By Rick Bretz
Films released in the early days of Hollywood, specifically from the 40s, 50s and later give the audience a snapshot from the past. Films that are set in the era when they were filmed, show us cars, clothes, storefronts, street signs and everything retro that people like. Granted, many people from the buying public prefer cutting edge electronics, cars, and technological breakthroughs. Some consumers choose the past and everything associated with it such as classic cars, vintage houses, timeless music, and furniture from the 19th and 20th Centuries. It’s like looking at old photographs of your grandparents and seeing all of the old stuff in the pictures.
The classic Film Noir movie gives you all that. Presented to us for our viewing pleasure are old cars, small-town street fronts, New York City in the 1950s, classic furniture, street lingo as it was uttered back then, and one more thing. That would be the feature that is difficult to find in today’s movies–black and white photography shot to perfection in the best contrast shots ever seen on film.
With this in mind, here are some of the best Film Noir movies and why they are still popular today.
1. Gun Crazy, released in 1950
Gun Crazy is one of the best of all time. The movie title may not be politically correct for today’s politically charged environment, but it perfectly sums up the film. It’s about Guns, Guns, Guns, and Guns–and not the kind of gun show you see at the gym. This is about people who like guns, what people do with guns, people who like people who like guns and obsessiveness. The kind of obsession that makes you love crazy. The title characters portrayed by John Dall and Peggy Cummins, who is considered an all-time favorite Femme Fatale, demonstrate this so well you almost wish a psychiatrist was handy so they could see one in the middle of the movie. Cummins is sensational in this movie to the point that until her passing recently, she was invited to many seminars and Film Noir retrospectives to talk about the role. That’s saying something considering there are many brilliant actresses in the Film Noir genre.
John Dall loves guns, is a crackerjack shot and also loves the Peggy Cummins’ character, Annie Starr, who also can handle the iron with the best of them. You can see within the first few minutes after the film credits scroll away that Annie’s gunplay is top-notch and hits her targets whether it is a man or a cigarette in someone’s mouth. Annie Starr loves guns, worships money. Annie Starr should have a stop sign draped around her neck but Dall would run through it anyway without tapping the breaks. As the movie races along, the movie’s finish line doesn’t disappoint.
2. Double Indemnity, released in 1944
It has Barbara Stanwyck in it. Enough said. Well, it also starts out like many Film Noir classics with the audience realizing that something didn’t go well. From the moment Fred MacMurray walks in the door and sees Barbara Stanwyck at the top of the staircase, the audience knows he’s in trouble. You also know that because of the narration MacMurray provides when he starts dictating within the first few moments of the movie. The movie’s dialogue is classic for the double entendre back and forth between Stanwyck and MacMurray. I never saw speed signs the same way afterward. The toxic relationship between the two principle characters is just one part of the movie. The other significant character is Edward G. Robinson’s portrayal of the insurance investigator. It’s a classic story in several ways and worth seeing just for Stanwyck and MacMurray’s relationship.
3. Out of the Past, released in 1947
Starring Robert Mitchum, who could be called one of the kings of the genre, and Jane Greer, another actress revered by the Film Noir community. Just to make sure it’s a classic, the movie also has Kirk Douglas as a major figure in the storyline. The movie has a strong supporting cast including Dickie Moore who doesn’t say a word in the movie but through his relationship with Mitchum’s character and his acting ability tells the audience all it needs to know. Jane Greer, known as The Queen of Film Noir, works her magic (incredible eyes even in black and white) on Mitchum and he tosses aside his job of finding Jane Greer and the money. Mitchum’s decisions catch up to him with the past interloping on his present good fortune.
4. The Killing, released in 1956
An early Stanley Kubrick directorial effort starring another Film Noir favorite, Sterling Hayden. This is an example of meticulous planning gone wrong due to unforeseen circumstances. Compartmentalizing responsibilities and parsing out information for those who need to know is one way of planning a heist. It makes you wonder if there is a perfect crime and how much planning should be involved if human nature is unpredictable. The story takes the audience on a ride and you find yourself rooting for Sterling Hayden all the way.
I AM big…It’s the pictures that got small–Norma Desmond
5. Asphalt Jungle, release in 1950
Another Sterling Hayden Film Noir classic. This one is another heist gone wrong but also involves a lawyer who is cash strapped due to his infidelities and other choices. This film is also remembered for Marilyn Monroe’s early screen performance as the “other” woman. Sterling Hayden portrays Dix Handley, the muscle behind the crime caper. Louis Calhern is the lawyer who finances the operation with an intent to double-cross. Like most film Noir classics, it all goes bad but the way it goes wrong for everyone is the fun part of watching the movie. The best acting turn is Sam Jaffe as the brains of the whole operation with one weakness that gets him at the end.
6. Pick Up on South Street, released in 1953
A Sam Fuller film, this would be higher on the list if not for the many outstanding films in the genre. Thelma Ritter as Moe Williams is a character in the movie that many can identify with as someone living a day to day existence trying to get one more paycheck to survive. She remarks at one point in the movie how tired she is, looking at her performance you believe every word she is saying. She was nominated for an Academy Award four straight times including this role and you understand why. She almost steals the film like she almost did in the James Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock vehicle, Rear Window. Richard Widmark’s main character light’s the firecracker at the beginning of the movie by pickpocketing the wrong victim’s purse on the subway. The events unfold with Widmark not yielding to any intimidation from both sides of the law enforcement aisle. He straddles both sides and gets some revenge so that, in the end, the anti-hero can call his own shots with help from Jean Peters, the girl he pickpockets on the subway at the beginning.
7.Kiss Me Deadly, released in 1955
The movie opens not in the gritty city, but on a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere with a lady in distress trying flag a car down for a ride. Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer sees her and stops and that’s where it all begins. Hammer wakes up two weeks later in a hospital room and must figure out what happened, why and who is responsible. Strother Martin with his eccentric one of a kind delivery is in the movie. Strother Martin as in the same Strother Martin from “Cool Hand Luke” and “what we have here is failure to communicate” movie fame.
8. Touch of Evil, released in 1958
Another Orson Welles classic, this film is a class in photography work, tracking shots, and how to use natural sound. The whole story of how they produced one of the longest tracking shots in movie history. The customs agent guard at the gate kept blowing his lines and they had to do the whole thing over again and again. Finally, the tracking shot was finished just before sunrise because Marlene Dietrich plays a memorable character and says the famous line about Welles’ character, “He was some kind of man…what does it matter what you say about people.” The film is legendary just because of the backstories associated with the production and editing process after the film was in the can. The film is confusing in some places because of a couple of reasons, Welles wanted it to be confusing and because of the studio executives butchering the editing process.
9. The Killers, released in 1946
Adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, this is the movie that catapulted Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster to stardom. It also has Edmund O’Brien in it to keep the story flowing as the insurance investigator Jim Reardon. William Conrad shows up at a diner and eats up the screen in a bad guy portrayal that is memorable. Conrad and Charles McGraw, another Film Noir mainstay, show up at the diner and start harassing everyone in the place and even give the guy behind the counter a hard time just for good measure. They are looking for Swede Anderson played by Burt Lancaster. They want to find him and they are not going to ask questions first.
10. Sunset Boulevard, released in 1950
Sunset Boulevard is memorable for two reasons: the audience knows how it will end because of the first shot and because of William Holden’s narration and the other is Gloria Swanson and her portrayal of Norma Desmond. Many actresses turned down the role before Gloria Swanson accepted it. Swanson portrays the character to the max as a fading star trying to hold on to her last bit of fame and dignity. This movie threw some rocks directly at the whole Hollywood glass menagerie. The script took a magnifying glass to how people are used and then thrown out like trash at the end of their careers. As Norma Desmond retorts to Holden in one scene, “I AM big…It’s the pictures that got small.” The film has Buster Keaton, Jack Webb and Eric Von Stroheim in it as well as other stars from the silent era who didn’t have a place in talkies. The director Billy Wilder enjoyed poking the movie industry with his script he co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D.J. Marshman. To give the movie an even more surreal feel, Cecille B. DeMille shows up in a cameo to throw out some needling remarks about Norma Desmond.
Film Noir showed up in American movie theaters after World War II. With two World Wars behind them, the Korean War in progress and the Cold War about to heat up, the late 1940s and 1950s movie-going public wanted darker, gritty, realistic stories with even darker personalities. Positive, delightful story conclusions were still being made but audiences also wanted stories without cheerful conclusions. The audience preferred to take a walk down a dark alley and because of that some of the best movies of that time period were produced.
Honorable Mentions: Detour, Sweet Smell of Success, Criss Cross, They Live by Night, The Maltese Falcon.
Notable Links: http://www.openculture.com/freemoviesonline