The French gave us the word “demimonde” – literally, half the world. But what it has come to mean in English, or so says Webster, is “a distinct circle or world that is often an isolated part of a larger world.”
Storytellers have always held a fascination with the dark side of human nature; that part of the psyche which is normally restrained and leashed, taught to be obedient, held in check – as Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness – by the reproving looks of our neighbors. After all, what was Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but a probing of that other, id-driven half and the entrancing appeal of doing what one wants instead of what one should.
Film is no different than literature, and from its beginning the movies have produced a rich vein of stories about society’s fringe dwellers, those who operate by necessity, desire, or sociopathic carelessness beyond the realm of the law abiding. Often in the movies, they are criminals, pure and simple: thieves, killers, brutes.
But the blossoming of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s seemed to uncork something among more audacious moviemakers; an interest not simply in the lawbreaker, but a creature who lived in a gray place between the socially acceptable and the outright criminal. Perhaps many moviemakers – people operating out of the mainstream of American life themselves – identified with these rogues and hustlers for whom the social norms didn’t apply.
This became especially true in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time when American movies were at their most daring, and moviemakers were being granted a then unprecedented creative freedom.
It was also a time of great social upheaval and social rebellion, and the maverick, the rebel, those who lived beyond the rules in a shadow world which often had few of its own, became an attractive, intriguing figure.
Some were criminals, some only semi-so, but all lived in a place most of us suspected existed…but never ourselves saw.
Herewith some of the best portraits from the 60s/70s of that demimonde and its most colorful denizens:
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