2017 marks the fourth year that I’ve seriously started delving into film noir. I still consider myself a beginner as far as the number of films I’ve seen and my knowledge of noir, but I’m probably at least near the halfway point of having seen the established body of American film noir titles. I saw close to 200 film noir and neo-noir movies in 2017, but here I’m only going to concentrate on those from the established film noir era (1940-1959), although you’ll find one or two films on either end of that period. In many cases I examined some films in greater detail in previous posts. In those cases, just click on the title. Enjoy!
Pépé le Moko (1937) Julien Duvivier
Pépé le Moko (the great Jean Gabin) is a French criminal hiding out from the authorities in the Casbah area of Algiers. Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) is desperate to catch him, but Pépé is far too smart to come anywhere near him. The inspector’s only hope is to lure Pépé out with a young woman named Gaby (Mireille Balin), whom Pépé has totally fallen for. The film drops us into an exotic location that we believe is real, a fascinating labyrinthine world of vice and corruption. We get to know Pépé so well that we know he’ll never be captured. Right? A tremendous film that resembles yet predates such classics as Casablanca and The Third Man.
Hangover Square (1945) John Brahm
My Name is Julia Ross (1945) Joseph H. Lewis
This little film packs a lot into a very small amount of space and the result is an excellent noir thriller. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, a woman looking for a job via a new London employment agency. She’s hired as a personal secretary to a rich widow named Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty), but when she arrives, her entire world is turned upside down. The film also stars George Macready in one of his nastiest roles (which is really saying something).
Ivy (1947) Sam Wood
Noir City DC, AFI Silver (1:39)
Body and Soul (1947) Robert Rossen
Olive Blu-ray (1:44)
Johnny O’Clock (1947) Robert Rossen
Alias Nick Beal (1949) John Farrow
Ok Ru streaming (1:33)
Flamingo Road (1949) Michael Curtiz
Warner Archive DVD (1:34)
How can you go wrong with actors Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet, and Michael Curtiz directing? You can’t. Think of Flamingo Road as something of a companion piece with Mildred Pierce (1945), this time with Crawford starring as Lane Bellamy, a carnival dancer who has to find her own way once the sheriff (Sydney Greenstreet) of the Southern town Boldon City sends his deputy sheriff (Zachary Scott, without a mustache) to run the carnival out of town. We’re treated to love, graft, corruption, political power… the stuff of film noir.
Shockproof (1949) Douglas Sirk
The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis
Think of it as a precursor to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). Treasury Department investigator Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) is tracking down any clues he can find that might help him bring down the mob boss known as The Big Fellow (clearly referencing Al Capone). When a key informant is silenced and a slimy mob lawyer (Barry Kelley) easily covers his client’s every move, Warren grows concerned for the safety of his wife (Nina Foch) and himself. The Undercover Man treads on familiar territory for sure, but does so better than most. Even a “Let’s go get ‘em!” scene with Warren facing a grieving Italian family surpasses its melodramatic script, a scene that most films from this era would’ve lingered on unmercifully. The film marks the screen debut of James Whitmore.
White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros. Ultimate Gangsters Collection Blu-ray (1:54)
The Breaking Point (1950) Michael Curtiz
Criterion Collection Blu-ray (1:37)
Although the plot of The Breaking Point is similar to the Howard Hawks film To Have and Have Not (1944), both based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, the Curtiz film is (at least in my opinion) the greater of the two versions. Harry Morgan (John Garfield, right, in one of his finest roles) operates a small fishing boat in the San Diego area. Although he’s a hard worker, he always struggles to provide for his wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and two little girls Donna Jo Boyce and Sherry Jackson). When Morgan books a gambler named Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his mistress Leona (Patricia Neal, left) for a fishing trip, Hannagan bails before paying his bill, leaving man-eater Leona with Morgan. Hannagan’s money was going to get Morgan out of a tight spot, but now the spot is even tighter, especially with the temptation of Leona. Morgan’s offered a way out of his predicament, but he’ll be forced to do business with F.R. Duncan (Wallace Ford), a shady character always in on crooked deals around the docks.
The Breaking Point is a superb film noir that’s just been released by Criterion and contains some nice supplements including an interview with writer and film historian Alan K. Rode, whose new biography Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film was published in November. Everything about the film is wonderful, especially John Garfield’s performance. (I’m a big fan of Patricia Neal, too, and she’s spectacular here.) I hope to have more to say about this one later this year. So far it’s one of my favorite film noir discoveries of 2017.
Caged (1950) John Cromwell
Warner Archive DVD (1:37)
The Underworld Story (1950) Cy Endfield
Warner DVD (1:31)
Scandal Sheet (1952) Phil Karlson
The Steel Trap (1952) Andrew L. Stone
Warner Archive DVD (1:25)
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
Dark Sky Films DVD – interlibrary loan (1:15)
Jeopardy (1953) John Sturges
Split Second (1953) Dick Powell
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.
Rogue Cop (1954) Roy Rowland
Crashout (1955) Lewis R. Foster
Olive Blu-ray (1:29)
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.
The Harder They Fall (1956) Mark Robson
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:49)
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 Blu-ray release.
The Killer is Loose (1956) Budd Boetticher
Amazon streaming (1:13)
Recently released on Blu-ray from ClassicFlix
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 Long Haul (1957) Ken Hughes
Underworld, U.S.A. (1961) Samuel Fuller
Experiment in Terror (1962) Blake Edwards
Indicator Blu-ray (2:03)
That’s going to do it for awhile. In a few days I’ll have a Best Books on Movies post and probably won’t list a Best of 2017: Movies from 2017 until January. But stay tuned, you never know…