I was thinking about this recently, though not sure why. Possibly because I have been shunting a few DVDs out of the door to make space and discovered a few old film noir discs floating about and because I’ve noticed that a few others have done similar lists recently. The list is in no particular order:
1) The Set-Up – Great little B-pic by Robert Wise, with an excellent performance from Robert Ryan as an aging boxer whose manager throws a fight without his knowledge, because he’s a complete loser and will obviously fail anyway… as in all great plans, this one comes a cropper.
2) The Maltese Falcon – Everything about this picture is brilliant; the direction; the performances; the lighting; the pacing. But it wouldn’t work without Bogart, despite the fact that he’s nobody’s idea of a ‘blond Satan’ – somehow he adds a layer of humanity to Sam Spade that Dashiell Hammett never intended; his monologue to Mary Astor at the end is much more heartfelt than it reads in the novel. Neither Bogart, nor director John Huston, ever looked back after this classic.
3) Kiss Me Deadly – Director Robert Aldrich’s Mickey Spillane adaptation is better than the source novel in my humble opinion and Ralph Meeker is easily the best Mike Hammer, because he remembers that Hammer is ultimately a vicious bastard, which later Spillane adaptations appeared to forget. Aldrich’s sense of pace is superb too; this bugger moves along like an out of control freight train. And the apocalyptic ending is just brilliant.
4) Out of the Past – Robert Mitchum is probably the supreme noir lead. His world-weary delivery always made the quips and wisecracks that were part of the noir territory just a little more special, and the humour just a little more bitter. Kirk Douglas was a superb move villain, on the few occasions that he chose to, and OOTP was no exception – cheerfully nasty and thuggish. Jane Greer makes one of the great femme fatales, partly because much of her evil is done through greed and selfishness rather than any Machiavellian plan. Add in Jacques Tourneur’s direction and Daniel Mainwearing’s awesome screenplay and you have one of the finest noirs ever.
5) The Killing — People often make the mistake of thinking that this was Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film. It wasn’t, although Kubrick and his estate would love folks to believe that this was the case. Fear and Desire (an atrocious war film) was his first feature, followed closely by Killer’s Kiss (which is flawed, but beautifully shot on a super-tight budget). The Killing partnered Kubrick with noir legend Jim Thompson, who wrote the screenplay (despite his ‘dialogue by’ credit), and ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard. It also helps that the film has several noir stalwarts on board to spit the dialogue out at each other: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook, along with consumate character actors like Timothy Carey and Ted de Corsia. It is the classic tale of the perfect heist that goes badly, badly wrong. It is almost perfect – if it didn’t have that bloody voiceover, it would be.
6) Touch of Evil – Orson Welles has always been considered the consumate ‘one-hit wonder’. Even today, his back catalogue is dominated by Citizen Kane, with everything else relegated to the other stuff that he did. This is rather unfair, because Touch Of Evil is as impressive an achievement as Kane but without the generous budget. The tracking shot at the beginning of the film is still a brilliant piece of technical genius, even in this age of steadycams and swooping crane shots. The cinematography and lighting are astonishing and the performances (even Charlton Heston’s controversial Mexican) are all very good. This is one of those films that I will happily watch again and again. Speaking of which…
7) Sweet Smell of Success – Blessed with one of the greatest screenplays ever written (by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmann), career best performances from Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis and brilliant direction by Alexander Mackendrick (who also directed the superb Ladykillers), there was no way the film could fail. It tells the story of gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (who holds far more power than somebody like him should ever be given) and Sidney Falco, an obsequious press agent, who is given the enviable task of breaking up the relationship of Hunsecker’s sister, because JJ doesn’t approve of her boyfriend. It’s as dark as the night-time cityscapes it shows and as poisonous as a cookie full of arsenic. Brilliant stuff!
8.) Double Indemnity – Billy Wilder’s classic does away with the much eerier ending that James M Cain used at the end of the novel and goes for a much more standard ending. But it’s still a classic film noir, with an excellently written screenplay by Raymond Chandler and brilliantly direcion from Wilder. The lead performances from Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are stellar, with a nice supporting turn by Edward G Robinson. It was hard to choose between this and Sunset Boulevard, believe me.
9) The Third Man – Carol Reed’s masterpiece, from a brilliant screenplay by Graham Greene, has so many things to recommend: Robert Krasker’s astonishing cinematography, Anton Karas’ catchy score, the lead performances by Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Alida Valli and a stunning cameo by Orson Welles, along with the Vienna sewer finale, mark this out as one of the finest films ever made. The Third Man is a film of brilliant moments: the cat in the doorway, the fingers poking through a sewer grating, the ‘Cuckoo Clock’ speech, Alida Valli walking past Joseph Cotton without even acknowledging him at the end. It all adds up. Stunning!
10) The Asphalt Jungle – John Huston’s film was an obvious influence on Kubrick’s The Killing, but the difference is in the telling. Huston has more affection for the protagonists than Kubrick does and the fractured timelines in The Killing give it a more edgy feel. Sterling Hayden as the lead is the other thing that links the two films, although his performances couldn’t be any less alike. In The Killing he’s the brains behind the heist and the man the others turn to; in Asphalt he’s a strong-arm grunt who isn’t exactly blessed with much upstairs. Also, Huston’s film plays up the tragic element, whereas Kubrick lets everything go off with cool detachment. Either way, both films are brilliant and deserve inclusion in this list.
Like most lists this is purely personal. There’s plenty of others I could have put in there, but didn’t. If you have any faves you feel should have been included then please do let me know!