There are too many films noir I’ve watched (being my favourite genre), but I viewed many of them (some of the best, I might say) so long ago that I have recently started to revisit them. So here are a few of my very favourites, let’s call this the first part. Before moving on, let me say this. You won’t find Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon or Sunset Boulevard here. I have always thought that the first two are overrated, and, as for Sunset Boulevard, although I consider it one of the best noirs ever, I have chosen another one of Billy Wilder’s as a personal favourite. I have also made an effort to include just one Hitchcock film for the sake of diversity (but others will follow). And last, but not least, I would like to point out that there are still many European noirs I have to watch again, and these are some of the best this film genre has offered us.
In A Lonely Place (1950)
My favourite noir, without a shadow of a doubt. Bogart in one of his finest performances, Gloria Grahame and a relationship that is doomed. Their love is absolute, they belong to each other, but they can not have a life together. It doesn’t matter whether he killed somebody or not, but whether he was capable of it, which he was. Halfway through the film (directed by Nicholas Ray), Dixon goes over a piece of dialogue from a screenplay with Laurel while driving in his car: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” It will become their story, too. One of the most memorable lines in the history of cinema.
It was hailed by François Truffaut as “the best noir I’ve seen”. I used to think so, too, and sometimes I still do (I guess my European sensibility still favours it). No femme fatale, no star-actors and a heist sequence that lasts for about 30 minutes, with no dialogue or music. It is of such brilliance that it makes you root with the jewel thieves. It emphasizes the incredible dynamism of the film, keeps the tension to a peak by pure genial means of visual and editing. If it were for it alone, Rififi (directed by Jules Dassin) would still have made the cut to the top of my list. Another notable scene, and one of my favourites, is the one in the nightclub, where Magali Noël is performing the title song in front of a stage of silhouetted figures: noir archetypes in suits, fedoras, brandishing guns and smoking cigarettes. A scene of great visual impact and a smart noir within noir moment from Dassin. Rififi was the perfect film noir of a nearly ending era.
Shadow of A Doubt (1943)
Shadow of A Doubt takes turn with Rear Window as my favourite Hitchcock film. As I was recently saying in a different blog post (talking about what to watch, read and listen to this fall), the thing that still intrigues me the most about Shadow is the contradiction between the strong sense of family life depicted and the dark underlay, something very unusual for the genre, and for Hitchcock, as a matter of fact. It is a very well rounded film.
Angel Face (1952)
My favourite Otto Preminger noir is Angel Face, sleek and shocking, costarring Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum. The film centers around Simmons’ portrayal of Diane Treymayne, a spoiled, sheltered rich girl with murderous instincts. With her angelic exterior that masks a demonic core, she reminds me of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. The two actresses have portrayed two of the best femme fatales in cinema. Mitchum is an ambulance driver who becomes her family’s chauffeur and her lover. It’s a real treat to see Simmons in a bad role and thinking of the final sequence I still get shivers down my spine. I may not be a fan of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, but I have tremendous respect for him as movie critic and connoisseur, and, in 1963, he listed Angel Face as one of the ten greatest American sound movies.
Out of the Past (1947)
I had doubts whether to include this one on my list, given the fact that it always comes up when they talk about film noir (and I usually like to look elsewhere), but the truth is it counts as one of my favourites. One of the best parts of Out of the Past (directed by Jacques Tourneur) lies in the female character, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). She has the appeal and darkness, the beauty and brutality of the authentic femme fatale. Few others, if any, have achieved this. No foolish flirtations, no sentimentality, a chilling composure. She just goes after what she wants. It’s in her blood. And we are made aware of it from the beginning, and so is Robert Mitchum. It is that early scene after Kathie and Jeff meet in the Mexican cafe, when she describes the night spot where he might feel more at home, and as she turns to walk away she tells him, “I sometimes go there”. No matter what he does from that moment on, we sense his fate has been determined.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
The Postman Always Rings Twice was the second screen adaptation based on a novel by James M. Cain, after Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and, after watching it, it was about the only time I didn’t want to compare two films based on the same story (which does not stand in the case of the 1946 version vs. the 1981 version). Tay Garnett’s psychological noir is a complex movie, with a beautifully constructed plot that often contains strong twists of situation. You are always kept in suspense and Sidney Wagner’s cinematography and George Bassman’s music certainly help achieve that. But what I particularly loved about this noir, besides Lana Turner’s performance (and that great character card played by having her wear almost exclusively white), was that every character seemed to have a dark side.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Ace in the Hole is a different kind of noir, a landmark for the genre, as Billy Wilder addresses the usual subjects of noir in an unusual manner. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a down on his luck journalist, with a past, and a reputation that doesn’t help him much in securing a new job, and whose lust to develop a sensational story stops at nothing. The film is an in depth study of human deception, avarice and social position, and Wilder chooses to focus on the frail state of humans to depict a portrait of a society that is selling everything it can, no matter what the real cost is in terms of life preservation. The role of mass media is being analyzed bare naked – in this regard, the Spanish translation of the title, El gran carnaval, says it all.
Related article: The Femme Fatale Is Wearing White
photos: 1,2: In A Lonely Place (Columbia Pictures, Santana Pictures) / 3-Rififi (Pathé Consortium Cinéma, Indusfilms, Primafilm) / 4-Shadow of A Doubt (Skirball Productions, Universal Pictures) / 5-Angel Face / 6-Out of the Past (RKO Pictures) / 7-The Postman Always Rings Twice (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) / 8-Ace in A Hole (Paramount Pictures)