Ten of My Favorite Film Noirs
Ten isn’t nearly enough, but there you have it. Here are some of my faves that are seminal genre entries, a classic that can’t be denied or, I just plain dug the hell out of the picture. The order of these films is not hierarchical. Like browsing through a gallery, the sequence is never important; just the art.
1. D.O.A. (1950) United Artists
This was the film that hooked me at an early age. If you can’t get involved in a frenetic tale of man solving his own murder, well, go watch a musical. The look, sound and feel of the picture is film noir at its purest, starting with the back of Edmund O’Brien trudging into the old L.A.P.D. headquarters at City Hall to report his murder with the Dimitri Tiomkin score baroquely plodding in lockstep as an accompanying funeral dirge to the unfurling credits. There is the debonairly evil Luther Adler purring mannered menace and psychotic Neville Brand setting a new standard in celluloid sadism. Yes, it gets thick at times as O’Brien’s sweaty jowls turn tremulous while bursting through doors and sprinting past a whirl of L.A. and San Francisco locations amid a plot that makes The Big Sleep appear straightforward. However, it is hard to acknowledge flaws in a first love.
2. The Narrow Margin (1952) RKO
The Narrow Margin is the finest second feature ever to come out of Hollywood. A relentless 71 minutes has superb pace, no music and some of the most dyspeptic dialogue ever penned (courtesy of Earl Felton) as clipped off by copper Charles McGraw and moll Marie Windsor. This duo was so perfectly paired; one can only wonder why they weren’t paired up again. Although nothing particularly extraordinary happened afterwards to the actors in this gem, director Richard Fleischer and producer Stanley Rubin had their careers jump-started by a film that has a back-story almost as entertaining as the picture itself. Sorry. You gotta score a copy of Charles McGraw – Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy to get the details.
3. Caged (1950) Warner Bros.
Now here is the ultimate woman’s picture . . . film noir style. Eleanor Parker is the proverbial innocent in saddle shoes who ends up in the slammer after a bungled gas station stickup. Worse yet, her husband’s dead, she’s pregnant and dispatched to the tender mercies of a woman’s prison staffed by that Amazonian ogre, Hope Emerson. The physical and emotional transformation of Parker from nubile bobby-soxer to steely-eyed hard-case is one of the most brilliant screen turns ever. Caged is artfully written by Virginia Kellogg, helmed by John Cromwell with pantheon performances by Parker, Emerson (both were Oscar nominated and got jobbed) with Agnes Moorehead as a crusading warden along with Betty Garde, Lee Patrick, Jan Sterling, Taylor Holmes among others. Several of the set-piece prison sequences remain unforgettable especially the one with Parker memorably intoning, “Kindly omit flowers….”
4. The Big Combo (1955) Allied Artists
The Big Combo, with its hydra-headed theme of sexual obsession, greed and power, takes the noir crime film to dark-tinged extremes. Screenwriter Philip Yordan, who excelled in penning (and fronting) over-the-top dialogue, hit his stride with this screenplay, particularly when the palaver is delivered by Richard ‘Nick’ Conte as the prototype post WWII racketeer, “Mr. Brown”. “First is first and second is nobody” becomes a Conte mission-statement that is dismissively clipped off to lesser souls in his orbit. He is opposed by an equally obsessed copper Cornel Wilde for the trophy female, Jean Wallace. From the sexual rivalry of the two male leads over Wallace to the portrayal of a pair of stone killers (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) as gay lovers, The Big Combo remains resolute about the motivations of the principals to tell the story. With the deft Joseph Lewis at the helm and the great John Alton behind the camera, there is also no finer-crafted film from a visually dark sense. Add to it David Raksin’s jazzy score and a Hall of Fame supporting cast and it simply doesn’t get any better.
5. Criss Cross (1949) Universal – International
The first time I watched the opening credits of Crisscross against the nocturnal aerial shot of downtown Los Angeles accompanied by Miklos Rozca’s tympanic thunder, zooming in to a close up clinch of Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo in a parking lot, my initial take was, “Jesus, this is going to be good!” The final project of Mark Hellinger was originally intended to be the West Coast crime film counterpart to his N.Y.C. policier-as-valentine, The Naked City (1948). After Hellinger’s death, Criss Cross was produced as a stylized film noir with the unfolding consequences of fatalistic love akin to a slow motion train wreck. The action occurs around a robbery cooked up by a femme fatale (De Carlo) her ex-husband & loser working stiff (Lancaster in his last and best turn as the noir chump) and De Carlo’s ‘better deal’, a vicious gangster played by the wonderful Dan Duryea. The finale in this one is a jaw dropper!
6. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) M*G*M
This picture was the initial Hollywood take of professional criminals as earnest blue collar working stiffs who were simply pursuing an alternate career path. “Crime is just a left handed form of human endeavor” is the perspective deftly opined by lawyer Louis Calhern, a corrupt ruin juggling bankruptcy and infidelity as the collateral damage of late middle age. Calhern’s dissolution is one of several character studies seamlessly woven into the motif of a well-planned robbery and its awry aftermath. The wonderfully sparse script of Huston and Ben Maddow is gruffly essayed by Sterling Hayden, finally cast in a role with which he could be comfortable, with a perfect group of supporting artisans: Sam Jaffe, Marc Lawrence, James Whitmore, Barry Kelley, Jean Hagen, John McIntyre, Brad Dexter and yes, Marilyn Monroe. Metro studio head Louis B. Mayer reportedly loathed The Asphalt Jungle; an unqualified endorsement in my view.
7. In a Lonely Place (1950) Columbia
This beautifully leavened picture is a stunner on multiple levels. Nicholas Ray shaped Dorothy Hughes’ book about a psychotic killer-a topic too raw for 1950 sensibilities- into a Hollywood insider tale about a self-destructive writer (Humphrey Bogart) within a doomed love story between two damaged people (Bogart and Gloria Grahame) folded into a suspenseful murder mystery that keeps one guessing to the last. The definitive Bogart picture with his best screen performance this side of The Maltese Falcon, Bogey simply is the star-crossed “Dix Steele” with GG never more tragically alluring. Additional dramatic heft is contributed by Art Smith as Bogart’s long-suffering agent.
Certain films take you into a different world. In a Lonely Place does it for me.
8. Raw Deal (1948) Eagle-Lion
Director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton became Hollywood’s chief purveyors of ‘B’ film noir during the late 1940’s. A dark duo of cinematic archangels, they teamed up for six memorable films in three short years. Raw Deal is their most uncompromising movie. The perpetually underrated Dennis O’Keefe plays an escaped con who unconsciously assumes the mantle of homme fatale. He is triangulated between up-from-the gutter moll Claire Trevor (who also chips in with one of the best voice over narratives in noir) and fulsome social worker Marsha Hunt who resolutely hangs on for the full Monty with a doomed O’Keefe. Beautifully composed on a tight budget, Raw Deal also boasts the sinister bulk of Raymond Burr as an atrocious mob boss swathed in the world’s largest smoking jacket that gets his kicks doing creative things to people with fire. In the end, there is no redemption or hope for the entire cast and isn’t that exactly what film noir is all about?
9. The Killers (1946) Universal Pictures
The ‘Citizen Kane of film noir’ was the brainchild of newspaper columnist turned filmmaker Mark Hellinger. After buying the rights to Ernest Hemingway’s short story (set in my home town of Summit, New Jersey) Hellinger used the prose for no more than the first thousand feet of film. After a broken down fighter (Burt Lancaster) eking out a living as a filling station attendant is murdered by two professional assassins, an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) has to find out why. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller, with a timely assist by John Huston, came up with the thicket of flashbacks narrative of double crosses that proved to be such a compelling storytelling process. Artfully shot by Woody Bresell and helmed by Robert Siodmak, the casting of “The Killers’ was an exercise in serendipitous foresight. Lancaster and Ava Gardner soared from erstwhile circus acrobat and ex-wife of Mickey Rooney to mega-stars overnight. Charles McGraw, William Conrad, Jeff Corey and Jack Lambert were elevated to enduring careers as unique character actors. Miklos Rozca’s signature score was memorably ripped off for the opening of the Dragnet show. Hemingway said forever after that this film was by far the most satisfying screen transition of any of his work. He’s right.
10. Ace in the Hole (1951) Paramount
A flop during its initial release, Paramount panicked, tried to rename it as The Big Carnival and quickly backed away with slightly less alacrity than Metro when Freaks was released in 1932. Post war audiences simply weren’t ready for Ace in the Hole. This is Billy Wilder at his most acidic, perfectly capturing both the prurient inner beast that compels people to pause on the freeway to scan a gory car wreck and the pack mentality of the media that foretold the grime of the modern 24 hour news cycle. Nearly all of the principals are perverse, crooked or compromised. Kirk Douglas, relentlessly authentic when playing a ruthless bastard, is an exiled reporter who orchestrates days of headlines from a man trapped in a New Mexican cliff dwelling. In attempting to retrieve his long-lost byline in the Big Apple, Douglas is matched in venality by the victim’s trampy wife, Jan Sterling (“I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons”) along with a corrupt Sheriff (Ray Teal) who connives with Douglas while feeding chewing gum to his pet rattlesnake. The staged rescue becomes a literal circus with the denouement assuming the proportions of a Greek tragedy. You’ll have to take a shower after watching this one.