I only watched two non-film noir movies in November, so if you’re not interested in noir, this will be a really short read.
I’ve spoken before about my thoughts on the theology of film noir, how as a Christian I look on noir as cinema’s greatest, most accurate, and most biblical expression of fallen humanity. That state and how it plays out in our lives is best expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Film noir is simply Ecclesiastes being played out through movies, although film noir usually stops at Ecclesiastes Chapter 11, not moving forward to Chapter 12, the book’s final chapter. After watching 30 film noir movies last month in light of a Christian worldview, I thought about several things:
Before Noirvember began, my goal was to watch 30 film noir movies. That was a pretty simple goal on paper, but I also decided to follow two rules. I would watch:
Mildred Pierce (1945) Michael Curtiz
Warner Brothers DVD
The longer you think about Mildred Pierce, the more you realize how completely devastating it is. You may not know exactly how to feel about the film once it’s over and that’s understandable. You may not even know what to call it: film noir, melodrama, women’s picture, or all three. You can certainly make a case for each, but over the years, melodrama seems to have won out. If Mildred Pierce is indeed a melodrama, it’s one of the best you’re likely to see.
Bob le flambeur (1956) Jean-Pierre Melville
Criterion Collection DVD (library)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur easily draws comparisons to other heist films of the noir era such as Rififi (1955) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and even more modern films such as Oceans Eleven (2001) and its sequels, but oddly enough, the film I’m reminded of most is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Like Will Munny in that film, Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne, above right) is a man who can’t escape who truly he is: a gambler. Like Munny in Unforgiven, Bob may go for long stretches without giving in to his gambling addiction. He might loan a local woman (Simone Paris, below left) enough money to buy a bar, he might take an old friend’s son under his wing, and he might even have once saved the life of a police inspector (Guy Decomble), but none of those things can really change who and what Bob is.
Champion (1949) Mark Robson
We know from the opening scenes of Champion that we’re getting a frame story. As the film begins, Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas, above) is already the boxing champion, about to take on another challenger, but we’ll have to wait for that bout while director Mark Robson shows us in flashback how Kelly went from riding the rails and hitchhiking to becoming the champ.
Fear in the Night (1947) Maxwell Shane
A bank teller named Grayson (DeForest Kelley) dreams he’s stabbed a man inside an octagonal room of mirrors, locking the body in a closet. Upon waking, Grayson discovers blood on his shirt cuff, a button, and an oddly-shaped key. When Grayson shares his nightmare with his brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly) – who happens to be a cop – Cliff dismisses the whole thing as a bad dream. But Grayson, fearing he really killed someone, sets off to discover the truth.
Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin
Criterion Collection DVD (library)
War veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte, above left) returns home to discover that his father (Morris Camovsky) has lost both legs in a truck accident while working for a cheating San Francisco produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb, above center). Nick swears he’s going to get the money Figlia owes his dad – and probably get even with Figlia as well. But Nick’s dad was so broke, he was forced to sell his truck to a man named Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell, below right).
Nick tracks down Kinney, who turns out to be a seedy guy who doesn’t want to pay what he still owes on the truck. Nick reluctantly strikes a deal with Kinney: the two men will go into business together to deliver the first crop of apples to San Francisco. But things get complicated and Nick sees signs that Kinney isn’t a guy to be trusted.
Shack Out on 101 (1955) Edward Dein
I can safely say that Edward Dein’s Shack Out on 101 is the oddest film noir I’ve seen during Noirvember and maybe the oddest I’ve seen period. What else can you say about a movie that features Whit Bissell and Keenan Wynn prancing around a diner in scuba masks and flippers, Lee Marvin as a short order cook named Slob, and Wynn and Marvin having a contest to see who has the best legs.
House by the River (1950) Fritz Lang
Wealthy novelist Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward, above right) strangles one of his house servants (Dorothy Patrick, above left) when she begins screaming to ward off Byrne’s amorous advances. Before he can think fast enough, Byrne’s brother John (Lee Bowman, below left) walks in and helps him dispose of the body by dumping it in the river (thus the nifty title). Can the brothers now fool everyone in town before they kill each other?