Top Ten Noirs

The story is essential noir with  Mitchum playing a streetwise but vulnerable lug who is hired by Douglas to find  the  delinquent  Greer. When Mitchum does find her he falls for her against his better judgment   Greer is superb as the  femme fatale playing Mitchum against Douglas for her benefit.   There is so much double-dealing between the characters in this film you need a scorecard to keep track.   For all of his flaws and bad judgment, you come to see Mitchum’s character as a victim and trust he gets out of his predicament and back to the goodness that awaits him.  But this is noir where happiness is very elusive.  Jacques Tounure was a true artist of noir and his direction in this film reflects his mastery of  the genre.   Filming locations in the town of Bridgeport, California, Lake Tahoe and Mexico were big budget allowances for RKO at the time.  Mitchum was the fourth choice for the lead role after it was turned down by Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell.

OUT OF THE PAST    RKO    1947      Director:  Jacques Tourneur    -     Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, Steve Brodie, Rhonda Fleming

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE   MGM    1950       Director:  John Huston    -      Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Marc Lawrence

Gritty and compelling, it follows a group of criminals led by the intellectual Jaffe as they prepare for a big jewel heist.  Interesting character study as the plot develops, particularly that between Jaffe and Hayden.    Calhern is especially good as the sleazy, double-crossing lawyer. In typical noir fashion you find yourself having to make moral judgments between the lessor groups of crooks.  One being  double-crossed by the more ruthless ones.   Is there anyone who sees this film and not pull for Hayden to make up that last hill?   Perhaps if the production code had not been in effect at the time he would have made it home.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY    Paramount    1944       Director:  Billy Wilder    -          Barbara Stanwyck,  Fred MacMurray,  Edward G. Robinson

The storyline is one of the most frequently used in pulp and this one comes from James Cain's short novel.  But you can put cliches aside, for Stanwyck and MacMurray bring a stark reality to their characters making this one of noir's best films.  One aspect of the film that makes it work so well is MacMurray's character.  An average Joe doing an average job whose morality is tested, and he flunks.  But MacMurray is out of his league playing with the more shrewd and sophisticated Stanwyck.  As often the case in noir, MacMurray's life spins out of control.  The film was an “A” list project for Paramount debunking the notion that film noir was only the province of low budget fare. Raymond Chandler’s dialog is intelligent and cinematographer John Seitz paints a shadowy atmosphere through the varied location shots. The critics took notice and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards with Rozsa winning for his music.  However a big injustice was done  when Robinson's performance was not recognized with an Academy Award nomination.

FORCE OF EVIL   MGM    1948        Director:  Abraham Polonsky   -      John Garfield, Beatrice Pearson, Thomas Gomez, Roy Roberts, Marie Windsor

Garfield plays a sharp attorney working for mobster Roberts.  He is driven by his desire to help his estranged brother, a low level numbers operator played by Gomez, who is being squeezed by Roberts.  Garfield soon discovers that in the criminal underworld you can't play both sides of the fence.  To complicate matters further, Robert's wife (Windsor) has a romantic interest in Garfield.   

THE KILLING   MGM    1956        Director:  Stanely Kubrick      -    Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Ted de Corsisa

Hayden is in his element as a small time crook planning a big and final heist.   As he methodically plans  the robbery he and his crew are themselves being set up.  This is a familiar theme in noir, (Asphalt Jungle).  The story is fast paced and the supporting cast is good.  Watching Windsor as Cook's  scheming, manipulative wife is worth the price of admission.   As the story  unfolds you find yourself rooting for the Hayden the criminal,  which means you are in a true noir.  The documentary style narration is a minor distraction but otherwise Kubrick’s first Hollywood made film is a classic.

D.O.A.   Columbia    1950      Director:  Rudolph Mate'   -      Edmund O'Brien,  Pamela Britton,  Luther Adler,  Neville Brand,  Beverly Garland

One of  the reoccurring themes in noir is the fatalism n one's life and  D.O.A. is the ultimate play upon that theme.   It couldn't be worse for O'Brien as he is given a terminal diagnoses as the result of a poisoning.  O'Brien tries to find the who and why in the short time he has remaining and we are along for the frantic journey.  This film has much going for it including the presence of O'Brien,  who, remarkably is in every scene.  There is a subtle undertone to the storey in which O'Brien is reminded at almost every turn of his pending mortality while having to deal with his unsuspecting girlfriend (Britton).  There are no back lots here as it was filmed almost entirely on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco giving it a realism not often seen. Neville Brand plays a psychotic thug, the type of role he would play many times over.

THE NARROW MARGIN   RKO   1952      Director:  Richard Fleischer    -    Charles McGraw,  Marie Windsor,  Jacqueline White,  Paul Maxey,  Gordon Gebert

A fast paced thriller  which has McGraw on a train trying to get  witness Windsor back to Los Angeles to testify.  He runs the proverbial gauntlet of assassins  trying to eliminate his witness.  While this may seem like a well used scenario, the presence of McGraw and Windsor as well as the claustrophobic atmosphere and tight camera angles make this a top notch film.  There is ample surprises to keep you anticipating all along the way.  Any film with McGraw in the lead role will never disappoint noir fans.  

DESPERATE RKO    1947        Director:  Anthony Mann     -     Steve Brodie,  Audrey Long, Raymond Burr,  Douglas Fowley

Brodie is duped into helping a group of criminals led by Burr.  When things go awry, Brodie is set up to take the blame and  finds himself being hunted by both the police and Burr’s gang, a classic noir dilemma.  The highlight of this film is the camera work and effective use of close-ups.  The scene where Brodie is being questioned underneath a swinging lamp with Burr and his henchmen looking on is one of the most ominous you will see in any film.  Another RKO "B" film  that rises to the top owing to to direction of Mann and the cinematography of George Diskant.  A good example of what could be achieved on a small budget.

THE KILLERS   Universal     1946        Director:  Robert Siodmak    -   Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien,  Albert Dekker, Sam Levene

Although this film was based on a Ernest Hemingway short story, it's remarkably similar to that of Daniel Mainwaring's script for Out of The Past.  Like the Mitchum character in Out of The Past, Lancaster is working in a remote gas station trying to elude his past when he is recognized by a former associate.  This sets off the events in which we learn of his criminal past through a series of flashbacks.  At the center of it all is femme fatale Gardner at her ravishing best. Although similar to Out of The Past, the elements of this film unfold  in a much different manner giving it a clear distinction.  This was Lancaster's first film role and he wasn't even the first choice of producer Mark Hellenger.   He delivered, the film was big hit and his career was on it's way.  Still, don't overlook the performance of the always reliable O'Brien.

ACT OF VIOLENCE   MGM    1948        Director:  Fred Zinnemann    -     Van Heflin,  Robert Ryan,  Janet Leigh,  Mary Astor,  Berry Kroeger

Another story where a man is trying to outlive his dark past.  In this instance it is Heflin, whose idyllic post war family life is shattered when Ryan shows up seeking revenge for Heflin's wartime treachery.  As Heflin tries to elude the stalking Ryan, he is tormented  by his guilt and falls prey to some unsavory characters.  In a bit of symbolism, the film opens on a bright day at a Veterans parade, but the atmosphere quickly changes to mirror the desperation in which  Heflin finds himself.  The cast, including Mary Astor as an aging hooker and a young Janet Leigh is first rate.  But the true gems of this film are the work of cinematographer Robert Surtees and the use of classic Los Angeles noir locations.   If you regard the use of lighting as an important element of noir then you will appreciate Zinnemann’s direction as Heflin traverses the tunnels, staircases and alleys of Bunker Hill all during his nighttime sojourn.

Back to top American Film Noir

Here are ten of the very best of noirs.  Each contains essential elements that define the genre.  Of course, this is only one person’s opinion.