Friday Noir Special: Top 5 films

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Film Noir 3

The Friday Noir column has been tugging along at a steady pace for well over a year at this point. After being privy to so many double-crosses, back stabbings, bleak outlooks and cynical one-liners, it feels like the right time to shine some proverbial light on the sinister world of film noir. What follows is a list of five previously movies reviewed that best exemplify many of the alluring qualities of this fondly remembered and frequently emulated genre.

Some pertinent details details about the list below need be shared with the readers in the hopes of anticipating and preventing any head scratching. First, the list is comprised strictly of films from the classic noir era, thus limiting the candidates to such films made and released in the mid 1940s up until the late 1950s. Neonoirs, and there are excellent ones, make no mistake about it, are therefore ineligible. The list aims to tackle the source of noir rather than its imitators. Apologies to L.A. Confidential fans.

Second, some commonly regarded masterworks are absent. As great as The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard and Touch of Evil are, they obvious are selections and by that nature less inspired choices. They are wonderful films, as is Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past for that matter, but who would not mention them in a typical compilation of film noir favourites? Readers are invited to think of the following as recommendations of some great film noir entries other than the popular classics. And now, with those details finally out of the way…

 

5-Crime in the Streets (1956, Don Siegel)

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One of Siegel’s lesser known pictures, Crime in the Streets is an emotionally gripping tale of one young man’s (John Cassavetes) spiral of violence and mistakes as his attachment to a neighbourhood gang of ruffians which he leads overpowers his affections for his mother. The performances in this half-noir, half ‘kitchen sink drama’ are exemplary for their power but also their brutal honesty. The claustrophobic scenes at the protagonist’s small apartment where he lives with his mother and impressionable younger brother are so good they actually hurt. Adding to the experience is the magnificent set of a neighbourhood block on which most of the film was shot. Full review

 

4-Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)

Le trésor de la Sierra Madre

True enough, this is another John Huston directed noir with Humphrey Bogart in the lead role, exactly like The Maltese Falcon. That said, it is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the more popular aforementioned classic. This might be explained by its very different setting. Dingy, urban America is replaced with the scorching Mexican desert where Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt are on the hunt for treasure. The dark clouds of greed and mistrust quickly envelop the trio, hence its very nois-ish subject matter, in the second half of the film. Full review

 

3-Gun Crazy (1950, Joseph H. Lewis)

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This special little movie follows the infamous exploits of a couple, John Dall and Peggy Cummings, as they perform heists across the United States. Their challenging, unhealthy attraction to one another is predicated on their common obsession with fire arms. This is a sad, strange love story set within a complicated relationship doomed for failure. Everything, from the characterizations to the pacing, feels very different from most noirs, with the most haunting scene being the immaculately shot foggy, mountain-bound climax. Full review

 

2-Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)

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Although it is a misconception that the hard boiled private eye is a staple of the genre (there really are not that many noirs featuring that sort of character as the protagonist), it would be a missed opportunity if not even one had made the cut, and why not Kiss Me Deadly in which Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer as arguably one of the most hard boiled and cynical of all private dicks. He is so rugged and antagonistic the viewer might start to question whether or not they are even supposed to be rooting for him! Steeped in fears that coloured the early Cold War years, this one is a must. Full review

 

1-On Dangerous Ground (1952, Nicholas Ray)

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Arguably one of the greatest noirs rarely mentioned in ‘best of’ lists, Nicholas Ray’s cold, violent, dreamy and haunting story is about a big city cop (Robert Ryan) whose vicious tendencies have him sent to investigate a murder in the countryside to cool off .It is out in the frigid winter, after meeting a lonely blind woman (Ida Lupino), that he discovers another meaning to his life. Sadly, the only available copy of On Dangerous Ground is a competent if unspectacular standard DVD courtesy of Warner Bros. from a few years ago. Simply put, the film looks and sounds amazing. With Bernard Hermann’s score guiding the story’s emotional chore, the film is as operatic as it is intimate. Full review

 

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-Edgar Chaput

4 Comments
  1. Gregg says

    Hello Edgar,

    Interesting list. Numbers 1-3 i agree with you, they are indisputably films noir. I love On Dangerous Ground, while Gun Crazy and Kiss Me Deadly are two of my absolute favorites of the “genre”. They’d both make a list of my Top 10 Noirs, and one or both would likely be near the top, easily in the top five.

    It’s on the subject of numbers 4 and 5 where I have a hard time agreeing on calling them Film Noir. I know there are very loose rules governing what constitutes Film Noir, so I am not saying i think you’re wrong, just that i disagree. Crime In The Streets has the urban setting and certain aspects of lighting that appear in many Noirs, but other than that I’m not sure there is much else. The age of the main characters, as well as it’s year of release makes me want to call Crime In The Streets a closer cousin to Blackboard Jungle, which is certainly not a Noir.

    Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is closer to Noir than Crime In The Streets, but I think the setting removes it from consideration. There is no femme fatale, which can be excused (neither does Crime In The Streets). And Fred C. Dobbs is certainly a morally ambiguous/compromised character, undone by his greed and mistrust of others. But most of the film occurs in the mountains, not the city. The setting places it closer to Western territory. But the more i think about it, a lot of Noir-ish things happen in Sierra Madre…maybe I’m coming around to your way of thinking, at least as far as Sierra Madre is concerned. I have never seen it on a list of Films Noir, but maybe the “rules” need to be revised…

    As i said, though, the top 3 on your list are classic, without-a-doubt Films Noir. Kiss Me Deadly and Gun Crazy, in fact, are right up there with films like Out Of The Past and The Maltese Falcon, insofar as they contain most of the elements of classic noir, right down to their respective classic femmes fatale, especially Gun Crazy, with the way that John Dall is undone by his love for the dangerous and beautiful Peggy Cummins. The final scene in the mountains is one of the spookiest, all time great noir scenes!

    Thanks or your list,

    Gregg

    1. Edgar Chaput says

      First of al, thank you for going back into the archives and reading my top 5 list.

      I’m glad you agree with my top 3. As I’ve already written, I hold each of those films dear to my heart.

      The films in the 4 and 5 spots have receivead their share of criticism (not just here but on reddit as well). I knew when I published the article that those two specifically would be questioned to a degree. That has a lot to do with the malleability of film noir. Reading the Taschen collection book on the genre, simply titled ‘Film Noir’, I came to better understand that noir is hard to define. A lot of movies are considered by scholars as entries in the genre that I never would have guessed. With Sierra Madre and Crime in the Streets, it was more the downspiral trajectory the protagonists are condemned to live through (the ‘fatalistic nightmare,’ whether real or imagined by the characters, being a recurring noir motif)as well as the intangible oppressiveness (socio-economic, cultural or just as a product of their environments) that had me include them, on top of the fact that I love them too.

  2. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Edgar and company:

    A little known, far ahead of its time classic titled ‘The Big Combo’ got me started into Noir long, long ago.

    You’ve chosen five superb titles and have given them more than the due diligence they deserve.

    Very surprised and pleased to see Siegel’s ‘Crime in the Streets’ make the cut. Cassavetes rocks throughout!

    1. Edgar Chaput says

      Hey Jsck,

      First of all, thanks for reading. If I can direct a few people towards these slightly lesser seen movies, than I’ll consider my mission accomplished.

      ‘The Bog Combo’ was a candidate to make the list. I reviewed not too long ago here http://popoptiq.wpengine.com/friday-noir-the-big-combo-comes-up-big-where-it-counts/

      I felt compelled to include ‘Crime in the Streets’ for its depiction of crime life among youth. It’s true that in some respects it does not feel like a pure noir, but then again, the genre is so malleable that a lot of movies can be included in noir that might not immediately strike some as obvious choices.

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