I really love watching all sorts of movies, again this month I’ve been re-watching my 15 must see film noirs. For all your film enthusiasts out there there’s the possibly to discover a new world of cinema gold you might not knew even existed. I’m also betting some of you will be blown away by the pure awesomeness of these films if you give them a look.
For the purpose of this article we’re going to be looking at the classic “Film Noirs” by definition, starting in the early 40′s spanning to the late 50′s; Slow exposure black and white film cinematography with strong shadows rooted in silent German expressionist films and stories derived mostly from anti-hero crime fiction of the great depression era . Really the term “Film Noir” wasn’t even adopted in America till the 70′s, many of the classics were referred to as Melodramas by US film historians and critics during their initial run. However the term was first used to describe Hollywood films in 1946 by a French critic Nino Frank. Believe it or not, there still is a debate amongst film enthusiasts and scholars alike whether “Film Noir” is an actual distinct genre within itself or not. In all honesty, who really gives a shit?
It’s like arguing who the best captain on Star Trek was, it’s a stupid question that’s never ever going to get you laid. So forget it already and just enjoy the actual films with some sort of companion if possible. Now here are some great unforgettable pictures that everyone who loves the movies should see. If you decide to give any of these a viewing, you’ll find something to fall in love with and will want to turn other humans onto for the rest of your life. You will not be disappointed in any of the following films, all are super duper cinema gold
I’m not going to rate where these stand in my opinion until the top 6, so this will be a general “must see” list for everyone. We’ll start thing off with a John Huston heist classic:
- The Asphalt Jungle (1950) director John Huston- Locked away for seven years criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) feels he has conceived the perfect heist. First thing after hitting the streets Doc puts together a team of thieves to help execute the job. With superb acting and cast all around, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, John McIntire, even Marilyn Monroe in a small roll; And most important Sterling Hayden is Dix Handley a bad ass low level “Strong-arm” man who gets involved in a robbery that will net a million dollars in jewels. Things go wrong, people get messed up, things go really wrong, more people get messed up. Basically the only two reasons you should need to watch this immediately if you haven’t already seen it is Sterling Hayden and John Huston. Anytime Hayden took on this bad ass hard boiled anti-hero type role he knocked it out of the park and always had you remembering his character, he’ll pop up again in later films on this list most defiantly. Now director John Huston is one of those names that when you see it you should pick up that film a watch the hell out of it. Simply because you will see magic over and over no matter how many time you watch one of the films he’s directed they only get better and better, a true cinema master and artist in the highest regards. My recommendation is get you hands on every film he directed and revel in the brilliance. You can start with this one if you like.
- Out Of The Past (1947) director Jacques Tourneur- The first thing you notice about this beautiful little number is the extremely fast and snappy dialog, it’s text book Noir. The story goes Robert Mitchum/Jeff Bailey is a gas station owner in a small town, a man comes to the gas station who use to know Bailey and wants a meeting with him. Turns out Jeff was a Private Detective that skipped out on a case for a wealthy criminal client and now that client (Kirk Douglas) has found him and wants a chat. This would be the perfect film to show someone who would like to get into classic film noir, a great introduction to the genre. Director Jacques Tourneur shows his brilliant understanding of blocking actors, use of light and shadows, highlighting the superb black and white photography. This one’s a real winner and if you would like to be a winner as well you might like to check this shit out.
- Mildred Pierce (1945) director Michael Curtiz- Joan Crawford in her Oscar winning Best Actress performance, chilling as hell. Starting the picture off at night at a house on the beach. With 6 shots to the heart a man with a funky little mustache falls to the floor uttering his last word “Mildred”, a smoking gun thrown at his side. Seconds later a car rushes away from the house, cutting to the seaside boardwalk. A distraught Joan Crawford/ Mildred Pierce walks towards a railing looking as though she is planing to jump over in an attempt to kill herself. Stop by a cop who convinces her to take a walk instead of a swim, she meets an old friend who owns a bar on the walk and we start the story of a woman who takes control of her life in the 40′s and becomes a success in business only to give everything up for her spoiled daughter. A great study in the roll reversal of male and female part in these films. Everything ruthless and dirty down that a guy normally does in the noir films, Joan Crawford takes that destructive male energy and make it decidedly female and it is scary as hell. Once she turns, she tears though anyone standing in her way to get what she wants. One you might not want to watch with the wife or girlfriend , forbid she gets any ideas from the piece and decides to go all Mildred Pierce on your ass. You’ve been warned.
- The Big Sleep (1946) director Howard Hawks – Bogart as wise cracking detective Philip Marlowe, total brilliance. The first thing that strikes you about this one is the speed and wit at which dialog is delivered through the whole piece. I really started to think about it and it feels like they do twice as many words spoken per minute than most films (10 times as many if you’re talking a Michael Bay movie), and the wittiness of the character banter brings a smile to your face quite often during viewing. The on screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is undeniable, they both hold a certain presence that makes you want to keep your eyes on them and the characters they inhabit continually . This would be the second film that the pair appeared in together, the first being Hawks’s 1944 To Have Or To Have Not. This time out director Howard Hawks brings us a more refined performance from Bacall, holding here own again the much more experienced actors. Watching these kind of films it reminds me about how little dialog is delivered now a days without a few quick cuts, close-ups and cut-aways to hide actors and directors mistakes. Here we have a film mostly shot in medium and wide shots, takes run 3-4 minutes on average and with perfect execution technically hitting a load of camera moves and focus marks during these long takes. If done well like here, the viewer hardly even notices the movement of camera opposite the actors moves. In this film we have acting masters and a director that were at the height of their game, it’s definitely one movie I’ve learned a lot from and enjoyed the multiple viewing reveling in if nothing else, Bogart’s command of the screen and camera lens. If you haven’t really seen many Bogart films this would be one to start off a long love affair with one of the silver screen’s great actors. With out question, a must see for everyone.
- Murder My Sweet (1945) director Edward Dmytryk- Tough guys, guns, girls, schemes and one big league blond. Another sweet Philip Marlowe story this time played by Dick Powell, not quite as epic as the Bogart take on the character but still great in its own right. The real jewel for cinephiles on this one is the razor sharp storytelling and direction by Edward Dmytryk., extremely dark for American cinema even film noir. The pools of light and shadow inhabit the sets and become a character all in their own, adding to the dread felt by Marlowe through out the piece. A very great example of the classic blond femme fatale played by Claire Trevor, an actress well into her 34th role after only 10 years of acting, she sets a performance bar that’s hard to match by the other players. Thrown in as well are a peppering of classic great ideas and climaxes in story and action that have been copied many times before. I really don’t want to spoil one moment in particular that has been copied at least 2-3 time as far as I know and I’m thinking of stealing it for a short film idea myself, I love the visual that much. Bottom line, a film with superb visual understanding, dark storytelling and a few iconic moments that sear them selves into the cinephiles brain for life. Another film to fall in love with, at very least an idea stimulator for the storytelling impaired.
- Kiss Me Deadly (1955) director Robert Aldrich- A blonde in a trench coat tries to flag down a car on a dark desert road, passed by the first one she desperately jump in front of the second. Slamming on the brakes barely avoiding her, the driver hard boiled private dick Mike Hammer offers her a ride. As they race down the shadow covered highway the credit role to director’s Robert Aldrich (the Dirty Dozen) film of the Mickey Spillane’s best selling novel. This film is as dark as they come with mostly great acting, brilliant cinematography and one of the best endings from the 50′s noirs. Ralph Meeker inhabits the character of Mike Hammer, a serious bad ass. He seems like he could really beat the shit out of any takers with still maintaining a human side with his love for his friends and women alike. The great mystery object story angle leave us with a brilliant third act and a climax that will have you skipping back to take a look at it a few times. A surprise awaits you if you watch this one, a great twist as to what everyone is fighting for, and as usual guns, girls and mayhem.
- Double Indemnity (1944) director Billy Wilder- The great director Billy Wilder brings us one of the all time great films, with script co-written by pulp master Raymond Chandler. Staring Fred MacMurray as insurance salesman Walter Neff who finds himself wrapped up into the perfect scheme to help murder trophy wife Barbara Stanwyck/Phyllis Dietrichson’s older husband and take the life insurance money for their own. The only one to stand in their way is master claims investigator Barton Keyes played by the legendary Edward G. Robinson. Stylish cinematography, great snappy dialog and performances that you can use as your go to as an actor or actress, this one has it all. If you’ve never seen this film you should find it and watch the dark brilliance unfold in front of your virgin “indemnity” eyes. I wish in a way I was the ones of you who have no idea this film exists, because that way I could have my mind blown again by how dam good classic cinema can be (it happens so rarely these days) . Lucky lucky humans who decide to give this one a watch, Gold, Gold, Gold!
- Night And The City (1950) director Jules Dassin- Put together the greatest understanding of light and shadow, use of practical locations, lighting accents, scene blocking and you have a technically stunning film in Night and the City. The fact that director Jules Dassin made the movie under the pressures of the Hollywood communist black list looming over him is incredible. From Dassin himself in an interview he said that 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck handed him the book and said that this would be his last picture with them and he’d better get out of the States, go to London, get a script going quick, shoot all the expensive scenes first and make a great film because it would be his last, most likely of his career. Even though he would go on to make great films in France till 1981, his career almost died because of someone naming him as a communist sympathizer. Amongst all this chaos he still managed to bring us a superb piece of film noir for the ages. A decidedly American view in the portrayal of the “fish out of water, that just can’t win” story and the protagonist Harry Fabian. Played expertly by Richard Widmark, a hustler that can’t ever have a scheme work out, until he meets and hustles the worlds greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time and things go down hill fast from there. As these film do most of the time, it doesn’t end well for anybody in the picture. I do really love the use of the real locations in London, brilliant sets and production design that absolutely add atmosphere and great visual metaphors through out . A real gem in the classic cinema catalog, much to be learned from the direction of almost every aspect of this film and production.
- Beat The Devil (1953) director John Huston- Shot on location in Italy, John Huston delivers again with the great Humphrey Bogart at the helm as aging American playboy Billy Dannreuther. Four international crooks are stranded in Italy waiting for the repair of their steamer ship, Billy and Mrs. Dannreuther accompany them on the way to Africa to swindle land with rich uranium deposits. A British couple the Chelms, gets caught up in the groups business and schemes, where fun and folly turn deadly at the drop of a hat. The tone that Huston walks with this film is amazing, great comedic moments that plays on convention of the film noir story and delivery of archetype heroes and villains. Helped along with co writing credit going to Truman Capote, slick and lightning fast dialog is delivered by actors, all at the height of their craft. Brilliant performances all play off each other to give us truly great cinematic characters and moments. All this is wrapped up with gorgeous Italian locations shot by master cinematographer Oswald Morris. Rule number one, anytime you see John Huston on a film it’s always worth a look or two or three. One really interesting fun fact for film geeks I’ve found out while writing this article is that Humphrey Bogart was involved in a serious automobile accident during production, which knocked out several of his teeth and screwed up his ability to speak. Huston hired a young British actor noted for his mimicry skills to rerecord some of Bogart’s spoken lines during post-production looping. Although it is undetectable when viewing the film today, it is Peter Sellers who provides Bogart’s voice during some of the scenes in this movie. Dam cool trivia to me.
- #6-The Maltese Falcon (1941) director John Huston- A first film for any director always holds something special. You usually see a talent emerging not fully formed but striking to the imagination. With John Huston’s first film he was as so few directors are right out of the gate, a force to be reckoned with. Humphrey Bogart as Private detective Samel Spade leads the stellar cast, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. amongst many other players inhabiting one of the greatest films ever made. The dark and twisting plot runs quite fast for a movie from 1941. The dialog delivered as only film noir characters can speak. Suggested subtext in every exchange, quick sarcastic retorts and a super cool “fuck you” attitude to every question or situation makes Bogart into a god through the camera lens. This is the film that cemented him in my head at a super talent and one of the mediums great artist to be rediscovered through many generation of films lovers and artist alike. Add to that the directing talents of a young John Huston and you have an atom bomb of film geek joy exploding to scorch your brain with the plain cinema bliss. This is what film noir and classic film is all about, the stuff dreams are made of.
- #5-Sunset Boulevard (1950) director Billy Wilder- Of so many great movies Billy Wilder directed, Sunset Boulevard stands at the top of the best film ever made about the life of making films. I love movies about Hollywood and the dark and seedy world which Los Angeles becomes in this film is of legend. The story starts with a William Holden voice over and shots of Sunset Boulevard and then a house with a pool. Detectives around the pool are trying to fish out Holden’s screen writer characters dead body. The whole story is told from a voice over from a dead body in a swimming pool, how dam cool is that as a hook in the first few minutes. Pure pure gold. You’ve also got what could be the best casting in film history with silent screen star Gloria Swanson playing the aging “has been” actress Norma Desmond and Eric Von Stroheim as Max Von Mayerling, her sullen butler servant companion. They inhabit the roles smashing the line between playing and being a character, bringing such brilliance to a role you somewhat closely resembling in career and life, must have been a extremely hard to make real with out going a bit crazy for both players. Swanson’s performance is nothing short of breath taking even re-watching it 61 years later, a must study for every actor and/or actress. For the keen film geek you’ll also see guest appearances by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H B. Warner as the “wax works ” bridge partners to Norma, all major silent screen stars in their day. So much inside stuff about the business of making movies was exposed for the first time in a dark way to the American public and the world, and also garnering some mixed emotions in Hollywood about Wilder’s picture. Some studio head publicly scorned the director for exposing the world to the dark take on the city of angels and the industry that made it a giant in the desert. A must see for every film fan and casual watcher, see how amazing classic film can get with Sunset Boulevard. Come see what all the hype is about, it’s all right here.#4- Touch Of Evil (1956) director Orson Welles- After his first film, so ahead of its time it almost crushed his directing career in 1941, Orson Welles still found work as a actor in Hollywood and Europe though out the 40′s and 50′s. He still went on to direct a hand full of great films even though the studio financiers kept tight rein on the final product put up on the scene. Touch of Evil is one of those film that was talked about how the executives at universal stepped in and re cut the film with out Welles’s approval and released a very compromised version both in content and in score. In response to the treatment of his film Welles wrote very a detailed 58 page memo to Universal outlining the problems with the cuts they had made and the reason why he made the first choices for the film. Pleading with them to please put the film back to his original cut, the studio ignored the memo released their cut of the film. I have seen the original cut on VHS and was confused by obvious cuts in the scenes flow, weird music cues and edits. Thanks to Charlton Heston bringing forth an original copy of the Welles memo in 1998, which has thought to have been lost, Universal re edited the film to all the choices outlined in the memo and giving us a very complete version of Touch Of Evil as Orson Welles intended us to see it. What really is the difference? We’ll with the Welles cut of the film we have better flow of music to atmospheric sound(no more out of place music), all the drug content is back in, better flow in editing and choice of takes and plainly we get the film intended by the director. So ahead of its time, this film plays like a movie from the 70′s shot in black and white, all the actors have great characters to work with, the story is dark as can be for American cinema of the mid 50′s, the lighting and shot choices are inspired genius to say the least and Orson Welles’s Captain Hank Quinlan is one of those amazing characters in cinema who seems so real to me. Another great role he disappears into , never once thinking your watching an actor or performance, this is a true actor and artist at the height of his craft. A shame the film world realized too late what they had in Welles and his Jedi like storytelling abilities. Put this on your list to see asap, greatness is waiting to be discovered here. As every Orson Welles picture or performance holds something great to be discovered in his take on certain material and story, Touch of Evil is at the height of American cinema as one of the top 50 films ever made with out question.
#3-The Killing (1956) director Stanley Kubrick-At 27 years old Stanley Kubrick came to Hollywood to make his third feature film. This was the first time he had a real budget, full crew of experienced technicians and veteran actors that brought something special to the dialog and character that was written on the page. Even at this young age as a director Kubrick ruled the production with a superior studied technical knowledge. My absolute favorite story about the films production is about the first set up on the first day Kubrick told his Oscar winning director of photography Lucien Ballard the set up and shot he wanted with lens choice and position of the camera. After he had gone off to talk to the actors about the scene he had noticed that Lucien had put the camera and dolly track much closer than he had told him, also putting on a wider lens than requested. So, Kubrick went over and asked him what he was doing. The DP told him that it really didn’t matter about the exact position of the camera and he had set the shot up to make it easier for the focus puller and crew to execute the shot with the same effect. On top of that he said that the set up didn’t really change the perspective at all. Kubrick long being an expert photographer knew this was total bullshit and calmly asked Ballard to put the camera and dolly where he had asked for it, put the proper lens on or get off his set. And Kubrick was totally right on the matter. Even at this young age he gave us a brilliant race track robbery film that uses the “same story told from different views and characters” approach (like Kurosawa’s Rashomon before it). The mastery of light is very apparent at this point as well. Great shadows and atmosphere bring the film alive around a great cast of great Hollywood character actors. Lots to love and learn from this picture. Kubrick’s films and life are a true obsession with me and doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon. Even his early films are something of greatness in themselves and only get better with multiple viewings, always seeing new things. LONG LIVE THE CULT OF KUBRICK.
- #2- The Lady From Shanghai (1947) director Orson Welles- Watching any Orson Welles film always feels like you’re in for a unique experience. One thing Welles had said in interviews in the late 70′s that he realized around and after the production of Lady from Shanghai, “that being so ahead of your time in Hollywood really means, you’re in trouble” . Having almost an hour cut out of any film by a studio obviously changes it completely. The fact that The Lady From Shanghai was a huge bomb, everyone hated it at the time and no one could even look Orson in the eyes when the subject came up amongst his peers , partly prompted him to leave Hollywood for a number of years in favor of work in Europe. The cut of The Lady From Shanghai we have on DVD, is just under an hour and a half and I still think it’s my favorite picture Welles directed. Just imagining the full cut fills me with such awe and wonder because with the film we have today I enjoy every part of so much and never figure it could be any better. I love the way it’s shot, odd angles, deep blacks, slow black and white film and amazing locations. All the weird off beat characters always seem to be playfully sinister and feel “real” in that great movie way. Rita Hayworth plays the perfect gorgeous dark predator/ damsel in distress role, paired with Welles worldly tough guy sailor sucker, the story engages you like very few newer movie can today. This for me has been watched 5-6 time a year minimum since I discovered it about 18 years ago. Just can’t get enough of the Orson Welles classics. My hope is that the Blu-Ray for this is treated with plenty of care by the studio that owns it (which I think is Sony/Columbia). Other wise I’d check it out ASAP if you have never seen this one and love the classics, this is one of the best no question..
- #1-White Heat (1950) director Raul Walsh- When I had first come to viewing White Heat I was in a place where I had seen way too many mediocre classic films. Working at a video store as a teenager I found myself picking whole sections of the store to view from A-Z and watching every single film on the shelf in alphabetical order. While I was in the classic cinema section getting to W was some what of a chore, having to go though a few months of viewing with only finding a handful of particularly great works. Then upon watching White Heat I woke up in a big way, finally realizing why James Cagney is considered one of the best actor ever to grace the screen and where some of my favorite gangster films had ganked a large portion of their DNA from. If the Gangster picture is your thing, this is required viewing and you will thank me for turning you on to this super charged classic noir. Director Raul Walsh takes his cast through one of the tightest fastest running stories in the classic genre, with great shots and an ending that could be the best for any anti-hero in film history, this is what great cinema is all about. I’m really looking forward to the Blu-ray of this title as well, Hoping it gets the attention in restoration it deserves, because I’ll be watching it for many years to come. Made It Ma, Top Of The World!
Till Next Time. Stay Tuned.