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Film noir

a genre of dark crime films and detective stories

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Few innocents in the shadowy worlds of the ten best classic films noir

  • Jun 11, 2012

We have the French to thank for film noir.

American filmmakers made the pioneering works that explored the shadows in which hardened people ruthlessly exploit others by using their wits, which range from quick to none, and their morality, which ranges from skewed to none. It was French critics who recognized a singular sensibility in movies created by various writers, directors and actors and released by many different studios. They detected in these moody movies of the 1940s and '50s a pervasive unease about modern urban life. They saw in them examinations of the dark side of the American Dream. These critics called it film noir because of its resemblances to literary works, mostly French translations of such American detective writers as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, that had been termed serie noir.

"Film noir" means black film, or film of the night. Trying to define it is almost as tough as some of the movies' many thugs. It is a style to some viewers, a genre to others.

Hundreds of writers have tried to define film noir in everything from lengthy treatises featuring frame-by-frame analyses of key scenes to irreverent pieces that rely on enthusiasm more than reflection. In that latter category would be Barry Gifford's dismissal in his book The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films of scholarly approaches to film noir as "academic flapdoodle." Part of noir's broad appeal is its ability to engage both the mind and the emotions.

Some of the characters in films noir try to excuse their duplicities and brutalities by claiming they've been knocked around by fate. Destiny has indeed tossed an obstacle or two in their paths, but for each of them there was a moment in which they could have chosen a different means of dealing with the challenges.

For me, that's a vital part of the appeal of film noir: seeing how everything turns out when someone decides to go in on a robbery or take part in a kidnapping or join a murder conspiracy or whatever else it was they opted to do. Then I wonder whether I could have made the same decision but been sufficiently smart or cold-blooded to make things turn out differently. The best films noir present intriguing set-ups for that endlessly diverting question: What if?

1) Double Indemnity (1944)
Written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, adapting James M. McCain's novel.
Directed by Wilder.
Designated one of the Top 100 Films by the American Film Institute in 1998 and named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry in 1992.

Putting this in the #1 spot is easy. Double Indemnity is so powerful that the hard part would be arguing it doesn't belong there.

It is influential as well. Its echoes are heard decades later in such great movies as Body Heat (1981) and The Last Seduction (1994). Flashbacks and voice-over narration have become conventional, but Wilder's use of them in Double Indemnity is peerless.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) are not in love but they are drawn to each other. They exchange banter with fast-paced suggestiveness until after they've murdered her husband and it looks like someone might be wise to them. Then they exchange recriminations and threats.

Neff has brains but Dietrichson has more. He has few scruples, she has none. He thinks he is in her league but he finds out too late she's playing a different game.

Even with all its exceptional features, Double Indemnity would not be as memorable if it did not also have Edward G. Robinson. He is quietly commanding as an unflappable insurance investigator. He makes it possible for a tear to well up when one man does something as simple but uniquely significant as light another man's cigarette.

2) Out of the Past (1947)
Written by Daniel Mainwaring, adapting Geoffrey Hones' novel Build My Gallows High.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry in 1991.

There are twist and turns. Then double-crosses pile on top of each other. Even so, the movie always makes sense because Tourneur never lets the complex narrative out of his control.

Stardom came deservedly to Robert Mitchum after his assured performance as a smart man trying to find his way through a maze that leads from his past to a future he thought he'd figured out. What he hadn't figured on was a woman (Jane Greer) for whom he chooses to go astray. He loses her to the criminal (Kirk Douglas) who hired him to find her. Or at least he thinks he loses her.

She says to him, "You're no good. Neither am I. That's why we deserve each other."

Waiting patiently for Mitchum's character to come back to her is his girlfriend (Virginia Huston). She is sweet and trusting and so of course she is out of her depth. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca bathes in rich blacks and whites a story that might end well for one person but almost certainly for no one else.

3) The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Written and directed by John Huston from the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry in 1989 and cited as one of the Top 100 Films by the American Film Institute in 1998.

This was Huston's first effort as a director. Seeing how flawlessly he guided this fast-paced, detailed and captivating movie makes that hard to believe.

A jewelled statue with a long and bloody history, the falcon from Malta is said to be "the stuff dreams are made of." It's also something worth killing for, at least it is to characters brought unforgettably to life by a cast that also is the stuff of dreams: Mary Astor; Peter Lorre; Sydney Greenstreet; and Humphrey Bogart, playing the detective Sam Spade.

Spade's a fearless smart aleck. A hood played by Elisha Cook, Jr., is sick of Spade's insults. He has a gun, which he thinks entitles him to respect. When Spade doesn't give it, he threatens, "Keep on ridin' me, they're gonna be picking lead out of your liver."

4) Crossfire (1947)
Written by John Paxton, adapting the novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Robert Mitchum stars in a gem that has no daylight but sparkles in a dark way. A hotel guest is murdered and three U.S. Marines are suspected. In Brooks' novel, the guest is a homosexual. That was changed for the movie, in which the victim is a Jew.

The movie's exploration of racial bigotry was later deemed "un-American" and Dmytryk was blacklisted in the McCarthy 1950s. If the movie were not engrossing and provocative, it's unlikely anyone would have cared enough to go after him.

Much of the credit for the extraordinary effectiveness of Crossfire goes to Robert Ryan, who plays with fearlessness and force a character who is hate-filled and easy to hate. He is trying to save his own skin but he's convinced his buddies that he is trying to help one of them. That duplicity leads Mitchum to sneer, "Every time he opens his mouth, he hangs him a foot higher."

5) Criss Cross (1948)
Written by Daniel Fuchs.
Directed by Robert Siodmak.
Re-made by director Steven Soderbergh as The Underneath (1995), which is stylish but not as powerful.

A guy (Burt Lancaster) agrees to take part in an armored car robbery because his ex-wife (an enticing Yvonne DeCarlo) wants him to. He can't get her out of his head, which is unfortunate because she's taken up with a vicious hoodlum (Dan Duryea).

There are some back-stabbings and double-crosses before Lancaster finds himself injured and waiting apprehensively for the attack he thinks is imminent every time someone walks by the door to his hospital room. As things turn out, he was better off there.

6) Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Written by John Paxton, adapting Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.
Directed by Edward Dymytryk.

Humphrey Bogart is more famous but Dick Powell won Chandler's approval for his portrayal of the snappy private detective Philip Marlowe. Chandler was right: Powell is impressive. He seems like he's always trying to figure out the complex web into which he's been drawn, like a real detective instead of a guy who's read the script. He's tough enough to call a police lieutenant's bluff but fallible enough to walk into a sneak attack he should have seen coming.

Marlowe is hired to find a woman and along the way he ends up looking for a valuable jade necklace that's been reported stolen. As in Chandler's The Big Sleep, a wealthy family is involved and so are some shady characters. There's also a woman (Claire Trevor at her smoldering/icy best) who strikes sparks with Marlowe, or at least she does at first.

A year before Alfred Hitchcock and Salvador Dali created a memorable surreal dream sequence for Spellbound (1945), Murder, My Sweet director Dymytryk and cinematographer Harry J. Wild came up with an eerie one that could have been inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels. Menacing figures loom over Marlowe much larger than they do in real life. He can't escape them because the doors through which he runs lead only to more doors, each smaller than the one before it.

Double Indemnity was released the same year, as were Laura, The Mask of Dimitrios and Ministry of Fear. That makes 1944 a great year for film noir. It would have been even if it had only Murder, My Sweet.

7) Gilda (1946)
Written by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet.
Directed by Charles Vidor.

Rita Hayworth is at her most alluring, which means she could stand still and be completely captivating. She doesn't. This is the one in which she does her famous strip tease while singing "Put the Blame on Mame."

Her character once had an affair with a man (Glenn Ford) who now works for her husband (George Macready) in his South American casino. She tries to be faithful, he tries to be loyal and both are unaware that the husband is working with Nazis.

Several emotional and sexual undercurrents swirl dangerously, including a suggested relationship between the two men. Sometimes Hayworth's character and Ford's are drawn to each other, sometimes they're repelled. This could seem inconsistent except that it demonstrates clearly that there really is a thin line between love and hate.

The screenplay crackles, as in an exchange along the lines of the following after Macready rescues Ford from a vicious attack and then offers him a smoke:

"Thanks. I'll have to do the same for you some time."
"Save my life?"
"Give you a cigarette."

8) The Big Sleep (1946)
Written by Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, adapting Raymond Chandler's novel.
Directed by Howard Hawks.
Named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry in 1997.

Legend has it that co-writer Faulkner confessed that even he didn't know who committed one of the murders in this delightfully complicated story about a detective hired to help two rich sisters out of some jams. The confusion could not matter less. The movie speeds along with snappy dialogue and many terrific performances, including one by Dorothy Malone as a book store clerk who is enticing when she takes off her glasses.

The guy being enticed is Philip Marlowe, played perfectly by Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall is one of the sisters and she is irritated by her attraction to him. At least she is at first.

9) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.
Directed by Wilder.
Named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry in 1989 and cited as one of the Top 100 Films by the American Film Institute in 1998.

Even people who've never seen it have heard some of Sunset Boulevard's endlessly quoted dialogue. Wilder stages a collision between "an older woman who's well-to-do [and] a younger man who's not doing too well." He masterfully evokes a Hollywood of faded glamour and desperation.

The glamour comes from a nearly-forgotten silent film star (Gloria Swanson) who uses her money to keep control of an aspiring screenwriter (William Holden). But he's no innocent. Any guy willing to trade the love of a good woman (here it is Nancy Olson) for the luxury of a vicuna coat brings it on himself when he is caught up in a noir-ish web.

The movie starts with a nasty ending and then flashes back to the grim events that led up to it. The ending is sad in its way and can jolt even those who have seen it before.

10) In a Lonely Place (1950)
Written by Edmund H. North and Andrew P. Solt, adapting (loosely) a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes.
Directed by Nicholas Ray.

Humphrey Bogart plays another tough guy, but this one is troubled. When Bogart subtly lets us see some of the anguish he tries to mask, it is unsettling. His character is a screenwriter whose once-bright career has lost its luster because of the shine he takes to booze, and because of his temper. He has an uneasy relationship with his agent, who gets him an assignment that leads to his being suspected of murder.

Gloria Grahame plays the aspiring actress who provides his alibi and starts to fall in love with him. It's one of her best roles. She's heartbreaking when the love affair becomes tainted with mutual suspicion and paranoia.

Early on, she compliments Bogart's face and he responds with a physical advance. She stops him: "I said I liked it. I didn't say I want to kiss it." Later she says tragically, "I lived a few weeks while you loved me."


The Big Clock
Ray Milland stars in a claustrophobic thriller about a man who must prove he is innocent of murder but who is prevented from leaving the building. Charles Laughton is hateful as his tyrannical boss and Elsa Lanchester injects a little humor, although her character might annoy some viewers. It was re-made as No Way Out (1987) with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman.

The Big Combo (1955)
Some torture scenes make this top-notch thriller not for the squeamish. Cornel Wilde plays a cop who challenges a crime syndicate boss (Richard Conte), whose beautiful moll (Jean Wallace) he would also like to take on, but in a different way. It's pretty clear that two hit men are a same-sex couple.

The Big Heat (1953)
A police detective (Glenn Ford) survives an explosion intended for him. His wife does not and he seeks revenge on the gangsters who killed her. Gloria Grahame is especially good as a moll who seeks poetic justice when she finds herself on the wrong end of a pot of scalding coffee.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake generate more of the cool chemistry that made them famous. He's a U.S. Navy war hero who comes back to find his wife is cheating on him. She's the woman who helps him prove his innocence when he's suspected of his wife's murder. William Bendix gives a memorable performance as a veteran who is steadfastly loyal to Ladd's character but who is haunted by his wartime experiences. The studio changed the original ending, which would have made more sense, when the Department of the Navy objected.

Ladd and Lake also are good together in their first movie, This Gun for Hire (1942). He's a cold-blooded killer who loves cats. She is his hostage. At least she is at first.

Detour (1946)
Except for its absurd ending, this is a riveting, point-blank confrontation between a not-entirely-admirable man (Tom Neal) and the not-at-all-admirable woman (Ann Savage) who crosses his path.

D.O.A. (1949)
Edmond O'Brien sweats a lot and can make viewers sweat too as he races through this dark thriller to discover who has poisoned him and why. He has little time before the lethal stuff does him in.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Rita Hayworth is a splendid manipulator, or maybe she's misunderstood. She seduces Orson Welles (whom she was divorcing in real life at the time) and he is in over his head when she hires him to work on her husband's yacht. At least that's what she tells him he's there for. Writer-director Welles creates several tense scenes, including a dizzying one in a carnival hall of mirrors. The narrative is choppy, probably because studio boss Harry Cohn had Welles' 150-minute picture cut to 88 minutes.

Laura (1944. Named to the National Film Registry in 1999.)
A detective (Dana Andrews) sees her in a painting and becomes infatuated with a woman (Gene Tierney) whose murder he is investigating. There's a love story, suspense and Vincent Price. A perfectly cast Clifton Webb is an acidly arrogant radio commentator.

Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet show they can anchor an engaging movie without Humphrey Bogart. Lorre is a writer looking into the murder in Istanbul of an internationally wanted criminal. Greenstreet knows a thing or two about the case.

Ministry of Fear (1944)
Graham Greene's novel gets a superior big-screen adaptation in director Fritz Lang's atmospheric mystery. Ray Milland is accidentally given information meant for the Nazis and soon he's trying to navigate a maze of espionage and double-crosses.

Raw Deal (1948)
A social worker (Marsha Hunt) starts out as a hostage but ends up willingly sticking around for the excitement of life in the underworld. It's a good thing she does, at least for a small-time hood (Dennis O'Keefe) who spent time in prison after he was framed. He needs her help to take on his former boss, a sadistic brute played powerfully by Raymond Burr.

Scarlet Street (1945)
He seems like an honest man (Edward G. Robinson) until a beautiful dame (Joan Bennett) wraps him around her finger. She and her boyfriend (an exuberantly mean Dan Duryea) try to take him for everything he's got. It turns out badly for everyone involved. The story emphasizes some valuable paintings, which is fitting because it's a memorable work of art.

This movie reunites many of the creators of the commercially successful, similarly themed Woman in the Window (1945), including Robinson, Bennett and director Fritz Lang. Scarlet Street is better because it has Duryea and does not have the earlier movie's love-it-or-hate-it ending. (I hate it.)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Barbara Stanwyck is a cold woman made powerful and rich by the death of her aunt, which might not have been the accident that the authorities ruled it to be. Years later, her husband (Kirk Douglas in his impressive screen debut) and their childhood friend (Van Heflin) cross paths and their shared past leads to new violence.

Touch of Evil (1958)
Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston are caught up in sadistic perversity in Orson Welles' magnificently filmed nightmare. Welles plays the most crooked of cops and his character's corruption is reflected in his bloated physique, which makes it hard to believe he's the same guy who only ten years earlier was trim and boyish in The Lady from Shangai.

While the City Sleeps (1956)
On the loose is a murderer the newspapers have dubbed "The Lipstick Killer." On his trail are three reporters, each angling to be promoted to editor. A top-notch cast includes Dana Anderson, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Ida Lupino and Vincent Price. Director Fritz Lang shows that when they hunt information, reporters can be almost as ruthless as killers.


Some acclaimed films noir I haven't seen yet include He Walked by Night (1948) and The Narrow Margin (1952).

The movie that many consider to be the first film noir, The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is interesting and features a creepy performance by Peter Lorre, but its story is too pat, some of the other acting is poor and the menace is too contained in Lorre's character. That last one also is the reason I wouldn't include on a list of films noir such movies as the superlative The Letter (1940), which features a memorably cold Bette Davis, or Hitchcock's exceptional Strangers on a Train (1951). Film noir, I think, requires that the threat be more pervasive, part of the surroundings in a corrupt world.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is one of the most unforgettable movies ever made. It features powerhouse performances by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Its hardboiled dialogue and exceptional jazz soundtrack sound like film noir should sound. Its smoky nightclub atmosphere looks like film noir. But no one dies and the ending is hopeful. That's not noir.
Few innocents in the shadowy worlds of the ten best classic films noir Few innocents in the shadowy worlds of the ten best classic films noir Few innocents in the shadowy worlds of the ten best classic films noir Few innocents in the shadowy worlds of the ten best classic films noir

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