In the introduction filmed for the beginning of The Asphalt Jungle, director John Huston made a comment along the lines of “you may not admire these characters, but I think you’ll find them fascinating.” That sums up so much of the experience of noir. Aside from the remarkable visual flair that often marks the genre, there is more importantly a vein of pessimism, cynicism, and moral darkness that runs through these films. Even when our main characters are on the straight and narrow (a rare occurrence), the action still revolved around the misdeeds of another. When the films were working, it was rarely because there was a character on screen we could admire, but more often because there was a fascinating character study into the darkness common to our souls. The sorts of murder and thievery these characters engaged in were most often an ordinary sort, the sort anyone could find themselves tempted toward if things got desperate enough.
Often, these were ordinary people, who through a series of bad decisions found themselves in a dark world that threatens to destroy them. Even with the censors hovering, making it hard to have characters get too evil or unsavory, especially women, these storytellers still managed to share a window into the parts of ourselves we pretend don’t exist, the evil we pretend we aren’t capable of, and this genre more than any other paved the way for the brilliant transformation of cinematic storytelling that would follow in the 1970’s.
The common assumptions about film noir are often true. Lots of femme fatales, although often in a subversive way that isn’t nearly as sexist as most descriptions make the trope sound; lots of fast talking characters who may just be too clever for their own good; lots of shadows and darkness to tell the story visually; a great many lead characters or ensembles who illustrate that a descent into destruction can hinge on a single bad decision. These things I expected, and found. It was a really great month, and many of the films far exceeded my expectations. I’m not sure why I’ve gone so long without doing something like this.
26. Out of the Past
“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand.”
One of the most common tropes of film noir that I was unfamiliar with heading into the month was how often stories are told in flashback form. At least 1/5 of the time (off the top of my head), we start at the end or near-end, and then work back to see what led our characters to their current state of events. Out of the Past is another flashback story.
Similarly to The Killers, this story’s action begins because a guy recognizes a man from his past while getting gas. You’d think that perhaps people trying to keep a low-profile because they are hiding from past events wouldn’t take a job that requires them to see every person who passes through town, but alas, that is exactly what two characters figuring into noir month did, contributing to their downfalls.
This one was solid, Mitchum was great, Jane Greer made me really want to believe she could change her evil ways, and Kirk Douglas in his second film role showed a subtle hint of the greatness he would find in his career.
27. The Lady from Shanghai
“There’s a fair face to the land, surely, but you can’t hide the hunger and guilt. It’s a bright, guilty world.”
More Orson Welles, more great filmmaking. I could have done without Welles’ fake Irish accent, but that’s probably my only complaint. This film is the story of a man, a sailor by trade, who saves a beautiful woman one night in a park from a group of hoods, after which she invites him to join her and her husband as part of their yacht’s crew. As is the case in noir, not all is as it seems, and things take a sinister turn before you can bat an eye. Well, actually they were sinister to begin with.
The movie is filmed much more brightly than most other noir films, which is really fitting when you place that quote above in that context. Yachts, swimming, sunshine, wealth, song, parties… but all in the context of a bright, guilty world.
The film also features a really great, trippy ending in a funhouse. Thumbs up.
Also, Rita Hayworth is much prettier as a brunette, but I still wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers. Remember that phrase?
28. The Naked City
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”
The film features an iconic closing line, but in the context of narration that just felt lazy. Your high school English teacher, the one who told you to show instead of tell, that teacher would have hated it. It made for awkward transitions and strange moments that would have been stronger as pure visuals.
The film certainly had its charms, especially the primary detective on the case, Muldoon. It felt to me like the sort of movie that had impressive parts that were influential in cinema, while failing to engage me on the whole. However, perhaps that’s just noir fatigue. Who knows.
29. Night of the Hunter
“Not that you mind the killings. There’s plenty of killings in your book, Lord.”
This movie is really good, but not as good as I expected it to be with how celebrated it is. There are some moments that are just so over the top and silly that it took me out of the tension of the moment.
Still, Mitchum’s preacher is mostly effective. A terrifying monster terrorizing two children who know where there father left the loot from a robbery. He’s a serial killer who preys on rich widows, baptizing the whole thing in a crazy religion. We all know that’s farfetched, right? People using religion to excuse otherwise deplorable behavior… wait… that’s not farfetched at all!
It’s pretty fucked up when the murderer on your trail continually fills the darkness with his solid rendition of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.’
30. Strangers on a Train
“I have a theory that you should do everything before you die.”
Certainly not perfect, but still pretty wonderful Hitchcock goodness.
Two men meet on a train, and one steers the conversation toward murder. What follows leaves a man trapped in a nightmare. The film’s villain is the worst sociopath ever. I don’t mean most extreme sociopath, I mean he is really bad at being a criminal mastermind. He’s less than 1/3 as clever as he likes to think he is. Still, the film’s tension is real and enjoyable, even if the payoff is underwhelming and a bit too tidy in the end. From what I understand, the book ends more believably, but then the book is hugely different than the movie, in large part because censors wouldn’t have allowed the movie to film as it was in the book. Ugh. What a ridiculous era in American history.
As is often the case with Hitchcock films, there are four or five shots that will stick with me for a while, just thinking either about how perfect the shot was, or thinking about how much it has been emulated since.
31. The Killing
“It isn’t fair. I never had anybody but you. Not a real husband. Not even a man. Just a bad joke without a punch line.”
A Kubrick film from early in his reign. It’s a really influential movie, with really heavy influences on Tarantino. It has an off-kilter, non-chronological timeline that I can only imagine was pretty groundbreaking at the time. It doesn’t work quite as well as it did in later films, since the broken chronology didn’t seem to carry much weight in shifting the meaning of the story as it did in Pulp Fiction, and it only had one easily connected narrative as opposed to unconnected, intertwining stories. Still, it’s fun to see someone play with a new idea in a medium.
An important movie, both in the formation of the heist genre, and in the formation of indie filmmaking in general. Thumbs up.