The CMBA 10th Anniversary Blogathon: Top Five Film Noirs from 70 Years Ago

There’s a reason why they called it “The Golden Age of Hollywood.”

These days, if I were to decide on any given evening that I wanted to go to the picture show, I’d be hard-pressed to find something that was worth my time or money.

But that wasn’t the case 70 years ago.

The year 1949 saw the release of such lauded classic film fare as The Heiress, A Letter to Three Wives, On the Town, Sands of Iwo Jima, Adam’s Rib, and All the Kings Men. And then there were the film noir features that came out 70 years ago — it was a veritable noir-extravaganza!

To help celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) – of which I’ve been a proud member since 2011 – I’m taking a look at what I consider to be the top five film noir that are turning 70 this year. They may not be the most popular noirs of the year, or even the most highly acclaimed, but they’re definitely my favorite five and the ones that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again.

So here they are, in no particular order, my top five films noir of 1949 – watch out for spoilers, y’all – and happy anniversary CMBA!!

Max is the only son in his father’s corner.

House of Strangers

House of Strangers is probably the least noirish noir of the group. But don’t get me wrong – it still packs a cynical, shadowy punch. The film stars Edward G. Robinson as Gino Monetti, the head of a successful bank and the patriarch of an Italian family that consists of four sons: Joe (Luther Adler), Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), Pietro (Paul Valentine), and Max (Richard Conte). Max, an attorney, is clearly his father’s favorite – Gino treats the other three, who work for him in the bank, like the hired help, refusing to give his eldest, Joe, a raise, and frequently referring to the youngest, Pietro, as “dumb head.”

Although Gino’s bank is profitable, it turns out that his practices are dubious at best and illegal at worst. The law eventually catches up to him, and when he’s arrested, Max is the only son who stands by his side – even bribing a witness in an attempt to secure his father’s freedom. But Max’s valiant (if misguided) efforts are all for naught – his father goes to jail, and so does he. Gino dies in prison and when Max emerges five years later, he’s intent on avenging his father’s death.

I’m a huge Richard Conte fan, and in House of Strangers, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s sexy, audacious, shrewd, intelligent, ruthless, and sexy. (Did I say that already?) Edward G. Robinson does his usual fantastic job, this time effectively pulling off an Italian accent, and these two are ably supported by the rest of the cast which, in addition to the actors who played the brothers, includes Hope Emerson, Debra Paget, and Susan Hayward as Max’s thoroughly bad-ass girlfriend.

There’s no way that Jane is giving up this much cash.

Too Late for Tears

From the opening scene of this film – which features Lizabeth Scott complaining to her husband (Arthur Kennedy) about the dinner party they’re headed for, and bitching about the host’s “diamond-studded wife” – to the shocking ending that left my mouth agape at my first viewing, there’s nothing I don’t love about Too Late for Tears. Scott is Jane Palmer, who’s unhappy with her middle-class life and doesn’t want to just keep up with the Joneses – she wants to surpass them. So when a satchel packed with a cool 60 grand in cash is mistakenly tossed into the family vehicle one dark night, turning it into the authorities like a good citizen is the last thing on Jane’s mind.

Jane’s husband, Alan (Arthur Kennedy), wants to do the right thing, so of course, he’s not long for this world. And Jane’s next obstacle – the cash money’s rightful recipient, played by the always fabulous Dan Duryea – soon finds that he’s disposable as well. Unfortunately for Jane, her smooth lies and clever machinations don’t pull the wool over the eyes of Alan’s sister (Kristine Miller) and a tenacious stranger (Don DeFore) who claims to be Alan’s old Army buddy.

Of all of Lizabeth Scott’s noirs (and she’s in some great ones, including my much-loved The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Pitfall), Too Late for Tears is doubtlessly my favorite. Scott’s Jane is one of the most ruthless, thoroughly bad housewives you’ll ever want to come across; unfeeling, deceitful, self-centered, and avaricious, she’s a classic sociopath with murderous tendencies. And I can’t get enough of her.

Stoker gets an encouraging word from a fellow boxer.

The Set-Up

This film is so good, and it doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Offered in real-time on a single evening, The Set-Up tells the story of Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), an aging boxer who refuses to go gently into that good night. On this particular night, he’s feeling good about his chances to emerge victorious from his scheduled bout, not knowing that his faithful, steadfast, and endlessly supportive wife Julie (Audrey Totter) can no longer bear to watch him getting beat up and won’t be in her normal seat in the stadium. He also doesn’t know that his manager (George Tobias) and trainer (Percy Helton) have taken money from a local gangster, ignominiously named ‘Little Boy’ (Alan Baxter), to ensure that Stoker takes a dive.

The Set-Up primarily alternates between Stoker’s actions inside the Paradise City boxing arena, and his wife’s agonizing deliberation over whether to support her husband or stay away from the match. There are several other minor, but memorable characters, who greatly add to the film’s flavor. These include boxers like the quietly confident Luther Hawkins (James Edwards) and the punch-drunk Gunboat Johnson (David Clarke), whose career has almost certainly ended on this night. Other members of the supporting cast can be found in the audience of the boxing arena, like the blind man who has every move described to him by a friend, the portly spectator who seemingly never stops shoveling food into his mouth, and the woman who comes off as slightly squeamish, but watches each match with her eyes blazing with frenzied passion, and at one point is heard to scream, “Let’s have some action!”

Based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March about a washed-up black boxer, The Set-Up is one of Robert Ryan’s best noirs. It’s not your typical film from this era, but it does have what I consider to be the essential noir quality: that feeling of impending dread, and the suspicion that everything is not going to turn out all right. And it’s got that feeling in spades.

Totter’s look says it all.

Tension

In Tension, Audrey Totter moves from the good side that she exhibited in The Set-Up to the unmistakably bad side. Here, she’s Claire Quimby, who’s unhappily married to a mild-mannered pharmacist Warren (Richard Basehart), but manages to keep herself entertained by swiping pricey bottles of perfume from the drug store where Warren works, and stepping out with any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to catch her fancy. When she hooks up with a well-to-do local guy named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), Claire decides to leave her humdrum hubby, who tries valiantly to win her back, but winds up getting a Barney beat-down.

Warren gets the bright idea to assume another identity – a fellow named Paul Sothern — murder Barney, and pin the crime on the fake persona, but somebody beats him to the punch. Barney winds up dead before Warren/Paul can get his mitts on him, and Claire comes skittering back home to Warren as the authorities are all trying to track down the elusive Mr. Sothern. Talk about tension!

There are two main reasons why I love this movie – the crazy plot and Audrey Totter. Noirs are notorious for their labyrinthine storylines, but this one is more than that. It requires a hefty suspension of disbelief (after all, Warren’s big transformation into Paul Sothern simply involves him donning a pair of spectacles) but you just have to go with it. And Audrey Totter is pure nastiness, through and through – watching her sneer and snipe at her husband gives me pure joy.

Criss Cross. Everything you want in a noir.

Criss Cross

No matter how I’m feeling when I make a top 10 film noir list (and my lists have been known to vary, depending on the time that I compile them and the mood I’m in), Criss Cross is one film that always makes every list. For me, it’s just about perfect, possibly ranking second to my all-time favorite noir, Double Indemnity. It stars Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson, who returns to his native San Francisco and reunites with his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo), only to find that you really can’t go home again. Turns out that Anna’s involved with local mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), but even after Anna becomes Mrs. Dundee, Steve is still obsessed and determined to have her for his own.

Steve craftily joins forces with Slim to pull off a carefully planned heist of the armored car company where Steve is employed as a driver. But Steve’s real plan – like Walter Neff of Double Indemnity – is to get the money and the girl. Guess what he winds up with?

There are so many things to love about this movie. First off, I dig all the standard film noir characteristics that it serves up – voiceover narration, flashback, shadowy scenes, upright man of the law, femme fatale, law-abiding everyman led into a life of crime by said femme fatale – and, of course, that imminent sensation of doom. But beyond that, it’s got a cracking plot, first-rate performances by Lancaster, DeCarlo, and Duryea, and a perfect ending that fulfills the promise of the film’s title. Oh, and it’s also got a tender Tony Curtis, in his big screen debut, dancing with DeCarlo in a nightclub. What more could you ask for?

And that’s my top five film noirs that folks were lucky enough to see on the big screen 70 years ago. What are some of your favorite films from 1949? Join in our CMBA anniversary celebration and let me know!

———

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 10-Year Anniversary Blogathon. Click on Loy and Powell over there to read the awesome posts written by CMBA members in celebration of this milestone!

~ by shadowsandsatin on October 17, 2019.

22 Responses to “The CMBA 10th Anniversary Blogathon: Top Five Film Noirs from 70 Years Ago”

  1. What a great selection of movies, Karen! If I had to pick just one to take to my desert island it’d be Too Late for Tears. Aside from anything else, it has personal resonance for me: it was my introduction to Lizabeth Scott, who immediately became a firm favorite.

  2. Terrific choices, Karen. I am especially fond of Too Late For Tears! Thanks for participating in the blogathon.

  3. Great choices, Karen. I have never heard of House Of Strangers before, but I am very eager to see this now.

  4. Wonderful list. I enjoyed watching House of Strangers and Tension for the first time this past year. There’s a great assortment of talent here!

  5. I thought perhaps I’d see if I could come up with 5 different 1949 noir from your sterling list (I like a challenge).

    You may recall that I am a fan of House of Strangers, so I am looking at 4 different titles.

    1. House of Strangers
    2. Stray Dog
    3. Thieves’ Highway (There’s no such thing as too much Conte.)
    4. Alias Nick Beal
    5. Impact

    They all fit the criteria of movies I can watch again and again.

    PS: I love my husband, but I tried to show him Criss Cross twice, 25 years apart, and he fell asleep both times!

    – Caftan Woman

    • I can’t believe your hubby couldn’t stay awake for Criss Cross! LOL

      You have totally piqued my interest about Stray Dog, which I wasn’t familiar with before. And I will have to check out Alias Nick Beal, too — I think I have it somewhere.

  6. Reblogged this on alysonfayewordpress and commented:
    Film noir and femme fatales- an overview of 5 great noirs from 1949 – all loved by me

  7. Love the ones you chose, Karen, but here’s my 5 from 1949-
    The Big Steal (Greer and Mitchum on the lam)
    The Bribe (Gorgeous Gardner and Taylor)
    The Window
    UK’s The Hidden Room
    The Reckless Moment

    • Thank you, Alyson – and thanks for your list! Love The Window and The Reckless Moment. Do you know I’ve never heard of The Hidden Room? I will definitely be on the lookout!

  8. Ooooooo– great choices !

  9. I have just started getting into film noir and I have only seen one on your list, so now your list is my list! Many thanks for such a great post.

  10. An impressive list, Karen. I can hardly believe these films are 70 – SEVENTY! – years old. Yet they don’t feel outdated. It shows what classics they truly are.

  11. Thanks.

    Very fine selection.

    Regards Thom

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