Film Noir: Our Picks, From the Canon to the Obscurities
Normally by this time of the year we at AFS would have presented at least one installment of the Noir Canon series at the AFS Cinema. The Canon at this point includes twenty one titles, most of the heavy hitters in the field of post-WWII American crime and detective films: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE BIG SLEEP and company, naturally, as well as the low budget indie DETOUR, and the extraordinary British entry NIGHT AND THE CITY. Here are the films we have shown so far as part of the Noir Canon series. You can also find the whole list here on Letterboxd, as well as our list of lesser-known noir greats.
THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)
The first teaming of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake made Ladd a star and whet the public’s appetite for more of the pair.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
A perfect film. Billy Wilder directs Barbara Stanwyck, whose terrible blonde wig and anklet reflect her tawdriness alongside Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.
In Otto Preminger’s society noir, Dana Andrews plays a police detective who, in the course of unraveling the truth about a shocking murder, falls in love with the victim.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s microbudget ‘B’ noir follows a man who falls into a swirling maelstrom of ill fate after being picked up hitchhiking.
SCARLET STREET (1945)
Fritz Lang’s version of the story that Jean Renoir had previously filmed as LA CHIENNE – literally “the bitch” features Edgar G. Robinson as an amateur painter and cashier who falls for a classic Femme Fatale (Joan Bennett.)
THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946)
In the years that followed THIS GUN FOR HIRE, Alan Ladd became a major star. This film, which has a somewhat bizarre original screenplay by Raymond Chandler, was made quickly before Ladd was scheduled to report for induction in the armed forces. It reunites Ladd and Lake just as her star was falling. It’s weird, but quite enjoyable.
THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
Howard Hawks’ tremendously entertaining adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel, adapted by Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, reteams Bogart and Bacall after their breakthrough pairing in Hawks’ TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT.
THE KILLERS (1946)
Robert Siodmak directs this noir tragedy that takes off from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name. Burt Lancaster, in what is technically his film debut, is remarkable as the former boxer, hunted by killers, whose story is told in flashback. With Ava Gardner at her most elegant, and William Conrad, who delivers the immortal line “They all come here and eat the big dinner.”
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)
The ultimate carnival noir, with Tyrone Power as a midway mentalist who gets in too deep. Stunningly odd and probably Power’s best performance. Guillermo del Toro is currently working on a remake.
OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
Jacques Tourneur’s classic is perhaps the noiriest of all noirs, with Robert Mitchum, never better, as a man who tries to carve out a new life but is hounded by his past.
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)
Considered as an entertainment film, Orson Welles’ deliberate cash grab movie is incomprehensible. Taken as an opportunity to sneak an art film past Columbia Pictures, it makes more sense. Starring Welles – with a ludicrous Irish accent, and Rita Hayworth, with dyed platinum blonde hair. The finale in a hall of mirrors is justly renowned.
RAW DEAL (1948)
Anthony Mann’s very cheap ‘B’ noir is an exercise in style and tension that transcends its limitations thanks to the cinematography of the Hungarian camera genius John Alton, who has come to be known as the “painter of light” and whose work is characterized by unusual angles and chiaroscuro lighting. Top flight cast too, with Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt and Raymond Burr.
IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)
Nicholas Ray, who always directed with enormous – sometimes difficult to bear – sensitivity, brings out a different side of Humphrey Bogart, who plays a burned out screenwriter who might be a murder. With Gloria Grahame as the young actress who tries to put the pieces together.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)
John Huston’s heist drama follows a group of criminals with very different motivations as they plan and execute a jewel robbery. With a solid cast led by Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe in a small but memorable role.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)
Richard Widmark stars as a small time hustling con man who bites off way more than he can chew when he enters the world of wrestling promotion in the unsavory London underworld. Director Jules Dassin ratchets up the intensity with virtuosity as Widmark’s fate darkens.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)
Gloria Swanson is unforgettable as the faded Hollywood star Norma Desmond, who lives in a crumbling mansion – and equally crumbling reality – in Billy Wilder’s shockingly dark black comedy.
ANGEL FACE (1953)
Otto Preminger directs Jean Simmons as a manipulative young rich woman, who falls for ambulance driver Robert Mitchum and triggers a dark cycle of jealousy and death. Shockingly dark and acidic.
THE BIG HEAT (1953)
Fritz Lang’s masterful direction makes this story of a tough cop whose investigation of a powerful mob becomes a life-or-death obsession. With Glenn Ford as the detective, Gloria Grahame as a gang moll and Lee Marvin as a brutal enforcer.
KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
Hands down the weirdest film on this list. Robert Aldrich pushes the toughness quotient to the absolute level in his adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel. Not really very much like other movies. Hugely influential – you will see the film’s MacGuffin alluded to in a number of other films.
THE KILLING (1956)
Another ensemble heist movie starring Sterling Hayden, a la THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, but the then-unknown young director Stanley Kubrick has a few new tricks under his sleeve.
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
After years in European exile, Orson Welles was persuaded to come back to Hollywood and direct again thanks to the intercession of star Charlton Heston. This border-town story of police corruption and murder is sublime with great performances from Welles, Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia and, in a magnificent cameo, Marlene Dietrich.
Additionally, because we’re a little restless this week, we have compiled a list of lower profile noir films that we like quite a lot. That list, Kiss Me Obscurely: Little Known Noir Classics, is here. There are a number of British ‘B’ films, generally coproductions with American studios, featuring an American lead and made within a highly constrained budget. You’ll also find some real oddball films on the list, like SHACK OUT ON 101, with Lee Marvin as a short order cook who thwarts communists. It’s a fun list and we hope you enjoy these films, a number of which are available on streaming services.