Listmania is a weekly feature on I Wonder If You Wonder. This week’s focus: film noir.
Before I get into the particulars of the list to follow, a brief word on how film noir changed my life.
When I was growing up, my favorite author was Dashiell Hammett. From the time I was about 13 or 14 years old, I was captivated by his work, including novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man and innumerable short stories. His style – clipped and to the point – stood in stark contrast to the flowery descriptions and forced metaphors that were employed by so many of the authors we read in school. By the time I graduated from university (the first time), I had read virtually everything that Hammett had ever gotten published.
It was during my time at McGill University that my love of film noir first emerged. At the beginning of my second year, I discovered that the English department was offering a course on hardboiled fiction, studying the works of such authors as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and, yes, Hammett himself. Studying my favorite author for actual university credit? It was a compete no-brainer. I signed up immediately.
I don’t remember the name of the professor that taught the hardboiled fiction course, but I should really track him down and buy him a drink, because it was his teaching style that set me down the path that I’ve been following ever since. Even though the hardboiled fiction course’s main focus was on novels like McCoy’s The Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the professor decided that he would also show us many of the films that these novels had inspired. All it took was one screening of Double Indemnity (based on the Cain novel) for me to be completely hooked on film noir.
Flash forward a year. Although McGill didn’t offer a proper film program at that time, they did offer one or two film courses within the English department, with the topics of the courses changing every semester. As luck would have it, the topic offered during my fourth year was film noir. By this point in time, I had already considered the possibility of studying film at some point in the future, but it wasn’t until this course that my horizons began to truly broaden. These were black-and-white films that were actually FUN! There was crime, passion, violence, suspense, intrigue… they weren’t at all stiff, corny, or out-of-date, which was the mental image of older movies that I, like many young people, had always held.
Simply put, film noir was my window into the greater world of cinema – older films, foreign films, and so on. It showed me that there was more to movies than what contemporary Hollywood shows us, and it ignited a fire in me that will hopefully burn for the rest of my life. Film noir will always hold a special place in my heart – which is why it’s fitting that this list of the 10 greatest noir films ever is one of the first to be published on I Wonder If You Wonder as part of my weekly Listmania feature.
A few notes about film noir before we get to the list itself. Within academic circles, there has been a great deal of debate about what types of films do or do not qualify as noir. While I won’t go into the details of my own personal views, I will say that I generally agree with the point-of-view of scholar/screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (who is probably most famous for writing the screenplay for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). His seminal 1971 article “Notes on Film Noir” (available on his website as “The Film Noir”) is a skillful examination of the narrative and stylistic elements that distinguish noir, including complicated plots, low-key lighting (which has the effect of casting shadows across the image), crime-ridden urban settings, flawed protagonists, and ambitious and sexualized women (an archetype commonly known as the femme fatale). Also of note is the fact that he doesn’t consider noir to be a genre unto itself. As Schrader writes:
[Film noir] is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film “noir”, as opposed to the possible variants of film grey or film off-white.
(“Film off-white” – now that’s a helluva concept. Conventional, upbeat movies with just a hint of scandal? I’m thinking Back to the Future: a nice, conservative movie, at least until you realize that Marty’s entire scheme to get his parents back together is predicated on the idea that he’s going to sexually assault his own mother.)
For Schrader, the classical noir period is bookended by The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958. With the benefit of several decades of additional hindsight, I’d prefer to identify 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor and 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly as the outer limits of the noir period, with Touch of Evil as the first major film to consciously mimic noir’s style and conventions. (Unlike many other genres and film cycles, noir wasn’t identified as a trend until after the fact, when French film critics began to recognize some of the commonalities in the American films that they had been deprived of during World War II and its immediate aftermath. As such, noir filmmakers of the era never went into their films with the expectation of making a film noir, because that term and an understanding of what it means simply didn’t exist at the time.)
The films on this list represent my personal favorite examples of film noir, but they could also easily serve as a primer on the style for anyone who’s not already familiar with it. Each of the films was made during the classical noir period as outlined above, and I have excluded films that I don’t believe are truly representative of noir’s core elements, including films that look like film noir but lack noir-style narratives (Citizen Kane, Casablanca), films that come close to having noir-style narratives but lack the characteristically vulnerable noir protagonist (The Night of the Hunter, which is nonetheless a ludicrously great film), films that aren’t primarily American in origin (The Third Man), and, of course, films that just aren’t that great (The Postman Always Rings Twice).
So without further adieu, films 10 through 6 on the list of the 10 greatest examples of film noir (and a few honorable mentions for good measure). Check back next week for the second part of the list.
(Warning: some spoilers ahead. Though if you’re really worried about spoilers for movies that were released 60 years ago, you’re probably in for a tough life.)
- The House on 92nd Street (Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1945) & The Naked City (Dir. Jules Dassin, 1948): My two favorite examples of faux-documentary noir, a style more similar to contemporary TV police procedurals than anything on the big screen these days. The House on 92nd Street focuses on an FBI investigation into Nazi sleeper cells in New York City during World War II, while The Naked City – which inspired a later TV series of the same name – chronicles the hunt for a New York City murderer. The films are somewhat dragged down by their propagandistic elements, but they remain fairly entertaining in spite of their Hays Code-mandated happy endings.
- The Lost Weekend (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1945): Its visual style might not be as dark as other films noir of the same era, but its plot makes up for it. The movie focuses on on an alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) who drinks himself into despair and destitution. This film is frequently left off of modern day lists of noir films, but in fact it was one of the first films identified as such by French critics. It works best as a companion to another one of Billy Wilder’s noir masterpieces. (About which more next week.)
- Crossfire (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1947): The social problem film, noir-style. The story tracks a group of American G.I.s, led by Robert Mitchum, as they try to clear one of their comrades of a murder charge. The film is most notable, however, for its exploration of antisemitism and its horrible consequences. Interestingly, Crossfire was not the only high-profile film to deal with that particular issue in 1947; Gentleman’s Agreement came out around the same time and went on to beat Crossfire for the Oscar.
- Panic in the Streets (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1950): Whereas most films noir focus on a threat to a particular individual, this movie deals with a threat to an entire city, as a scientist races to prevent a deadly virus from infecting all of New Orleans. Panic in the Streets came in the middle of an incredible run of high-quality filmmaking from Kazan, and if you’re a fan of the noir aesthetic, the New Orleans of this film is even better looking than the New Orleans of A Streetcar Named Desire, which Kazan made immediately after this movie.
- Mildred Pierce (Dir. Michael Curtiz, 1945): Joan Crawford at her manic best. Since this is a more well-known film than a lot of obscure noir gems, I’ll dispense with any kind of in-depth analysis, but rest assured – it’s damn good.
On to the main list:
10. The Killers (Dir. Robert Siodmak, 1946)
Two gangsters walk into a diner. It may sound like the premise of a mediocre joke, but it’s actually the start of one of the finest opening scenes in film noir. The Killers is a loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, though only the excellent opening scene has any direct relation to Hemingway’s tale. (The same story was adapted into two other films – a 1956 short student film by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky and a full-length 1964 adaptation by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel – though neither of those two movies have any relation to this one beyond their common literary inspiration.) The two gangsters are looking for a man known as “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster), and they intend to kill him, though their motives for this are a mystery. The gangsters eventually succeed in their task, and the rest of the film follows a plot structure not dissimilar to Citizen Kane, as an insurance investigator sifts through the Swede’s life in an attempt to find a reason for the murder. The plot device of an investigator gradually uncovering the mysteries of a man’s life is a common refrain in noir, but it’s rarely pulled off as well as it is in this film. Also of note is the alluring performance of Ava Gardner, who plays a former acquaintance of the Swede and steals just about every scene she’s in.
9. Kiss Me Deadly (Dir. Robert Aldrich, 1955)
Most noir aficionados would say I have this film too low on the list, but I’m just not a huge fan of it. It is, however, the quintessential example of mid-50s noir, by which point plots had become far more byzantine and protagonists far less sympathetic than in their 1940s predecessors. And make no mistake: Kiss Me Deadly has one of the least likeable protagonists of any noir film. Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, a character created by Mickey Spillane in his series of hardboiled novels, and the perpetual scowl on Hammer’s face and his inexplicable vitriol towards women set the tone for this impossibly bleak film (even more bleak than most other films noir). From the moment that the film’s credits roll at the start of the film – in reverse, mind you – you know that something strange is going on. The film focuses on Hammer’s search for an unknown device called “the great whatsit,” and it’s eventually revealed to contain potentially explosive radioactive material – thus tying the film to America’s heightened mid-50s nuclear fears. The end of the film, in which the “great whatsis” appears to go critical, is so bizarre that it must be seen to be believed:
Like I said: a strange, bleak movie.
8. DOA (Dir. Rudolph Maté, 1950)
A man walks into the homicide department of a police station. He begins to converse with a detective:
“I want to report a murder.”
He does. The detective continues:
“Where was this murder committed?”
“San Francisco, last night.”
“Who was murdered?”
The man steadies himself for a moment before replying:
That’s the opening scene of DOA, and it’s my single favorite opening scene in all of cinema. Check it out for yourself (it’s over at about the 2:30 mark):
Through flashback, we learn that Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) – the soon-to-be murder victim – has been poisoned by parties unknown and has only a few hours to live, and he races against time to uncover the details of who poisoned him and why. The film is similar to The Killers in its use of flashback narration and Kiss Me Deadly in terms of its particularly confusing plot, but even if we don’t really understand everything that’s going on, it’s still a pleasure to witness the ups-and-downs of O’Brien’s Bigelow as he simultaneously investigates his own murder and comes to grips with the fact that is death his imminent. An interesting side note: the film is now in the public domain, so it’s easily available on the Internet (like the YouTube video embedded above) or for cheap on DVD.
7. Gilda (Dir. Charles Vidor, 1946)
Femme fatale, thy name is Rita Hayworth. Gilda is the story of a man named Johnny (Glenn Ford) who arrives at an posh but illegal casino in Buenos Aires and proceeds to get caught up in the volatile relationship between Gilda (Hayworth) and her husband, casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). While the plot unfolds from Johnny’s point-of-view, Hayworth is clearly the star of the show, as she exudes a sexuality that was not often to be found during the buttoned-up years of Hollywood self-censorship. The film climaxes (*ahem*) with a seductive musical number in which Hayworth partially disrobes while singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” a song about a woman who is blamed for a series of disasters, including the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake. Check it out:
A woman being blamed for everything under the sun? That pretty much sums up film noir in a nutshell. For all of its positives, it’s important to remember that film noir and the femme fatale figure were, on the most fundamental level, misogynistic reactions to the changing role of women in American society during and after World War II. (To briefly explain this interpretation, which is pretty standard in noir scholarship: Men coming home from the war weren’t pleased to see women in the workplace for the first time in their lifetimes, holding the types of jobs that they themselves were hoping to come back to. As the theory goes, this frightened the bejeezus out of the entire male gender – including Hollywood directors and screenwriters – and so they proceeded to make a whole bunch of movies in which ambitious women were demonized. This widespread reactionary backlash, of which film noir was a small part, eventually resulted in the ‘nuclear family’ of the 1950s, when women were safely sequestered back in the kitchen.) And on that pleasant note…
6. Gun Crazy (Dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
Based on a short story that was in turn based on the real-life escapades of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Gun Crazy follows bandits Bart (John Dall) and Annie (Peggy Cummings) as they pull off capers and run from the police. The film has the sort of violent undercurrent and unstated sexual tension that meshes seamlessly with the noir aesthetic, and it had an obvious influence on Arthur Penn’s far more famous (and far more explicit) 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. What Gun Crazy has that its latter counterpart lacks, however, is a vivid back-story featuring the Bart character as a child, which serves to inform the actions he takes later in his life and compounds the tragedy of Bart and Annie’s ultimate demise.
So that’s films 10 through 6. Hope you’ve enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, and check back next week to see which films made the Top 5.