Film Noir themed episodes in detective shows

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Over the past month I have noticed that, for some communities on Twitter, November is also known as #Noirvember — a month to celebrate the film noir genre. Seeing so many people posting about the genre got me thinking about the influence that film noir has had on TV mysteries and detective shows, and has made me reflect on specific episodes of some of my favorite shows.

I always get a little bit extra excited whenever a show devotes an episode to pay direct homage to film noir. As a result, I have put together a brief synopsis of some of the shows that I have known to do that. Where possible, I’ve linked to streaming options for each show/episode so that you can easily celebrate my version of Noirvember, too.


Moonlighting “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” (S2E4, 1985)

Articles - ASC Staff : The American Society of Cinematographers

One of the first shows to pioneer the “noir episode” was Moonlighting, a show that featured Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes, a former model whose only financial asset is the Blue Moon Detective Agency headed by David Addison (played by Bruce Willis).

In the fourth episode of its second season, the show had Maddie and David investigate a murder case from the 1940s. The episode intertwines color footage of events taking place in modern day with black-and-white sequences indicating dream sequences (or perhaps flashbacks of real events) meant to take place in the 1940s. Notably, the dream sequences were actually filmed in black-and-white (rather than de-colorized) in order to prevent the network from backtracking and airing the episode in color.

There are two main dream sequences in the episode — one from the point of view of Maddie and another one from the point of view of David. According to an article on Vulture.com, “The elements of Maddie’s dream intentionally ape the more polished, glossier look of MGM films from the ‘40s (mainly, A Streetcar Named Desire), with David’s dream resembling the grittier look of a Warner Brothers picture from the era (such as Casablanca).”

The episode is also notable for being the last TV appearance of Orson Welles, who introduced the episode. The actor died just five days before the episode aired. Because film-noir themed episodes were a novelty at the time, Orson Welles’ introduction served as a warning for viewers to not be alarmed when the picture changed from color to black-and-white.

Unfortunately, Moonlighting isn’t streaming anywhere that I know of, and the DVDs can be hard to come by.

Magnum, P.I. “Murder By Night” (S7E14, 1987)

Magnum Mania! - Episode Guide - Murder by Night

After Moonlighting, a few other shows would experiment with special film noir themed episodes every couple of years. One such show was Magnum, P.I. who decided to air such an episode as part of its seventh season. By season 7, the show began to flounder a bit in the ratings, and so this and its final season had quite a few experimental episodes.

The hero of Magnum, P.I. is Thomas Magnum (played by Tom Selleck), a Hawaii-based private detective that lives on an estate belonging to a rich and famous (but never-seen) author. However, “Murder By Night” presents an alternate reality in which Thomas Magnum is a detective living in 1940s San Francisco (an alternate reality that turns out to be a short story that Magnum had written).

According to the Magnum Mania website, the 1940s events in this episode of Magnum, P.I. were originally broadcast in black-and-white and were bookended by modern-day events shown in color. However, because none of the footage was actually filmed in black-and-white, subsequent airings and the DVD version of the episode are all almost fully in color. The only remnant of the episode’s original black-and-white cinematography is the film-noir inspired opening and closing credit sequence.

Magnum, P.I. can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. It may also be available (as of Nov 2021) on the Roku channel in the US, and on the CTV streaming app in Canada. The series is also available as a DVD set.

Murder, She Wrote “Truck Stop” (S5E16, 1989)

There are actually two episodes of Murder, She Wrote that can be identified as Film Noir-inspired. The first of these is Season 3’s “The Days Dwindle Down”, which incorporates footage from (and provides an alternative solution to) the movie Strange Bargain. However, none of the new footage filmed for the episode carried over the film-noir theme.

On the other hand, the Season 5 episode “Truck Stop” was explicitly filmed to incorporate film noir themes and techniques. In particular, the episode incorporates characters and themes from two film noir movies: The Petrified Forest and Double Indemnity.

In the episode, the Murder, She Wrote heroine Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) is stranded at a roadside motel with a writer friend (played by Mike Connors of Mannix fame). After getting shot, the writer friend records a tape of himself confessing to a murder — and it is this confession and his narration of the events leading up to it that are depicted in black-and-white on screen. As is the case in many of the film noir episodes discussed so far, present-day events are depicted in color.

Murder, She Wrote is available to stream on Amazon/IMDbTV and on the Peacock app in the US. The series is also available as a DVD set.

Father Dowling “The Hardboiled Mystery” (S3E19, 1991)

The technique of using black-and-white film-noir-inspired footage to convey alternate narration was also used in the Season 3 episode of Father Dowling Mysteries titled “The Hardboiled Mystery”. However, unlike the shows discussed earlier in this post which were almost entirely comprised of long flashback sequences, the Father Dowling episode interweaves short bursts of black-and-white footage within a predominantly full color episode that takes place in present-day.

A special title card created for the Father Dowling film-noir episode.

Father Dowling (played by Tom Bosley) is a crime-solving Catholic priest based in Chicago. In “The Hardboiled Mystery”, he learns that a writer he had recently met used him as the basis for a character in a new novel titled ‘Murder, Cried the Padre’ (most likely a play on the movie ‘Murder, She Said‘) set in the 1930s. When the writer is found dead after revealing that he has solved a real murder case that took place four months prior, Father Dowling investigates and looks for clues to the writer’s murder within the novel — the events of which are presented in a film-noir style.

As far as I am aware, Father Dowling Mysteries aren’t currently available for streaming anywhere, but the complete DVD set is usually available to purchase quite inexpensively.

Matlock “The Dame” (S6E6, 1991)

TVs temporary obsession with film noir came to a head in 1991 with a special Season 6 episode of Matlock. At the time, Ben Matlock (played by Andy Griffith) was everybody’s favorite crime-solving Atlanta lawyer. In “The Dame”, the show plays into the femme fatale trope of film noir after Matlock sees a woman that he helped convict 35 years prior. In the black-and-white flashbacks to Matlock’s youth, Andy Griffith plays the role of Ben Matlock’s father, who helps a young Ben Matlock solve the case.

Only the first season of Matlock is available to stream. However, the complete DVD set is available to purchase.

More recent shows and episodes

TV seemed to take a break from Film Noir themed episodes for much of the 90s, but there has been a resurgence of them shortly after the turn of the 21st century. Below is a brief list of a few of the more recent Film Noir homages in detective and mystery shows.

  • Viper “Best Seller” (S4E11, 1999) (Thanks to @SWForce4EU on Twitter for letting me know about this one!)
  • Diagnosis: Murder “Sins of the Father” (S8E12&13, 2001) — Most of this two-part episode takes place in modern day, but there are flashbacks to a case that Mark Sloan’s father had worked on when Mark was just a boy, and those scenes were filmed in black-and-white film-noir style.
  • MONK “Mr. Monk And The Leper” (S5E11, 2006) [stream here]
  • Castle “The Blue Butterfly” (S4E14, 2012) [stream here]
  • Pretty Little Liars “Shadow Play” (S4E19, 2014) [stream here]
  • iZombie “Night and the Zombie City” (S5E10, 2019) [stream here]
  • Lucifer “It Never Ends Well for the Chicken” (S5E4, 2020) [stream here]

Do you have a favorite Film Noir themed episode? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this great list. The Magnum PI episode is the only one I haven’t seen, and I can’t wait to check it out! I am not a fan of hardcore noir, but I am a HUGE fan of the trend of TV mystery writers doing milder homage-to-noir episodes. They always seem to keep it lighter and either give you a happier ending than “everyone dies”, or at least give some kind of victory at the end. I like the films The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and To Have Not, and Laura, so I appreciate the genre. But Key Largo, though good was too heavy for daily fare.
    I have not seen all of Matlock, it’s hit or miss for me, but The Dame was great!
    Moonlighting is a favorite show for me, I recently watched the noir episode and it was gorgeous, creative, clever and a real masterpiece. Not my favorite episode, but a real triumph. You describe it well, and I loved the two different styles of story.
    Truck Stop is funny to watch if you realize how much fun they’re having making it, the story is a typically exciting but downer noir, so well done.
    The Hardboiled Mystery with Father Dowling was probably my favorite, as they balance it by going back and forth, the cast is having SO MUCH FUN! I was intrigued and laughing, I loved it.
    I love the influence that these classic books/films have had on the writers of the 70’s and 80’s, less so now. In fact there are many shows that clearly attempted to bring it back as a genre, like Mike Hammer, City of Angels and even the Law and Harry Mcgraw. Thanks to you I have been enjoying that last one. But I found some City of Angels on YouTube with Wayne Rogers and it’s phenomenal, if you like noir. Not in the best shape but it entertains me better than most new shows can. Check it out, tell me what you think! I’m that person that loves Wayne Rogers, and Jerry Orbach on MSW partly because they are like Sam Spade type characters. The Cheap Detective and Murder by Death are favorites too!

    Liked by 1 person

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