Film noir cognoscente Eddie Muller defines noir as “the flip-side of the all-American success story.” On his website he has posted the list 25 Noir Films That Will Stand the Test of Time, a drool-worthy selection of classics that also happen to be some of our own favorites. Thus, in spirit, we present our picks below, including such Muller faves as “In a Lonely Place,” “Double Indemnity,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Touch of Evil” and “Detour.”
For those lovers of more contemporary noir, here are our 15 favorite neo-noirs.
Anne Thompson’s Top 5:
1. “Touch of Evil” (1958): Orson Welles’ bravura noir starts out strong with a delirious sustained single shot, as newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) stroll across the Mexican border to the sound of Henry Mancini and a ticking bomb, which explodes after they kiss. Welles leads you into a bizarre cross-border mystery (shot in sumptuous black-and-white) that resonates today, rife with corrupt cops and out-of-control gangsters, along with the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, who finally says of the derelict detective played by the corpulent Welles: “He was some kind of a man.”
2. “Port of Shadows” (“Le Quai des Brumes”) (1938): One of the first French films to be called “film noir” by critics, Marcel Carné’s atmospheric tragic romance stars the great Jean Gabin–cigarette perched on his lip–as an army deserter who steps out of the fog into a remote bar at the edge of Le Havre where he meets and falls for sultry teenager Michèle Morgan, who is trying to escape the clutches of her godfather (Michel Simon), who also loves her. Some gangsters are sniffing around trying to find her missing ex-boyfriend. Like many noirs, in this fatalistic drama, no good deed goes unpunished.
3. “Double Indemnity” (1944): This movie brings a triple dose of hardboiled noir, as writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler adapted James M. Cain’s infamous novel about a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who lures her prey, gullible insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), into her plan to murder her husband. Stanwyck and MacMurray have great chemistry as they flirt, but the couple run out of time as MacMurray’s wily boss (Edward G. Robinson) closes in on their scheme. “How could I know that murder was going to smell like honeysuckle?” asks Neff.
4. “Elevator to the Gallows” (“L’Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud”) (1958): New Wave director Louis Malle’s stunning feature debut stars Maurice Ronet and breakout Jeanne Moreau as two doomed loners wandering the murky shadows of Paris at night, accompanied by a moody percussive jazz score by Miles Davis. In this Hitchcock and Clouzot-inspired crime meller, an ex-mercenary soldier (Ronet) executes a plan to murder his boss, who is married to his lover (Moreau). But things go awry and the man winds up trapped in an elevator– with his car running outside.
5. “Alphaville” (1965): Jean-Luc Godard’s glorious black-and-white surreal sci-fi noir stars trenchcoated Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, who tries to save dame in distress Anna Karina. ‘’Reality is too complex. What it needs is fiction to make it real,” intones the computer at the film’s beginning. “Alphaville” exaggerates reality. Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard did not flood Paris with light. Instead they photographed at night on real Paris locations in order to make a film with the creepy feel of a nightmare. When it came to his own filmmaking, Godard was always playing with ideas. He saw his films as works of criticism: to him, art criticizes itself. “Alphaville” is packed with references: Dick Tracy, Henry Dickson, Flash Gordon, and most especially, “Underworld USA,” Sam Fuller’s masterpiece of malevolent dark-street ambience. Fuller’s quote from Godard’s next film “Pierrot le Fou” could easily apply here: “The film is like a battleground. Yes…love…hate…action…violence…death…in one word, emotion.”
Beth Hanna’s Top 5:
1. “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950): John Huston’s tale of the One Last Heist gone bad is as beautifully directed as it is acted by its terrific ensemble — headed by Sterling Hayden, with supporting turns from Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Calhern and James Whitmore. The tragic final scene, which takes Hayden away from the corrupt city streets and out to the impossible ideal of a farmstead, is one of the best closers in noir history, period.
2. “Gun Crazy” (1950): Director Joseph H. Lewis was a stylish craftsman through and through, and this is his crowning achievement. Sort of a proto-Bonnie & Clyde tale (along with Nicholas Ray’s “They Live By Night”), “Gun Crazy” follows John Dall as he falls hard for weapons-lusty Peggy Cummins at a sharpshooting road show. It’s not long before the two are in over their heads, on a major crime spree. Includes the famous long take shot from the back of a car while the lovers’ first big bank robbery is going down.
3. The Killers (1946): Czar of Noir Eddie Muller has described Robert Siodmak’s Hemingway adaptation “The Killers” as the “Citizen Kane” of the genre, and he’s right. It has a strikingly similar structure to Orson Welles’ mega classic, complete with the mysterious man (here Burt Lancaster) who dies in the film’s opening minutes, the equally mysterious words he utters before death (the fabulous line: “Once I did something wrong”) and the flashback structure as told from the different viewpoints of the crooks, cops and femme fatale who knew him. While Lancaster and Ava Gardner are given top billing, it’s actually Edmond O’Brien’s film; the great character actor plays an insurance claimsman unraveling the mystery.
4. In a Lonely Place (1950): Noir has never met melodrama to such achingly wistful effect as in Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece of paranoia, doomed romance and alienation. Humphrey Bogart goes dark as jaded, unstable screenwriter Dixon Steele. He falls in love with the luscious Gloria Grahame and is able to crawl out of his pit of unhappiness for a couple blissful weeks before everything goes to hell again — he’s suspected of a brutal murder, and his subsequent behavior doesn’t exactly make him the poster boy for innocence.
5. Detour (1945): Edgar G. Ulmer’s brilliant film boasts one of the more unique noir plot structures. Tom Neal, driving to California using a dead man’s identity, makes the mistake of offering a ride to a cute dame (Ann Savage, who practically shoots lasers out of her eyes as she delivers one knock-‘em-flat line after another). The two shack up in a Hollywood apartment. And then… they stay there. For a rather long time. Throughout this middle act, as Neal and Savage play a sort of perverse husband and wife, we get to see a microcosm of soured domesticity turn to lethal blows. You’ll never look at a phone cord the same way again.
Ryan Lattanzio’s Top 5:
1. “Laura” (1944): Otto Preminger’s classic of police corruption, murder and mayhem slithers with bump-in-the-night psychosexual undertones, from the central premise of a detective who falls in love with a dead woman, to yellow (and most definitely gay) journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose puff pieces vaunt a faded Hollywood dreamscape of paranoia, delusion and fallen starlets.
2. “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957): Alexander Mackendrick’s vicious flaying of show biz culture sings with invective prose, smarmy double-crossers and B&W visuals to die for. Burt Lancaster gives one of his best performances as a seasoned Broadway columnist with a flimsy code of ethics, and a poison wit as his sword. Which is what one needs to survive in the wings of the stage, with all its glittery ersatz. Beyond the curtain lies seedy world of sycophants and saboteurs where reputations die quicker than the applause. The screenplay, from Ernest Lehman’s book, sizzles like no other.
3. “High and Low” (1963): Akira Kurosawa’s deliriously cinematic police procedural traverses the highs and lows of mid-century Japanese class calamity, setting its story — but never its camera, as seen in the film’s kinetic, jittery train car sequences — around an affluent business exec whose driver’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom by cunning criminals. Played by the great Toshiro Mufine, the man sells shoes of all things, and they become an essential pawn in this film whose Japanese title literally translates to “Heaven and Hell.” And hell is where Kurosawa goes, an urban underworld of drugs, sex and crimes that don’t pay. But somebody has to.
4. “House by the River” (1950): Often left out of the annals of noir, Fritz Lang’s English-language, late-career thriller starring Louis Hayward plants the genre’s shadowy tropes and figures in the soil of a hardboiled Southern Gothic. Hayward stars as Stephen Byrne, a dissolute novelist whose casual crime and sloppy attempts to keep it below surface level wash ashore. Literally, the soggy corpse of his maid, who Byrne snuffs out in ice-cold blood after she rejects his sozzled come-ons, bobs down the river. But like any crafty creative type, he spins his fatal mistake into the stuff of art, hoping to cash in on the killing with a new novel. Bad idea, Byrne. This is classic nihilist noir.
5. “Out of the Past” (1947): Dripping with style for days and an unflagging thrum of dread, Jacques Tourneur’s canon classic pivots on the chemistry between Robert Mitchum as private investigator Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as his zaftig bounty. Black as night, the story unfolds through dense flashbacks, darkly lensed by Nicholas Musuraca, as Bailey runs from his past and into a dour present with a new flame (Virginia Huston) and a hit on his head. The film works elegantly as both a lurid picture of ’40s California, a la Raymond Chandler, and a compendium of all noir has to offer: visual splendor, dashing men, Freudian anxieties and trouble around every hairpin turn.
See trailers below.