Combo,” Cornell Wilde said, “I treated her like a pair of gloves. When I was cold, I called her up.”

When Paul Henreid said to Joan Bennett in “Hollow Triumph” that, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she replied, ”It’s a bitter little world.”

In the classic noir film “Cape Fear,” Barrie Chase said to (personal favorite) Robert Mitchum, “What do you know about scenery, or beauty, or any of the things that make life worth living? You’re just an animal — coarse, muscled and barbaric.” Mitchum took it in stride, natch, “You keep right on talking honey. I like the way you run me down like that.”

Mitchum seemed to thrive on abuse. In “The Big Steal,” Jane Greer said to our hero, “What I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. But it’s a great comfort to a gal to know she could not possibly sink any lower.”

Both sexes get it in the noir films.

In “The Killing,” the vastly underrated Sterling Hayden said to Marie Windsor, “I know you like a book, ya little tramp. You’d sell your own mother for a piece of fudge. But you’re smart with it. Smart enough to know when to sell and when to sit tight. You’ve got a great big dollar sign where most women have hearts.”

A piece of fudge. God help me, but I love it so.

It’s all my mother’s fault. Hers and “The Big Sleep.”

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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