Movie List #2: Film Noir please…

I just finished an IM chat with Shannon, the Web 2.0 poster student who has been nothing short of mind blowing as I trace the connections she is making with these tools in all sorts of mediums, realms, and spaces. As much as I need to go to bed, I will not until I finish this post. It is part of a larger thought I have been having, but I am afraid I’ll only scratch the surface in this post.

Movies, films, motion pictures, etc., are my first and true love. As I said to Shannon, I’m a junky for many things, but nothing makes me feel as engaged, excited, and alive as a great movie does -except for perhaps sharing my own passion for these fleeting moments of visual poetry with others. I’ve been lucky these days, folks have been willing to talk with me about movies, and some are even daring enough to take my suggestions to heart and go out and watch a few. So, with that in mind, here is a list of some of the movies in the Film Noir genre I have been recommending lately that, in turn, others have generously recommended to me:

The Killers Movie 1946The Killers (of course the 1946 version with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner directed by Richard Siodmak): If you haven’t seen it then you haven’t really walked through the darkest scene in noir that seems to have inspired much of David Lynch’s latest work. The first fifteen minutes of this film is based on Hemingway’s short story of the same name, and the film goes on to imagine a noirish back story for this magical opening. I can’t say enough good things about this film. Maybe not the best noir, but certainly the most near and dear to my heart.

1946 The Killers trailer

Out of the Past Out of the Past (1947): Wow! Jacques Tourneur turns in arguably the most precise and powerful film of the Noir genre (save Double Indemnity, of course -can I assume you’ve seen this?). This is Robert Mitchum’s first leading role, and he’s a tour de force. Jane Greer makes you wonder why you don’t hear more about here more often, and Kirk Douglas is one of the most subtly memorable villains of the Noir genre. The story line is next to impossible to follow at times, and the ways the characters travel through spaces and countries in this film (Mexico is essential to the internal logic of this film) is extremely intriguing for many reasons and on many levels. Suffice it to say, that Out of the Past frames the idea of history as haunting, secretive and an extremely violent force that cannot be submerged, but perhaps more broadly as a space for engaging the horror of a world that has just barely survived the most brutal and savage acts of an epoch. Is the retreat to mass consumption, reinforced gender roles, and national isolation a collective strategy for displacing realizations this horrifying? (Robert Albrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is a wonderful companion piece to this film, by the way.) Like most great Noir, Out of the Past is an intense look at a national imagination in confounded convulsions.

Double Indemnity (1944) trailer

Criss Cross Film 1949Criss Cross (1949): Once again this is starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Richard Siodmak and was remade by Steven Soderbergh in his 1995 film Underneath. Yvonne DeCarlo is spellbinding in this film, and it deals with nothing less than an armored car heist -hasn’t been done successfully in a long time! The scenes I always return to in this film, and Film Noir more generally, are the bar and club scenes. The seedy, shady, alive spaces that define the post-war moment for the American imagination. Not only the a staged threat of the new woman’s power and prowess, but the more general concentration upon the darker side of the dream. Criss Cross has one of the most compelling dance scenes in film (which features the film debut of none other than Tony Curtis) I have ever seen. The music, the passion, the energy, the space, the people, the whole thing is just beautiful cinema at its best. Film Noir may get better than this, but I haven’t witnessed a scene that has etched itself on my brain quite like that one.

Night of the Hunter 1955 movieNight of the Hunter (1955): What can I say? It may not get any better than this. It may not even be a Film Noir! Robert Mitchum (again) is nothing short of awesome -keep in mind that I am using that word in its original, ineffable sense. The evil preacher has never come of the screen like this before or since. This is acting at its finest, scripting at its tightest (thank you James Agee), and a moment where Charles Laughton (an actor turned director) was afforded at least this one opportunity to put a masterpiece together. Unfortunately, the film was lost on the audiences of its day and he never directed another. In our current moment when the movie-going public has to suffer through just about any two-bit actor’s whimsy that they can and should (and all too often do) direct a film, such a feat on the part of Laughton seems all the more remarkable. I mean come on, what is it with these actors today? When did being spoon fed their mediocre lines and techniques for three or four “hit” movies in a row become the rite of passage to conduct the orchestra that is a full-fledged film crew? Come on, stop already! You’re killing any semblance of an art form that has been leftover from the scraps of nonsense that they have been passing over as a film industry these days (this is both a national and global critique mind you). It is nice to return to a film where the actor was not only legendary, but his only foray into directing proved far more memorable than any one of his acting performances. If you haven’t seen this film, then beat yourself up on the way to the nearest movie store and rent, buy, steal borrow it, do whatever you have to -but this film is far too great to be laying around in some queue for two or three days. It needs to be watched now!

The Night of the Hunter trailer

Scene from Night of the Hunter in which “the Preacher” sings. Watch it!

Next up from me, a version of the Billy Wilder recommendation list I gave to Shannon earlier -with a detailed examination of why there have been few, if any writers, in the history of 20th century film who have matched his sword-like pen.

But now for you, what other Film Noirs have I glaringly left out that someone taking a crash course in Noir needs to see? And more importantly, why?

Please note that I’m taking a page out of tattered Matt’s inspired calls for film input from his friends on the inimitable Tattered Coat.

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9 Responses to Movie List #2: Film Noir please…

  1. Keira McPhee says:

    What a cool, well-timed post!

    I sent Brian off to the vid store yesterday on a mission for noir and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (78). He came back with Mildred Pierce and the good news that Black Dog videos had a whole shelf of noir, most of which we hadn’t seen. We’ll head back, list in hand.

    Enjoyed Invasion though not nearly as creepy as I remembered and way more funny. I love that big, sprawly, loose feel of 70’s movies and Donald Sutherland in anything.

  2. jimgroom says:

    Keira,

    How did I know I might be speaking to the coolest cats in Vancouver? I have some pretty cool syllabi that I taught at SUNY Old Westbury a number of years back that you both might get a kick out of -I’ll post them shortly:) Mildred Pierce is one of the book/film combinations (Sonic Youth nailed that film -brilliant) as is the 1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice – an absolute masterpiece (God bless Lana Turner) that I totally forgot about. James M. Caine may have been the most important writer of the Noir genre when it comes to film. Think about it he wrote Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity -all gripping novels and even more amazing films. American existentialism at its best!

    As for Invasion(s), I love the intra-textual film connections in those adaptations. Particularly when Kevin McCarthy seems to be running directly out of the 1956 version right into San Francisco in the ’78 version yelling “they’re here already!” -or something similar. Great stuff, the Leonard Nimoy character may be my favorite though, the real Dr. Spock! The first conference paper I ever gave was a comparison of these two films and it was meager but a blast nonetheless -my favorite presentation to date. I might bust out a copy of that paper along with the syllabi. This might very well be a full scale filming coming out for me. Thanks for egging me on!

    Maybe too much more to come…

  3. Gardner says:

    I love Phil Kaufman’s work. The 1978 IotBS is a very subtle piece that works beautifully as a post-Watergate, disco-era dissection of head and heart. There’s an interesting color symbolism running throughout–check out Kaufman’s commentary on the DVD for more info.

    And the original by Don Siegel is also great.

    My favorite noir by far is Out of the Past. While recognizing all the political issues that you’ve pointed out so insightfully, I also think of the movie as akin to Sophocles. It may be old-fashioned to talk about the human condition, but there it is, my friends. Let’s not forget that existentialism blossomed along with noir; they certainly work the same side of the street. Also, if you can grab a laserdisc player, you should hear critic David Thomson’s commentary on the film (sadly omitted from the DVD). In fact, I think I just found a project for my DVR tonight. 🙂

    I love Double Indemnity, though Barbara Stanwyck has little sex appeal for me, and it thus took me a long time to get into the heart of that film. Sunset Boulevard did it for me right away, not because of Gloria Swanson, but because doomed love seems almost beside the point in that film. It has other fish to fry.

    I LOVE The Killers. Your commentary does it justice and I have nothing to add at this time, your honor.

    Haven’t seen Criss Cross.

    Asphalt Jungle is wonderful noir, as is Kubrick’s first real feature film, The Killing.

    I need to buckle down with the Postmen–never given either a proper viewing.

    Night of the Hunter works on 50,000 levels and is one of my all-time top twenty. Laughton refused to work with the kids–Mitchum directed them (and what a job he did). I think NotH is a major part of the Coen’s Raising Arizona, a para-noir film imo.

    And what of neo-noirs? Chinatown, L.A. Confidential spring to mind. The latter takes the audacious step of making the femme fatale and the “good girl” one and the same….

    Great post, Jim.

  4. Pingback: Tales from the Teaching Crypt: American Film Genres syllabus from Summer 2000 at bavatuesdays

  5. Shannon says:

    Not being nearly as knowledgeable on films as you are I am taking plenty of notes and adding plenty of films to my Netflix queue.
    These films look awesome and coincidentally I had been looking for some good film noir recently, so thanks!
    I will be dutifully waiting for the next movie list blog entry.

  6. Chris Lott says:

    I wish I had more time to watch movies… but I do watch some and I too am stuffing my Netflix list with titles here I haven’t seen. Which is most of them, though _Night of the Hunter_ is on my own top of the tops list! And _The Killers_ — not just a fantastic movie, but also a great short story.

    Glad to see the mentions of McCain who I read when I was young enough to enjoy them without getting caught up in their historicity…

  7. Pingback: The Killers (1946): What’s the idea? at bavatuesdays

  8. NoirIt says:

    This is a great way to create movie lists based on genres…cool posters too….

  9. Pingback: Movie List #3: A Veritable Variety Pack | bavatuesdays

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