4 Film Noirs for National Classic Movie Day

I would love to get more well-versed in international film noir, and I already have a handful of films on my watchlist once I can get a hold of them. However, being a lover of classic American noir, I wanted to try to dig a little deeper for some recommendations.

Following are four films that I watched over the last few years. They all resonated with me while also exemplifying why film noir remains my favorite style/movement/genre, or whatever you wish to call it. Hopefully, you find them enjoyable!

Happy Classic Movie Day to all and thanks again to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having us!

The Locket (1946):

This might be the highest-profile film on my list. John Brahm had a noir pedigree worth adulation thanks to period delights like The Lodger and Hangover Square starring Laird Cregar. Although it’s brought into the modern arena, The Locket is little different in terms of thrills giving Laraine Day the most psychologically destructive performance of her career.

Her ebullient femme fatale with a fit of kleptomania effectively upturns the life of every man in her path with an unknowing banefulness. An up-and-coming Robert Mitchum gets tossed out of the picture unceremoniously in an uncharacteristic end while Brian Aherne’s good doctor also falls under her charms most unwittingly.

What’s so delicious about the film is how it leads with this veneer of a drawing-room comedy or a chipper rom-com only to take an unremitting dive into the dark pool of noir psychology as it slices through her shadowy past. True to form, Day leaves a path of destruction in her wake all while maintaining a perfectly scintillating smile over a fractured psyche.

The Well (1951)

Russell Rouse was a recent discovery for me and The Well felt like a quiet revelation of a film. It seems to fit the mold of 50s noir as the era breeds a greater attempt at post-war realism and a concern for the social issues at hand. The Well is one of the few films of the era to court a fairly groundbreaking dialogue on racial unrest and what’s more, it also showcases some fine performances.

When a little girl is lost in the titular well, it triggers the concerns of her parents. Her father is played by Ernest Anderson, who had a groundbreaking role in Bette Davis’s This is Our Life, although he rarely garnered much attention after that. It shows the dearth of space allocated in the industry for talented black actors. The Well feels like some small recompense.

Harry Morgan (a childhood favorite from MASH) also plays a crucial role as a man suspected in the girl’s disappearance. The movie’s core tension feels profoundly relevant over 70 years later, but the miraculous thing is how a powder keg of a noir becomes the foundation for solidarity. It evolves into an anti-Ace in The Hole — more balm than inflammatory indictment.

Crashout (1955)

If you want to survey a plethora of film noir’s finest malcontents, you only have to look over the cast of Crashout. The picture stars Arthur Kennedy and William Bendix with support from William Talman, Gene Evans, Luther Adler, and Marshall Thompson. Each is an escaped convict, and we watch their harrowing path, not simply breaking out of prison (that happens over the credits), but subsequently as they decide how to proceed.

They bide their time in a cave, resolve to recover a load of stolen money, and make their way out in the open as wanted fugitives. Any civilian who comes in contact with them is thrown into immediate danger, and yet it feels like a rather prescient picture because it puts us into the camp of the men who are normally framed as the antagonists.

There’s in-fighting and they have time to fall in love. Beverly Michaels turns up as a pretty hostage who they seek asylum with (It’s the complete antithesis of her image in Wicked Woman). But I was surprised by how merciless and unflinching the movie was for the 1950s. It caught me off guard on multiple occasions, and it feels like a truly unsung prison break noir.

The Burglar (1957)

As one of film noir’s preeminent cronies, it’s always a pleasure to watch Dan Duryea get more time in the limelight front and center. He did star in a bevy of minor classics in the dark genre like Black Angel, The Underworld Story, and Chicago Calling. The Burglar should be added to this list. He’s the leader of a pack of criminals who execute a tense heist on the vault of an opulent mansion in the dead of night. Nothing goes wrong per se, but much of the pervading drama comes with waiting out the aftermath.

There’s something always arresting and off-kilter about the visual geography of the film as conceived by director Paul Wendkos. It feels both grungy and deeply atmospheric with a myriad of human contours leading us all the way to the rickety boardwalks of Atlantic City.

Duryea is a fine protagonist joined by a fairly unadorned Jayne Mansfield still on the precipice of her success as a Hollywood bombshell. However, for noir enthusiasts, one of the most fascinating inclusions might be Martha Vickers playing a cultured more mature femme fatale a decade after The Big Sleep. Since the majority of her work in the 40s feels mostly innocuous, it was a welcomed discovery to see a return to form for her in a sense.

Honorable Mentions: Night Editor, Desperate, 711 Ocean Dr., Wicked Woman, Shield for Murder, The Crimson Kimono

Note: A previous version incorrectly mentioned the boardwalk of Coney Island, not Atlantic City, so I updated it. 

Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

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Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly Raymond Chandler’s character, but Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart brought him right out of a pulp novel and stuck him on the silver screen to ever be solidified in our minds. Needless to say, this is a quintessential film-noir coming right at the tail end of WWII, known as much for its incomprehensible plot line as it is the romantic pairing of Bogey and Bacall.The title credits role and the contours of our two leads can be seen in the background, cigarette in toe with Max Steiner’s furious score pulsing in rhythm. We find ourselves on the doorstep of a man named Sternwood. A hand is ringing the doorbell and a servant answers. The hand, of course, belongs to Humphrey Bogart or closer yet Philip Marlowe. Right off the bat, he gets the come on from the flirtatious younger daughter of Sternwood and he takes it in stride.

When he meets the sickly man of the house, he’s stricken to a wheelchair parked inside a greenhouse. He and Marlowe get chummy, and he calls upon the P.I. to find a man named Geiger, while bemoaning the trouble his daughters get into. For good measure, Marlowe also gets his first taste of Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge who is more mature, but suspicious all the same. From then on the case is a series of storefronts, L.A. street corners, and car interiors. It’s hard to believe, but it also seems so dark and dreary with buckets of rain to boot. It must be L.A. in winter (or in an alternative universe). Bogey has a little fun masquerading as an antique book aficionado and every lady he interacts with feels like another Carmen Sternwood. Always ready to flirt and he usually gives them the time of day.
He stakes out a home and he investigates a piercing scream only to find a disoriented Carmen in a big mess. Next, a dead man is pulled out of a Packard near Lido Pier. The names keep piling up too. There’s A. G. Geiger, Sean Regan, Owen Taylor, Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), and a number of others. Most are seen at one time or another but a few are not.
08bfb-bigsleepBy this point, The Big Sleep is less about all the facts and more about how we get there in the end. Obviously, the source material is from Raymond Chandler, but the witty script full of great patter is courtesy of William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett of all people. Bogey and Bacall have some fun on the telephone (You like to play games don’t you) which coincidentally has no bearing on the plot. Later on, they have some more spirited back and forth about horse racing. It’s at these times that you cannot help but chuckle at the rapier wit of the script. Philip Marlowe is a great character with a lot of great things to say indeed.
Soon we suspect there is something romantic going on between Eddie Mars and Rutledge. A few more stooges get it and Marlowe gets himself beat up in a dark back alley (Of course). Next thing we know is our new favorite gumshoe is tied up in a house with two ladies. Rutledge is there and the wife of Eddie Mars. What? He gets out of harm’s way thanks to Vivian, and the showdown that we have been waiting for comes to pass. Marlowe outsmarts everyone and puts the damper on the case. Everything seemingly comes to a smooth resolution, the audience just has little idea how we got there. But that’s not the greatest of concerns.
It would be great enough to watch The Big Sleep for the sass and repartee which it is positively dripping with. Thanks to the reworking of the film in 1946, the Bogey and Bacall dynamic became more prominent and fun. Although it is slightly disappointing that a lot of Martha Vickers’s performance ended up on the cutting floor, it is made slightly better by a memorable appearance by a young Dorothy Malone. All in all, there is very little to complain about if you just sit back and enjoy this very engaging film-noir for what it is. Howard Hawks brought us yet another unassuming post-war classic that is unequivocally American.

4.5/5 Stars