Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 10 list #4

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly catching up on classic film-noir movies I’ve mostly never seen. I was around when they were new in the 1940s and 50s, but they weren’t meant for kids. I remember seeing Sunset Boulevard at the age of nine with my movie-fan parents and being thoroughly disturbed by it. I still am.

Nowadays, I enjoy these films for the way they offer the audience a vicarious walk on the wild side. They are Hollywood’s idea of an amoral universe (to the extent permitted by the Production Code, of course). I also enjoy the black-and-white visual style, where every Venetian blind casts its shadow. Here are 10 of the best ones I saw this year.

The Dark Corner. Lucille Ball headlined this 1946 Henry Hathaway film. She plays the smart secretary of a private eye (Mark Stevens) with a prison record, set up not once but twice for a murder he didn't commit. Set in New York, with documentary footage, the film also stars William Bendix and Clifton Webb.

The Killing. Sterling Hayden stars in this 1956 Stanley Kubrick film about a career crook with a complex plan to rob a racetrack. Jim Thompson co-wrote the screenplay and noir is pushed to the limits with inventive cinematography, location shooting, and a pounding soundtrack.

The Killers. This 1946 adaptation of Hemingway's 1927 short story of the same name has an insurance investigator (Edmund O'Brien) solving the murder of a former prizefighter (Burt Lancaster) who has run afoul of a "double-crossing dame" (Ava Gardner). Dark, cynical vision provided by German director Robert Siodmak.

Night and the City. Great cinematography in this 1950 classic starring Richard Widmark as a con man on the run during an action-packed night in London. Gene Tierney co-stars, with an excellent British supporting cast. Directed by Jules Dassin, himself on the run from the Hollywood blacklist. Exciting and grim.

Crossfire. A murder mystery directed by Edward Dmytryc, the entire story taking place in one night. Pipe-smoking Robert Young as a police detective sets out to solve the murder of a Jewish man after he befriends some soldiers in a bar. Nominated for an Oscar in 1947 for its frank treatment of anti-Semitism. Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Gloria Graham also star.

Double bill: They Live by Night. Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell team up in this 1948 film to play a Bonnie-and-Clyde pair of bank robbers in the South. They appeared together again in Side Street (1950), where Granger is a part-time NYC letter carrier who swipes 30 grand and gets into big trouble.

Odds Against Tomorrow. Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley plan a bank job that goes awry. Deals frankly with racism as Ryan and Belafonte strike sparks off each other. Shelley Winters co-stars. Striking location photography and great jazz score by John Lewis. Released in 1959.

Criss Cross. Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo play a former married couple rekindling an old passion when she marries slick heavy Dan Duryea. All goes south when the two men try to rob an armored truck. Great footage of Los Angeles in 1949.

Kiss Me Deadly. Ralph Meeker plays Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer in this 1955 classic from Robert Aldrich. Opens with that iconic image of Cloris Leachman flagging down a car barefoot on a lonely stretch of road. Never lets up, all the way to the apocalyptic ending.

Coming up: back to the Old West


  1. I love noir films, but frankly, haven't seen too many of them. These look great, especially The Dark Corner and Kiss Me Deadly. I'll have to see if I can find them.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Ron, you certainly picked some classics. In fact, they are all classic film noir except for SIDE STREET, and even it is a good one. For the past several years I've been usually watching a film noir or crime film at midnight and I would have to say I like noirish movies even more than I like westerns. And that is saying alot because I love westerns.

    My favorite of the ones that you list has to be NIGHT AND THE CITY starring Richard Widmark as the whining, low level crook on his way to hell. But I love them all and have seen them all more than once. You should change your blog's name to "Death in the Saddle" for this post!

  3. They sound very good. I see mention of one or two of these on late nights but most I've never seen offered on TV. I very rarely watch anything made before the 60s, although that's probably to my detriment. I just don't watch a lot of movies in general, and usually only in certain genres, like horror, SF, and Westerns.

  4. Love Crossfire, not sure how many of the others I have seen, but a couple of these look good.

  5. Great actors and actresses in these.

  6. Melissa, there are lots of them; you'll never run out. Happy New Year, too!

    Walker, I've enjoyed your comments on these lists. Glad to meet another noir lover. Midnight, unfortunately, is past my bedtime, but what a great time of day for these. Death in the Saddle, ha!

    Charles, funny but I enjoy these movies because they are old. It's like time travel.

    OGR, the murder scene, done in the dark, is really inventive; turns out the set was crummy, so they just turned off the lights.

    Oscar, that's part of the fun, seeing all these great performers.

  7. Speaking of so called "old" movies Ron, you probably may have noticed that many viewers, especially young ones, often have a prejudice against older films, black and white photography, and subtitles. Time and time again, I have run into movie fans who suffer from these dislikes. You may run into these problems with your western film class and they often are quite loud in their objections to films that are black and white or have subtitles. They evidently have no idea as to how ignorant they sound.

  8. Walker, for a texting generation, subtitles don't seem to be all that off-putting. And I've never heard a complaint about black-and-white. Students will object to STAGECOACH because it seems a little creaky to them, but for the most part, they enjoy old westerns as much as more recent ones. Says something about how well made they were for a popular audience.

  9. I'm a huge/huge film Noir fan. My favorite film noir on your list is, The Killers. I really enjoyed the night club scene where Ava sings.

    I do not think I have seen the film noir, Odds Against Tomorrow. I will have to add it to my "gotta see" list.

  10. I love this blog. I enjoy all of your books, especially The Dark Corner, which is both informative and entertaining. Your writing technique is impressive and enjoyable to read. Keep sharing more information about this book. Now it's time to get Roofing Services in Wayne for more information.