Noir Nook: Top Films Noirs – Part 2
Earlier this year, I decided to take a look at my favorite films noirs – a task that I periodically love to tackle because, depending on the season, my mood, or even the time of day, my favorites are subject to change. My January 2022 Noir Nook served up the first five of my current Top 10 list, which consisted of those films that generally wind up on any Top 10 noir compilation I can come up with. This month, I’m wrapping up my Top 10 list with five that might not make my list later this year, but they’re tops in my book today!
Gritty, unapologetic, and made on the cheap, Detour gives you 68 minutes of pure, straight-no-chaser noir.
The story – told in flashback – centers on Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a barely-making-it piano player who decides to hitchhike his way from New York to Hollywood to join his singer girlfriend (Claudia Drake). Along the way, Al catches a ride with a bookie who winds up dead, and he gets more than he bargained for when he takes the dead man’s car, assumes his identity, and picks up a hitchhiking dame named Vera. It’s Al’s bad luck that Vera knows that he’s not who he says he is.
Vera is played by Ann Savage with a demeanor that matches her name – she practically spits out her lines like they’re a personal affront to her mouth. From her first words to Al, Vera lets him (and us) know that she’s no fool; she not only calls him out on his lies, but by sheer force of will – and a little extortion – she ropes him into a scheme that’s designed to lead to a big payday but ends up badly for all concerned.
Favorite quote: “I’m not gettin’ sore. But just remember who’s boss around here. If you shut up and don’t give me any arguments, you’ll have nothing to worry about. But if you act wise – well, mister, you’ll pop into jail so fast it’ll give you the bends!” – Vera (Ann Savage)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Based on a novel by James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice tells the tale of a drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who teams with his married lover, Cora Smith (Lana Turner), to murder Cora’s husband. Postman was one of the first noirs I ever saw, many years before I knew what film noir was. When Lana Turner first appeared on the screen in her white shorts set, turban and high heels, I was hooked, and I’ve loved it ever since.
The film’s first-rate cast also includes Cecil Kellaway as Cora’s hapless husband; Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn as a pair of wily attorneys; and Audrey Totter, who played a small, but memorable role as a short skirt-wearing dame who catches Frank’s eye. Also on board was Alan Reed, as Hume Cronyn’s assistant-turned-blackmailer. (If you don’t know Reed’s name or face, you might recognize his voice – he was the man behind the growling tones of TV’s Fred Flintstone.)
Favorite quote: “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing a man’s car, that’s larceny.” – Frank Chambers (John Garfield)
Night and the City (1950)
When people talk about film noir features, I don’t hear a lot about Night and the City. And that’s a real shame. Because it is top-notch, irrefutable, pure noir, from start to finish. It stars Richard Widmark in one of his best performances, as Harry Fabian, a small-time conman who dines daily on dreams of grandeur. Harry imposes a never-ending stream of get-rich-quick schemes on his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), but he thinks he’s really hit the big time when he plans to take over the local wrestling racket. Unfortunately for Harry, local mob leader Kristo (Herbert Lom) has other ideas.
Although the film is justifiably viewed today as a stellar example of the classic film noir era, critics were unimpressed upon the film’s release. A typical opinion was offered by The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who savaged the picture, calling it a “pointless, trashy yarn.” Crowther went on to say that the screenplay was “without any real dramatic virtue, reason or valid story-line . . . little more than a melange of maggoty episodes.” (Geez, tell us how you really feel, Bosley!)
Favorite quote: “Harry, do you know what you’re doing? You’re killing me. You’re killing me and yourself.” – Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
I dearly love a good heist movie, and The Asphalt Jungle is truly one of the best. It depicts a motley crew of crooks who come together to execute a jewel heist planned by career criminal “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who has recently been released from prison. The participants include Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a “hooligan” from Kentucky who’s hired to be the muscle of the endeavor; safecracking expert Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso); Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), a hunchbacked diner owner who serves as the getaway driver; Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a crooked attorney who’s retained to fence the stolen jewels; and small-time bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence). The heist is pulled off without a hitch but, like the best-laid plans of mice and men, the scheme goes wildly awry.
The distaff side of the cast includes an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe, as Emmerich’s beautiful but childlike mistress, who calls him “Uncle Lon” and gleefully exclaims “Yipe!” to express her excitement.
Favorite quote: “Frankly, I don’t like the guy, but I never saw a hooligan I did like. They’re like left-handed pitchers. They all have a screw loose somewhere.” – Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso)
The Big Heat (1953)
This is the one where a luckless dame gets a pot full of boiling coffee thrown in her face. I don’t know about you, but I knew about this vicious act long before I ever saw the film – and the movie lived up to every expectation generated by that scene. The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion, a straight-as-an-arrow detective and loving family man who goes on a vendetta when his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is killed by a car bomb meant for him. Bannion winds up not only battling the bad guys responsible for his wife’s death, but also his fellow officers of the law who are in cahoots with the mob.
Incidentally, the thrower of the aforementioned coffee was Vince Stone, played with spot-on menace by Lee Marvin, and the throwee (if you will) was Gloria Grahame who, for my money, stole every scene she was in as Debby Marsh, Vince’s irreverent, money-loving girlfriend.
Favorite quote: “The main thing is to have the money. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” – Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)
What movies are in your top 10 films noirs? Leave a comment and let me know!
– 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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