Parody and Noir: More curves than a scenic railway

My Favorite Brunette - noirProbably because of its wide appeal as popular culture (both as a literary and cinematic genre) and of the tendency to codify characters and plot points, the noir lent itself easily to parody from early on. My Favorite Brunette (1947), directed by the forgettable Elliott Nugent and starring Bob Hope, is the movie that inaugurates this sub-genre, dating only six years after The Maltese Falcon. Peter Lorre plays second fiddle in both movies, as the villain in the Falcon, and as a parody of himself in My Favorite Brunette. The cast of the latter also includes Dorothy Lamour, who appeared regularly alongside Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) in the Road to…(Singapore, Zanzibar , etc.) series of comedies.

My Favorite Brunette mimics the convoluted plot of previous noir films such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, placing the misunderstanding about the main character’s identity at its centre. Bob Hope plays a children’s photographer who fantasises about becoming a private eye and in the process is mistaken for one: “All my life I wanted to be a hardboiled detective like Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell or even Alan Ladd,” he says, ironically citing actors instead of actual detectives (who would have known any?), or even their literary predecessors. This desire to incarnate the noir male would be explored further and relentlessly parodied some decades later in Woody Allen’s Play it again, Sam (1972), where a fictional alter ego resembling and sounding like Humphrey Bogart offers dating advice to Allen’s no-good-with-women character.

Noir parodies have cropped up over the years, the funniest among them arguably being The Cheap Detective (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore (responsible for another superb, Neil Simon-scripted parody, the 1976 Murder by death). Peter Falk, as Lou Peckinpaugh, parodies the archetypal film noir detective as much as his own portrayal of Columbo (on television, since 1971), adding layers of meaning to his performance (to use a Murder by Death quote, he is “in disguise in disguise in disguise”). The movie packs a series of references to films not necessarily belonging to the noir genre, such as Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944), pertinent perhaps because Humphrey Bogart developed his cinematic persona in a way that transcended genre distinctions, as if operating in an unbroken extra-filmic narrative. Among its most hilarious scenes, the one with Madeline Kahn introducing herself with seven consecutive names in a parody of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon stands out: Denise Manderley, Wanda Coleman, Gilda Dabney, Chloe Lamar, Alma Chalmers/Palmers, Vivian Purcell, Carmen Montenegro (“that’s my last one, I promise!”).

Another interesting attempt was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), with a stunning Rachel Ward who apparently made an impression as a mock femme fatale and would go on to star in Against All Odds (1984), the remake of Jacques Tourneur’s iconic noir Out of the Past (1947). Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a fascinating meta-commentary rather than parody strictly speaking. The film uses various scenes from 1940s noirs, edited in such a way as to create the illusion of their interaction with the film’s characters. The film does not bother with verisimilitude, and remains a curious homage to the genre.

The Band Wagon noirNevertheless, the most creative and original tribute/parody to the noir genre remains to this day “The Girl Hunt Ballet”, the 12 minute song and dance number from Vincente Minnelli’s 1953 Band Wagon. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the scriptwriters of the movie, were influenced by the success of Mickey Spillane’s novels (his 1952 Kiss Me Deadly would turn into Aldrich’s unforgettable movie only three years later). It was, however, the uncredited Alan Jay Lerner who penned the libretto, full of memorable lines (“The city was asleep. The joints were closed. The rats and hoods and killers were in their holes”). Perhaps the success of the sequence is due to Fred Astaire being cast against type as the tough guy; or, to the choreography of Michael Kidd, who imbued the dancing scenes with an eroticism and a snappy energy unknown to Hollywood musical till then. The result though would not have been the same without Cyd Charisse, in the double role of the blonde, seemingly innocent victim and the brunette femme fatale. Matching Fred Astaire move for move, she manages to embody both grace and danger, that sexual danger that could hardly be contained in female noir protagonists and threatened to derail male supremacy. Rod Riley (Fred Astaire’s perfectly alliterated character) encapsulates that, upon his first meeting the brunette version of Cyd Charisse. “ She came at me in sections…more curves than a scenic railway,” he remarks sharply, only to conclude: “She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. But…she was my kind of woman.”

About the Author

Nandia Foteini Vlachou’s love of movies lead her to art history (she blames Lust for Life and Andrey Rublev), that has monopolised her interests and energies for the past sixteen years. In an attempt to write something other than academic essays and articles, in the last year of her thesis she started the I Know Where I’m Going blog, on art, films and photography (sort of). Films quickly gained the upper hand, but she is not particularly upset about that.

13 thoughts on “Parody and Noir: More curves than a scenic railway

  1. Pingback: Parody and the noir | I Know Where I'm Going

  2. A great read! I loved all the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” movies; and a lot of the others you mentioned. My favorite, though, was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 🙂 I thought Kathleen Turner turned in a great performance as Jessica Rabbit. That woman’s voice is the epitome of sexy.

  3. Nice article, Nandia! I love many of these films, including The Band Wagon and Murder By Death. The latter is so completely offensive, but it’s a brilliant parody of detective-film-and-novel characters. I’m also a big fan of the Road movies, so very good choices!

  4. A great piece. As soon as I saw the headline, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” came to mind, and I’m glad you addressed it. I disagree with the label that it is “not parody”, however. One need only look as far as Carl Reiner’s Eric Von Strohiem influenced character for proof of that. Indeed it displays a love for, and understanding of the genre, missing from far too many contemporary “spoofs”. Too often these movies call up a scene from a famous film, or even just introduce someone dressed like an inconic character and have them wander across screen. But that’s not parody…that’s quoting.

  5. Unlike James, I have been lucky enough to see all the films you mention, over the years.
    Your analysis makes an interesting, and enjoyable read Nandia, and it was great to see this unusual subject explored in such detail.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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