The Top 10 in Film Noir — Part 2: The Lesser-Known Gems
At long last, in response to a request from a Shadows and Satin subscriber (Hello, Jörn!), I’ve finally managed to compile another list of Top 10 films noirs – not the better-known features like the ones I covered here, but the lesser-known gems. These are the movies that are not often mentioned when one speaks of film noir, but I’ve seen them over and over again and love them just as much as those popular classics that receive the usual buzz and fanfare. The task of narrowing down this list wasn’t as arduous as my initial attempt, and it was actually a lot more fun – with each film I recalled, I’d find myself smiling as I remembered the joy I felt when I first discovered it. Rife with distinctive characters, exceptional performances, unique plots, and unforgettable quotes, each of these films is a real treasure. Here, then, I offer, for your consideration, and in no particular order, my list of Top 10 lesser-known noirs.
1. Nora Prentiss (1947): Married doctor’s torrid affair with a nightclub singer leads to a secret life.
Whenever I think of little-seen noirs that I love, I think first of Nora Prentiss. The best thing it has going for it is its unique and innovative plot – when I tell you they don’t write ‘em like this anymore, you can believe it. It involves a prominent San Francisco doctor and family man who falls for a sultry nightclub singer and finds that he will go to any lengths (and I do mean ANY) to have her. The second best thing about Nora Prentiss is the actress who played the title role – Ann Sheridan, who used her earthy sex appeal and natural acting talent to turn in one of her best performances.
Favorite quote: “I’m not exactly a fool. This sudden necessity for you to work night after night until three and four in the morning seems very odd to me. The population of San Francisco can’t be that unhealthy.” Lucy Talbot (Rosemary DeCamp)
Edmond O’Brien was one of film noir’s most dependable performers – and he didn’t disappoint in Shield for Murder. In this film, he plays a cop who means well but doesn’t get many opportunities to demonstrate it. Instead, he finds himself caught up – as so often happens to men in film noir – in circumstances beyond his control, and after a couple of bad choices, he soon passes the point of no return. For much more on this riveting feature, read my post here.
Favorite quote: “For 16 years I’ve been a cop. For 16 years I’ve been living in dirt and take it from me, some of it’s bound to rub off on you. You get to hate people. Everyone you meet.” Det. Lt. Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien)
3. Plunder Road (1957): Gang of five men plan and carry out an intricate scheme to steal $10 million in gold.
For the first 13 minutes of Plunder Road, there is no dialogue between the characters, a motley crew who assemble to carry out a daring train heist. This unusual opening alone would be worth the price of admission, but the film also benefits from a spate of fascinating personages, including the college-educated mastermind of the crime, a former movie stuntman, a longtime convict, and a race-car driver. It’s not chock-full of action, but trust me, you’ll never be bored.
Favorite quote: “You wanna be scared, Frankie, go ahead. But don’t be stupid.” Eddie Harris (Gene Raymond)
4. Too Late for Tears (1949): A housewife accidentally intercepts a satchel full of money and will do anything to keep it.
Perfect noir beginning. Perfect noir end. A completely conscienceless femme fatale. And Dan Duryea. Win.
Favorite quote: “I didn’t know they made ‘em as beautiful as you are, and as smart – and as hard.” Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea)
5. Desperate (1947): A young married couple is hunted by police and a vengeful gangster.
Desperate is one of those films that come to mind when I hear the term “minor” noir. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not thoroughly entertaining, with a solid plot, excellent performances, and memorable dialogue. It also features a beautifully filmed shoot-out on the winding staircase of an apartment house that is a noir must-see.
Favorite quote: “Say, I’ll bet that new bride of yours is pretty. How ‘bout it, Steve? You going to the police? While you’re there, we’ll have the missus. I don’t care what you tell them. But if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t gonna be so good to look at.” Walt Radak (Raymond Burr)
6. The Damned Don’t Cry (1950): The life of a street-wise dress model is transformed when she becomes involved with a mob boss.
I love this movie. Love it, love it, love it. First off, it stars Joan Crawford which means, if you know anything at all about me, that nothing more really needs to be said. But Joanie’s contributions are just the tip of the bountiful noir iceberg. There’s an out-of-the-ordinary plot, a dangerously sultry love triangle, shocking violence, first-rate writing – I’m telling you, it’s good stuff.
Favorite quote: “Don’t talk to me about self-respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.” Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford)
7. Tension (1950): Unassuming druggist takes matters into his own hands when he learns that his wife is cheating on him.
Audrey Totter turned in some first-rate noir performances, but she delivers my favorite in Tension, where she steals the movie as a cold-hearted, self-absorbed dame who is stepping out on her boring husband. The plot is a winner, too, an innovative story with enough twists to satisfy any lover of noir.
Favorite quote: “I’ve got what I’m looking for and I’m gonna grab it while I’ve got the chance. A real man. There’s nothing to talk about. It was different in San Diego – you were kind of cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you’re all laughed out now.” Claire Quimby (Audrey Totter)
8. The Locket (1947): Soon-to-be-groom reluctantly learns that his fiancee is not what she seems to be.
This movie has to be seen to be believed. It’s the only film I can think of that has a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, and focuses on the exploits of a lying kleptomanic in deceptively refined clothing. Plus, it has Robert Mitchum.
Favorite quote: “I admire your principles. I wish I could say the same for your disposition.” Nancy Monks Blair Patton (Laraine Day)
Thank goodness this film finally came out on DVD – I had a really abysmal copy on VHS. The fact that I watched that abysmal copy numerous times over the years should tell you that this is a good one. Confidential has plenty to recommend it (read more about it here), but its best feature is the cast, which includes Broderick Crawford as the blustering crime boss, Richard Conte as his enigmatic, smooth-as-polished-ice enforcer, and the gorgeous Anne Bancroft as his defiant daughter. (And, as a bonus, the DVD features a top-notch commentary by my pal, film historian Alan Rode, and writer Kim Morgan!)
Favorite quote: “You’re a beautiful dame, Iris. One of the best I’ve seen. And you treat me like it was Christmas Eve. But, no thanks. I see through you like those silk dresses you wear.” Nick Magellan (Richard Conte)
10. Shakedown (1950): The ambitions of an unscrupulous photographer spiral out of control.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and the thorough-going heel (as one critic labeled him) played by Howard Duff is at the center of it all. There’s never a dull moment as Duff’s devious photog shoots his way to the top – with his camera.
Favorite quote: “Matrimony is a state I don’t recognize. It’s not love – it’s pots and pans and a conversational fistfight every Saturday night, with a paycheck as the purse.” Jack Early (Howard Duff)
And there you have it! These may be films that you’ve never seen or even heard of, but take it from me, good things often come in lesser-known packages. (Or something like that.) Many of these films are on DVD or pop up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies – for a free list of how to get your hands on these and other hard-to-find films noirs, click here. If you get the chance, check ‘em out! Why? Because you only owe it to yourself.