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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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