(My Noirvember films from 2016)
My Twitter friend Christopher recently asked to compile my Top 25 Film Noir movies to prepare for Noirvember so I’m glad to present this list, not of 25, but 30: one for each day of Noirvember. Christopher is an avid film fan, so I’m sure he’s already seen many of the films listed here, but I hope he’ll find some new ones to explore.
These films (listed in no particular order) aren’t necessarily my favorites (although some are), but film noir movies I’ve enjoyed fairly recently. You’ll find some classics, some neo-noir movies, some color, some international; a little bit of everything. Most should be available on DVD or Blu-ray. A couple might be tricky to find (one in particular, which I’ll note), but if you don’t see them on disc or streaming, try your local library or YouTube.
With each movie, I’ll list where or how I saw it and will provide either a link to my review of the film (in some cases you may have to scroll down) or a short bit about it. I hope this helps Christopher (and anyone else) in their Noirvember planning. Enjoy!
Night Moves (1975) Arthur Penn
Library DVD; also a recent Warner Archive Blu-ray
The Breaking Point (1950) Michael Curtiz
They Live by Night (1948) Nicholas Ray
Underworld U.S.A. (1961) Samuel Fuller
Party Girl (1958) Nicholas Ray
This color film noir from Nicholas Ray focuses on two people who want to abandon their mob connections: mob lawyer Thomas Farrell (Robert Taylor) and chorus girl Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse). Mob boss and sadistic killer Cookie La Motte (Lee J. Cobb), however, isn’t having any of it. Color and using CinemaScope probably account for making the film look better than it actually is. Taylor does an excellent job while Charisse is good (performing two dance numbers) and Cobb does well in a mostly one-dimensional role.
The Harder They Fall (1956) Mark Robson
DVD – interlibrary loan
Humphrey Bogart’s final film finds him playing Eddie Willis, a washed-up sportswriter hired by unscrupulous boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to launch the career of his new boxer, the mountainous but no-talent Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). The film is more about corruption in boxing than it is the fighters themselves. One of the saddest aspects of watching the film is in knowing that it’s Bogart’s last. A powerful film that deserves a U.S. Blu-ray release.
Crashout (1955) Lewis R. Foster
Super fun B-picture with a stellar cast including William Bendix, Arthur Kennedy, William Talman, Luther Adler, Gene Evans, and Marshall Thompson as six convicts who break out of prison, trying to evade the cops. The film is, as you might image, filled with testosterone, but the best scenes involve how the men handle the presence of two women (Beverly Michaels and Gloria Talbott). Don’t miss this one.
Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder
The Killer is Loose (1956) Budd Boetticher
Amazon streaming (also a recent ClassicFlix Blu-ray)
This excellent noir thriller is rarely discussed but should be. Wendell Corey (in perhaps his best role and performance) plays Leon Poole, a bank employee who appears to be the hero in a bank robbery, but was actually in on the crime. The police catch up to Poole as he’s hiding and mistakenly shoot Poole’s wife. Captured by Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten), Poole vows revenge. The film is filled with tension and fast-paced, so much so that you can easily overlook some of its weaknesses (mainly convenient coincidences). Definitely recommended.
The Silent Partner (1978) Daryl Duke
The Silent Partner is one of my favorite Canadian films and one of the best heist films most people haven’t seen. Elliott Gould plays Miles, a teller at a small Toronto bank located inside a shopping mall. Miles suspects that a mall Santa Claus (Christopher Plummer) is going to rob the bank. When the suspicious Santa does come to his window demanding money, Miles uses the opportunity to keep some for himself. Thus begins a wonderful cat-and-mouse game which also involves two women Miles has his eye on (Susanna York and Celine Lomez). Look for John Candy as a fellow bank employee. Seek this one out; you won’t regret it.
The Late Show (1977) Robert Benton
Warner Archive DVD
Split Second (1953) Dick Powell
Warner Archive DVD
Dick Powell’s directorial debut is a tight, tension-filled film noir gem that unfortunately many seem to have forgotten about or dismissed altogether. Convicts Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) and Bart Moore (Paul Kelly) escape from prison, hook up with their mute friend “Dummy” (Frank de Kova) and hide out in a ghost town that’s been evacuated due to its location: an atomic bomb test site. Not only that, but the gang has taken four hostages. Hurley persuades one of the hostages, Kay Garven (Alexis Smith) to contact her husband/doctor Neal Garven (Richard Egan) to help save the life of Moore, who was shot in the getaway. The film really belongs in the hostage sub-genre with a touch of Cold War paranoia and although it tries to keep a few too many plates spinning, is quite good.
The Steel Trap (1952) Andrew L. Stone
Warner Archive DVD
Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are back together again, not as the uncle and niece they played in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This time they’re husband and wife. (I’m guessing that’s why Wright’s hair was dyed blonde for The Steel Trap. Of course this film was made nine years after the Hitchcock film.)
Cotten plays Jim Osborne, an assistant bank manager for an L.A. bank who longs to steal money from the bank and start a new life with his wife and family abroad. He discovers that Brazil has no extradition treaty with the U.S., so he kicks his plan into high gear. The suspense is quite good in a picture whose entertainment value is solid, despite the improbability of the plot.
Without Warning! (1952) Arnold Laven
DVD – interlibrary loan
El Aura (The Aura) (2005) Fabián Bielinsky
Estaban Espinosa (Ricardo Darín, above) is a taxidermist who fantasizes about how he would commit the perfect crime. He also has a photographic memory, exceptional organizational skills and epilepsy. Strange combination? Maybe.
During a hunting trip with a man he barely knows, Espinosa accidentally kills a man who is in fact a real criminal. Rather than run away in fear for his life, Esponosa decides to act as the dead man’s confidant, helping to heist an armored car filled with profits from a local casino.
I really don’t want to tell you anything further about the film, but I hope you will seek it out. El Aura is one of those films that refuses to allow you to predict what’s going to happen next. I was mesmerized by the film and Darín’s performance. Sadly, El Aura was Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky’s second and final film; shortly after completing the film, he died of a heart attack at age 47. I have not seen his first feature Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), but I am going to seek it out. El Aura screened at Noir City 15 after I had to fly home, but I saw it on DVD from the library. If you live near a Noir City festival, please try to catch it. If not, I urge you to check out the DVD.
Criss Cross (1949) Robert Siodmak
I love film noir, and certainly more people out there have seen more noir than I have, but in my mind, nothing captures the essence of film noir more than Criss Cross. At the least, it’s one of the most tragic films in the noir canon. Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, a man who returns to LA after a two-year absence, yearning for his former lover Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). He finds her, all right, but also finds she’s married a low-life gangster named Slim (Dan Duryea). I won’t tell you any more about Steve’s plan to win her back and at the same time ruin Slim, but I will say that Steve Thompson has to be the biggest chump role of Lancaster’s career. The guy’s just not too bright, which was the type of character Lancaster rarely played. But remember, this is film noir. All bets are off. This one’s rightfully regarded as a noir classic.
Crime Wave (1954) André de Toth
Warner Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 DVD
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston
In a Lonely Place (1950) Nicholas Ray
Los tallos amargos (1956) Fernando Ayala
Noir City 14, San Francisco
You can find this wonderful Argentine film on YouTube but it’s in Spanish with no English subtitles. I’ve seen and heard rumors that we might see a U.S. Blu-ray release of this film in the coming months, but I have nothing solid on that just yet.
Black Tuesday (1954) Hugo Fregonese
Woman on the Run (1950) Norman Foster
Flicker Alley Blu-ray
The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) Felix E. Feist
Borrowed from a friend
If there ever was a devil in film noir, it was Lawrence Tierney. Here he plays Steve Morgan, a sociopath who’s just robbed and killed a cashier, looking for a way out of town. Unsuspecting good guy Jimmy “Fergie” Ferguson (Ted North) gives Morgan a lift to Los Angeles but before they can reach L.A., they stop at a gas station and pick up two women. The fun’s just beginning when Morgan talks everyone into stopping for the night in an unoccupied beach house. As the cops begin to follow Morgan’s trail, murder and mayhem begin to mount.
The Devil Thumbs a Ride is a little too much comic relief to make it as hard-edged as it could’ve been, but it’s an effective little thriller and a great role for Tierney as he cunningly and ruthlessly works his charms on everyone he meets, caring only about himself. Good stuff.
Pickup (1951) Hugo Haas
Borrowed from a friend
Many have forgotten Hugo Haas, a Czech refugee from Nazi Europe who came to America to act and direct as he did here in his first American film. Like many of his movies, Pickup is about a clueless middle-aged man (Haas) who’s ruined by a much younger femme fatale (Beverly Michaels in this case). Haas plays a railroad dispatcher who lives and works in the middle of nowhere until he meets a young blonde named Betty (Michaels) who marries him for the money he’ll get upon retirement, which should be any day now. After the man goes deaf, Betty and her lover Steve (Allan Nixon) plan to do him in, talking about their scheme right in front of him. After all, he can’t hear them, right? Pickup is a fairly standard film noir and although you’ll never find it on anyone’s Top 10, it’s certainly worth your time.
Shield for Murder (1954) Howard W. Koch, Edmond O’Brien
Amazon streaming; Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Shield for Murder isn’t great, but it’s also not bad, not bad at all. Edmond O’Brien (one of my favorite actors) plays Lieutenant Barney Nolan, a crooked cop who kills a bookie and steals $25,000 from him. Nolan convinces his friend and partner (John Agar), the police captain (Emile Meyer, who you’ve just gotta love in all his crime pictures), and his girlfriend (Marla English) that he’s on the level. He could probably get away with it, but the dead bookie’s boss sends a couple of PIs (Claude Akins and Larry Ryle) to get to the truth of the matter.
The pacing and performances are good, but it might take you awhile to get used to seeing Edmond O’Brien playing this type of role. He isn’t exactly the type of guy you enjoy seeing going bad or going postal with rage, which he does a lot in the film. Clearly he has a range beyond being noir’s “everyman.” There’s also a shoot-out at a public swimming pool that’s completely ridiculous, but still fun, and there’s also a nice appearance by Carolyn Jones.
Nightfall (1957) Jacques Tourneur
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II DVD – library
Cutter’s Way (1981) Ivan Passer
Filmstruck; also a Twilight Time Blu-ray
The Big Clock (1948) John Farrow
TGG DVD (double feature with Man of a Thousand Faces)
Big House U.S.A. (1955) Howard W. Koch
Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Man, what a cast! Broderick Crawford (far right), Ralph Meeker (far left), Reed Hadley, William Talman (second from right), Lon Chaney and Charles Bronson (second from left)? Wow… The biggest surprise here is that everyone gets a pretty good role and for the most part, each actor runs with it. Meeker plays Jerry “Iceman” Barker, a lifetime criminal who kidnaps a 10-year-old boy who’s just run away from summer camp. The boy suffers from asthma and you can tell something pretty awful is going to happen to him. (It does.) Barker is caught and sent to prison, but he says nothing about the ransom money he collected from the boy’s rich father.
Inside the prison, Barker meets the other inmates (Crawford, Talman, Chaney, and Bronson), all of whom hate him for having involved a kid in his crimes. Yet Rollo Lamar (Crawford), the leader of the group who’s planning an escape, sees an opportunity to pull Barker in with them, hoping to score some of Barker’s hidden loot.
Big House, U.S.A. has enough material for at least three movies. It takes awhile for us to reach the Big House itself (and if I have to tell you what “The Big House” is, you haven’t watched nearly enough crime pictures), but you never feel cheated because of it. More people should see this film, especially for the performances. This is one of five movies in the Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema Blu-ray box set.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) John Farrow
Night Has a Thousand Eyes is something of a guilty pleasure. I know that if I took the time to really examine the plot, I’d probably discover that it’s not a very good film, but I don’t care: I was entertained… No, I was enraptured by the story of charlatan stage mentalist (Edward G. Robinson) whose powers of insight into the future disturb him so much that he gives up his career to live in anonymity. Robinson, as usual, is excellent, although it’s pretty much a one-trick performance (no pun intended). Although their roles are written as somewhat one-dimensional, Gail Russell, John Lund and William Demarest are also fun to watch. This one won’t be for everyone, but I really dig it. Maybe you will, too.
So again, I hope you’ll find at least a couple of films to explore here. I’m already compiling my own list of 30 films for Noirvember, almost all of them movies I’ve never seen. Can’t wait to share them with you and to see what you’ll be watching. Enjoy!