Noir Nook: Best Noir of the Year – Part I
If you know me, you’ll know I love a good list. And what better lists to make than lists about classic film noir features? This time around, I’m serving up my favorite film noir from each year of the classic noir era which, in my estimation, started in 1940 and ended in 1959. As you can imagine, coming up with just one noir per year involved a great deal of thought and some painful decisions, but I managed to settle on a final list of my ultimate picks. For September’s Noir Nook, I’m sharing the first 10 years of the classic noir era – next month, I’ll wrap up the list with 1950 through 1959. Here goes…
This year wasn’t very difficult – the classic film noir era was just getting started, and there were only a handful of pictures that would fit in this category. For sentimental reasons, because I consider it to be the very first noir, I’d like to say Stranger on the Third Floor, but my true favorite is The Letter. This feature stars Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaysia (and who, incidentally, is deserving of an honorable mention on my list of memorable femme entrances). The picture opens with Leslie’s multiple gunshot murder of her lover, and the defense of her elaborate alibi hinges upon the letter of the film’s title – a missive written from Leslie to her lover, and now in the possession of the dead man’s Malaysian wife (Gale Sondergaard).
I know that The Maltese Falcon seems like an obvious choice for this year, but I decided to go in a different direction – my choice for the year is Johnny Eager, starring Robert Taylor in the title role of an ex-con who uses the daughter (Lana Turner) of his nemesis to further his criminal exploits. Also in the cast is Van Heflin, who deservedly won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Eager’s loyal, alcoholic best friend. Special shout-out to Patricia Dane who turned in a touching performance as Eager’s discarded lover.
Interestingly, this year pits two Alan Ladd–Veronica Lake noirs against each other: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key. (It’s also interesting that my favorite Ladd-Lake film is neither of these – it’s The Blue Dahlia! But I digress.) I’m going to go with This Gun for Hire, where Ladd stars as a psychologically damaged hitman named Raven and Lake is a nightclub singer who gets caught up in Raven’s vendetta against his employer (Laird Cregar). There are a lot of moving parts here, and some typical noir confusion, but it’s never boring.
A no-brainer for this year – it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which the famed director reportedly identified as his favorite film. Here, Teresa Wright is Charlotte “Charlie” Newton, a small-town girl whose bored existence is significantly altered when her uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to visit. Unfortunately for young Charlie, her uncle is a sociopath and a murderer. You can’t choose your relatives.
Things are starting to heat up, folks. The year 1944 presented me with my first set of multiple contenders. Murder, My Sweet? Phantom Lady? Laura? A near-impossible choice, right? Not so fast. If you know me, you know what my favorite noir is and you know that I simply must pick Double Indemnity. Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, who teams with a too-smart-for-his-own-good insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) to bump off Mr. Dietrichson and collect a big insurance payday. But you know what they say about the best laid plans.
Another year, another personal favorite. I hate to bypass Detour, The Great Flamarion, My Name Is Julia Ross, and Scarlet Street, but they haven’t got a chance up against Mildred Pierce. Next to Double Indemnity, this is the noir I’ve seen the most often, and the first time I saw it was on the big screen – it’s a sentimental favorite, y’all. Joan Crawford stars in the title role of a single mother whose life is forever altered by her determination to please her snooty older daughter (played to perfection by Ann Blyth).
I’m going out on a limb with this one, folks. Numerous first-rate noirs were released in 1946, including Gilda, The Killers, The Locket, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and the uber-confusing but undeniably entertaining The Big Sleep. But I’m going with Decoy. This obscure noir stars Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby, a cold-as-dry-ice dame who is mortally wounded at the film’s begin and tells us in flashback how she masterminded a farfetched criminal scheme that centered on reviving her recently executed convict boyfriend. (I kid you not.) Decoy isn’t on YouTube and I’ve never seen it on cable, but it is available on DVD – I strongly recommend that you check it out. I promise that you won’t be sorry.
And now we come to 1947, the year that saw the release of oh-so-many noir gems – Out of the Past, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Born to Kill, They Won’t Believe Me, Nightmare Alley, Body and Soul… the sheer number of outstanding noirs that came out this year is absolutely mind-blowing. I sidestepped these, though, in favor of a film that’s always on my best-of lists – Nora Prentiss. This feature boasts a unique storyline, a perfect noir ending, and top-notch performances from Ann Sheridan as a nightclub singer and Kent Taylor as the very-married doctor who ruins his life – literally – when he falls for her.
I thought that I’d have a harder time with this year, but as soon as I spied They Live By Night, I knew what my pick would be. This film stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as perfectly cast star-crossed lovers whose quest for a normal life is continuously thwarted by the realities of the criminal milieu in which they exist. Memorable support is provided by noir vets Jay C. Flippen, Will Wright, and Howard DaSilva (whose one-eyed ex-con is one of noir’s creepiest).
Wow, this was the hardest year yet, with three superb films vying for my pick: Too Late for Tears, The Set-Up, and Criss Cross. What a quandary! After much consideration, I finally went with Criss Cross, which I consider to be one of noir’s purest. Burt Lancaster is Steve Thompson, who returns to his hometown only to find himself drawn into a web of passion, deception, and murder involving his ex-wife (Yvonne DeCarlo) and her new husband, local mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). For my money, everything about this film is perfect, from the casting to the plot, and from the first scene to the last. If you’ve never seen this one, do yourself a favor and bump it up to the top of your must-see list. You won’t be sorry.
What are your favorite noirs from 1940 to 1949? Leave a comment and let me know – and join me next month for Part II of Best Noir of the Year!
– 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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