I am an avid fan of the classic film noir genre; the term “classic” is likely problematic, since the definition and scope of this genre can be very flexible, but in my case, I’m referring to the period film noir films made in the 1940s and 1950s. I’ve just received the following collection:
I own volume 1, as you can probably surmise. Inspired by this collection, here is a list of my favourite classic film noir films:
Double Indemnity: This 1944 Billy Wilder film is absolute perfection. When I first saw this film many years ago, my first reaction was “Fred MacMurray? Hmm. Too nice for film noir.” I was pleasantly surprised by MacMurray; I think this film was his career highlight, as he starred otherwise in quite light, pleasant, and sometimes banal projects. Barbara Stanwyck has always been one of my top five actresses: Nasty blond wig aside, she dominates the screen, as always, with her intelligence and strength. Edward G. Robinson is, as always, a sheer delight. The film captures the wit and cynicism that are so typical of both Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder.
Laura: This 1944 Otto Preminger film is utterly fascinating and, in some way, almost fetish-like, with Dana Andrew’s fascination with, and attraction to, a character who is ostensibly dead. Gene Tierney is stunningly beautiful; she wasn’t the strongest or best actress of her time, but her ethereal looks work well for this film. The supporting case of Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, and a young Vincent Price are a further strength of this film.
The Asphalt Jungle: This 1950 John Huston features the massive presence of Sterling Hayden, whose acting style is often underestimated; he didn’t emote much, but still managed to speak volumes in small gestures. This is one of the most cynical films in a cynical genre, which is saying something, and captures beautifully the grubby malaise that is so often associated with this genre.
The Killing: This 1956 project was Stanley Kubrick’s first film and features Sterling Hayden again. The film is a fascinating look at a race-track heist that goes horribly wrong. Elisha Cook Jr. is wonderful as the downtrodden inside man who is willing to do anything for his cheating wife.
The Killers: It would be impossible for me to not list the feature debut of Burt Lancaster in this 1946 Robert Siodmak film. The film was quite shocking in its day because the opening sequence shows the death of its primary character. Lancaster and Ava Gardner are an impossibly-beautiful pair; it’s hard to tell which is more elegant. Sam Levene is wonderful as the police officer who must track down his friend-turned criminal.
Out of the Past: This 1947 Jacques Tourneur film features Robert Mitchum as a private detective who tried to abandon his former life but is dragged back into it. As is often the case with film noir, Mitchum is dominated by female characters. Kirk Douglas is wonderful as the slick victim of murder.
The Set-Up: This 1949 Robert Wise film stars Robert Ryan as an ageing boxer who is paid to throw a fight, and the consequences when he fails to do so. The film is shot mostly in real time, which was novel for its time. Ryan was a trained boxer in university and is thus very convincing in the ring. Ryan so often played a menacing villain that it’s good to see him as the anti-hero.