Noir Nook: Top Films Noir – Part 1
Every film noir lover has their best-loved features from this shadowy era of filmmaking. As we begin another year, I’m taking a look at my favorite films noirs. One of the reasons why I love this particular task is because some of my favorites will always remain the same, no matter when or how many times I identify them – while others will change depending on the season, my mood, or even the time of day. The following are the first five of my Top 10 list – next month, I’ll wrap it up with the next five…
Double Indemnity (1944)
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – my favorite film noir of all time is Double Indemnity. It’s absolutely perfect to me. It tells the story of Phyllis Dietrichson, a frustrated and unhappy housewife, and Walter Neff, a bored insurance salesman, and the transformation of the couple’s passion into murder, with Phyllis’s husband being the unlucky recipient.
I love so much about Double Indemnity. The story. Barbara Stanwyck’s much-maligned wig. The clipped way that Fred MacMurray says “Baby.” Heck, the fact that former fun-guy Fred is even IN this movie. Edward G. Robinson, and everything he does and says. And all the noir boxes that are ticked: voiceover narration, flashback orientation, shadows filtered through Venetian blinds, a badass femme fatale, and an anti-hero who thinks he’s running the show – but who’s really not.
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”– Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Another film that always and forever will be on any and every top 10 noir list I ever make is Mildred Pierce. It’s not the first noir I ever saw – that honor goes to Double Indemnity – but it was the first noir I ever saw on the big screen. And I’ve been in love ever since. Based, like Double Indemnity, on a novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce centers on the title character (played in an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Crawford), the lengths she goes to support her daughters – one of which is a truly horrid child who grows up to be an even more horrid adult – and the dashing spendthrift she falls for, and who winds up dead.
In addition to Crawford, the film is highlighted by Eve Arden, who plays Mildred’s wise (and wise-cracking) friend; Jack Carson, as the ex-partner of Mildred’s ex-husband, whose attraction to Mildred is superseded only by his affinity for a dollar; and Ann Blyth, whose angelic face was an ideal façade for the villainous Veda Pierce.
“Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea – they eat their young.”– Ida Corwin (Eve Arden)
Gun Crazy (1950)
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow – so I was primed and ready to fall in love with Gun Crazy, which is inspired by the exploits of the Depression-era outlaws. Peggy Cummins and John Dall star as Annie Laurie Starr and Bart Tare, star-crossed partners in crime who, in Bart’s estimation, go together “like guns and ammunition.” The two first meet at a gun-shooting competition in a local carnival and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” they’re knocking off the Traveler’s Aid Society and robbing banks.
A transplant from Ireland who was cast – and then cast off – as Amber in Forever Amber (1947), Peggy Cummins was made for the role of Annie Laurie Starr. With her face often an expressionless mask, she was no one-note character; she could be soft and sweet, and earnest as a Girl Scout, or fearless and ruthless and downright scary.
“Bart, I’ve been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”– Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins)
The Killing (1956)
Distinguished by its time-bending plot, The Killing is a noir that I dearly love to watch over and over and over again – I have it on VHS and DVD, I’ve seen it on the big screen, and I watch it every time it airs on TV. I simply cannot see it too many times. The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick early in his storied career and centers on a motley crew of individuals – including a mousy cashier, a beat cop deep in debt to the mob, and a bartender caring for his invalid wife – who unite to carry out an intricately designed racetrack heist. The mastermind of the scheme is Johnny Clay, played by Sterling Hayden at his badass best.
The cast includes Marie Windsor, as the mousy cashier’s duplicitous, gold-digging wife; Timothy Carey as a pivotal but ill-fated cog in the heist machinery; and Vince Edwards, playing a hard-boiled character who’s light years away from his role as TV’s Dr. Ben Casey. Also in the cast, making his big-screen debut was comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who can be spotted as a bystander in a scene where a brawl is taking place near the racetrack bar.
“You know Fay, the biggest mistake I made before was shooting for peanuts. Five years have taught me one thing, if nothing else: Any time you take a chance, you better be sure the rewards are worth the risk. Because they could put you away just as fast for a ten dollar heist as they can for a million dollar job.”– Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden)
Criss Cross (1949)
Criss Cross is a noir that, to borrow a phrase from Mary Poppins, is “practically perfect in every way” – yet, it’s woefully underappreciated, in my view. At its core, it features a passionate but deadly triangle populated by Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), recently returning to his hometown after a lengthy absence; Steve’s ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who he can’t seem to stay away from; and Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), head of the local mob and Anna’s new husband. The emotions, suspicions, and deceit swirling around these three are heightened when armored car theft is thrown into the mix – and the term “criss-cross” takes on a whole new meaning.
Yvonne DeCarlo, perhaps best known for her exotic roles in a number of sword-and-sandals flicks, is ideal as the fatal femme in Criss Cross. Early in the film, as we – along with Steve – watch Anna dancing to a soulful Latin beat (with a young, uncredited Tony Curtis, no less), we know exactly why he’s drawn to her like a magnet. And later, as we get to know her better, we know why Steve should have stayed far, far away.
What are your favorite films noirs? Tune in to the Noir Nook next month for the next half of my Top 10!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
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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