At the start of this month Turner Classic Movies begun their ‘Noirvember’ season and have been showing some true noir greats from the classic American Noir era, this has sent me scurrying back to my movie collection to dig out my favourite film noirs. Noir is such a hard genre if it is even a genre to define but for the purposes of this list I have stuck to movies in the classic noir period roughly early 1940’s to mid 1950’s. I’ll no doubt come back at a later date to include different eras, neo-noir and other related types but here are my five favourite classic noirs recommended to anyone new to the genre:
Double Indemnity – If you wanted to define noir in one movie or perhaps even in one monologue it would be Double Indemnity you’d choose.
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it? ”
It’s the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff who trying to sell an insurance policy meets the glamorous and devious Mrs Dietrichson. When the two get involved can they get away with murder and cashing in her husband’s insurance policy? The movie uses Neff’s confession to his friend and boss as a framing device to bookend the movie and its Neff who provides the voice over as we see his tale through to the bitter end. But just what drove Neff to do it?
Fred MacMurray took the lead role after several other more established leading men turned the role down fearing the dark character would affect their persona. Strangely MacMurray would rarely play this kind of dark role again becoming famous for his role on sitcom My Three Sons and a number of Disney family movies however, he plays Neff with an edge never allowing him to be truly likeable but not taking him into stereotypical psycho murderer territory. He establishes a fantastic chemistry with Stanwyck who is alluring as the femme fatale without the classic beauty of some of her contemporaries such as Veronica Lake however she adds a depth of character to a type of role that in future years would become a cliché. The other lead is that of gangster picture Stalwart Edward G Robinson as Neff’s craggy by the numbers boss, it’s the little mannerisms and speech patterns Robinson gives the character that payoff so well particularly in the final scene with MacMurray.
Many books on noir start with Double Indemnity as the first fully formed main stream American Noir it’s remembered as not just a great noir but one of the greatest movies of the era and can be analysed for style and content or simply enjoyed as great entertainment.
The Maltese Falcon – Humphrey Bogart in a remake of a remake based on the original Dashiell Hammett novel, legend has it that this was another Bogart role originally rejected by George Raft if that’s true then Raft must have regretted it after this thriller catapulted Bogart into mega stardom. Already a well known actor but not yet a mega star it was this movie and the following years Casablanca that would turn Bogart into an icon and a representation of American manhood that so many aspired to. Tough yet fragile Bogart portrayed the detective Sam Spade as a flawed tough guy existing in the shadows of the criminal world not a hero in the true sense of the word but a man who can use his brain, his fists or a gun to do what a man has to do when his partner is killed. The plot revolves around ‘The Maltese Falcon’ a jewel encrusted gold statue, a ‘Mcguffin’ as Hitchcock would term it that is sought by a rogues gallery of toughs, femme fatales, small time crooks and international thieves, when a beautiful woman involves Spade and his partner Miles Archer in the caper Archer is killed leaving Spade to investigate just who is this woman and is she all she says? The supporting characters are memorable particularly the thief Joel Cairo played by Peter Laurie and ‘The fat-man’ played by Sydney Greenstreet, high on my personal list of all-time favourite movies The Maltese Falcon is an adventure I can get lost in anytime.
Rififi – The term film noir was first identified by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 and it was French film critics that first seriously analysed film as an art form, the term film noir wouldn’t widely be adopted until the early 70’s outside of France. Meanwhile the French didn’t do a bad job of creating their own Noirs and in 1955 Jules Dassin a Hollywood director who had produced several noir classics was forced to head to Europe after being blacklisted for his political beliefs found his way to France and produced Rififi. Not just a classic noir but also what would become the template for the modern heist movie it contains noir characters but freed from the constraints of Hollywood’s Hayes code produces an edgier nastier noir. The complicated near 30min heist scene conducted with no film score or dialogue would influence crime films for decades to come, a classic noir and a tense thrilling heist movie all wrapped up in a suitably stylish package. Rumour had it at the time the police of both France and Mexico wanted to ban the film fearing it’s intricate heist scene was so detailed it would give the criminal element ideas! As usual with foreign language movies best to stick to the subtitled version if it is available there are some very poor dubbed versions available.
The Third Man – Joseph Cotton plays the pulp novelist Holly Martins who arrives in Vienna just after World War II to take up a job with old friend Harry Lime. On arrival Martins finds his old friend is dead, at his funeral a number of shady characters appear was Lime’s death all it appears to be and just who was the mysterious third man who may have witnessed his death? Shot on location in rubble strewn Vienna that was still half deserted after the war this thriller is brilliantly shot with locations from bomb sites to the gothic arched sewer system providing the perfect back drop to the mystery. Orson Welles is superb even with limited screen time and his presence dominates the movie as he provides one of my personal favourite screen speeches. With an able supporting cast Trevor Howard as the British officer investigating Lime to Alida Vall’s fragile portrayal of Limes tragic lover. The style, location and performances elevate this way above the standard noir thriller to be regarded as one of the finest films of all time.
Sunset Blvd. – Where to begin with this regarded by many as one of the best films of all time it has several iconic moments and quotes from the opening shot of the narrator’s body floating in a swimming pool to the finale as flash bulbs erupt “Mr DeMille I’m ready for my close-up”. This is a story of the movies and movie stars, William Holden stars as Joe Gillis a barely employed screen writer who stumbles onto the mansion of an old silent movie star Norma Desmond played by the real life former silent star Gloria Swanson living in seclusion with only a faithful butler as company. She dreams of a comeback to pictures and down on his luck Joe Gillis decides to use her to stay solvent, but she wants more than just his writing and it’s not long before Joe is a kept man. But while working on her script he meets a friend’s girl who has an idea for a script which re-ignites Joes creativity and he falls for her but just what or who will cause Joe to end up dead in the swimming pool? Despite being well received on release Hollywood found Sunset Blvd. uncomfortably close to the truth, commenting on rich fading stars less than graceful slide into obscurity, the desperation of every young wannabe to be seen in Schwabbs drugstore where starlets were often ‘discovered’ and most off all the lifting of the curtains and showing just what went on in the Hollywood machine and how movies were churned out on an industrial scale. But it never loses its focus on the story of how Joe is drawn into the mania of Norma Desmond and his struggle to escape.
If your yet to investigate the world of Noir then give one of these classics a try but beware it may become an obssesion.