Monday, October 8, 2012

Film Noir A to Z

One of the most popular features at the Cafe is our "A to Z" list. This month, we tackle film noir--a daunting task because there so many good ones. For example, for "D", we could have gone with any of the following:  The Dark Corner, Dark City, Detour, Desperate Hours, or Drive a Crooked Road. So, if we omitted one of your favorites, please leave a comment!

Sterling Hayden gets tough in
The Asphalt Jungle.
A - The Asphalt Jungle.  A sense of doom permeates John Huston's taut suspense film in which a "perfect caper" goes awry.

B - The Big Heat. A homicide detective (Glenn Ford) takes on a crime syndicate when his wife is murdered. Favorite line is when Gloria Grahame tells the hero: "You're about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs."

C - Cornered. Dick Powell tracks post-World War II Nazis to Argentina to avenge the murder of his French Resistance wife. Powell is terrific, Walter Slezak slimy, and the ending brutal.

Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in
Double Indemnity.
D - Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder's classic noir ensured Barbara Stanwyck's admission into the Femme Fatale Hall of Fame (if there was one).

E - Edge of Doom. Following the death of his mother, a mentally unbalanced young man (Farley Granger), with a grudge against the church, murders a priest in this grim noir.

F - Force of Evil. "If you need a broken man to love, break your husband," says John Garfield's tough-talking lawyer to Marie Windsor's femme fatale in this poetic picture. Director Abraham Polonsky was subsequently blacklisted and wouldn't direct again for over 20 years.

Peggy Cummins as a sideshow
sharpshooter in Gun Crazy.
G - Gun Crazy. Peggy Cummins and John Dall love guns...and each other. Unfortunately, she loves money, too, and leads them on a lethal crime spree.

H - Human Desire. Gloria Grahame sizzles as a sexpot with an abusive husband who lures Glenn Ford into a torrid affair. Now, if she only get rid of her husband (Broderick Crawford).... French director Jean Renoir earlier adapted the same Emile Zola novel, The Human Beast, to great effect.

I - In a Lonely Place. Noir favorite Gloria Grahame plays a starlet and Humphrey Bogart a screenwriter suspected of murder in this dark tale set against cynical Hollywood.

J - Johnny O'Clock. A casino provides an interesting backdrop for the typical plot about a basically good guy (Dick Powell) who gets mixed up with murder and crooked cops. With Evelyn Keyes and Lee J. Cobb.

- Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) pummels bad guys, gets beat up a lot, and looks for the "great whatsit" in Robert Aldrich's one-of-a-kind cult noir.

Preminger's moody direction on Laura.
L - Laura. Clifton Webb created one of the great characters in American cinema with his portrayal of Waldo Lydecker. Of course, the rest of the film ain't bad either with Otto Preminger's stylish direction, David  Raksin's haunting music, and the stunning Gene Tierney.

M - The Maltese Falcon. John Huston's classic is "the stuff that dreams are made of." You knew that as soon as you saw that opening shot of the office windows with the letters reversed, right?

N - Nightmare Alley. Tyrone Power gives perhaps his finest performance as a seedy carnival hustler who hits the big time--briefly--with a mind-reading act.

Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.
O - Out of the Past. With its contrasts of bright lights and dark shadows, Out of the Past is a visual feast. It's also a compelling tale of a man pulled back into the shadows of his past--no matter how hard he tries to escape them. Perhaps, my favorite film noir.

P - Pickup on South Street. A pickpocket steals a woman's wallet. What neither of them know is that it contains microfilm with government secrets coveted by her communist spy ex-boyfriend.

Q - Quicksand. A petty crime snowballs into a heap of trouble for garage mechanic Mickey Rooney. It doesn't help that Peter Lorre is on hand as the shady owner of a penny arcade.

Dennis O'Keefe and female
companions in Raw Deal.
R - Raw Deal. An unexpected love triangle highlights Anthony Mann's sharp tale of an escaped convict trying to elude the police and a crime boss trying to kill him.

S - Sunset Blvd. Are you ready for your close-up? Of course, you are!

T - The Third Man. There's this guy named Harry Lime in post-World War II Vienna....

U - Underworld U.S.A. A youth grows into a vicious criminal so that he avenge his father's death at the hands of mobsters. A relentless look at corruption by Samuel Fuller.

V - Vicki. Why is detective Richard Boone so zealous about solving model Jean Peters' murder? This moody variation of Laura is actually a remake of 1941's I Wake Up Screaming.

W - The Web. After a memorable supporting turn in Laura, Vincent Price plays a smooth villain in this seldom-shown noir co-starring Edmond O'Brien (who would later star in an even better noir, D.O.A.).

A through-the-window tracking shot
in The Amazing Mr. X.
X - The Amazing Mr. X (well, this one is a bit of a cheat). Also known as The Spiritualist, this "B" film shares similarities with the bigger-budgeted Nightmare Alley. In this one, Turhan Bey plays a con artist who becomes an unwilling accomplice in a murder plot.

Y - You Only Live Once. Fritz Lang's 1937 classic is considered an early noir, largely due to its bleak outlook in telling the story of an ex-con who seems unable to escape his tragic fate.

Z - The Zither music in The Third Man.


  1. A daunting task indeed. You are so right about there being so many excellent film noirs. For instance for the letter N, I would normally think of NIGHT AND THE CITY(1950), one of my all time favorite film noir. But NIGHTMARE ALLEY is also great and deserves mention. I've seen all the films that you mention and almost all of them deserve to be viewed again and again .

  2. As I was reviewing your list I realized I have seen all but two of these films, QUICKSAND and EDGE OF DOOM, the latter especially sounds fascinating.

    Lists are always so subjective and then some of the letters have very tough choices, I mean how do you pick between SUNSET BLVD, SCARLET STREET and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE? For me, it would be tough.

    Just to inject a few thoughts on my own selections I would have personally gone with HIGH SIERRA or HANGOVER SQUARE over HUMAN DESIRE, NIGHT AND THE CITY over NIGHTMARE ALLEY and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW or WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS instead of THE WEB. That said, this is a great list you put together and all are must see films.

  3. My favorite 'N's are "Night and the City" and "The Narrow Margin," however, I recently watched "Nightmare Alley" again and was mesmerized by Tyrone Power's walk on the dark side (he should've been allowed a few more noirs). By the way, that was an interesting and creative choice for 'Z'...

    If you're near the DC area, "Noir City DC" is coming to town from Oct. 20 - Nov. 1. I highly recommend it, "Noir City San Francisco" is a great event and the one festival I never miss.

  4. Rick, you've got so many of my favorite film noirs on your list - BRAVO on your excellent taste! I'm especially pleased to see JOHNNY O'CLOCK on your list, since I'd had a hard time finding it until it turned up on TCM.

    However, I'm surprised that you chose VICKI, the remake of I WAKE UP SCREAMING, over I WAKE UP SCREAMING itself, one of my faves! That said, I've always liked Richard Boone's savage performance in the Laird Cregar role, though Laird is still the champ in my book. But hey, everyone has their favorites, and I applaud you for your fine selection!

  5. Great additions and comments. Yes, there are several excellent choices for N and S. As for VICKI, I chose it over I WAKE UP SCREAMING because I needed a title for V! I love the A to Z list, but Q, X, V, and Z often pose challenges.

  6. What a difficult list to make! For instance, I think The Lodger would belong in there, but who could leave out Laura? I was tickled to see Nightmare Alley in there, one of my very favorites. I have never seen You Only Live Once (a predecessor to You Only Live Twice, I assume -- LOL), and it sounds wonderful. Of course, The Maltese Falcon is a must, and Asphalt Jungle. Wish I had a collection of all of these to dive into and just watch them all in a marathon! Fun post, Rick!

  7. Terrifc list, very nicely done - hard to argue with any of the choices though personally I would have worked mightily to get TOUCH OF EVIL and MURDER, MY SWEET in there too - great list, well done.

  8. Sheesh, impressive!

    But, will show my odd film way of thinking. I'd have gone with Touch of Evil over The Third Man, zither music, dutch angles and all. I think I'm in the minority there. Also,I've always had a wee problem with categorizing Sunset Blvd. as a film noir - I know it's crazy - one of the best films ever made is beyond noir to me. Or noir is just a small part of that film the way I see it. So, for an "S" choice I would have listed either Sweet Smell of Success or Strangers on a Train. Is that OUT THERE?

    Great post!


  9. I agree with Aurora about SUNSET BLVD not being noir. I know some people claim it is, but I don't see it. I don't think STRANGERS is noir either, but SWEET SMELL is a perfect S pick.

  10. Love this list. Film noir in October somehow seems perfect! Great comments, too.

  11. Great selections. I might argue about "Sunset Blvd." and maybe even "The Maltese Falcon" being noir because that's the kind of hairpin I am (stubborn and not very bright).

    Your article made my sister visit and raid my movie library. You've brought her over to the dark side.

  12. I've hard "Cornered" in the to watch pile for a long time and I just moved it up to the top. That was a great list.

  13. Ooh - great list and great movies (except for the zither music). I vote for "Sweet Smell of Success" too.

  14. B for "The Big Sleep" & K for "The Killers."

  15. Ah, Turhan Bey. So slithery, so sinister, so sneeringly....uh, laughable. But in a good way. I love the guy. Plus he always looked so neat.

    The Zither music in THE THIRD MAN. Well, it makes sense. Where else you gonna' find a Z? Very clever, Rick. :)