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Hearts of Darkness: Ten Best Noirs
by Richard Bowden


This choice of films was tempered by the need to give a fair representation of what the genre has produced down the years. Even so, I have probably leant too heavily in favour of earlier examples and have included a couple of lesser-known favourites. Excellent genre pieces are still being made, as evidenced by the deserved success of L.A. Confidential.
Noir has always fostered experimentation and interesting artistic results. I could easily have included the homages and imitations made overseas, for instance by Melville, whose Le Samourai (1967) drew much of its strength from a characteristic love of the American noir tradition, or chosen from hybrids like Blade Runner (1982) or a noir-western like Pursued (1946), but - in no particular order...

Touch Of Evil (1958)  director: Orson Welles
Welles' baroque vision was recently reissued in a director's cut, with the structure clarified, studio interpolations deleted and Mancini's atmospheric opening music removed. What emerged was a greater film than ever, usually taken as the last great noir of the first cycle, and one of the director's most successful genre pieces. Despite being somewhat bizarrely cast as a Mexican, Charlton Heston is convincing and Janet Leigh, (who acted with a broken arm for much of the film), is as exciting as she would be shortly in Hitchcock's seminal Psycho. Welles' film abounds with remarkable moments: the opening continuous tracking shot to the explosion, Grandi's murder by Quinlan in the hotel, the death of Quinlan and so on. As the shabby, fat, corrupt cop Welles is unforgettable and actually had to pad out to achieve the bulk required. He also made The Stranger - a lesser film, which, though it too cries out for a longer cut, is also a memorable noir.

The Big Sleep (1946)  director: Howard Hawks
With a plot so labyrinthine in construction that the director confessed that even he didn't understand the story, this is a film which, after the marvellous To Have And Have Not, firmly established the Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart chemistry in the minds of the public. The recently restored director's cut played down their sexual relationship and explained slightly more of the story, at the cost of some frisson. Bacall and Bogart also appeared together in the unusual noir, Dark Passage, but this present baroque film remains their masterpiece together. Hawks worked so successfully, and across so many different genres, that it is hard to say which is his overall best. This however would be in the top two or three.

Gun Crazy (1949)  director: Joseph H. Lewis
Lewis' most famous work, which ranks with his The Big Combo as one of the finest B-noirs, as well as being one of the most romantic. At heart a love story but with the passion expressed through violence, Gun Crazy has a singled-mindedness and daring about it that puts bigger budgeted films to shame. The bank hold up, shot in one take from the back seat of a car, has a breathtaking audaciousness, and even recalls Godard. The two principals (Peggy Cummins and John Dall) never appeared in anything so remarkable again, although Hitchcock used Dall in his experimental Rope. Cummins popped up in the muscular British crime film Hell Drivers - though to disappointingly conventional effect. Ironically Gun Crazy was rediscovered by critical opinion in 1967, the year of Penn's similar Bonnie And Clyde.

The Big Heat (1953)  director: Fritz Lang
Perhaps the finest of Lang's American trips into the criminal psyche, containing his favourite motifs of an arch criminal, a criminal conspiracy, and the nihilistic workings of fate. Glenn Ford, who also appeared in Lang's less impressive Human Desire plays Bannion, the cop whose family is bombed, and whose search for vengeance brings him in contact with noir icon Gloria Grahame. Like Hitler's thugs (from whom Lang escaped to America in the mid 1930s), the mob in this noir run the streets and control political life, making the director's interest in the subject matter and its resolution a personal one. In one memorable scene, Grahame gets scalding coffee thrown in her face by a psychopathic Lee Marvin. Ford appeared in his second-best film, The Blackboard Jungle two years later, but Lang surely gave him his finest hour.

Farewell My Lovely (aka: Murder My Sweet, 1944)  director: Edward Dymtryk
Dick Powell lobbied hard to play the private eye Philip Marlowe in this, the archetypal 1940s noir film, and his confidence in himself was entirely justified. The remake 30 years later is almost as good, (principally through the use of Robert Mitchum) although Dmytryk has the edge over that later version with his monochrome use of shadow, nightmare and menace. In many ways this is the archetypal noir, as Marlowe walks the dark streets, initially hired by Moose Malloy to find his Velma, then encountering corruption and moral decay at all levels. Characteristically vulnerable and hard-boiled at the same time, Marlowe narrates his tale in typical flashback. In the process he creates a cynical vision of a society full of dreams and disillusionment. As noir replaced the officially dictated optimism of American cinema to become the prevalent movie style, such dark impressions would perfectly express the realities of peace.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)  director: John Huston
Huston's debut feature is so much taken for granted, and has passed so completely into popular film culture, that it is difficult to relocate it as genre piece. There's incomparable Bogart of course, but also Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre (star of one of the earliest noirs The Stranger on The Third Floor, 1940), and that bird. Huston once opined that all of his films were about the pursuit of the unobtainable and it is perhaps here, at the start of his career, that this process expresses itself in its purist form - 'the stuff that dreams are made on', indeed.

Chinatown (1974)  director: Roman Polanski Polanski's best American film, despite or perhaps of, his change to writer Towne's original ending. "The girl had to die," the director once said in an interview "..or no one would remember it." Whether or not this is true, there is no forgetting Gittes' odyssey though a corrupt and parched Los Angeles, as he exposes civic corruption and incestuous relationships. Like Lang in The Big Heat, Polanski clearly sees the corruption that lies at the heart of noir as an infection that has spread through the entire social system, attacking institutions and individuals, although his exploration of the fact is personal. After the manner of many previous noir femme fatales, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) ensnares Gittes but the resolution of her plight is characteristically melancholy and savage. After years of delay, Nicholson directed the less successful sequel The Two Jakes but the result was less successful.

Point Blank (1967)  director: John Boorman
Boorman's elliptical tale gave Lee Marvin perhaps his best role and added alienation to the standard noir paranoia, creating a potent, stylish cocktail. (Mel Gibson tried a loose remake with Payback recently, but its limited success only reminded one of just how great the original is.) As Walker, the man who blithely "just wants his money," Marvin is by turns stoic, violent, obsessive, and a persistent comment on the mores of big business. His alienated reserve is unsettling and unforgettable. This is a noir for the modern era, where persecution, revenge and personal ghosts are just as effective when in colour, in daylight and on a widescreen as they ever were in mono back streets and academy ratio. The question of whether or not Walker is actually dead from the beginning has meant some see Boorman's use of ambiguity as influenced by Alan Resnais.

Nocturne (1946)  director: Edwin Marin
Despite - or because of - the presence of the gloomy and obsessive George Raft, this underrated noir is a stunningly modern and perverse piece of work. Whereas the classic Laura has a single portrait, Nocturne has a whole wall of them. Where Casablanca has a pianist in a bar, this has a gay pianist in a nightclub, playing at a wheeled piano. This is the film that starts so uniquely with the murder of a two-timing crooner after singing a two-minute, mocking monologue to his silent, unseen murderess ("when all's said and done/ you are no longer the one"). Nocturne is further unique in that the roots of detective-hero's obsessive behaviour are left wilfully obscure, and remain so while career unravels. Consequently, the film is about the act of investigation itself, and exploration of motive, rather than the resolution of the crime. The resultant irony gives this existential noir a distinct flavour, whose self-reflection seems remarkably contemporary.

Detour (1945)  director: Edgar Ulmer
"Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." Ulmer's Z-grade masterpiece is still argued about, as some deny that poverty row could have ever produced anything of such quality. But there is no doubting the power and imagination behind this cult production, filmed on a three or four basic sets and a car interior in just a few days. The best in Ulmer was inspired by such constraints. He includes some startling camera work, notably in the in-and-out-of-focus continuous take of Vera's murder by telephone cable, which triumphantly overcomes handicaps. What has been deemed the 'incessant confessional tone' of the narrative reduces the plot contrivances and the threadbare budget to insignificance, while keeping the essential nightmarish tone intact. Ulmer also directed the noir-ish Ruthless (1948), which has a plot structure similar to Citizen Kane. Star, Tom Neal killed his wife in real life and went to jail.

See also:  Modern Noir - profile of director John Dahl by Rob Marshall

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