This blog is a companion to my “Almost Noir” posting. I listed Eddie Muller as a noir expert, he is a film historian, host on TCM and keeper of the noir genre. Muller published a fascinating book on film noir, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, in 1998, and has updated and expanded it for a new release.
Dark City is a wealth of information on noir films, big and small. The book is packed with impressive photos and artwork. Muller sketches the most popular inhabitants of Dark City, the stars, the writers and directors, and the cornerstones of noir stories like the newspaper, the police station, detective offices, the nightclub and other haunts. Muller knows Dark City like he built it.
Muller’s weekly “Noir Alley” on Turner Classic Movies is popular viewing. You will find classics like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and The Lady From Shanghai, as well as lesser known films. Noir films are frequently shown on TCM, but this weekly time slot is a showcase for films that Muller highlights the impact and unique qualities that make it a noir film.
“Noir in many ways was a resistance movement by a lot of artists to say, ‘Well, life doesn’t actually work that way,’ and one of the ways they could do this was in genre pictures like crime movies in which they could show average people doing the wrong thing,” Muller said in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio.
On the Film Noir Foundation website, Muller writes: “Film Noir is one of Hollywood’s only organic artistic movements. Beginning in the early 1940s, numerous screenplays inspired by hardboiled American crime fiction were brought to the screen, primarily by European émigré directors who shared a certain storytelling sensibility: highly stylized, overtly theatrical, with imagery often drawn from an earlier era of German “expressionist” cinema…the vivid co-mingling of lost innocence, doomed romanticism, hard-edged cynicism, desperate desire, and shadowy sexuality that was unleashed in those immediate post-war years proved hugely influential…”
Muller drew a distinction between pre-War crime films and noir. “Crime pictures of the era (noir) borrowed the trappings of traditional gangster pictures to present a vision of urban America in which the Have-Nots – angry and determined – battled the Haves for control of the gears and levers that operated the modern city. In noir, crooks are shaved, shined, and high-toned.”
Cities are cauldrons of drama and untold stories. “As in every noir, these folks will carom through a story line with a structure reflecting the city itself. Unexpected intersections. Twisted corridors. Secrets hidden in locked rooms. Lives dangling from dangerous heights. Abrupt dead ends.”
In noir, people are sucked into the darkness and come face to face with their fate. Muller adds, “It’s about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave. So they cross the line, commit a crime and reap the consequences. Or, they’re tales about seemingly innocent people tortured by paranoia and ass-kicked by Fate. Either way, they depict a world that’s merciless and unforgiving.”
According to Muller, detectives in noir films were more concerned about the crazy world around them and less on the deductive reasoning of cases. Noir was attitude and atmosphere. Muller adds, noir creates a jaundiced view of the world and those who populate it.
Another distinguishing feature of noir was the striking visual style: deep shadows, low or tilted camera angles, and pacing that suddenly pulses with energy to the finish line.
In recognition of submerging myself in Muller’s Dark City, below are my favorite 25 noir films.
This is not a “best” list, just films that I enjoy. I am going to include films made outside of the classic noir time period too. “almost noir” and “neo-noir.”
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Story by Dashiell Hammett, directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. Detective Sam Spade finds himself in buried in trouble, with mysterious people misdirecting and double-crossing him.
Saboteur (1942) – Hitchcock directs. We see a falsely accused murderer, international intrigue, a cross country chase, and a daring Statue of Liberty action sequence. This is great stuff.
To Have and Have Not (1944) – Bogart again, this time with Lauren Bacall and Walter Brennan. Again, Bogart’s character tries to stay out of the War, but he is drawn in and must take a side. Directed by Howard Hawks, adapted by William Faulkner, from a story by Ernest Hemingway.
Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder writes and directs, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in this insurance scam and murder story. Bad girls and weak men.
The Killers (1946) – The first screen adaption of the Hemingway story. Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and William Conrad star. A violent tale of a man who was involved in a robbery, rubbed-out because of a woman he fell for, but who is involved with another man. An insurance man tries to unravel the mystery and the players.
The Big Sleep (1946) – Hawks again directs Bogart, this time as detective Phillip Marlowe, who is hired to do one thing, but that may be a cover for deeper problems when murders begin piling up. Story by Raymond Chandler.
The Lady From Shanghai (1947) – Orson Welles stars and directs, with manipulation by Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloan, in this tale of adultery and conspiracy to commit murder. The hall of mirrors at the end is worth the trip.
Call Northside 777 (1948) – James Stewart stars a reporter put on a case to find evidence that a man was wrongly convicted of killing a policeman. The more he digs into the story, the more resistance he gets, leading him to wonder if this is a coverup.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – Huston directs again. Sterling Hayden leads a team of jewel thieves who pull a job and almost get away with it, then everything unravels.
Ace in the Hole (1951) – Billy Wilder again, this time starring Kirk Douglas as a ruthless reporter who manipulates the rescue of a prospector trapped in a cave-in, as the world watches for the rescue. The film was so good in showing the corrupt side of people that audiences stayed away.
Touch of Evil (1958) – Welles again. Murder, drugs, extortion. Welles takes the viewer into the underbelly of a corrupt town where the truth finally cannot be denied any longer. An exquisite film, masterfully executed by Welles, but taken away from him by the studio.
Vertigo (1958) – Hitchcock again, this time a deep, dark and twisted psychological mystery. James Stewart and Kim Novak star. Fear and obsession are the operative words.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Paranoia, brainwashing, and political assassination. John Frankenheimer directs, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh star in this psychological story of fractured memories.
The Killers (1964) – A violent retelling the Hemingway story, directed by Don Siegel and starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan. Deemed too violent for television.
Point Blank (1967) – Lee Marvin again, directed by John Boorman. A superb film, in full color, but full of darkness and double-crosses.
The Parallax View (1974) – Warren Beatty stars, Alan J. Pakula directs this thriller of political assassinations and paranoia. It is tense and the story is complex, while the story unfolds slowly.
Chinatown (1974) – A masterpiece, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski. Jack Nicholson is the ultimate noir actor.
Night Moves (1975) – Gene Hackman stars as a private detective whose life is falling apart, but he gets one last case that turns out to be more than he bargained for. Directed by Arthur Penn.
The Late Show (1977) – Written and directed by Robert Benton, starring Art Carney and Lilly Tomlin. Who killed Harry and why? Carney is wonderful as a tired and impatient retired private detective, who is talked into the case by his dying friend.
Body Heat (1981) – William Hurt and Kathleen Turner burn up the screen. A twisting story of sex, murder and deception.
Blade Runner (1982) – A science fiction noir film. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford. While many did not like the voice-over narration, I felt it added a noir flair to the storytelling.
No Way Out (1987) – Starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, a remake of an older noir film. Stylish, but under the surface, high tension and flawed characters in a race against time.
L.A. Confidential (1997) – Based on the James Ellroy novel, directed by Curtis Hanson, and starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger. A murder mystery that covers up a much larger story of greed, corruption and murder.
Twilight (1998) – Robert Benton again. Starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and James Garner. Blackmail and murder, old friends who hold dangerous secrets.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – Written and directed by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) starring Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. investigating a murder in the seamy side of L.A. Full of smart talk and noir clichés. A fun ride.
Muller founded the Film Noir Foundation, it’s mission being the preservation and restoration of noir films. The Foundation sponsors Noir City, a celebration of noir films in various cities around the country, and a quarterly magazine called Noir City. Muller has created a noir network for fans to better find and appreciation films in the genre.