The Top 10 in Film Noir — Part 1

In response to a request from a Shadows and Satin subscriber, I decided to sit down and come up with my top 10 films from the classic noir era (Thanks, Jörn!). It was a far, far more difficult undertaking than I thought it would be; in fact, on my first try, I came up with not 10 films, but 35!

But after a great deal of musing and ruminating, trial and error, additions and deletions, I’ve come up with my first of two sets of Top 10 films noirs – this list, in accordance with the request, focuses only on the “usual suspects” in film noir – the ones that are well-known by most classic film lovers. Later on, I’ll compile a list of lesser-known gems, the films that aren’t quite as familiar, but are no less great. Please note, incidentally, that the films are in no particular order. (I think my head would have exploded if I’d tried that!)

Here, then, I offer the first of my Top 10 films noirs – the films that you should pick to expose noir to the novice, the films that you love to watch over and over, the films whose quotes pop up in your mind from time to time for no reason at all – the great, the memorable, the classic!

1.  Mildred Pierce (1945): Long-suffering single mother will go to any lengths to please her ungrateful daughter.

A required inclusion on any list I could ever create. First off, it stars Joan Crawford, one of my two favorite actresses (the other being Bette Davis, in case you were wondering). Also, while the film departs in major ways from the James M. Cain novel upon which it is based, it offers a great story.

Favorite quote:  “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – Ida Corwin (Eve Arden)

Favorite scene: There are many, but I think my favorite is the one where Mildred learns that Veda has blackmailed her new and soon-to-be-ex husband by lying about her impending bundle of joy. The scene has much to recommend it, from Veda’s venom-filled tirade informing Mildred why she really wanted the money, to the slap Veda delivers to her mother that knocks her off her feet after Mildred tears up the blackmail check. And then, best of all, when Mildred rises slowly to her feet and orders Veda out of her house: “Get out before I kill you.”

2.  The Killing (1956): A mixed bag of criminals and would-be criminals plan and execute a daring racetrack robbery.

This film is one of the first that comes to mind when I think of the best in film noir. The Killing has everything – not least of which is Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook, Jr., as noir’s most dysfunctional married couple.

Favorite quote:  “Alright sister, that’s a mighty pretty head you got on your shoulders. You want to keep it there or start carrying it around in your hands?” – Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden)

Favorite scene:  Mild-mannered racetrack cashier George Peatty arrives home after a hard day’s work, and suffers a series of slings, arrows, and general putdowns from his gorgeous, contemptuous wife, Sherry. These include Sherry’s response when George inquires about dinner. She describes a delicious bill of fare, and when he wonders why he can’t smell it, she informs him that he’s too far away – “You didn’t think I had it cooked, do you? It’s down to the shopping center.”

3.  Out of the Past (1947): The owner of a small-town gas station is confronted by ghosts from his past.

Out of the Past has all of the elements you expect in a film noir classic. With a first-rate cast that included Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, Out of the Past captures your attention from the first scene and never lets up.

Favorite quote: “If you’re thinking of anyone else, don’t. It wouldn’t work. You’re no good for anyone but me. You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.” – Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer)

Favorite scene: The secluded idyll enjoyed by Kathie and Jeff comes to an abrupt end when their hideout is discovered by Jeff’s former partner (Steve Brodie), who ultimately gets more than he bargained for at the hands of the woman he labels a “cheap piece of baggage.”

4.  Double Indemnity (1944): A married woman and an insurance salesman fall in love and plot to kill the woman’s husband.

Double Indemnity is the first film noir I ever saw. I was about 14 years old, and I’ve loved it ever since. A dark tale of murder and lust, it offers spicy, rapid-fire dialogue, intriguing characterizations, and an engrossing plot. (And it’s the subject for The Dark Pages’ annual “giant” issue, to be released in December 2011!)

Favorite quote: “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money. And for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” – Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)

Favorite scene: The one with the exchange between Phyllis and Walter, in which their dueling metaphor concerning traffic cops and speeding tickets is rife with subtle sexual innuendos.

The calm after the storm.

5.  The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): A married woman and a drifter fall in love and plot to kill the woman’s husband.

Along with Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice also holds a special place in my heart as one of the few noirs I’ve seen in a movie theater and, like these, Postman is also based on a James Cain novel, which practically guarantees a good story.

Favorite quote: “With my brains and your looks, we could go places.” – Frank Chambers (John Garfield)

Favorite scene: There really are so many.  I’ll choose this one: In the middle of a crowded courtroom, Cora (Turner) is shocked to learn that she is being charged with the murder of her husband – as well as the attempted murder of her lover and co-conspirator, Frank (John Garfield). Seconds later, when she finds herself alone with Frank, she completely blows her stack, pacing back and forth like a caged animal and practically spitting her words as Frank sits silently, looking like a little boy who’s being chastised by his mommy for taking too many cookies.

6.  The Big Heat (1953): Principled police detective battles gangsters and corrupt cops to bust an organized crime mob.

I think I’ve watched The Big Heat at least five times in the last couple of months, and enjoyed it more every time. Highlights of the film are the top-notch performances turned in by Glenn Ford, as the detective, Lee Marvin as the henchman for a mob boss, and Gloria Grahame, as the henchman’s luckless moll.

Favorite quote: “We’re sisters under the mink.” – Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)

Favorite scene: Debby embodies the concept that “turnabout is fair play” by throwing a boiling pot of coffee in the face of her abusive ex-boyfriend, and then describes the agony he can expect to experience.

That Waldo -- he sure knows how to give an interview.

7.  Laura (1944): A detective falls for the woman whose murder he is investigating.

Two things distinguish Laura for me: the characters and the dialogue. The memorable lines fly like so many bullets.

Favorite quote: “Young woman, either you have been raised in some incredibly rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from the common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct. Or possibly both.” – Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb)

Favorite scene: I love the scene that shows Waldo Lydecker being interrogated by Mark McPherson while seated in his bathtub, with his typewriter in front of him.

8.  The Set-Up (1949): Against all odds, a nearly washed-up boxer fights to win one last bout.

This gritty, low-key noir takes place in real time on a single night at the Paradise Boxing Arena, where aging boxer Stoker Thompson (the great Robert Ryan) is certain that he’ll emerge the victor in his upcoming bout, unaware that his oily manager is in cahoots with a local hood who has paid for his demise.

Favorite quote: “How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.” Tiny (George Tobias)

Favorite scene: It was painful to watch, but my favorite scene is the one where Stoker is cornered by the hood and his band of minions in the dead end of a dark alley.

One of these men will die. Two will end up in prison. Not a good night, all things considered.

9.  The Asphalt Jungle (1950): A motley cast of characters unite to plan and carry out an intricate jewel heist.

Like The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle provides an illustration of the best-laid plans gone awry, and it’s rife with knockout scenes and a bevy of characters that you love – or love to hate.

Favorite quote: “Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.” – Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe)

Favorite scene: The one where Doc and Dix show up at Emmerich’s home to exchange the diamonds for the cash he’s supposed to fork over. Emmerich first glibly admits that he doesn’t have the money, but his confidence soon falters, and by the end of the scene, he’s in tears.

10.  The Killers (1946): An insurance company investigator unravels a mystery surrounding the murder of a former boxer.

Loosely based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, this film is brimming with no less than 11 unrelated flashbacks that tell a tale of blind love, insatiable greed, and heartless betrayal.

Favorite quote:  “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell.” – Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene)

Favorite scene: The opening scene, where the killers of the film’s title terrorize a diner owner, cook and customer –the fear, anxiety and tension throughout this scene are palpable. Who would have thought that calling somebody “Bright Boy” could be so ominous?

 Stay tuned for Part 2 of Top 10 Films Noirs!

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 30, 2011.

22 Responses to “The Top 10 in Film Noir — Part 1”

  1. Heeeey, finally. 😀
    I understand completely that it’s not easy to pick a Top-10 with so many classics. No surprises in your list, but that is only because they are the cream of the crop, what shall one do? – I’m a little surprised not to see TOUCH OF EVIL or THE THIRD MAN, but these were decisions you had to make. ^^
    Surprisingly, DOUBLE INDEMNITY was also my first noir and after watching that I wasn’t quite sure if it was meant as a parody, which isn’t a bad thing, but it made me a little confused. Nevertheless a great movie.
    Thanks one more time for another great post. I’m really looking foreward to the Lesser-Gems-List. With that I’d like to post my favourite flicks until now, if you like. Greetz from (at last) sunny Germany!

    • Hi, Jörn — sorry to take so long to get this done — it was SO difficult to narrow my list of well-known noirs down to 10. In fact, truth be told, I’m still torn about the inclusion of “The Killers” — I was struggling between that one and several others, but I finally gave in and made my final decision. About Touch of Evil and The Third Man, I made my choices not only based on those that I really think are the best, but also those that I really love, and have seen over and over again. I actually appreciate Touch of Evil and The Third Man more every time I see them, but that real “love” isn’t there yet, as in Mildred Pierce, Postman, and OOTP, for instance. I’m enjoying doing the next 10 — I really appreciate you asking me to do it, and for your support of my efforts!

  2. P.S.: Have you watched the M.-P.-TV-adaption starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce to compare with your no.1? – It’s still on my imaginary “Could-be-interesting-but-I’m-not-so-sure”-list. 😉

    • Yes, I absolutely watched the Kate Winslet version of Mildred Pierce — I wouldn’t have missed it, although when I first heard about the production, I pooh-poohed the very idea. But when I learned that Winslet was in the title role, I decided I’d have to give it a chance. I really enjoyed it and recommend it, primarily because it is so faithful to James Cain’s novel — I actually watched it with the book in my lap, following along. It was almost like having a copy of the script!

  3. ooops…the Guy is called Pearce, of course.

  4. I never miss Mildred Pierce when it comes on. And I thought my mother was long-suffering.

    • Nick, this made me laugh out loud. Literally! And I never miss Mildred Pierce either — despite the fact that I have it on both VHS and DVD! I just love it. I just sit and quote dialogue throughout the movie — drives my children nuts.

  5. My own favorite quote from “Out of the Past” is when Mitchum’s blonde girlfriend says of Jane Greer that nobody is all bad; Mitchum’s laconic reply: “She comes the closest.” Terrific selection, enjoyed reading it very much -looking forward to the next ten!

    • I love that quote, too — in fact, there are so many great ones in this movie! I’m enjoying working on my next set — I think it will be easier identifying 10 from the lesser-known movies. (I hope!)

  6. Great picks with my favorites being OUT OF THE PAST, LAURA, and THE SET-UP. I love how OUT OF THE PAST contrasts the lightness at the start of the film (when Jeff is contented…as much as he ever will be) with the darkness that follows. THE SET-UP is one of the best “night films” ever done–capturing the feel and look of a big city at night.

    • Thanks, Rick — I totally agree about the lighting on Out of the Past. It was a work of art. Agree about The Set-Up, too — you can almost feel the grittiness of the night.

  7. Fantastic list! I can’t wait for your next lists!

  8. Great list, Karen. I know how hard these things can be. Thank you for carrying the noir torch!

  9. K,

    I watched The Killing for the first time (!) this past weekend. I think I had avoided watching it because I like The Killers so much that I foolishly biased against a similarly named movie. It is now on my personal top ten list, too.

    I particularly liked the forshadowing scene. It’s when Marvin Unger (Jay C. Filppen), who finances the operation, stumbles and almost falls into Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) at the racetrack. Up to this point, the plot is tightly planned, well executed, and the former alcoholic (Unger) is sober. Then he falls off the wagon, foreshadowing chaos. Things start to unravel right after this.

    Thanks for your posts. I recently discovered this site and have enjoyed every entry.


    • Thank you, Richard, for your lovely comment! I adore The Killing — every time I watch it, I’m as riveted as I was the first time. What an interesting observation about the scene with Jay C. Flippen! Now I will have to watch it again (darn it!), just to see what you saw. I hope you will be back, and often. 🙂

  10. […] a version of this article appeared in Dark Pages Magazine and my preamble refers to editor Karen Hannsberry’s top 10 noir list which can be found on her blog here. […]

  11. […] in 2011, in response to a request from one of my readers, I offered up part I of my Top 10 Films Noirs. I acknowledged that I have a great many favorite noir features, and I shared my plans to return […]

  12. Great list. I like the way you break them down. I miss some of my faves, like The Big Combo, but I respect your choices!

  13. […] surprisingly, many of these films are on my Top 10 noir list (which, incidentally, has changed a bit since I created it four years ago – but that’s a […]

  14. […] popular film can be found on nearly every Top 10 noir list, including my own. It tells the labyrinthine tale of a small-town gas station owner, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), […]

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