Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Noir’ Category

Director: Charles Laughton

Producer: Paul Gregory

Screenwriters: James Agee and Charles Laughton

Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez

Music: Walter Schumann

Studio: United Artists 1955

Main Acting: Robert Mitchum. Shelly Winters, and Lillian Gish (more…)

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Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Producer: James Hill

Screenwriters: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman

Cinematographer: James Wong Howe

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Studio: United Artists 1957

Main Acting: Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis

Film Noir has many merits and virtues in its long dark corner. One is the showcasing of Los Angeles as it lived and breathed in the 40s and 50s. Films like Crime Wave and Sunset Boulevard give us more than a glimpse into how the city looked and felt all those years ago. Since Hollywood is situated on the west coast, it is only natural that the urban sprawl of that area is mostly showcased when technicians and artists took to the streets to do location work. California gets ample time in the cinematic spotlight, or to be more accurate, stylized darkness. As a New Yorker myself, Sweet Smell Of Success is the greatest example of the Big Apple receiving the classic-era noir gaze for me. I get to see my familiar dwellings and haunts placed in a time before I existed. Photographed by cinematographer extraordinaire James Wong Howe, Sweet Smell Of Success is a richly elegant pictorial movie. It is vitalized by its urban environment and made even greater by the dramatic heft of the script. While The Naked City by Jules Dassin also incorporated Manhattan’s rich skyline and urban expanse, the rather rote story prevented me from embracing it beyond the stellar imagery. Mackendrick’s feature hits it out of the park—Yankee Stadium to be specific—on every count and temporarily revitalizes a dying genre before it would dissolve into the black one or two years later. (more…)

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Director: Stanley Kubrick

Producer: James B. Harris

Screenwriters: Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick

Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard

Music: Gerald Fried

Studio: United Artists 1956

Main Acting: Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray

Like most of Stanley Kubrick’s work, form and structure largely shape what makes The Killing so great. A caper/heist film molded in the same vat as John Huston’s earlier The Asphalt Jungle, it sets forth showing every last detail of the robbery from every possible angle. The movie brazenly shifts back and forth in a non-linear fashion with miniscule precision on how the robbery gets accomplished and how things inevitably fall apart. Each character is afforded a rich detailed background and given moments in the spotlight to let us know how they landed in such a precarious position. The examination of these noir characters is successful in opening up multi-dimensional nuances and making them come to life as real people with a desperate need for money and fortune. The character actors in The Killing are a who’s who of film noir. Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin), Elisha Cook (The Maltese Falcon), Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle), Coleen Gray (Nightmare Alley) to name just a few, all seem to be cast in roles that Kubrick once saw each of them perform in other films. For most of them, they get to give one more great performance in a classic film noir before the final curtain drops on the whole movement. At times, The Killing feels like a lifetime achievement award for these thespians as they strut their stuff again one last time. The big difference is that this Kubrick film is no consolation prize, instead it breathes with vitality and greatness. In many cases, they are putting together their best performance in a picture that would contend with the greatest in which they have ever been involved. (more…)

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Director: Billy Wilder

Producers: Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Sistrom

Screenwriters: Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder

Cinematographer: John F. Seitz

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Studio: Paramount 1944

Main Acting: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson

During my college years, I decided to minor in film history. I had always been fascinated by the process of making movies and the effort that went along with it. In those days, I was not very serious about cinema and considered it less of an art form and more as simple entertainment. I knew nothing about directors, silent film, or pictures made in foreign countries. I was blissfully ignorant of anything that had to do with celluloid. Back then, if you asked me to name my five favorite films (leaving out stuff like The Godfather or Raging Bull) I would of probably rattled off titles like Seven, Heat, The Usual Suspects, Fargo, and LA Confidential. While I didn’t know it yet, I had already started to develop an affinity for film noir-like pictures that would manifest itself further down the road. (more…)

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Director: John Huston

Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr

Screenwriter: Ben Maddow and John Huston

Cinematographer: Harold Rosson

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Studio: MGM 1950

Main Acting: Sterling Hayden and Sam Jaffe

The caper or heist film is a very popular sub-genre of film noir. Here with John Huston’s 1950 examination of a bunch of crooks planning and then accomplishing a jewel robbery, we have one of the first of its kind. Since this movie would go on to influence so many other pictures with similar narratives, it would be criminal to understate its influence. This is a well-paced feature with a strong ensemble cast that runs for almost two hours. The A-picture running length does nothing to diminish its power. One of John Huston’s two or three best films in his long, and frankly, erratic career. It was also included in Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection Volume One and is thankfully rather easy to locate and purchase.

The year 1950 was fruitful for film noir. In my humble opinion, it was probably the best year for the genre. So far in this countdown, The Asphalt Jungle has been joined by Panic In The Streets, Gun Crazy, and Where The Sidewalk Ends. Not to mention, multiple worthwhile selections that missed out of the top 50 and would have appeared if this were a top 100 list. (more…)

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Director: Edward Dmytryk

Producer: Adrian Scott

Screenwriter: John Paxton from a novel by Raymond Chandler

Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild

Music: Roy Webb

Studio: RKO Pictures 1944

Main Acting: Dick Powell and Claire Trevor

“The only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck.”

“The office bottle hadn’t sparked me up so I’d taken up my little black book and decided to go grouse hunting. Nothing like soft shoulders to improve my morale.”


“Nothing bothered me, the two twenties felt nice and snug against my appendix.”


“Mike Florian had ran the joint until 1939. He died in 1940 in the middle of a glass of beer, his wife Jesse finished it for him.”


“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

Murder My Sweet holds a special place in my heart when it comes to film noir. It was the first time I had watched a noir movie, consciously knowing what the genre was about. I had seen other examples in the past, but not with the acute awareness that I was viewing a specific type of movie. If I were overly sentimental I might even have placed this picture at number one. It is a personal favorite that even without the nostalgic attachment still shines bright as a cinematic masterpiece in my eyes. (more…)

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Director and Producer: Otto Preminger

Screenwriters: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt

Cinematographer: Joseph La Shelle

Music: David Raksin

Studio: 20th Century Fox 1944

Main Acting: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb

Otto Preminger’s crowning achievement is one of the most elegant and dreamlike of film noirs. Made in 1944, the first year the classic cycle kicked into high gear, Laura was always a different type of noir. It didn’t reside in the dark urban sprawl of Murder My Sweet or swim in the moral murk of Double Indemnity. Here was a picture that had the sophistication of uptown New York with a MGM kind of outlook for its characters. While calling it glossy like Gaslight or Rebecca would be untrue, it has more in common with those movies than The Big Heat or Criss Cross. Its visual look is hardly filled with the standard dim and dusky design in which most have grown accustomed. There are moments where chiaroscuro lighting is present but it never lasts very long or to signify any action by the players. Camera-wise, the film mainly avoids exaggerated camera angles, consistently set up at eye-level position. The noirness of Laura comes mainly from its script. Right from the beginning, we are treated to some choice dialogue from Clifton Webb (who played socialite Waldo Lydecker): (more…)

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Director: Abraham Polonsky

Producer: Bob Roberts

Screenwriter: Ira Wolfert and Abraham Polonsky

Cinematographer: George Barnes

Music: David Raksin

Studio: Enterprise and MGM 1948

Main Acting: John Garfield and Thomas Gomez

There is much more to Force Of Evil than what appears on the surface. As I once wrote on another blog:

“The scene where John Garfield (playing lawyer Joe Morse) descends into an allegorical hell to discover his brother’s body on the rocks was very powerful. It is clearly an attack on capitalism and greed. Polonsky shows how corruption can spread and hurt multiple people like a disease. The innocent victims are Leo’s employees, who are linked and compared to regular American workers being cast aside and exploited. He is being very subversive by comparing capitalism to gambling or the numbers racket. The director shows his contempt for America’s financial system by linking it to a shadowy illegal operation. In some ways, this film is like a harbinger to our current economic crisis where greed has dire consequences for society and the general population.”

While I could go on and on about the social message fused within the script and throughout this late 40s film noir, I find myself uninterested in discussing this aspect of the picture. My primary love and enjoyment of film noir has little to do with politics or social causes and more with investigating the struggle of the individual to battle personal demons and existential feelings. My favorite noirs are mostly about protagonists fighting the inevitable cruel hand of fate or trying to overcome bad choices they have foisted upon themselves. Force Of Evil is primarily concerned with economic realities and institutional injustices, but I primarily watch it (these days at least) for the way that Joe Morse fits in with the typical noir anti-hero. He is generally a good guy who lets materialism guide his actions until certain tragedies befall him. (more…)

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Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: John Houseman

Screenwriter: A. I. Bezzerides

Cinematographer: George E. Diskant

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Studio: RKO Pictures 1952

Main Acting: Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino

Opening on the typically tough urban streets of most film noir, On Dangerous Ground adds a surprising twist less than halfway through its running time. Detective Jim Wilson (played by Robert Ryan) is a disillusioned and disgruntled cop that has a reputation for roughing up suspects. Without family, a wife, and any actual friends, he lives a lonely existence in a cramped apartment where scanning police photos for criminals counts as entertainment. The paradox of his life is that while being a policeman is his sole interest and obsession, he has increasingly become disenchanted with his work and everything it entails. He tells his partner, “What kind of job is this anyway? Garbage. That’s all we handle.” We see that Wilson is taking out his disappointments on all the hoodlums in which he comes in contact. He also shuns human interaction and rejects the invitation of his colleague to stop by for Sunday dinner with the family. The movie hints that at one time Jim Wilson was a steady visitor to his partner’s home. Now his isolation and withdrawal from humanity keeps him at arm’s length from everyone. He is existentially empty and going through the motions without much purpose. (more…)

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Director: Fred Zinnemann

Producer: William H. Wright

Screenwriter: Robert L. Richards

Cinematographer: Robert Surtees

Music: Bronislau Kaper

Studio: MGM Pictures 1948

Main Acting: Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

Many film noirs deal with the aftermath of World War II and the effects it had on the surviving combatants and their families. Act of Violence is one that is explicit in drudging up the pain that was still fresh on the minds of most viewers. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a former POW who has made it home and is looked upon as a war hero in his community. He succeeded in claiming a stake in the American dream: he’s got a good family, a stable job, and a loving wife (played by Janet Leigh). He leads an idyllic life in a normal suburb with citizens that respect and admire his bravery and courage. The fact that a menacing ex-soldier who walks with a limp shows up to rattle this perfectly cozy world indicates a past that maybe is not as admirable as everyone was lead to believe. Past infractions come bubbling up to the surface and we realize that the world is not as sunny of a place as Enley has created for himself. The grim reaper has arrived and he is looking to collect for past sins. Though this figure of death is not a supernatural being with cloak and scythe, but a crippled former comrade who is determined to set things straight. (more…)

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