The traditional view locates the classic film noir period between the release of John Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958. In between come several hundred moody crime movies, virtually all of them in black and white – the best-known exceptions being the breathtakingly TechniColored Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the more muted Slightly Scarlet (1956), courtesy of chiaroscuro maestro John Alton – and usually renowned for their downbeat stories of lost souls facing annihilation in a brutally deterministic universe, one governed by a seemingly implacable and Darwinian set of principles in which the strong attempt to exploit and destroy the week. Quite often this is aligned with images of urban desolation filmed in an expressionistic style, one that favours low angles and chiaroscuro cinematography, to evoke an atmosphere of unease and instability.
In Film Noir men are often depicted as weak and obsessive, unable to resist their urges for money, power and sex while women are often depicted as murderous and double-crossing ‘femme fatales’, embodying what many now see as an anxiety about female empowerment and independence, reflecting accelerated changes in the domestic sphere during the Second World War. The classic examples of this, all of which helped jump-start Film Noir’s popularity, include Mary Astor as the two-timing Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon,Claire Trevor as the sexy blonde with a deadly past in Murder, My Sweet (1943) and Barbara Stanwyck as the manipulative, anklet wearing Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944). You can get a flavour of film noir, and what aspects of it that so many people respond to, in this loving mashup:
The huge success of Double Indemnity probably did more than anything to bring Noir to the fore as a commercially viable approach to storytelling, one that would be increasingly combined with a darker worldview, one informed by a post-war mood that questioned the established order as men and women found it increasingly difficult to fall back into the lives they had led before the conflict. In addition, advances in filmmaking techniques made shooting out of the studio and on location easier and cheaper and helped give audiences something different and more realistic even as the stylization of the monochromatic cinematography was becoming ever-more elaborate, helping to project a more in-depth approach to character’s psychology and motivation. The style was also used for biopics and westerns and of course is also to be found in films made outside of the USA – the focus here though is on those made by Hollywood companies, whether set in LA, New York or anywhere in between
So, in strict chronological order, here begins the list of my 10 favourite examples of the classical Hollywood Noir. In putting together this list I’ve tried to adhere to the one director one film rule just in an attempt to keep things manageable.:
1. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Adapted from the pulp novella by James M. Cain, this was a re-write of his earlier success The Postman Always Rings Twice, a cleverly plotted mixture of crime and sex that was considered fairly shocking in its day. The scrip was written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, a fraught, combustible collaboration that none the less improved on its source in practically every way, not least because it came up with a much more concise finale, even though this was a replacement for the original gas chamber conclusion that was considered too downbeat, even for this film.
Fred MacMurray probably gives a career best as the weak (even seedy) insurance agent Walter Neff who falls head over heels for Barbara Stanwyck’s bewitching sexual charm (who wouldn’t). A true classic of its kind, even if the flashback structure, voice over narration, blonde femme fatale and wise cracking dialogue were already in place in the previous year’s Murder, My Sweet (1943), adapted by screenwriter John Paxton and director Edward Dmytryk from Chandler’s second Philip Marlowe novel, Farewell My Lovely.
2. LAURA (1944)
This is the film that effectively launched and forever fixed the image of Hollywood beauty Gene Tierney, pretty much in the same way that Rita Hayworth would remain forever identified with her performance in Gilda (see below) – the difference though is that Tierney was more or less starting out here while Hayworth already had a dozen or so decent movies to her credit already after a decade working in the movie capital. It also defined the career of composer David Raksin, who came up with a classic tune despite being asked to come up with a song that was only similar enough to ‘Sophisticated Lady’ as to not get sued when the Duke Ellington standard became too expensive to licence. It was also the Hollywood directing debut of Otto Preminger who would make several fine Noirs in the following few years before becoming Tinseltown’s resident badboy.
3. DETOUR (1945)
This poverty row suspense drama by bargain basement studio Monogram, allegedly shot in under 2 weeks on a budget of under $100,000, this succinct and very compact little movie (it runs 67 minutes) is an endlessly surprising and engrossing movie. Ann savage is wonderful as an entrancing and very evil fatal woman and Tom Neal makes for a perfect patsy, although one that as a narrator may not be quite as innocent as he want to make out. But this is also a great director’s movie and Edgar G Ulmer, master of the low-budget movie, is here probably at the top of his form, making the most of exceptionally reduced circumstances to make true cinematic gold.
4. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)
A TechniColor film noir? Starring two actors who would become closely associated with Noir – Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney, this story of a murderous woman, while shot in colour and largely set outdoors, has all the psychological menace and darkness one is accustomed to in this type of film and the marvellous cinematography has all the spidery impressionism that one would require. Like Laura, Mildred Pierce and Gilda these are also seen as examples of ‘women’s picture’ or melodramas but also seem to fall well within the look and feel of Noir.
5. GILDA (1946)
With its strong sense of aberrant sexuality, sumptuous design and cinematography, celebrated ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ musical number and a frankly cuckoo plot that makes no sense at all, this is more peculiar than Leave Her To Heaven in the Noir stakes. And yet, with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford as its frankly gorgeous leads and the scarred George Macready as their nemesis, this shouldn’t work but it really does. The plot, despite stories of heavy post production tinkering to try to make it more sensible, is frankly all over the place in this home-erotic love triangle but the lush look and willful artificiality manage to keep it all ticking over. Perhaps more of a pervy romantic melodrama than Noir? Unforgettable, either way.
6. OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
With Double Indemnity, this is the film that best seems to exemplify what people imagine when they think of Film Noir. it has a doomed hero who by the end seemed to not so much welcome as invite his end, a femme fatale as its protagonist, a complex crime plot, shimmering and moody cinematography, a strong sense of characters and places in which people pay for playing outside of societal’s accepted boundaries – and lots of double crosses and dead bodies. Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas make for a great triumvirate in another dark romantic triangle that ends in death and destruction. And its all filmed with the greatest possible taste with exquisite flair by Jacques Tourner, here simultaneously making the transition to the big time and peaking in a career that already included Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie for the Val Lewton unit. Subsequently remade as Against All Odds (1984).
7. FORCE OF EVIL (1949)
Superficially about illegal gambling, this dark and obscurely-plotted movie (it was largely re-edited by its studio) was adapted from Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People about the numbers racket – but it’s really a mytho-poetic examination of the struggle between two brothers, beautifully played by John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. The fact that the plot is really hard to follow at some points weirdly makes it even more powerful.
8. KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
In many ways this is an anti-Noir in the sense that it seems to fly in the face of every conceivable convention – even the opening titles scroll in the wrong direction! It takes Mickey Spillaine’s eponymous Mike Hammer potboiler and then undercuts it – Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as a truly sleazy sociopath with a callous disregard for friends and foes alike. This proved to be enormously influential, the climactic sequence with the opening of the ‘Pandora’s Box’ directly referenced at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, even to the extent of re-using the same sound effects, as well as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. A horrible story full of awful people, brilliantly and cynically realised.
9. THE KILLING (1956)
This is the film in which Stanley Kubrick really came into his own. A cool thriller about a heist that goes wrong, it proved to be a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, not just for Reservoir Dogs but also in Jackie Brown two, especially in its still powerful use of discontinuous narrative as the story goes backwards and forwards in time. Sterling Hayden makes for a compelling protagonist, building on the doomed criminal he played in 1950 for John Huston in The Asphalt Jungle while that Noir perennial Elisha Cook Jr probably gets his best ever role as the worm that turns sharing some great moments with that great B movie siren, Marie Windsor.
10. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
The classic noir period as most understand it ended with the 1950s with the release of Robert Wise’s brilliantly but incredibly bleak Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and this, Orson Welles last American movie. A fascinating look at literal and metaphorical border crossing, it is a visually stunning, morally troubling and truly Gothic piece of noir. Available now in three versions, none completed by Welles himself, the most preferable is probably the one supervised by Rick Schmidlin and Walter Murch which removed the titles and Henry Mancini’s memorable theme music from the opening credits. It’s a great movie no matter which iteration you get your hands on.