Top 25 Films Noir

My top 25 films noir by year of release. Ranking them would be arbitrary as there is little if anything between them.  For my full listing of essential films noir click here.

port-of-shadows Port of Shadows (1938 France)

Aka Le Quai des brumes. Fate a dank existential fog ensnares doomed lovers Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan after one night of happiness.

The Maltese Falcon(1941 US)

Bogart as Sam Spade the quintessential noir protagonist. A loner on the edge of polite society, sorely tempted to transgress but declines and is neither saved nor redeemed.

port-of-shadows Double Indemnity (1944 US)

All the elements of the archetypal film noir  are distilled into a gothic LA tale of greed, sex, and betrayal.

port-of-shadows Murder, My Sweet (Aka Farewell, my Lovely 1944 US)

The most noir fun you will ever have. Raymond Chandler’s prose crackles with moody noir direction from Edward Dmytryk.

port-of-shadows The Big Sleep (1946 US)

Love’s Vengeance Lost. Darker than Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. Bogart is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.

port-of-shadows Ride the Pink Horse (1946 US)

Disillusioned WW2 vet arrives in a New Mexico town to blackmail a war racketeer. Imbued with a rare humanity.

port-of-shadows Body and Soul (1947 US)

A masterwork. Melodramatic expose of the fight game and a savage indictment of money capitalism. Garfield’s picture.

port-of-shadows Out of the Past (1947 US)

Quintessential film noir. Inspired direction, exquisite expressionist cinematography, and legendary Mitchum and Greer.

port-of-shadows The Lady From Shanghai (1947 US)

Orson Welles’ brilliant jigsaw noir with a femme-fatale to die for and a script so sharp you relish every scene.

port-of-shadows T-Men(1947 US)

Mann and Alton offer a visionary descent into a noir realm of dark tenements, nightclubs, mobsters, and hellish steam baths.

port-of-shadows Act of Violence (1948 US)

Long-shot and deep focus climax filmed night-for-night on a railway platform: the stuff noirs are made of.

port-of-shadows Force of Evil (1948 US)

Polonsky transcends noir in a tragic allegory on greed and family. Garfield adds signature honesty and gritty complexity .

port-of-shadows Raw Deal (1948 US)

Sublime noir from Anthony Mann and John Alton. Knockout cast in a strong story stunningly rendered as expressionist art.

port-of-shadows The Set-Up (1949 US)

Robert Ryan is great as washed-up boxer in Robert Wise’ sharp expose of the fight game. Brooding and intense noir classic.

port-of-shadows The Third Man (1949 UK)

Sublime. An engaging cavalcade of characters in a human comedy of love, friendship, and the imperatives of conscience.

Night And the City (1950 US/UK)

Dassin’s stark existential journey played out in the dark dives of post-war London as a quintessential noir city.

port-of-shadows The Asphalt Jungle (1950 US)

Quintessential heist movie transcends melodrama and noir. A police siren wails: “Sounds like a soul in hell.”

port-of-shadows On Dangerous Ground (1951 US)

City cop battling inner demons is sent to ‘Siberia’. A film of dark beauty and haunting characterisations.

port-of-shadows The Prowler (1951 US)

Van Heflin is homme-fatale in Trumbo thriller. Director Losey is unforgiving. Each squalid act is suffocatingly framed.

port-of-shadows The Big Heat (1953 US)

Gloria Grahame as existential hero in Fritz Lang’s brooding socio-realist noir critique.

port-of-shadows Kiss Me Deadly (1955 US)

Anti-fascist Hollywood Dada. Aldrich’s surreal noir a totally weird yet compelling exploration of urban paranoia.

port-of-shadows Rififi (1955 France)

Dassin’s classic heist thriller culminating in the terrific final scenes of a car desperately careening through Paris streets.

port-of-shadows The Big Combo (1955 US)

“I live in a maze… a strange blind backward maze’. Obsessed cop hunts down a psychotic crime boss in the best noir of 50s.

port-of-shadows Sweet Smell of Success (1957 US)

DP James Wong Howe’s sharpest picture. As bracing as vinegar and cold as ice. Ambition stripped of all pretense.

port-of-shadows Odds Against Tomorrow (1959 US)

A work of art from Rober Wise. New York City and its industrial fringe are quasi-protagonists that harbor the angst and desperation of life outside the mainstream – sordid dreams of the last big heist that will fix everything.

Noir Beat: The Death of Film Noir

The Death of Film Noir

Film Noir aficionado and prolific blogger Ray “Cigar Joe” Ottulich from Noirsville has pointed me to a series of on-line essays bearing the title The Death of Film Noir by a certain William Ahearn, where he expounds a fairly pugnacious thesis on the true origins of film noir scholarship.

Ahearn explores the origins of film noir in French poetic realism, the early critical writings of Nino Frank and other French film critics, and the influential post-war trauma thesis of Paul Schrader and American scholarly studies from the likes of noir scholar Alain Silver.

Ahearn has done his homework and the essays are provocative and informative. Not all will agree with his radical take on the established film noir canon, but his arguments are shrewdly and clearly presented.

Kirk Douglas’ Century

To celebrate Kirk Douglas reaching his first century – and many happy returns – I recently watched two of his movies: Champion (1949) and Lonely Are The Brave (1961).

Champion, the story of a boxer’s ruthless ambition and his demise is widely recognised as a noir, but has a lesser profile than the great boxing noirs Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). Still Champion packs a punch, with a bravado performance from Douglas and a compelling scenario. The demise of the protagonist, who ruthlessly betrays kith and kin, has an element of tragedy. As in Kurosawa’s seminal Stray Dog, a chance event and a decision, which is neither right nor wrong, sets off an unwavering trajectory that no force can stop or deflect – like that shooting star in High Sierra. The death of an all-round bastard can still be tragic.

In Lonely Are the Brave, Douglas plays an anachronism, a thoroughly decent man destroyed by modernity. A cowboy and his loyal horse ultimately failing to negotiate a highway that tears across the horizon. But not before a rifle shot brings down an army helicopter in hot pursuit. The cowpuncher breaks out of a local lockup after failing to spring his brother, who has been jailed for helping “wet-backs” crossing over the border from Mexico. The film definitely resonates today. Another bravura turn by Douglas. I see it as a noir. Others may quibble. But as Ray Ottulich put it to me in an email: “Noir is in all of us. Think of us all as having an internal tuning fork, these tuning forks are forged by our life experiences which are all unique. When we watch these films their degree of noir-ness resonates with us differently, so we either “tune” to them or we don’t.”

Nippon Noir: Not everyone wants to be found

The Bad Sleep Well (Japan 1960)

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is a caustic tale of corporate corruption and greed, where the surface hides the ugly truth.  The death of a fall guy thrown from a multi-story office block in central Tokyo precipitates a simmering revenge by the victim’s son. Using a stolen identity he marries the crippled daughter of the firm’s boss.  The plan is meticulously orchestrated, and skewers the boss’s henchmen slowly, as the noose is gathered and readied to lasso the ‘big’ man – who despite his slight build and grandfatherly persona is a vicious thug – a “family man”.

But as in all noirs, where plans have the perverse habit of falling apart, the elaborate scheme unravels disastrously – and tragically. There is plenty of melodrama which is heavily stylized, and for western audiences rather mannered.

The opening set piece of the wedding reception for the daughter’s marriage,  where a chorus of muck-raking journalists gate-crashes the party, is a truly bravado introduction to the protagonists and the ensuing narrative.  A wedding cake in the shape of company headquarters with some unorthodox decoration is the centrepiece.  The glitz and confected purity is witheringly deconstructed as panicked minions are confronted with confounding and troubling portents.

While the rest of the film plays out with competence it feels like a let-down. Definitely worth a look but stamina and patience are needed.

 

The Ruined Map

“But I was the one standing here now. There was no mistake, I was the one. I thought I was following the husband’s map, but I was following my own; I wanted to follow in his steps and I followed my own. Suddenly I was frozen still. But it was not only because of the cold… nor was it the fault of the liquor alone, nor of my shame. My perplexity gave way to uneasiness, and that changed to fear.”

 

Kobo Abe’s 1967 novel, The Ruined Map, was adapted in 1968 as a film titled, The Man Without a Map, by director Hiroshi Teshigahara. I recently read the book and found it weirdly reminiscent of Chandler’s Los Angeles, and Hammett’s continental op.

Abe’s disorienting detective story is set in a windy alienating metropolis which is never named but is surely Tokyo, and which could as easily have been played out in LA’s bunker hill – a bizarro locale if you will, framed with hard-boiled prose redolent of the desolate poetry of Raymond Chandler. An unnamed private investigator is assigned the job of locating a missing person.

The missing guy as described by the pining wife is the essence of banality. He leaves a trail – but it leads nowhere. For his trouble the dick has to fight succumbing to the sex that emanates from the wife. She is neither young nor beautiful, and can’t be trusted, with an emotional distance that confounds any notion that she really wants the husband back, but… her skin, the way her hair falls, and the languor. Add to the mix the woman’s brother a second-rate hoodlum, a hint of incest, a gang of gay rent boys, a taxi racket operated by thugs, and a protagonist who you can’t help suspect is maybe borderline incompetent.

Sort of like a story written by an AI channelling Chandler and Hammett – if those guys were tripping on peyote and not their usual bourbon.

 

 

Amnesia and Missing Persons: “our lives dissolve into the evening”

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

“A little girl is returning from the beach, at dusk, with her mother. She is crying for no reason at all, because she would have liked to continue playing. She moves off into the distance. She has already turned the corner of the street, and do not our lives dissolve into the evening as quickly as this grief of childhood?”

– Patrick Modiano, Missing Person (2004 Prix Goncourt)

 

Nobel-laureate Patrick Modiano’s novel ‘Missing Person’ traces soon after Word War 2 the search by an amnesiac for his identity. He has worked for a Paris detective agency for a number of years, and after it closes down he decides to find out who he is. With a bit of detective work, he starts to find traces that begin to come together slowly by dint of accosting erstwhile strangers for answers and pursuing other connections. By the end of the book, he is almost there but a man with perhaps the last piece of the puzzle is lost at sea presumed dead. Here we have a protagonist who is the missing person he is trying to find. And he discovers only vague largely impalpable fragments of memory.  He may have found an identity of sorts but he won’t recover the lost memory of a life that has “dissolved into the evening”.

Dashiell Hammett in his novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’ has Sam Spade relate a fable which in academic writing on film noir has become known as the “Flitcraft Parable”. Spade tells the story of Mr Flitcraft, a realtor and family man who one day goes out to lunch and never returns. On the day he disappeared he had narrowly escaped death when a heavy beam from a construction site fell eight stories onto the pavement, just missing him. A typically noir moment. As Spade put it: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

Back in Paris at around the same time Georges Simenon is writing his novel ‘Monsieur Monde Vanishes’ about a well-off bourgeois, who one morning leaves his office and hops a train to Marseille, hooking up with a b-girl on the way. His wife reports him as a missing person. He gets works as a clerk in a dance joint.  Neither happy nor unhappy, he exists perhaps in a way more real than in his comfortable life in Paris. But is his slumming permanent?

Monsieur Monde certainly takes all the risks and does make a shattering discovery, but like Flitcraft and the Paris amnesiac, has he found a new life or rediscovered an old one, the doppelganger in us all?

 

Noir Amnesia

Noir Amnesia

Film noir evokes the dark side where the noir protagonist is usually trapped in a web of dire circumstance.

A particular noir trope is amnesia. Hemmed in by internal barriers the noir amnesiac struggles to recover memory and meaning. The lost doppelganger, usually the dark flip-side of a new better self. In the redemptive noir the better self in the process of discovery cancels the past and gets a second shot, while in a less sanguine universe the fusion is bitterly destructive. A variation has the anti-hero hunting down the perpetrator of his own repressed memory, or stealing the identity of a better self.

The femme-fatale is a kind of amnesiac. An alluring front to a rotten foundation. On rare – perverse – occasions she repents and lives happily ever after. And it is not only the female of the species. Hommes-fatales are not unknown. Indeed pairings in-fatale though rare have a frission all their own.

And sometimes it was all a dream – or a psychotic delusion.

Identifying films noir that trace particular strands of fractured identity would be revealing too much, so here is a selective list to get you started:

The Noir City: Manhattan Transfer 1925

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“Dusk gently smooths crispangled streets. Dark presses tight the steaming asphalt city, crushes the fretwork of windows and lettered signs and chimneys and watertanks and ventilators and fireescapes and moldings and patterns and corrugations and eyes and hands and neckties into blue chunks, into black enormous blocks. Under the rolling heavier heavier pressure windows blurt light. Night crushes bright milk out of arclights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow, green into streets resounding with feet. All the asphalt oozes light. Light spurts from lettering on roofs, mills dizzily among wheels, stains rolling tons of sky.”

– John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (NY 1925)