Back in 2011, I drew up a list of my favorite films noir from before 1970 and another list from 1970 to the present. At this time, I find it necessary to re-post the pre-1970 list, since I’ve made some changes, including expanding it to 11 films.
In no particular order, the new list goes like this:
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) / Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G Robinson. Director: Billy Wilder. A true classic in the noir tradition, inspiring many other similar movies. MacMurray, an average Joe if ever there was one, is an insurance salesman who gets reeled in by the slick cunning of Stanwyck and her anklet. Barbara’s the original femme fatale in this one, and a more vicious bitch never walked onto the silver screen. Fred didn’t stand a chance.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) / Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom. Director: Jules Dassin. I devoted an entire blog to this film some time ago. You can check it out here. Widmark shows what a superb actor he was with this very layered portrayal of a loser whose reach exceeded his grasp. Shot entirely in London under Dassin’s steady hand. Cinematographer Max Greene’s use of shadows and angular shots is breathtaking and Franz Waxman’s exciting score hits all the right notes. Lom steals every scene he’s in.
HOLLOW TRIUMPH (aka, THE SCAR) (1948) / Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett. Director: Steve Sekely. Ever hear that line about how everyone’s got a twin somewhere? Kind of makes you want to find yours, right? Well, you might think differently after seeing Sekely’s nightmare masterpiece. Henreid plays a minor-league crook who, with a few associates, robs an underground casino. This sweat-inducing scene occurs near the opening and sets the tone for the entire film, as the casino boss orders his men to find the robbers and dispense justice. A youthful Jack Webb appears in a brief sequence.
PLUNDER ROAD (1957) / Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris, Elisha Cook Jr. Director: Hubert Cornfield. Superior film with plenty of tension throughout. Raymond’s hardass gang plots a midnight hijacking of a huge gold shipment in a treacherous downpour. There’s plenty of gold involved, enough to make them all rich, rich, RICH!! Raymond has every detail worked out. The whole thing is foolproof. What could possibly go wrong? But of course, you see Elisha Cook Jr’s name in the credits, and you realize nothing is foolproof. This taut little film is a true gem, rarely seen, almost never on television. It’s a B-picture that was thoughtlessly cranked out by the studio, but under Cornfield’s clever direction, it became a film noir classic. You should make every effort to locate a copy of this one.
RAW DEAL (1948) / Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, John Ireland, Raymond Burr. Director: Anthony Mann. One of the toughest noirs of all time. O’Keefe escapes from prison with Trevor’s help, looking to settle a score with Burr, who is hundreds of miles away. The journey won’t be easy, though, because the cops are never far behind him, and neither is Ireland, whom Burr has dispatched to intercept him. Not only that, but he’s torn between the two women traveling with him. Mann’s direction shows how thoroughly he understands film noir, while cinematographer John Alton skillfully mixes shadows, light, and angles to provide breathtaking visuals. O’Keefe is perfect as the conflicted loner in this great film, and Burr is at his absolute vilest. The tension rises to incredible heights, pulling the viewer to the uncompromising, violent climax.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) / Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, Marc Lawrence, James Whitmore. Director: John Huston. A group of down-on-their-luck small-timers assemble for an improbable jewelry heist that will solve all their problems. Huston pours on the grit and realism, but MGM balked at the filming of WR Burnett’s classic noir novel because they felt it was too big of a departure from the Hollywoodized version of reality usually shown in their films. Wiser heads prevailed, however, and sixty-one years later, this one still packs a wallop. Marilyn Monroe got her break in this film, playing a lawyer’s midnight girlfriend. She gets to say, “You big bananahead.” Whitmore’s café is one of the grimiest places ever portrayed on film. Hayden gives the best performance of his career.
OUT OF THE PAST (1947) / Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. Director: Jacques Tourneur. Mitchum thinks he can run away from his private investigator past by owning a gas station in a remote town in northern California. He goes fishing a lot, has a steady girl, and generally minds his own business. One day, however, a stranger rolls into town and tells him Douglas would like to see him up in Lake Tahoe. Mitchum and Douglas have a contentious history, but Douglas is willing to forget about it if Mitchum will locate some income tax records for him. Their history, however, won’t be so easily swept aside. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who also shot the stunning Val Lewton film, The Cat People, fills the screen with striking, unbalanced images in a perfect blend of black and white. Considered one of the best films in the noir genre. Greer, as the deadly femme fatale, is sensational.
GUN CRAZY (1950) / Peggy Cummins, John Dall. Director: Joseph H Lewis. Dall has a lifelong gun fetish which overheats when he meets up with Cummins, a smokin’ hot, pistol-packin’ mama on the carnival circuit. Next thing you know, they’re off pulling stickups all around the country. Film is a clear forerunner of Bonnie And Clyde and Natural Born Killers, and supersedes them on every level. Cummins is a standout and her sizzling chemistry with Dall provides plenty of fireworks. The eroticism of the gun is fully developed in this compelling film. Not to be missed.
SCARLET STREET (1945) / Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea. Director: Fritz Lang. Quintessential noir. Robinson is a meek corporate cashier who becomes ensnared in a web spun by sexy Bennett and slimy Duryea. Even the daylight scenes look dark in this one. Robinson makes one poor choice after another and we all know what happens to noir protagonists in that spot, right? The characters’ names are definitely for the ages. Robinson is “Chris Cross”, prostitute Bennett is “Kitty March”, and her pimp Duryea is “Johnny Prince.” Lang’s erotic morality play holds up to this day.
NIAGARA (1953) / Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten. Director: Henry Hathaway. Who says great film noir has to be in black & white? Director Hathaway brings the full noir treatment to this brooding story of a troubled war veteran and his sexy wife in Niagara Falls. His use of shadows and angular shots is remarkable, and Technicolor, in all its thick splashiness, has never looked so good. When Marilyn walks out of her motel room in a tight red dress, she heats up the movie to redline levels, setting the tone of impending doom that lasts until the final scene. A sensuous film in every way, dripping with sex and danger, and oh, those falls!
DETOUR (1945) / Tom Neal, Ann Savage. Director: Edgar G Ulmer. Classic noir made by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), one of the poorest of the “Poverty Row” studios in Hollywood. Ulmer shows what can be done with a microscopic budget as he transforms clunky dialogue and borderline acting into a haunting noir tale of one man overwhelmed with guilt. Neal, a veteran of low-grade B-movies, scores as a New York piano player who hitchhikes to LA so he can be with his cutesy-poo girlfriend. What he gets instead is Ann Savage. I’ll just leave it at that. This film holds the distinction of being the only film noir ever made in which no real crime was committed.