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By Martin Keady · February 17, 2015
Noir is the darkest genre. Even more than horror, it explores the deepest, most hidden recesses of the human psyche, asking us what we would do if we were placed in the kind of impossible position that noir protagonists are usually placed. Would we, too, steal, or even kill?
Historically, noir emerged during WWII as an antidote to much of the anodyne cinema that Hollywood was serving up at the time. Noir was as dark and duplicitous as the period of its birth and for nearly twenty glorious years it was probably the most exciting and innovative mainstream genre. It was especially adored in Europe, where French film critics first used the term, “film noir,” or “dark film.”
But like one of its elusive “heroines” (or more accurately, leading ladies, as few noir characters are truly heroic), noir was gone almost as soon as it had arrived. By about 1960, the golden age of the dark movie was over, with much of its subversive energy channelled into the spy movies (featuring James Bond, Harry Palmer and other Cold Warriors) that largely replaced the detective movie.
Here are 10 of the darkest, loveliest noirs.
10. IN A LONELY PLACE (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
This is Hollywood-noir, showing how the noir virus could infect even the apparently endless sunshine of Film City itself. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his finest performances as Dixon Steele, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who is given one last chance at adapting a successful novel, only to find himself simultaneously suspected of murdering the hatcheck girl who he had asked back to his apartment to finish reading the book to him. Throughout the movie, we (the audience) are literally kept in the dark as to whether Bogey is a killer or not, as is his new love, aspiring actress Laurel Gray, played by the stunning Gloria Grahame. And the ending is classic, tragic noir, as Bogey is finally cleared of murder, but only after nearly killing Laurel herself in a jealous rage when he discovers she is trying to leave him. In true noir fashion, the good news comes too late to save the protagonists from their fate.
9. OUT OF THE PAST (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
A noir so good they named it twice: in Europe, including the UK, it was known as “Build My Gallows High,” which is another superbly evocative title. But “Out of the Past,” the original US title, just shades it as the definitive noir title, because almost always in noir the protagonist’s tragic fate is linked to some tragic flaw developed in their early years; it may lie dormant for a time but inevitably resurfaces. And so it is here, as Robert Mitchum’s private eye is dragged back into the past he had tried, unsuccessfully, to escape.
Having been leading a quiet life in backwoods California, including beginning a relationship with an ordinary local girl, Mitchum is rediscovered by a crony of the mobster, played by Kirk Douglas, who he had been hired by in the past. That job had been to find the mobster’s girl, Kathie (played by the luminous Jane Greer), who had shot him and fled with $40,000 of his money. It is the chase sequence of the film that is most captivating, as Mitchum follows Greer south to Mexico and ultimately falls in love with her himself. Of course, Greer ends up double-crossing Mitchum, framing him for a murder that she commits, before fleeing from him as she had fled from Douglas.
There is a terrifyingly tragic inevitability to Out of the Past, which shows that we are all held captive, to one degree or another, by past events and however hard we try to escape them, we cannot.
8. SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
This is perhaps the most ironically titled film ever, as “success” has never smelled so putrid. “Success” is not a typical noir, in that it does not feature a detective or private investigator trying to solve a case. Nevertheless, it is classic noir, in that there is a mystery to be solved and the attempt to solve it will inevitably destroy all those involved.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a struggling press agent who cannot get his clients the press they crave, because he has fallen out with Burt Lancaster’s character, J.J. Hunsecker, a famous, nationally syndicated columnist whose approval or disapproval can make or break the career of a young actor or musician. Hunsecker had wanted Falco’s help to try and destroy the reputation of the young jazz musician who is dating his beloved sister, but Falco had refused. Finally, however, seeing no other way of gaining his clients, and himself, the success they crave, he goes along with Hunsecker’s plan, planting “jazz cigarettes” (i.e. marijuana joints) in the musician’s jacket before he is arrested by a corrupt cop who is also in Hunsecker’s pay.
The conclusion of the film is harrowing, and haunting, as Susan, having learned of her boyfriend’s arrest, shows some of her brother’s manipulative skills to engineer a meeting between Hunsecker and Falco. It is then that Falco learns the true extent of Hunsecker’s feelings for his sister, with the strong suggestion of an incestuous relationship between them. Falco tries to escape, to tell the world the truth about Hunsecker, but is himself arrested on false charges. Meanwhile, Hunsecker tries to repair his damaged relationship with Susan, only for her to tell him that she is determined to escape his clutches once and for all.
7. THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (John Huston, 1950)
As a genre, noir showed the normality (or, to coin a phrase, the noirmality) of crime: that it was not just carried out by the irredeemably evil or reprobate, but by ordinary people who find themselves pushed into a corner, usually by economic circumstances. Few noirs do that better than The Asphalt Jungle. Indeed, its entire premise is that crime is just a logical extension of capitalism itself: as the mastermind of the heist on which the film is centred puts it, crime is only “a left-handed form of human endeavour.” The criminals here are all-too-human and ultimately it is that flawed humanity that leads to their downfall, from the brains of the outfit who nearly escapes but is caught after spending too long watching a pretty girl dancing to a record on a jukebox (an inevitable consequence of previously having spent too much time locked up with other men), to the brawn (wondrously played by Sterling Hayden, one of the great faces of noir), whose motivation for becoming a criminal is to win back the family farm that had been lost to unscrupulous (even criminal) banks in the Depression 20 years earlier. Hayden finally makes it back to the farm (and the grass that is far removed from the asphalt of the city), only to collapse and die there after being shot in the aftermath of the robbery.
6. THE KILLING (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
Hayden goes from supporting player (and mere ‘heavy’) in The Asphalt Jungle to star (and ringleader) in The Killing. Kubrick’s great noir was actually his third film, but is so fresh and immediate that it feels like a debut, and it certainly feels like the true beginning of his incredible career. Kubrick coolly, almost clinically, films the racecourse robbery that Hayden meticulously plans, including the shooting of a horse mid-race by a sniper. But as is often the case with noir, it is the aftermath of the robbery, where the criminals have to confront each other and not just their supposed enemies, that is the real source of Kubrick’s fascination. Typically, the robbers themselves end up being robbed, when the lover of the “inside man” (a betting-window teller played by Hollywood’s greatest ever man-mouse, Elisha Cook Jr.) confronts them and tries to steal the money that they themselves had stolen. The lone survivor of the heist-within-a-heist is Hayden, who tries to escape by taking a plane, only for his overloaded suitcase to topple off a cart as it is being taken to the plane and fall open, scattering the money to the four winds.
5. TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles, 1958)
Touch of Evil was arguably the last great noir of the genre’s original golden (or should that be “jet-black”?) era, and certainly the last great Hollywood film that Welles directed (his later films, such as The Trial and the sublime Chimes at Midnight, were largely made and financed in Europe, outside the US studio system). As such, Touch can be seen as an elegy for noir itself and even, in a way, for Welles himself (at least as a major Hollywood film-maker). Its opening, a three-minute-plus tracking shot culminating in a bomb-blast, is rightly celebrated, but the rest of the film is also superb, not least Welles’s own performance as the corrupt cop, Hank Quinlan, who plants evidence and then justifies his actions by claiming that he only plants evidence on the guilty. (His real motivation is his sense of helplessness at having been unable to find the man who had strangled his own wife.) It is fitting, therefore, that Quinlan is finally captured by the use of a hidden “wire” (the first use of such a device in a major film), which captures him admitting to his crimes. In the shoot-out that ensues, Quinlan is killed, and he is only mourned by a madam, Tanya (played by Marlene Dietrich in her last great role), who laments that he was “some kind of a man,” just as noir itself is “some kind of a genre.”
4. THE BIG SLEEP (Howard Hawks, 1946)
The Big Sleep is almost the ur-noir, with a roll-call of talent involved that is probably unsurpassed in the history of noir (indeed, in the history of cinema, period): Bogey and Bacall as the leads; Howard Hawks as the director; and a screenplay by the great novelist, William Faulkner (The Big Sleep was one of the few successful movies he wrote), and the great female screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (who wrote and co-wrote films for decades afterwards, including The Empire Strikes Back), which was based on the greatest noir novel, by Raymond Chandler.
The only thing that stops The Big Sleep being Number One on this list is the sheer impenetrability of the plot, as captured in the most famous telegram exchange in Hollywood history: when a desperate Hawks asked Chandler who had killed the chauffeur (the murder that sets the entire plot in motion), Chandler had to concede, “I don’t know either.” But what The Big Sleep lacks in sense, it more than makes up for in mood, conjuring up an entire noir-world of drug-taking, double-crossing and shadowy dames. Bogey is Philip Marlowe, Bacall is the sexiest femme fatale in all of noir and the end result is a superb noir with a plot that is ultimately as confusing, if not downright inexplicable, as most real-life crimes.
3. THE MALTESE FALCON (JOHN HUSTON, 1941)
Bogey is unarguably the greatest male movie star ever, with only Marilyn Monroe (the greatest female movie star ever) a challenger to his throne, and a large part of his success is down to noir. Famously, Bogey had had a long career as a bit-part player and supporting actor before his breakthrough in The Maltese Falcon, the first major noir film. It was as if the genre had found its poster-boy (or rather, poster-man, as it’s almost impossible to imagine Bogey as a boy) and Bogey had finally found the genre made for him. It is entirely fitting that he should have played both Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, the other great fictional detective of the noir era and the hero of The Maltese Falcon.
In addition to Bogey’s superb Spade, Falcon has probably the greatest collection of villains of any noir, with Sydney Greenstreet as “The Fat Man,” the immortal Peter Lorre as his weaselly side-kick and Elisha Cook Jr. as the rogue private detective they hire to track down Spade.
The plot of Falcon is nearly as dense and complicated as that of Sleep, but at its heart is the clear and identifiable pursuit of the titular treasure, which has been missing since the Middle Ages. However, in true noir fashion, it turns out to be a fake.
2. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Billy Wilder, 1944)
The only noir that comes close to rivalling The Big Sleep for the sheer preponderance of talent involved is Double Indemnity, which was directed by Billy Wilder, and co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler himself, based on the novel by the great writer of pulp fiction, James M.Cain. And if Double Indemnity lacks Bogey and Bacall, it has its own stellar double-act (or rather triple-act) in Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson.
Perhaps the real genius of Double Indemnity is in the profession of its hero: MacMurray’s Walter Neff is not a private detective or a cop, but an insurance salesman. He is the embodiment of the “ordinary Joe” who is seduced by Stanwyck’s blonde bombshell (the first glimpse of whom is her long legs as she descends a staircase). His descent into the hell of murder and betrayal is all too plausible: he is not “hard-bitten” at all, but a complete beginner in this deadly game.
Then, of course, there is the plot, or narrative, device, whereby a dying MacMurray ends up confessing all to his Dictaphone, which, like the wiretap used to trap Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, is an early example of the recording technology that has become utterly ubiquitous in the 21st century. As he recounts the tale of his downfall for the benefit of Edward G’s claims adjuster (the insurance company’s own private eye), he is determined that, even if he has been the patsy in the story, he will ultimately be the teller of it. In that respect, there is a remarkable similarity with another great drama of the mid-20th century in which a man records, and relives his life, via a tape-recorder, Samuel Beckett’s great play, Krapp’s Last Tape. Double Indemnity could be renamed Neff’s Last Tape, and is similarly both tragic and inspiring.
1. CHINATOWN (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Chinatown is both the great neo-noir and, ultimately, the great noir. It is deserving of both accolades.
Neo-noir evolved as a genre after the end of the original noir period (which lasted roughly from 1940 to 1960), beginning in the early 1970’s with films such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown itself consciously paying tribute to, and updating, the classic storytelling techniques of noir. Since then, there have been neo-noirs that have embraced almost every other movie genre: sci-fi (in Bladerunner); horror (in Seven); and even the high-school movie (in Rian Johnson’s debut, Brick).
It is in this historical context that Chinatown must be seen. It is not only the greatest neo-noir, for having updated the conventions and ideas of the original noir movies most successfully, but the greatest noir period, because it examines the most heinous crimes of the original noir period (theft, murder and even incest) in a way that would have been impossible at the time, given the far greater restrictions then on what could and could not be shown on screen. Chinatown makes explicit what earlier noirs, such as Sweet Smell of Success, could only imply, or hint at. The ultimate crime of incest (of a father literally raping his daughter) is at the heart of Chinatown, and as the villain, Noah Cross (memorably played by John Huston, one of the genre’s great founding fathers), makes clear, once a man has proved himself capable of that, he is capable of anything.
NOIR: THE GREAT SURVIVOR-GENRE
Noir’s golden age may have ended in about 1960, but the genre itself will never die – not completely. Its influence is too strong, too powerful. Indeed, it is possible to imagine a post-apocalyptic noir, in which a detective searches amid the ruins of civilisation for the love of his life. Noir, like roaches and rats, can survive anything, even nuclear attack.