The definition of film noir for me is both stylistic and formulaic. Stylistically, the film should have a fluid movement to the filmmaking, cinematography, fashion. Story-wise, the thing that sets a noir apart from a regular mystery is the everyman who is put into an unusual situation. From the small boy in The Window who accidentally sees a murder, to the hapless hitchhiker in a film like Detour–suddenly an ordinary life is swept up into extraordinary circumstances by one moment, a moment that could be something like picking the wrong lover to something as mundane as having a flat tire.
My noir recommendation list is vast, but here are ten of my top picks:
Scarlet Street (1945) Like Detour, this is Noir 101. It’s a must-see film. And probably my favorite film of the genre. Edward G. Robinson plays a hen-pecked husband who picks the wrong woman to try to save one rainy night. Joan Bennett plays the woman who, with her grifter boyfriend (played by Dan Dureya), thinks that Robinson is a famous painter. From there, noir hilarity ensues. Lots of twists and turns and one of the darkest endings of any American film.
The Lineup (1958) I just recently saw a screening of this, and I was blown away by the violence of the film. The film follows the ruthless killer played brilliantly by Eli Wallach who is trying to track down heroin smuggled in an unsuspecting traveler’s suitcase. Some incredible location shots of San Francisco in the late ’50s. This is one of those movies they would call edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Fury (1936) Spencer Tracy plays a man traveling across country who stops in a small town and is mistaken for a killer. Based on a true story of vigilantism, the town takes the matter of justice in their own hands and burns down the jail where he is being held. Tracy’s character turns from an average Joe to a man of hard, bitter hatred. Sylvia Sidney plays his girlfriend who tries to show him that his hate is destroying him.
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) An unlikely noir with glamour girl Betty Grable and Victor Mature (who I usually hate) in a murder mystery told in flashbacks. The killer thing about this movie, which recurs in many noirs, is the use of a popular song that is played over and over throughout the movie. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is used in this movie, and it will wipe out of your mind all memories of Dorothy and the Tin Man. It was the breakthrough movie for Laird Cregar as the obsessive detective. He died young and it’s a tragedy. He was one of the best actors who ever was in movies.
Detour (1945) Much has been written about this low-budget film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s the fastest 65 minutes of movie you’ll ever sit through. Not a minute of wasted film. Proof that you don’t need a big budget just a great story. Ann Savage is the spice that makes this movie pop!
The Scarf (1951) This movie is a cousin to Detour. This story, about an escaped inmate from an insane asylum who is trying to figure out if he really committed a murder, takes its time getting started, but once Mercedes McCambridge picks up the inmate (John Ireland) on the side of the road, the journey begins. Like Detour’s Ann Savage, McCambridge tears into every line of dialogue like a vicious cat. It also has a great nightclub scene.
Hangover Square (1945) Again with Laird Cregar. A musician suffers from a condition that has him go temporarily mad when he hears high-pitched sounds. Another ongoing theme of noir is “rooting for the criminal.” Cregar creates sympathy with his character so that the audience knows he is just a man who cannot help what he is doing.
Furies (1950) One of the queens of the genre, Barbara Stanwyck, gives a tour de force performance in this noir western. Stanwyck’s hate and revenge for her father drive the story of this Greek tragedy-like film. It’s got the look of a western, but the heart of pure darkness.
Fourteen Hours (1951) Richard Basehart plays a gay man whose life is no longer worth living, and he spends 14 hours on the ledge of a building. Not a typical noir, but the characters who are drawn into this unusual situation are the people on the street watching the drama unfold. Amazing moments with Agnes Moorehead as the dominating mother and Barbara Bel Geddes as the girlfriend who ‘understands’.
Female on the Beach (1955). Joan Crawford, Queen of the Noirs, stars in this camp classic. A great story about deception, but the thing that makes this film is the unforgettable lines per minute:
“I have a nasty imagination, and I’d like to be left alone with it.”
“You must go with the house–like plumbing.”
“You’re about as friendly as a suction pump…”
Keep up with my noir recommendations on the Home Projectionist “What Are You Watching?” Facebook page.
- Nine Noirs for November Nights (homeprojectionist.com)