Listmania is a weekly feature on I Wonder If You Wonder. Last week, I wrote about films 10 through 6 on my list of the greatest noir films of all time. This week: the Top 5.
5. Sunset Blvd. (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1950)
Billy Wilder’s a fascinating director. His latter career was defined by whip-smart comedies like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, but I vastly prefer his earlier career, in which he made three legitimate noir classics. (The Lost Weekend, one of my honorable mentions from Part I, is one of them. Keep reading for the other one.) Sunset Blvd., for its part, stands alongside Singin’ in the Rain as perhaps the greatest Hollywood films about Hollywood. Its genius is its weaving together of fact and fiction. The movie stars aging silent film star Gloria Swanson as – you guessed it – aging silent film star Norma Desmond, and noted director Erich von Stroheim as Max, a silent film director who eventually became Norma’s butler. Like other Wilder films of the era, Sunset Blvd. looks beautiful and features Wilder’s characteristically sharp dialogue, but what sets it apart is its exploration (and implied criticism) of stardom within the studio system: the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ attitude, the harsh realities of aging in a business that privileges youthful beauty, and the state of denial that former stars run the risk of falling into. It’s a subject that is a relevant to the Hollywood of today as it was to the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s.
4. Detour (Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
The best B-movie ever made. Actually, calling it a B-movie might be pushing it – C, D, or E would be more fitting. Detour is 68 minutes of pure, unadulterated noir in all of its cheap, rushed, over-acted and under-funded glory. It was produced by the Producers Releasing Corporation, which was one of the so-called “poverty row” studios that made films as inexpensively and quickly as possible. The film’s plot is full of holes and contrivances – including one whopper of a coincidence that its entire premise is based on – but the results couldn’t be more entertaining. Tom Neal stars as Al, a piano player who decides to hitchhike across the country to visit his girlfriend in Los Angeles. Along the way, he is picked up by a bookie named Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who promptly dies. Al jumps to the conclusion that the police would pin the unexplained death on him, so he decides to take on Haskell’s identity and complete the trip to L.A. in Haskell’s car – at least until he picks up a hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage) who, as it turns out, had also been driven by the real Haskell (and thus knows Al’s big secret). All hell breaks loose.
Ann Savage’s performance as Vera is one of the defining femmes fatales of the noir era, and Neal’s bewildered and over-a-barrel Al is equal parts paranoid and pathetic. At the risk of spoiling too much of the film’s story, no scene better encapsulates the film’s low-rent/high-comedy (but still dark and brooding) style as Vera’s ridiculous death scene (skip ahead to about 1:01:20):
Like DOA, Detour is now in the public domain and can easily be found all over the web. And it’s only an hour and eight minutes long. Seriously guys… what are you waiting for?
3. The Maltese Falcon (Dir. John Huston, 1941)
The film that really started the noir cycle. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous movie on this list, so I won’t go into too much detail in discussing it, but I will say this from the perspective of a Hammett fan who also happens to be a film student: this movie is probably the best example I’ve ever seen of the faithful adaptation of a novel into a motion picture. The film version of The Maltese Falcon manages to be both true to the novel AND a great film, which are not always the same thing. Adapting a story from a written medium to a visual medium presents significant challenges, especially when the source material draws so heavily on the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, as The Maltese Falcon does. How does one find a way to visually express someone’s inner turmoil? That’s what artistic expressionists tried to find out, and it was no surprise that film noir so frequently turned to an expressionistic visual style given their conflicted main characters. The Maltese Falcon’s visual style, while perhaps not as defined by chiaroscuro lighting effects as later films noir, nonetheless does a good job of externalizing Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) inner thoughts and feelings in a way that is both visually interesting and never detracts from Hammett’s well-plotted detective yarn. Well done, John Huston.
2. Out of the Past (Dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
I’d venture to say that to noir aficionados, this film and the next one on the list are considered #1 and #1-A as the best examples of film noir as a visual and narrative style. Simply put, Out of the Past is the major turning point in the noir cycle – the unofficial point of demarcation between early noir and late noir. As the turning point, the film exhibits most of the key elements that define both eras: it’s a detective story like many of the films that dominated the early noir period (The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, etc.) and it features an easily identifiable femme fatale (which were more often to be found in early noir than late), but it is also one of the earliest examples (The Big Sleep being the other) of a noir film featuring an extraordinarily complex and multi-layered narrative.
The premise of Out of the Past is relatively simple: Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum, in arguably his finest role) is a detective who is hired by the mysterious Whit (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut) to find Whit’s girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer). From there, though, things take several unexpected and convoluted turns that are better seen than read about. Aside from the stylistic and narrative characteristics that one would expect from one of the best ever examples of noir, the film is also noteworthy for being arguably the best example of noir’s characteristic romantic politics. In many films noir, several archetypes present themselves: the wounded protagonist (Jeff in Out of the Past), the femme fatale (Kathie), the older man (Whit), the ‘good girl’ (Ann, played by Virginia Houston), and the ‘nice boy’ (Jim, played by Richard Webb). Quite often in noir, the protagonist, the femme fatale, and the ‘good girl’ wind up in a convoluted love triangle while the older man attempts to exert a paternalistic force on the femme fatale and the ‘nice boy’ longs for the ‘good girl’ and worries that the protagonist will drag her into the ugly noir world. Out of the Past fits this general pattern to a T.
And let’s not forget about Out of the Past’s visual beauty. On top of everything else, it’s also one of the best examples of noir’s expressionistic visual style, as French director Jacques Tourneur brings an air of respectability to what is essentially a B-movie. (Tourneur had already done something similar several years earlier with his classic horror movie Cat People).
In case this isn’t clear already, I really love this movie. If you’re at all interested in film noir or quality cinema in general, you owe it to yourself to see it.
1. Double Indemnity (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1944)
“I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.”
With that line of dialogue, Double Indemnity captures the essence of film noir in the simplest possible terms.
If you’ve read this site’s FAQ, you won’t be surprised to see this film at #1. Simply put, it’s the film that is almost single-handedly responsible for getting me interested in film theory and film history, it inspired the name of this blog (“I wonder if you wonder” is another line of dialogue from the film), and it’s my favorite movie of all time.
Based on James M. Cain’s good-but-not-great novella, Double Indemnity is the rare case of a film that significantly improves on its source material. (Even Cain himself admitted this.) It follows the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, known mostly for his roles in comedies), who meets married housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and conspires with her to kill Phyllis’ husband so that they can get their hands on a huge insurance policy taken out in his name. Not surprisingly, things don’t turn out as planned.
Double Indemnity’s screenplay was written by Wilder and famed hardboiled fiction writer Raymond Chandler, who can be credited with much of the film’s impossibly witty dialogue. Their collaboration resulted in one of the finest screenplays of all time in spite of the fact that they pretty much hated each other. Wilder was generally considered to be good-natured and happy-go-lucky, while Chandler was an alcoholic misanthrope who hated collaborating with anyone and resented working in the studio system. It’s widely believed that Ray Milland’s character in Wilder’s next film, The Lost Weekend, was loosely based on Chandler.
Given its status as one of the clearest examples of film noir ever made, it would be pointless to run down Double Indemnity’s individual narrative and stylistic features; suffice it to say, it exhibits just about all of the ones I’ve already discussed. Perhaps more interesting is the substantial influence that Double Indemnity has had on later films. It is worthwhile to note that there are several scenes in the picture that seem corny or cliché to modern-day audiences because of how often they’ve been ripped off by subsequent movies. Ever seen a film where, at the worst possible time, a character suddenly has trouble starting their car? That was a Billy Wilder innovation, and he came up with the idea while they were shooting Walter and Phyllis’ getaway scene. Double Indemnity also spearheaded the use of voice-over narration (an idea that was stolen by other filmmakers so frequently in the coming years that it became known as one of film noir’s signature characteristics), immoral protagonists, and noir’s signature visual style, much of which can be credited to the film’s cinematographer, John F. Seitz. (With Double Indemnity, Seitz was the first person to come up with the noir cliché of light passing through Venetian blinds into a smoky room. The opening scene of Chinatown and several scenes in Blade Runner utilize the same technique in homage to the 1940s style, which shows how influential Double Indemnity was as a noir trendsetter.)
Some other noteworthy features of Double Indemnity, bullet-point style (because otherwise I’ll never shut up about the film):
- A great performance by Edward G. Robinson in one of his first supporting roles after years as an A-list star.
- Creative ways to get around Hollywood censorship, including holding on Phyllis’ emotionless expression at the moment when Walter strangles her husband.
- A variety of visually interesting locations in Los Angeles, including many that survive to this day. (One of the first things I’m going to do when I visit L.A. for the first time is drive by the house that served as the Dietrichson home in the film. It’s up in the Hollywood Hills and still looks almost exactly like it did back then.)
- A FANTASTIC musical score by composer Miklos Rosza. (I’m listening to it on my iPod as I’m writing this. Check it out on YouTube.)
- And, of course, the single best example of flirtatious dialogue I’ve ever seen in a motion picture (this clip is from the scene where Walter first meets Phyllis):
So there you have it. Double Indemnity: the greatest example of film noir.