Thursday, April 30, 2015

My 12 Favourite Film Noirs


"40's style with added robot"
a post from last year
...
The 70th anniversary of the release of the quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), is as good an excuse as any to watch a classic noir. But what exactly counts as film noir in the first place? It's a tricky definitional problem. Although the classic noir era is over it’s not easy to define what noir was or when the noir period definitively ended. If you're going to say that nothing after 1959 counts as a proper noir (which a lot of film historians do) then many of my favourites below aren't going to make it. But the following is my list and my rules so I'm going to say that the cut off date is August 1987 when John Huston died (director and actor in many of the greatest noirs) which allows me to cheat a little. Obviously these are idiosyncratic choices and apologies if your favourites (Night and the City, Pickup on South Street, DOA, Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, Cutter’s Way etc.) didn’t quite fit into the top 12.

12. The Asphalt Jungle
Directed by John Huston (1950)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in a robbery, but the real fun is watching the gang unravel under the pressure of success. Crosses and double crosses, a cameo by a purring Marilyn Monroe, an impressive Sam Jaffe as Doc  Riedenschneider; this is one of the all time great heist-gone-wrong films.

11. The Killing
Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1956)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in another robbery and again everything goes wrong after it all goes right. Hayden’s  Johnny Clay is a pacing, muscular, cerebral criminal, but while lady luck is on his side at the track it isn’t at the airport.

10. The Third Man
Directed by Carol Reed (1949)
Orson Welles is dead, or is he? Orson Welles is a bad guy, or is he? Joseph Cotten tries to find out or does he? Sewers, a Ferris wheel, duffle coats, the cuckoo clock speech, oh and the greatest existential ending of a film ever...

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Directed by Tay Garnett (1946)
Huge rip off. There is no postman or doorbell. Lana Turner smoulders and John Garfield is sucked willingly into the gravitational pull of her platinum sun. The plan is to kill her old man and take the insurance money. They know it’s not going to work but they do it anyway. Brilliant.


8. The Big Steal
Directed by Don Siegel (1949)
Don Siegel began his career directing the montages for Casablanca and finished it directing various Clint Eastwood vehicles in the 70’s, which isn’t a bad career at all. Along the way he made this slice of noir about an army lieutenant wrongly accused of robbery who pursues the real crook through Mexico. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer stand out in a terrific cast.

7. Strangers On A Train
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1951)
Two strangers meet on a train and realise that they both need someone bumped off.  Based on a slyly brilliant book by Patricia Highsmith with a script by Raymond Chandler and an uncredited Ben Hecht, Alfred Hitchcock entered his great 1950’s period with this perfect stomach churning noir. Robert Walker chews the scenery as Bruno, a charming psychopath who wants out from under the heel of his father. Farley Granger provides able support.

6. Rififi
Directed by Jules Dassin (1957)
Jules Dassin got his start directing Yiddish films in New York, then he moved into mainstream Hollywood movies (directing the great Night and the City), then he got blacklisted, moved to France and directed this noir classic, with a cynical, bitter Jean Servais as an excon with a plan for a robbery on a jewellery shop. The heist itself is the highpoint of the film with its famous 10 minute zero dialogue, zero music, coming-through-the-ceiling scene. Everything succeeds perfectly but this being a noir you know that somehow it isn’t all going to end with expensive plonk and cottages in the Dordogne.

5. The Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston (1941)
Humphrey Bogart is tough guy private eye Sam Spade who helps Mary Astor locate a missing relic from the Knights of Malta that might be knocking around the streets of San Francisco. Also after the “black bird” are a snivelling Peter Lorre and a lugubrious Sydney Greenstreet. The ending is a bit contrived (although faithful to the novel) and fits with the best traditions of downbeat, pessimistic noirdom.

4. The Big Sleep
Directed by Howard Hawks (1946)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star, William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, Raymond Chandler wrote the novel. I’ve seen this half a dozen times and I still don’t really get the plot: something about a missing Irish rebel, a pornographer and dodgy films, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the chemistry between Bogie and Betty Bacall. Hawks runs a tight ship throughout but lets the future Mr and Mrs Bogart really rip in their scenes. Grainy, dirty, rainy and slick, this is probably the highpoint of Hawks’s impressive career.

3. Double Indemnity
Directed by Billy Wilder (1944)
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the James Cain novel. It’s another knock-off-the-hubbie-and-get-the-insurance scheme. Babs rocks the sunglasses and angora sweater look and poor Fred doesn’t stand a chance (neither does the husband of course). Raymond Chandler argued with Billy Wilder, drank like a fish and somehow wrote the screenplay. He has a brief cameo at 16 minutes in (his only appearance in a movie.)

2. Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott (1982)
Some people are under the mistaken belief that this is only a science fiction movie but in fact it’s a classic noir. Filmed on The Maltese Falcon set on the Warner’s back lot, it’s the story of half a dozen people trying to make sense of life before they themselves die. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a Blade Runner, whose speciality is hunting androids who have returned to a dystopic, ruined Earth. Along the way he falls for the beautiful replicant, Rachael, who’s so convincingly human that she doesn’t even know that she’s a machine. Based on Philip K Dick’s short novel of ideas: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, Ridley Scott has turned this material into a metaphysical detective story where the detective finds out not who done it, but how to be a good human being.

1. Chinatown
Directed by Roman Polanski (1973)
You know what happens to nosy fellows? They get their noses cut off. No, really, they do and it's not pretty. Robert Towne wrote this gloriously depressing tale of a 1930’s Private Eye (Jack Nicholson) who uncovers a plot to steal water from the city of Los Angeles and divert it to land in the San Fernando valley. One man finds out the truth and his wife (Faye Dunaway), hires ex Chinatown cop, Nicholson, to find out who did him in. The villain of the piece is John Huston, playing Dunaway’s rapist father with gleeful malevolence. Roman Polanski’s direction is lush, romantic and old fashioned. His cameo as a knife wielding maniac is disturbing on all sorts of levels. But all the performances are pitch perfect (look out for James Hong who plays the butler in this and a genetic designer in Blade Runner). The ending of Chinatown is melodramatic and a little rushed, but it still works, and as in all the really best noirs the hero is thwarted and beaten. (I feel that Robert Altman's superb version of The Long Goodbye also from 1973 (and also filmed in LA) is marred a bit by its satisfying ending.) Noirs teach us that defeat lies ahead for us all; learning how to deal with this defeat and ultimately death itself is the only meaning of life we’re ever going to get in this world of tears.