Noir Nook: “Killer” Noir
Film noir is not easy to define. Sometimes, it’s not even easy to determine whether a film is noir or not. Whenever I’m asked to describe film noir, I respond that generally speaking, noir films portray a universe typified by corruption, pessimism, and hopelessness, and are commonly distinguished by shadows, reflections, and unique camera angles.
I like to also note that the titles of noir features often contain words that serve as a telling descriptor of this era of filmmaking – such one-word titles as Desperate, Pitfall, Caught, Cornered, and Framed are ideal indicators of the noir sensibility, as are frequently used words in noir titles like ‘fear,’ ‘guilty,’ ‘strange,’ ‘cry,’ and, of course — ‘kill.’
In this month’s Noir Nook, I’m taking a look at my top five noirs with some derivation of the word ‘kill’ in the title – or, as I like to think of them: ‘killer’ noirs.
The Killers (1946)
Loosely based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, this film opens with the murder of a gas station attendant and ex-boxer known as ‘The Swede,’ by two hired killers. The remainder of the film, consisting of numerous flashbacks, focuses on the efforts of an insurance investigator to determine who killed the Swede and why.
The film stars Burt Lancaster as the Swede, here making his big-screen debut. The cast also includes Ava Gardner, as duplicitous femme fatale Kitty Collins; Edmond O’Brien as the insurance investigator; and William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the memorable murderers of the film’s title.
Noir veteran Robert Siodmak earned an Academy Award nomination for his direction of The Killers (he lost to William Wyler for The Best Years of Our Lives) – it was one of numerous noirs he helmed, including Phantom Lady (1944), Cry of the City (1948), and Criss Cross (1949).
The Killing (1956)
This film centers on an intricately, intelligently designed plan to carry out a racetrack heist. The scheme involves an odd mixture of characters possessing a variety of motives, including a mousy cashier who is desperate to hold onto his gold-digging wife, a bartender caring for his beloved, invalid spouse, and a policeman whose penchant for gambling has left him dangerously in debt.
Using a unique, non-linear storytelling technique, director Stanley Kubrick – who was only 28 when the movie was released – entwined a large cast to create a fascinating film that’s one of my all-time favorites. Some of the film’s most memorable characters were brought to life by Sterling Hayden, as the mastermind of the heist; Elisha Cook, Jr., as the cashier; Marie Windsor as Cook’s spouse; and Vince Edwards, who throws a monkey wrench into the entire proceedings.
Born to Kill (1947)
Featuring two particularly unsavory lead characters, Born to Kill focuses on a double murder, the man responsible for the killings, and the woman who knows he’s responsible but is drawn to him in spite of – maybe even because of – his crimes.
Lawrence Tierney plays the aptly named Sam Wild, a social-climbing psychopath who doesn’t hesitate to kill even though he’s warned by his buddy (Elisha Cook, Jr., again) that it “just isn’t feasible.” And the woman who can’t stay away from him is portrayed by the always excellent Claire Trevor. Others in the cast include Isabel Jewell, as Laury Palmer, one of Sam’s luckless victims; Esther Howard, a friend of Laury’s who tries to find her pal’s killer; and Walter Slezak, a canny private detective.
The film was directed by Robert Wise, whose pedigree not only included several first-rate noirs – notably The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – but also such classics as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). During his career, he won four Academy Awards and numerous other well-earned accolades.
The Killer Is Loose (1956)
Wendell Corey, who often gets a bad rap for his rather nondescript characters, appears in this feature as you’ve never seen him before, playing “Foggy” Poole, an unbalanced escaped convict, bent on some eye-for-an-eye revenge against the cop who accidentally – but fatally – shot his wife.
The cop is portrayed by Joseph Cotten, and his wife – the object of Foggy’s vengeful desire – is played by Rhonda Fleming. Others on hand include Alan Hale, Jr., best known for his role as the Skipper on TV’s Gilligan’s Island, and John Beradino, who some of you may recognize from the ABC soaper General Hospital, where he played Dr. Steve Hardy from 1963 until his death in 1996.
The Killer Is Loose was directed by Budd Boetticher, who directed Randolph Scott in the 1956 western Seven Men From Now and went on to helm five more acclaimed westerns starring Scott, known as the Ranown Cycle (named after Scott and his producer, Harry Joe Brown).
The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)
An especially timely noir, given the world’s current pandemic state, this feature is about a woman who smuggles stolen diamonds from Cuba – but that’s not all she’s brought with her. Unbeknownst to her, she’s also been infected with smallpox, and upon her return to the Big Apple, the disease quickly begins to spread.
The smuggler/smallpox carrier is Sheila Bennet, played by Evelyn Keyes. As she grows increasingly sicker, it turns out that she’s not only being pursued by health officials trying to stop the disease from mushrooming, but also by federal authorities trying to track down the hot diamonds. And that’s not all – Sheila also discovers that her husband (Charles Korvin), who involved her in the smuggling racket, is two-timing her – with her SISTER! Let’s just say that there’s a lot going on in Sheila’s life.
Unlike the other directors in this “killer” group, the director of The Killer That Stalked New York – Earl McEvoy – is all but unknown today, and only helmed three feature films during his career. He had more experience (although usually uncredited) as an assistant director on such films as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Stratton Story (1949). Sadly, he died in 1959 at the age of 45.
And that’s my top five ‘killer’ noirs! Do you have any ‘killer’ noirs on your favorites list? Leave a comment and let me know!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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You just kill me!