Ten great film noir

TEN GREAT FILM NOIR by IAN JOHNSTON

What follows is a brief, rapid and furious introduction to Film Noir, the American film style that the French discovered. The ten film noir titles listed below (apart from one marked exception) are available in the UK on DVD. These are just a few personal favourites; there are many, many more.

1. KISS ME DEADLY (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
Film noir is as indigenously American as jazz ”“ yet it took a bunch of Parisian film critics to discover it. During World War II, France had been starved of American movies, but in the summer of 1946 a mix of new and delayed Hollywood releases hit the country’s screens in a six-week period: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Woman In The Window (Fritz Lang, 1944), This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942), Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946).

The French recognised that the downbeat, misanthropic tone the pictures shared and their stylised images of violence, sexual obsession, corruption, alienation and fear of the urban jungle were far removed from the optimism of traditional Hollywood product. They also noticed that many of these films ere based on novels by US authors ”“ Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and Raymond Chandler ”“ who had been published in France in a series of crime paperbacks named ”˜Serie Noire’. Hence Jean Pierre Chartier’s first use of the term ”˜Film Noir’ in the November 1946 issue of La Revue Du Cinema ”“ the perfect appellation for movies that shared such a cynical worldview.
The original noir cycle ”“ generally accepted to have begun with Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ended with Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) ”“ consists of around 500 films. Populated by sensuous femme fatales and ambiguous, self-destructive male heroes, these noirs were mostly characterised by nocturnal settings, German Expressionist-influenced black and white cinematography, voiceovers, flashbacks upon flashbacks and deeply pessimistic, labyrinthine narratives.

Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich’s violent and fast-paced adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s pulp novel, is the high point of the genre, a masterful picture that captures all the anxiety and paranoia of the Cold War period. Relocating the action from New York to post-A-bomb LA, Aldrich and scriptwriter Al Bezzerides put Spillane’s brutal private eye Mike Hammer (portrayed by the brilliant Ralph Meeker) under scrutiny ”“ and find him wanting.

While Hammer is driving home one night, his car is waved down by Christina (Cloris Leachman), who maintains that she has escaped from an asylum. She tells Hammer to “remember me” if anything happens to her ”“ and his car is promptly run off the road. Christina is tortured and killed, Hammer is left for dead, and after a brief stay in hospital he ignores all warnings from the police and his colleagues and begins his own investigation. This leads him to a conspiracy involving a murdered scientist, LA gangsters, Christina’s roommate Lily (Gaby Rogers) and a mysterious box containing “the great whatsit.”
Aldrich’s fever-dream vision of the noir universe is of the very blackest shade. Hammer is little more than a vicious sociopathic thug, a ”˜bedroom dick” who thinks nothing of using his girlfriend/secretary to instigate divorce-case frame ups, and takes pleasure in beating up suspects. He is told by every character he encounters that he is messing with forces far greater than himself, but Hammer refuses to listen, leading to one of the bleakest endings in the noir canon.
Working with director of photography Ernest Laszlo, Aldrich’s use of high-and-low-angle camerawork highlights the instability of Hammer’s world and the sinister forces ranged against him. Frenzied and cataclysmic, Aldrich’s noir classic is one of the greatest American movies ever made.

2. OUT OF THE PAST (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

The title Out Of The Past perfectly sums up the fatalistic mood of this adaptation of Daniel Mainwaring’s Build My Gallows High by Cat People director Tourneur. Noir icon Robert Mitchum gives one of his greatest performances as Jeff Bailey, an existential loner dragged back into a world of crime by Mob boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and his love for Whit’s mistress Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Greer is the ultimate femme fatale, a sexy, conniving woman who brings the beguiled hunk Mitchum to his knees. Nicholas Musuraca’s shadow-filled cinematography and the complex plot told in flashback with voiceover narration combine to create a majestic study of fatal obsession.

3. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Together with Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole (1951) and Scorsese’s King Of Comedy (1983), this magnificent razor sharp noir melodrama is one of the most cold-hearted satires on the America media power structure ever filmed. Based upon Ernest Lehmann’s novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow, but mostly written for the screen by playwright Clifford Odets, the film stars Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco ”““a cookie full of arsenic” ”“ a struggling, conniving New York City publicity agent who will do literally anything to ingratiate himself with all powerful Broadway columnist and TV show host J.J Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster and partly based upon the notorious gossip columnist Walter Winchell). Odets’ Benzedrine fuelled, stylised, rapid-fire pulp/poetic dialogue is incendiary, Elmer Bernstein’s blasting crime jazz score ratchets up the tension, while James Wong Howe’s dazzling, low-light cinematography creates an impression of Times Square at night as an all-consuming neon inferno. Mackendrick’s film is so good it ended his Hollywood career.

4. TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles, 1958)

As director and co-star, Welles dominates this ironic tale of corruption in a Mexican border town. He plays the racist, bloated Hank Quinlan, one of the most monstrous cops outside the fiction of Jim Thompson, who prefers to frame a Mexican for a murder rather than solve the case. His plan is scuppered by upright Mexican narcotics investigator Vargus (Charlton Heston), on honeymoon with his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh). Using the baroque expressionist and slanted avant-garde camera angles he used in Citizen Kane, Welles keeps the screen in almost total darkness, creating a nightmarish atmosphere of impending violence. And through the corrupt Quinlan is defeated, it transpires that the man he framed did commit the crime. Very noir”¦

5. THE BIG HEAT (Fritz Lang, 1953)

Unusually downbeat and violent for its time, Lang’s tale of avenging cop Sgt Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford at his maniacal best) was a direct influence upon Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971). Tailing Mob chief Lagana (Alex Scoarby), Bannion is fearless in bringing ”˜the big heat” down on his gang, but this vendetta costs the lives of many (including his wife) and puts his daughter’s life in danger. Staking out Lagana’s right-hand man Vince Stone (a brilliant performance by Lee Marvin), Bannion forms an unlikely alliance with Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), who is disfigured by scalding coffee for her disloyalty. Bannion’s superiors tell him to quit the case but he refuses ”“ a fit of macho pique used by Lang to suggest that Bannion’s logic is no better than the criminals he seeks to punish.

6. *THE BIG COMBO (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)

Like his other classic, Gun Crazy (1950), Lewis draws strong links between sex and violence in this sexually perverse, low-budget, ultra-hardboiled noir. Zealous detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is obsessed with bringing down local gangster boss Mr. Brown (the great Richard Conte) and his society girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) away from him. Brown’s and Susan’s relationship is erotic and brutal, while Diamond appears to be an impotent figure and solely driven by sexual frustration. Lewis’s insular, paranoid world is a dark and dangerous place, where an act of compassion from Mr. Brown simply amounts to removing a victim’s hearing aid so he will not hear the bullets hit him.

7. THE KILLING (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

Forget Reservoir Dogs. With a screenplay by hardboiled crime writer Jim Thompson, based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break, this precision-plotted tale of a racetrack robbery is the great noir heist picture. Sterling Hayden gives a moving performance as small-time crim/ex-con Johnny Clay, whose gang execute his robbery as planned. But when the heist is over, the greed of hellish femme fatale Sherry (Marie Windsor), bottle blonde wife of timid betting-window teller/fellow robber George Peatty (the wonderfully down-at-heel Elisha Cook Jr), leads to disaster. Using repeated flashbacks of each team member’s role in the heist, Kubrick builds the narrative to a fever-pitch climax, featuring one of the most bitter and ironic endings in the whole noir style.

HOUSE OF BAMBOO (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

Tough ex-marine Fuller took a typical 1948 undercover-cop film noir, The Street With No Name, and completely reworked it, setting it in Tokyo and shooting it in vivid colour and Cinemascope. The result is a screen filled with Buddha’s, kabuki dancers and cherry blossom, rather than the usual noir iconography. The wonderful Robert Ryan is Sandy Dawson, a crazed hood who has organised a crime ring of former GIs in Tokyo. Robert “The Untouchables’ Stack plays Kenner, the agent sent by the US Army to infiltrate the vicious mob. Metaphorically presenting the post-war US occupation of Japan as a crime (probably why the picture is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s favourite films), Fuller even throws in a tense sexual undercurrent, hinting that Kenner is able to deceive the crime boss because Dawson is sexually attracted to his new ichi-ban (“number one man”).

IN A LONELY PLACE (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Set in Hollywood, this is a sad and strangely romantic noir melodrama. Humphrey Bogart, in one of the most searing performances of his career, plays Dixon Steele, a misanthropic, alcoholic screenwriter with a superiority complex. He invites a hatcheck girl from his local bar to his apartment ”“ and the next day her body is discovered. Steele is the prime suspect, but his new neighbour Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame) gives him a false alibi (“I like his face,” she tells a cop). Steele and Grey fall in love, and he beings writing a new script. But under the pressure of the investigation, Steele’s dark side tears them apart. “I lived a few weeks while you loved me,” Steele tells her ”“ the key line in Ray’s great study of loneliness, loss and failure.

WHITE HEAT (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

James Cagney’s insane, mother-fixated armed robber Cody Jarrett is arguably the most berserk protagonist in the entire noir cycle of films. Jarrett confesses to a lesser robbery to avoid murder charges for killing railwaymen during a train heist. In prison he is befriended by con Vic Pardo, who is in fact undercover detective Harry Fallon (the splendid Edmond O’Brien). When Cody learns that his beloved, gun toting Ma (Margaret Wycherly) has been killed by gang member Big Ed (Steve Cochran), with the help of Jarrett’s sluttish wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), the crazed Jarrett, ironically with Fallon’s help, busts out of jail seeking revenge. Cody Jarrett is the gangster that Cagney played in his youth (Walsh directed him in The Roaring Twenties) turned vile with age, suffering from overpowering psychosomatic headaches and psychotic episodes, but the actor’s skill is such that he makes the outlaw Jarrett human and almost sympathetic. Jarrett’s final self-immolation, atop a globe shaped fuel tank, screaming, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” before being engulfed in a mushroom cloud like an atomic explosion, is a seminal noir image.

Copyright © Ian Johnston 2011

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2 comments on “Ten great film noir”

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  1. Great choices! Out of The Past is my favourite of those (I agree – one of the best femmes fatales, ever!). I’ve seen all but House of Bamboo, so will definitely be tracking that one down. There are so many great noir films – one of my favourites is Nightmare Alley, which is set in a sleazy, second-rate carnival and stars Tyrone Power as a carny con man. The book it’s based on – by William Lindsay Gresham – is even more noir and downbeat.

  2. I know some consider White Heat a noir but I disagree. Noir is defined by it’s cinematography first and foremost. The film lacks that distinctive interplay between light and shadow.

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