|"40's style with added robot"|
a post from last year
The Blu Ray 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.