National Classic Movie Day: Four Favorite Noirs

Miss a National Classic Movie Day blogathon? Not this girl!

I love the annual blogathons hosted by Rick over at the Classic Film and TV Café to celebrate National Classic Movie Day – they always give me the perfect opportunity to identify and discuss a variety of first-rate classic films. When I first learned this year’s theme – four favorite films noirs – I was, of course, delighted: a theme that was right up my alley! Easy peasy, right? But it wasn’t quite the cakewalk I’d envisioned. Several movies instantly came to mind, but I disregarded them because I’d already covered them on this blog. I then decided that I’d select a quartet of top-notch noirs that I hadn’t previously covered – but this resulted in a list of pictures that I couldn’t reasonably consider as “favorites.”

What to do, what to do?!?

Ultimately, I decided to return to the original, simple theme of the blogathon and choose four movies that I can absolutely count among my favorites, whether I’ve previously discussed them at Shadows and Satin or not – I could always, I figured, find something new to crow about, right? Here, then, are my choices to celebrate National Classic Movie Day 2022 – I hope you enjoy this walk down the shadowy side!

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Stanwyck is a standout.

How could I possibly have a list of favorite noirs and not include Double Indemnity? It’s my all-time favorite noir, one that I’ve seen more times than I can count, and yet I still watch it every time I get the chance: I have it on VHS and DVD, and I’ve seen it twice on the big screen. And if it came on TCM tonight, I’d be tuning in again.

Barbara Stanwyck – who’s in my top three favorite actresses, by the way – stars as Phyllis Dietrichson, a Los Angeles housewife who uses her considerable feminine wiles to induce insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into murdering her husband. The cast includes Edward G. Robinson (in a performance that should have earned him an Academy Award) as a wily insurance adjuster, Tom Powers as Phyllis’s hapless hubby, and Jean Heather as Phyllis’s stepdaughter, who is not falling for the okey doke (if you know what I mean).

Why do I love this movie?

Double Indemnity has it all. Even the venetian blind shadows.

There are so many reasons. The crackling dialogue. The performances of every single one of the players. The typically noir characteristics of flashback, voiceover, femme fatale, anti-hero – even shadows produced by venetian blinds. The score by Miklós Rózsa, and the as-always-excellent direction by Billy Wilder.

Favorite quote:

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

Trivia tidbit:

None of them were feeling this movie.

None of the three principal players – Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Robinson – initially wanted to be in this movie. Stanwyck was hesitant to play such a dark character, but was finally convinced by director Billy Wilder, who reportedly asked her, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” According to Wilder, MacMurray “didn’t see the possibilities at first. . . . He didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to be murdered [and] he didn’t want to be a murderer.” And Robinson didn’t want to play the third lead, but ultimately acknowledged that he was at a stage in his career where he would be playing fewer lead roles: “It was time to begin thinking of character roles,” he said later, “to slide into middle and old age with the same grace as that marvelous actor Lewis Stone.” (Incidentally, Robinson’s dilemma about accepting the part was alleviated by the fact that he worked fewer days than co-stars Stanwyck and MacMurray, but he received the same salary.)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford is Mildred Pierce.

If Double Indemnity is my number one favorite noir, Mildred Pierce is the one I’ve seen most often. The first time I saw it was on the big screen – with my mother at the Music Box Theater in Chicago – and I’ll never forget when I found out the identity of the real killer, after spending the entire movie certain that it was someone else. At that moment, this movie took over a special place in my heart and it’s never left.

Joan Crawford won an Academy Award for the title role, a single mother of two daughters who will go to any lengths to make her children happy, especially her oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). Crawford is supported by Bruce Bennett, as her ex-husband, Bert; Jack Carson, who is Bert’s former business partner and has eyes for Mildred; Eve Arden as Mildred’s best friend; and Zachary Scott, as Monte Beragon, who becomes Mildred’s second husband – and whose murder in the movie’s opening scene sets up the drama to follow.

Why do I love this movie?

See ya, Monte. Wouldn’t wanna be ya.

There are so many great, great scenes in Mildred Pierce. There’s the one where Mildred kicks her first husband, Bert, to the curb. And the one where Mildred slaps Veda for disrespecting her – and where Veda later returns the favor, literally knocking Mildred off her feet and prompting her to tell Veda to “get out before I kill you.” The one where Mildred tries – unsuccessfully – to convince Veda to return home after kicking her out. And where Mildred confronts the snooty mother of the young man who’s engaged to Veda, delivering a parting shot that makes me want to cheer every time I see it. And the scenes where Monty and Mildred get together – and then break up – and then get together again. (“Sold. One Beragon.”) There’s just one memorable scene after the next.

Blyth has nothing but good things to say about her co-star.

Favorite quote:

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

Trivia tidbit:

Ann Blyth always spoke highly of co-star Joan Crawford, who tested with her for the part of Veda. “She was kind enough to do that, and of course I never forgot that, because it really wasn’t necessary for her to do so,” Blyth said in a 2006 interview. “I only have good memories of working with her and being around her.”

Criss Cross (1949)

You don’t hear a whole lot about Criss Cross – and that’s a real shame, because for my money, it’s one of the purest noirs out there. From my first viewing of the the film’s opening scene, which features a furtive parking lot meeting between Steve Thompson and his lover, Anna, I was hooked.

Hooked from the first scene.

Directed by Robert Siodmak (who also helmed such noirs as Phantom Noir, The Killers, and Cry of the City), Criss Cross stars Burt Lancaster as Steve and Yvonne DeCarlo as Anna – former marrieds who have resumed their passionate relationship – even though Anna is now wed to mob leader Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). In order to cover up his affair with Anna, Steve approaches Slim with a plan to stage an armored car robbery – and that’s where we begin to find out the meaning of the film’s title.

Why do I love this movie?

Criss Cross is rife with fascinating characters. Steve Thompson is the ultimate noir anti-hero: at his core, he’s a law-abiding man, but he’s led astray by his love for Anna, which takes him into areas and cultivates behaviors that he never could have predicted. Anna is the epitome of self-preservation; at no point do we get the impression that she has anyone’s best interests at heart besides her own. And Slim Dundee is just plain scary.

It’s the characters for me.

Favorite quote:

“A man eats an apple. He gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. He tries to work it out with some cellophane from a cigarette pack. What happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there too. Anna? What was the use. I knew that somehow I’d wind up seeing her that night.” – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster

Trivia tidbit:

Tony Curtis made his big screen debut in an uncredited role, dancing with Yvonne DeCarlo in a nightclub scene. He reportedly got the part after walking through the Universal Studios lot, where director Robert Siodmak saw him and asked him if he could dance. He could, and the role was his.

The Killing (1956)

Just trying to make a killing.

I can’t say enough about The Killing and I can’t see it too many times. It’s got a twisty-turny, time-bending plot that’s riveting from start to finish, and standout performances from everyone in the cast, from the lead role to the smallest part.

The film stars Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay, the ringleader of a disparate group of characters who unite to rob a local racetrack. In addition to a few outliers, Johnny is primarily aided by mousy racetrack cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who’s eager to acquire a pile of a cash for his money-grubbing wife (Marie Windsor); beat cop Randy Kennan (Ted deCorsia), who is trying to climb out from beneath a sizable gambling debt; and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a track bartender who is caring for his invalid wife. Unfortunately, despite the meticulous planning and the flawless execution, all does not end well for this motley crew.

The Motley Crew.

Why do I love this movie?

I love the memorable characters, and I’m wild about the dialogue, but I think what I love best is the distinctive presentation of the story. Guided by narrator Art Gilmore, the film shows us the action at various times, often backtracking to show us something that was happening at the same time with different characters, and sometimes presenting multiple vantage points of the same scene. It makes for a fascinating, completely unique, and absolutely unforgettable film.

Favorite quote:

“All right, 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)

Trivia tidbit:

“That’s a mighty pretty head.”

The film’s initial screenings did not go over big with test audiences. Their big problem? Ironically, the very thing that I love so much about it: the non-linear plot presentation. As a result, director Stanley Kubrick had to edit the film to conform to a more straightforward expression, but this resulted in an even more confusing picture. Ultimately, the film was released as Kubrick had originally intended.

What do you think of my film noir favorites? Have you seen them? Do you love them? And what would be on your list of four favorite noirs? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it!


This post is part of the National Classic Movie Day blogathon, hosted by Rick at The Classic Film and TV Café. Click here to read about the favorite noirs of all the participants!

~ by shadowsandsatin on May 15, 2022.

25 Responses to “National Classic Movie Day: Four Favorite Noirs”

  1. Stellar choices all, but I need to show some love for Criss Cross, because it deserves the attention! As you noted, Robert Siodmak was very much at home in the film noir genre (his “B” noir Phantom Lady was one of my picks). His visual style fits perfectly with the murky characters and the shady dealings. Incidentally, you picked some fantastic quotes from all four movies. The line about cleaning your teeth with cellophane from a cigarette pack –I wish I could write like that!

  2. I knew you’d be a happy blogger when you saw this year’s theme! Noir is a genre I am not entirely comfortable with, but it surprises me how many I’ve actually seen. Your choices are, of course, top notch. Edward G. is my favorite thing about “Double Indemnity.” Love that “little man” he’s got going. I’ve not seen “Criss Cross” because, for some reason, I have an aversion to Burt Lancaster. I used to feel that way about Marlon Brando, but I got over it. Maybe I should start with “Criss Cross” to give Burt another chance because you excellent review has made me curious!

    • I love Edward G. Robinson’s litte man, too. It’s funny that he balked at being the third lead, but he’s such a memorable and important part of the film. I hope you will see Criss Cross. I don’t want to go out on a limb, but I will — I guarantee that you’ll like it! 🙂

  3. Karen, I was keen to see which movies you’d pick and you did not disappoint. The only one I haven’t seen is The Killing, but you can bet I’ll be looking out for it.

    P.S. It’s good that you featured Criss Cross, because it really does not get the love it deserves these days.

  4. These are indubitably some of the best of the best. I need to rewatch Criss Cross! Lancaster was a great noir character, but Yvonne DeCarlo really stands out in my memories. Like you said, that opening is quite unforgettable!

  5. I love Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce so I’m looking forward to seeing your other 2 picks – they sound sensational. Thank you for sharing!

    P.S.You got to see DI and MP on the big screen? What a wonderful experience.

    • Seeing two of my favorites on the big screen was great! And I’d do it again if given the chance! I sure hope you get to see the other two — The Killing is on YouTube!

  6. Oh my goodness, how luck you are to have seen Double Indemnity on the big screen! Swoon.

    The other three you listed are all on my want-to-watch list, especially Criss Cross because I’m a Burt Lancaster fan 😉

  7. Aha, another vote for “Double Indemnity”! We all have good taste, I think. And “Mildred Pierce” is awesome, too. It’s amazing how many of these noirs were written by James Cain.

  8. I looked forward to your list all week. Had to wait until graduation was done and, lo and behold, you have two choices I nearly included on my list, which means my taste ain’t bad. The quotes and trivia tidbits are inspired. Thanks for a fun list about murder. Only you.


  9. Great list! I may catch he!! for this, but only the so-so chemistry between Lancaster and deCarlo keeps it from my top tier. Duryea on the other hand is always excellent (and underappreciated), one of those actors who’s playing at a higher level than most.

    I’d love to also see a list of noirs that afficionados believe are underrated and too little seen, in case it offers up a gem we’ve missed to date. In that category I’d put Duryea (and an excellent Jayne Mansfield) in The Burglar. Edmond O’Brien in Shield for Murder. Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run, and The Narrow Margin (1952) with granite Charles McGraw and sassy, sour Marie Windsor as the leads.

    As for the top four:

    -The Third Man. Just has to be here.
    -Touch of Evil. Has *another* long take that’s superb and unnoticed.
    -Double Indemnity. Love is so horribly brittle.
    -Pickup on South Street. Inky blacks and Thelma Ritter’s ‘I can’t afford to die’ soliloquy. Pickup’s acute, relentless emphasis on class makes it even more relevant today.

    • What?!?! So-so chemistry!?!? LOL — just kidding. I’m totally on board with you about Dan Duryea — he’s great in everything. Of your underrated list, Woman on the Run is the only one I haven’t seen (I’ve seen parts of it, but I definitely have to revisit, given your recommendation). And I can enthusiastically co-sign your other three underrated choices.

      Of your top four, my faves are Double Indemnity (of course) and Pickup on South Street, which I just rewatched (again) recently — it’s absolutely first rate!

      • By the way, for anyone unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Woman on the Run (1950) was part of Norman Foster’s oddball directorial career that saw him vault from helming a slew of Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan films to directing a segment of Orson Welles’ It’s All True, then directing the Welles- and Joseph Cotten-written Journey Into Fear. Next came four Mexican dramas, a Loretta Young Western (s’true), a Joan Fontaine noir, something forgettable with Rosalind Russell, Father is a Bachelor starring William Holden, then Woman.

        Those new to older films will want to ensure they find the version of Woman on the Run restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, as some versions are sold as “restored” when they surely aren’t.

        Fwiw I wouldn’t call Woman a great film, but it’s a damned good one, a smart one, a film for adults. It’s also smartly shot, with an unusual number of locations for the time in striking San Francisco.

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