Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Greatest Films Noir?

June Vincent and Dan Duryea in Black Angel

A friend recently asked me to compile my list of ten to twenty of the greatest films noir for a project he is working on. I came up with thirteen. I thought it would be fun to share it with the siffblog readers. I would love to hear back from you about titles that you felt should or should not have been included.

For this list I am adhering to a strict definition of film noir- so no color films on this list or sub-genres like noir western, gangster films, heist films or police procedural, and nothing past the 50s. For this list, there must be an actual crime, deep-seated emotional conflicts, dangerous desire and take place in a morally ambiguous universe typically located in a rain soaked city where it always seems to be night. Witty sarcastic dialog preferred. Notable absences on the list: The Third Man, Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai, Sunset Blvd, Night of The Hunter, The Big Sleep-great films but somehow too expensive, or too formal or too indicative of their director's style to belong to this list of tough gritty little noirs. Out of The Past, The Big Heat and The Killers are prototypical, finely made noirs, and while not personal favorites of mine, are still highly recommended viewing.

Films are not ranked but in order of production year.
* Denotes available on home video.
Original production and distribution companies noted.

The Maltese Falcon 1941 Warner Bros. Pictures*
A seminal film noir that set the visual style of noir- deep focus camera work, chiaroscuro lighting, high contrast black and white, urban setting of streets and small rooms ands marked the key story and character elements of noir- the femme fatale, a hard boiled detective/hero, a Byzantine plot that barely makes sense but provides a dark and potentially fatal quest for the protagonist, overriding moral ambiguity, and sexually questionable villains. Incredibly faithful adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's book, one of the most perfect crime novels ever written.

This Gun For Hire 1942 Paramount Pictures*
Reversal of the sexes makes this film stand out. The heroine, Veronica Lake, is the one on the dark journey who encounters a homme fatale. Being a woman she realizes he's a psychopath and is smart enough not to sleep with him and marries the good man who adores her, but she does give the homme fatale part of her heart. Ladd gives his finest performance as the frightening but compelling assassin. Ladd and Lake's chemistry burns up the screen. Definitely a softer story then the original Graham Greene novel.

Ossessione 1943 Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane (ICI)*
It's the only foreign film on this list. I see noir as a strictly American genre, but it's the best adaptation of Cain's classic novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice and is true to the noir conventions. Like Bunuel's 1954 Mexican version of Wuthering Heights; the transference of the story to another culture makes it work better then the versions produced in their native language. Director Visconti captures the wild sexual energy between the two characters much better then the American directors who tried it.

Double Indemnity 1944 Paramount Pictures*
Barbara Stanwyck plays the greatest femme fatale of all time, Phyllis Dietrichson. I always wondered if author James M. Cain named her after Marlene Dietrich. Barbara seems to be just another heartless femme fatale looking for a chump, but then you realize she's mad as a bag of ferrets. Fred MacMurray plays the chump and is surprisingly sexy. Billy Wilder directs. M y favorite dialog from it:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

Laura 1944 Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corporation*
This film is so good that if I am flipping channels and it's on, I will watch it, despite the fact that I own a copy. Great script. Great direction. Great cast. Especially fun to see Vincent Price as the charming Southern gentleman who lives off the kindness of women. Clifton Webb's performance as the acid tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker is unbelievably great. Favorite line: "I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes."

Mildred Pierce 1945 Warner Bros. Pictures*
Joan Crawford totally deserved her Oscar for her performance as Mildred, a divorcee with two kids who goes from baking pies in her kitchen to owning her own chain of restaurants (what is it with James M. Cain and restaurant owners?) Unfortunately, the daughter that survives childhood is the biggest ingrate in film history. Murder ensues.

Scarlet Street 1945 Diana Pictures Inc. Dist. by Universal Pictures*
Wowszer. This one gets better with every viewing. Edward G Robinson sympathetically plays the hero who finds out first hand that you never really get away with murder. Joan Bennett is wonderfully crude as the cheap little vixen who destroys his life. But the standouts are Fritz Lang's direction, the cinematography and Dan Duryea as the sleazy boyfriend/pimp who uses his sexual prowess to keep Bennett in line and when that doesn't work gives her the greatest backhand in cinema.

Black Angel 1946 Universal Pictures*
This is a good adaptation of one of Cornell Woolrich's "black" novels. It features a great atypical role for the usually bad guy actor Dan Duryea. He plays beautiful loser Martin Blair an alcoholic songwriter still obsessively in love with his recently murdered ex-wife. The wife of the man convicted of the murder enlists his help in finding the real killer. Duryea falls for her and complications ensue. Duryea was so well known for slapping his female co-stars at this point, that Universal, in it's publicity campaign for the film, attributed Duryea's not hitting co-star June Vincent to her recent pregnancy!

Nightmare Alley 1947 Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corporation*
DARK. DARK. DARK. It's called film noir for a reason. Tyrone Power fought for this part to show he was more then a pretty face and, boy, did he. He gives one of the greatest portrayal in film noir as the ambitious and amoral Stanton Carlisle who goes from carnival roustabout, to a society darling as a medium/spiritualist then falls into alcoholism and degradation. Adapted from an even darker book by William Lindsay Gresham- as with most adaptations of noir classics- they had to tone down the sexuality and the ending.

Night and the City 1950 Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corporation*
London has never looked as damp, depressing and hopeless as in this Jules Dassin gem. Richard Widmark gives a remarkably unnerving performance as Harry Fabian. He's a conniving little hustler who screws over everyone in his desperate bid for success. He deserves to fail; he deserves everything he gets; yet you still somehow feel sorry for him.

On Dangerous Ground 1952 RKO Radio Pictures*
Robert Ryan gives an emotionally charged performance as a city cop on the verge of a breakdown. After nearly killing a suspect, he's sent out to the country to find the murderer of a young woman. There he encounters Ida Lupino, the blind sister of the main suspect. Can he overcome his personal demons and connect with her? Bonus: John Ford Players Ward Bond and Olive Cary portray the murdered girls parents. Oddly this film reminds me of Japanese director Ozu- I think for its emphasis on character and the overall bittersweet mood.

In A Lonely Place 1955 Santana Pictures Corporation, Dist. by Columbia Pictures*
One of Humphrey Bogart's finest performances, and one of the characters closet to his real self, he plays an alcoholic writer with a serious anger management problem. Gloria Grahame plays the woman who falls for him but ultimately wonders if he's capable of murder. Director Nicholas Ray puts together a great film noir with an unusual amount of emotional truth- incredibly melancholy.

Sweet Smell of Success 1957 Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions Dist: United Artist*
"The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man!" says Burt Lancaster, as all powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker to Tony Curtis, ambitious press agent Sidney Falco. I think both actors give the best performances of their careers in this film. This taught thriller keeps twisting and turning through a New York full of morally bankrupt characters. Lancaster terrified me, as Hunsecker- his relationship with his sister is deeply disturbing and threatening. When I watched this film, I kept covering my eyes, not because of on screen physical violence, but a feeling of moral revulsion.


  1. How about Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953)? Would you consider White Heat (1949) film noir?
    If you haven't heard the great news, SIFF has announced Eddie Muller will return to present the two films on June 11th.

  2. Cool post. I don't disagree at all with your inclusions although I'm bummed that The Big Sleep didn't make the cut (admittedly, it's my favorite movie).

  3. Hey, Anne!
    Howsabout some informed commentary on the semi-recent slew of DVD noir sets, from el cheapo rush jobs on up to the royal-house sets? I notice in this batch only 'On Dangerous Ground' was in any of the three TNT sets despite Ryan's personal predominance as a lead in that batch of films.
    Also, can you address the recent rumor of some sort of SIFF / Noir City crossover?

  4. Thanks for your responses.
    White Heat, I love, but consider the apex and swan song of the gangster genre as opposed to being a film noir.
    Love The Big Sleep but find it too "Hawksian" to feel like a noir- just too upbeat ultimately. The book feels more noir to me.
    And I am very embarrassed to admit that I still haven't seen "Pick Up"
    On Dangerous Ground was released in an earlier fox set. Fox, Kino, Image/Criterion and Warner's have been doing beautiful work with their noir releases. Unfortunately there have been a lot of noirs that are in public domain that have been released in crappy editions, don't bother with Alpha Video- they are awful editions! If you'd like to help get restored prints of great noir classics out to the public check out:
    Great that Eddie Muller will be back! His knowledge of noir is awesome.