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.
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.
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.
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!