10 More Classic Film Noirs for the Holidays
Novelist Douglas Coupland once said that “Christmas makes everything twice as sad.” His quote may have stemmed from a place of tender melancholy, but here at CMH’s Film Noir section, we’d like to apply it to the lushes and low-lifes that inhabit the holiday’s bleakest cinema.
We released our original ranking of noir films to watch during the holidays last year, but as often the case with lists, we weren’t able to cover everything. As such, we’ve decided to return to the snow-covered streets and dig up whatever titles were overlooked. Here are 10 more classic films noir to watch during the holiday season.
1. Lady on a Train (1945)
Lady on a Train remains one of most bizarre entries in the classic film noir canon. It stars Deanna Durbin as Nikki, a woman heading home for Christmas who witnesses the murder and impersonates a nightclub singer in an attempt to uncover the killer. Along the way, she’s forced to sing a few tunes and trade verbal barbs with the victim’s squabbling clan of heirs (including a smooth Ralph Bellamy and a slithery Dan Duryea).
All this is set against a lively holiday backdrop that plays up the inherent charm of Durbin’s predicament. Nothing is taken too seriously here, to the point where many of the scenes resemble a satire on the noir genre rather than the genuine article. Combine that with the crisp, winter cinematography by Woody Bredell, and Lady on a Train is a ride worth taking.
2. The Man I Love (1947)
The Man I Love stars Ida Lupino as a New York nightclub singer who travels to California to visit her siblings for Christmas. She chooses to stay and and lands a gig in a nightclub, but tensions mount once she turns down the advances of her corrupt boss (Robert Alda) to marry a lovesick piano player named San (Bruce Bennett). She’s ultimately faced with the challenge of sticking with San despite his self-destructive lifestyle.
While far from the grittiest of films noir, The Man I Love cultivates the spirit of the genre through doomed characters living in a chilly, unwelcoming city. Enhanced by the trio of lead performances and the committed direction of Raoul Walsh, the film strikes a tragic tone that perfectly suits the more downtrodden holiday viewer.
3. The Reckless Moment (1949)
A forgotten gem from director Max Ophuls, The Reckless Moment deals with regret and the paranoia of covering up a crime. It follows bored housewife Lucia (Joan Bennett) as she attempts to hide the accidental death of a hoodlum who was seeing her teenage daughter. Things become even more problematic when the hoodlum’s partner (James Mason) comes into town looking for answers.
The film is the worst holiday break you could envision for a mother, with children and dangerous criminals coming into contact on a regular basis. Bennett offers a masterful performance, while Ophuls flips the domestic charm of most Christmas fare to comment on the hollow state of the nuclear family. ”We’re getting a blue Christmas tree this year,” Lucia tells her husband via telephone, ignoring the destruction she wrought. “Everything is fine, except we miss you terribly.”
4. Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
Where most films noir use the holidays as a tonal counterpoint, Mr. Soft Touch uses it as a ticking clock. Joe Miracle (Glenn Ford) returns from the war to discover that his club has been taken over by the mob. He robs the place in a moment of weakness, but he has to wait a day before he can escape to Yokohama on Christmas Eve. Miracle opts to hide out from the mob and the police at a settlement house, where he meets a kindly social worker (Evelyn Keyes).
Instead of playing things straight up, Mr. Soft Touch wisely combines elements of film noir; namely the heist and the grim mob consequences, with the brighter trappings of the romance genre. Ford and Keyes have marvelous chemistry together, and the snappy direction from both Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin ensures that the film doesn’t overstay its welcome.
5. Cover Up (1949)
While some of the aforementioned titles combine film noir with other genres, 1949’s Cover Up is an old fashioned noir mystery. It stars Dennis O’Keefe as an insurance investigator who’s called upon to look into a suicide, only to determine that it may have been a murder. While pressed to find a suspect, he finds that the dead man was a local pariah and that nobody, not even the sheriff (William Bendix), is eager to help.
Cover Up benefits from the combustible pairing of O’Keefe and Bendix; two veterans who know their way around a noir script. The holiday setting is inconsequential, but it adds a great deal of personality to the film as it deals in hallmark noir themes like murder and greed. Nothing groundbreaking, but a cozy viewing nonetheless.
6. They Live by Night (1949)
As the fourth and final entry to be released in 1949, They Live by Night is also the most profound. It follows a pair of star-crossed lovers, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) as they attempt to leave their criminal past behind and start a new life together. The film spans roughly a year, but director Nicholas Ray saves the most heartbreaking moment for Christmas, when the young couple plan to exchange presents.
Bowie’s old partner (Howard Da Silva) shows up and asks him to do one last job, and while a reluctant Bowie agrees, things go south and he and Keechie are forced to go back into hiding. As such, they’re forced to leave their presents behind, including the watch that Keechie was so eager for Bowie to open. It’s as sad a moment as any in a film noir, and its tied inherently to the safety that Christmas is meant to represent.
7. Backfire (1950)
Backfire was written by the same duo who wrote White Heat, and was even shot before, but it was delayed until after the release of that seminal gangster film. Seen today, and Backfire is very much a thematic precursor. Both deal with theft, betrayal, and the inclusion of Virginia Mayo and Edmond O’Brien as characters with questionable alliances. Not as good as White Heat perhaps, but very much a solid noir with standout performances by the aforementioned stars.
The holidays loom large over the film, with Christmas and New Year’s Eve serving as time markers for naive main character Bud (Gordon MacRae). As he slowly uncovers the fate of his disappeared friend Steve (O’Brien), he realizes that the line between right and wrong is not as clear as it was when they both served in the military. Vincent Sherman directs.
8. Storm Warning (1951)
Storm Warning is easily one of the most racially-charged films noir to be released during the 1950s. The film deals with a dress model (Ginger Rogers) who stops by a small town and accidentally witnesses the Ku Klux Klan commit a murder. She agrees to help the district attorney (Ronald Reagan) prosecute the men involved, but she quickly faces pushback and threats of violence from the rest of the Klan.
While unabashedly a “message film”, like so many noirs of the period, Storm Warning still carries a potent social edge that contrasts nicely with the Christmastime setting. While Rogers may be miscast (Lauren Bacall was the studio’s original choice), the impressive supporting roster of Doris Day, Steve Cochrane, and Reagan gets the film across the finish line with style.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
Technically, Batman Returns is a superhero film. We have characters dressed in tights, sinister schemes involving bombs, and cats that can seemingly resurrect the dead. But more than any other superhero flick (besides The Dark Knight), Batman Returns is a modern film noir. Here, the moral clarity established in Tim Burton’s 1989 original is blurred to reflect a world where Batman (Michael Keaton) is just as problematic as the criminals he chases. And of course, its set during Christmas.
Batman’s inability to handle the likes of the Penguin (Danny DeVito), combined with the screen time that Burton dedicates to making the character tragic, causes us to reexamine what we know about trauma. That’s to say nothing about Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Batman’s ultimate femme fatale and the one who nearly changes his outlook on heroism. Replace the tights with trench coats and you’ve got a quintessential noir viewing.
10. In Bruges (2008)
Darkly comedic and morally chilly, 2008’s In Bruges is a brilliant twist on the film noir hitman. Where classic titles like The Lineup and Blast of Silence focus on the steely efficiency of their main characters, director Martin McDonagh decides to show us the hilarity of being incompetent at such a bleak profession. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star as two mid-level gunmen who are forced to hide out in Bruges following a botched gig.
The infantile Farrell and fatherly Gleeson make for a delightful comedy duo, while their trek through Bruges during the holidays lead to a series of unforgettable and unforgettably violent encounters. By the time Ralph Fiennes shows up as their profanity-spewing boss, one can’t help but be won over.
–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.