For many, the holidays are the happiest time of the year. It’s hard to match the euphoric feeling of being with loved ones, exchanging gifts, and doing so to the tune of any number of classic songs. That said, such a happy season can lead to some unforeseen pushback. Next to every department store window, it seems, is a dark alley where outcasts aim to exploit the yuletide spirit rather than celebrate it.
Said cases are at the heart of this list: the disenfranchised, the dejected, and just the plain demented. So if you’ve grown weary of watching the same five Christmas specials, and yearn for something a bit stronger than spiked eggnog, join me as I comb the darkest, and seediest, alleys in Hollywood. Here are 10 classic films noir to watch during the holiday season.
1. Christmas Holiday (1944)
Christmas Holiday is an oddly saccharine title, given how it tells the story of a bloodthirsty gangster and his long-suffering wife. Things get even odder when you discover that the gangster is played by none other than Gene Kelly (!?) and the wife is played by fellow song-and-dance star Deanna Durbin. If you saw these names on a marquee in 1944, you’d probably be expecting a romance picture with some glib seasonal tunes.
What we get instead is a terrific outing from noir director Robert Siodmak. Durbin plays the ultimate jilted dame, sitting alone at a nightclub on Christmas Eve, and recalling her sordid breakup (via flashback) to a kindly army officer. Both Kelly and Durbin do surprisingly well given their uncharacteristic material, but it’s the hazy, ethereal mood that Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell pour over each frame like hot chocolate that allows the film go down so smoothly.
There are indelible moments and images throughout, like when Durbin attends a midnight mass, or when she croons an emotionally wrought rendition of “Always” towards the end of the picture. Few films noir better capture what it means to have the holiday blues.
2. Lady in the Lake (1947)
Lady in the Lake is a film noir that revels in gimmickry and novelty concepts. The most notable, and the main reason the film is still remembered today, is that the entire thing is shot from the perspective of its main character, private detective Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery). The only times we see his face is when he’s looking in a mirror, or addressing the viewer in narrated asides to the story.
The other, lesser known gimmick of Lady in the Lake is that it’s set during the holiday season, as opposed to the summertime heat of Raymond Chandler’s original novel. MGM and Montgomery (who also directs) felt that it would distinguish the film from other Chandler adaptations, as well as play to January audiences who were still reeling from the chilly remnants of winter.
Admittedly, the perspective gimmick begins to wear a bit thin, but the decision to set the film during the holidays still holds up as an ingenious choice. Lady in the Lake makes the most of its wintery setting, from choice dialogue (“I like your tan. That’s very Christmassy.”) and dead bodies in the snow to the darkly humorous title sequence, which pulls back a series of Frank Capra-esque postcards to reveal a smoking handgun. Not the type of gift one usually finds in their stocking.
3. I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948)
The inescapable, inoperable condition that is fate is at the heart of nearly all Cornell Woolrich stories. The esteemed author didn’t care about private detectives or femme fatales, he cared about the everyman, who, by no fault of his own, gets drawn into the hellish wasteland that is urban crime. I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes presents these themes, rather sinisterly, against the backdrop of the holidays.
Don Castle and Elyse Knox star as Tom and Ann Quinn, a married song-and-dance team who’ve fallen on hard times. So hard, in fact, that Tom doesn’t hesitate to throw his tap shoes at a couple of noisy cats one night, confident he won’t be needing them anytime soon. Bad move. A twisted series of events later, and Tom is charged with murder– the pretense being that his shoes match the prints left at a nearby crime scene. As is customary in Woolrich’s stories, the female lead, Ann, takes to the streets in an effort to clear her husband’s name.
I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes is no classic, but its virtues are easy to spot, particularly in how willing screenwriter Steve Fisher is to indulge the cruel source material. Forcing Ann to rescue her husband is one thing, but to schedule his execution on Christmas Eve?! Only Woolrich could turn a beloved night into a sinister ticking clock.
4. I, the Jury (1953)
As the first adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel, 1953’s I, the Jury is a mixed bag of toys. On one hand, we have Biff Elliot playing the titular detective in a loud, uncouth manner that fails to translate to anything resembling charisma. He’s not the worst Hammer we’d ever see (looking at you, Robert Bray), but he’s certainly not the best either. On the other hand, we have the effortless style of cinematographer John Alton, who takes full advantage of the story’s wintery setting and uses it as a chilling counterpoint to the murder of Hammer’s war buddy.
But the main component that solidifies I, the Jury as an essential holiday film noir is the uncredited appearance of Elisha Cook, Jr. As Bobo, the simpleton who gives Hammer a hot tip, Cook is the walking embodiment of “holiday” and “film noir” becoming one. He’s shot down before the film’s climax, as is the case with most of his characters, though what he leaves behind proves well worth the sacrifice: a stark, lonely shot of him lying dead, dressed as a department store Santa Claus. There’s a fine image for a postcard.
P.S. I, the Jury is public domain and currently available to watch on YouTube.
5. Blast of Silence (1961)
1961’s Blast of Silence is for people who truly hate the holidays. Hate the insipid thought of being with friends and family, hate the crowded stores brimming with gifts, and most of all, hate themselves. It’s a nihilistic little knockout of a film, with director Allen Baron playing a hitman who comes to New York for an assignment. A few chance encounters lead to his cold exterior melting away, but he’s so far removed that the transformation fails to stick, and winds up doing more harm than good.
The film is impressive on many levels, from its bone-chilling location photography to its depiction of Christmas as a cruel reminder to those who are unwanted in the world. It’s as if every stocking and decorated tree in the store window peels back another layer of Baron’s already-fragile state. Capping it all off is the film’s bizarre narration, which runs through the character’s head like a kind of second person commentary.
The narrator’s voice, thought to represent Baron’s subconscious, belongs to blacklisted actor Lionel Stander, who offers perhaps the bleakest summation of the holidays ever put to screen: “You’re alone now, all alone. The scream is dead. There’s no pain. You’re home again, back in the cold black silence.”
6. Cash on Demand (1961)
Another rarely seen film noir, 1961’s Cash on Demand is a very peculiar story, in that it is a riff on the seminal Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. Peter Cushing plays a miserly bank owner who’s disliked and disdained and by all, a modern amalgamation of Scrooge minus the exclamations of “Bah Humbug!” His miserable existence is held together by routine, which is promptly thrown for a loop when an insurance agent, played by André Morell, reveals himself to be a bank robber.
Told in real time across 83 minutes, Cash on Demand constricts with so much inner-tension that your breath may start to go with it. Cushing admirably commits to the role of the prissy owner, proving himself a coward, and a selfish one at that, when faced with the threat of violence. His scenes with Morell who, in a neat twist, is more charismatic that our protagonist, filter Dickens’s original message through a meaner, and decidedly less fantastical view.
Of course, Cushing eventually regains his humanity, and by story’s end, he has learned, like Scrooge before him, that being a miser may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Quentin Lawrence does marvelous work here as director, and the script, written by David T. Chantler, is one of the finest in Hammer Films history.
7. The Silent Partner (1978)
Have you ever seen Santa Claus commit robbery at gunpoint? Would you like to? If the answer is yes, than boy have we got the holiday film for you. 1978’s The Silent Partner stars Christopher Plummer as a department store Santa who holds up a bank, and Elliott Gould as a teller who concocts a scheme of his own while caught in the line of fire.
I’m going to err on the side on caution when discussing the plot, as the biggest draw to The Silent Partner is seeing Plummer and Gould engage in an unpredictable battle of wits. Both actors are at their respective peaks here, particularly Plummer, who terrifies as a nutcase with a hankering for murder and masochism. You never know what he’s going to do next, but it’s clear this isn’t the Saint Nick you want coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. He makes Bad Santa look like a jolly old soul.
Given its largely unknown status, The Silent Partner does come with a content warning for language and moments of extreme violence. Beyond that, the grim mood and taut direction of Daryl Duke makes it a holiday noir prime for rediscovery.
8. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Most viewers don’t consider L.A. Confidential to be a holiday film, and technically speaking, they’re right; less than half of the story takes place during the winter. That it makes the list at all is less a result of quantity as it is quality, given that director Curtis Hanson ties many of the film’s most memorable scenes into the holidays.
Whether we’re seeing brute cop Bud White (Russell Crowe) beat an abusive husband with his own front yard decorations or showboat officer Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) using a holiday party to fix a late night celebrity bust, it’s clear that both men are longtime residents of Santa’s naughty list. Instead of coast on the Christmas aesthetic as a backdrop, however, Hanson uses it a clever tool to hyperbolize a film that’s all about manipulating the truth.
White calls himself as “The Ghost of Christmas Past” when it comes to punishing abuse. He and Vincennes are among the cops involved in the precinct’s grisly “Bloody Christmas” scandal. And who can forget Danny DeVito as columnist Sid Hudgens, writing the greatest tabloid that never was: “It’s Christmas Eve in the City of Angels and while decent citizens sleep the sleep of the righteous…” L.A. Confidential spends the rest of its runtime finishing that lurid sentence.
9. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Shane Black has made a career out of combining explosive action with yuletide spirit, but none of his films have proven as explosive– or joyous, for that matter– as 2005’s neo-noir masterpiece Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Loosely adapted from a Brett Halliday novel, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang revolves around Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.), a petty thief masquerading as an actor masquerading as a private detective. He partners with actual detective “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer) on a sordid case involving various Los Angeles slayings and Harry’s childhood crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). Trying to explain more would take longer than actually watching the film.
Black really outdoes himself with this one, as the obscure references, film noir satirizing, and razor-sharp banter between Harry and Perry come so fast that even Quentin Tarantino would struggle to keep up. That both actors are skilled in the gift of gab certainly helps. Still, the director manages to imbue a real sense of holiday cheer amidst the murder and deceit, proving for some, seeing Monaghan shoot a gun while dressed as Santa is tantamount to a kiss under the mistletoe.
10. The Ice Harvest (2005)
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest was released just one month after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and shares its penchant for comedic violence. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play a couple of midwestern nitwits who attempt to rob a drug kingpin on Christmas Eve, only to get caught up in a snowstorm and the feminine wiles of fatale Connie Nielsen.
Like most great films noir set in the midwest, The Ice Harvest is an exercise in rotten coincidence, where the worst thing that could happen invariably does happen, and characters are left to deal well out of their league. What makes this film unique is the way director Harold Ramis is able to careen between criminal escapades and the hilariously bitter home lives that both characters have.
Just because they’ve stolen $2 million doesn’t mean they avoid having to deal with annual holiday guffaws like angry ex-wives and drunken friends who feel compelled to follow them around. Furthermore, Ramis gives The Ice Harvest a misleading sense of John Hughes-esque coziness, making the characters’ eventual descent into violence all the more unnerving. An underrated, icy black comedy.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.