The 20 Best Film Noirs of All Time
L.A. Confidential arrived in theaters on this day in 1997. The 50s-set potboiler received almost unprecedented universal acclaim, and if you were of a certain age then, it very likely introduced you to film noir.
Film noir was a genre that, like the Western, used to be the most popular style of film for the early movie studios but fell out of favor by the 60s. Like Westerns, film noir was frequently considered a lower class of cinema in comparison to the sweeping adaptations of epic popular fiction. And the immense regard that many of the older films now have, most of that came later as film criticism grew to become more respected and international film embraced the shadowy works of detective fiction.
Film noir itself was an important genre for legitimizing cinema as an artform — the use of shadows for terror, the seductive placement of limbs, glances, and the way someone smoked a cigarette substituted for dialogue. The Hayes Production Code made it harder to convey sex, but film noir coded it by using characters that work just outside the respectability of the police force, but instead are hired in private to unravel mysteries that the people hiring would also like to keep private and out of the police dossiers and headlines. And that distance from societal order opened up narratives to include other perceived lessers: gamblers, alcoholics, burlesque dancers, prostitutes, and desperate men and women. As such, the femme fatale was born to counterpart the brooding and mysterious private detective. Acclaimed film director Jean-Luc Godard famously began his career as a film critic writing for France’s Cahiers du cinema, where he frequently championed this post-WWII cinematic movement for portraying a level of unease and disbelief that the rest of popular cinema was avoiding. Godard famously quipped that all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl. And that’s partly what made noir so popular at movie studios: it was cheap to make and it could create a movie star out of an actor/actress who was on contract.
Film criticism also shifted in the 40s and 50s to include more artful analysis of movies (suggestion: read some of the early 1940s film criticism from novelist James Agee when he started at Time in 1942; Agee was hugely influential to our big American critics of the 60s onward—like the Cahiers writers, and Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.) Agee himself was excited by noir and pulp films, and he often fought to include them in Time which boosted their profile in intellectual circles and was extremely formative for elevating many genres decades later, such as horror. Agee also later went on to write the seminal, noir-inspired Night of the Hunter script that attacked the potential for hypocrisy in religion. Attacking convention and the open embrace of the status quo is precisely what intrigued Agee. That and the camera angles and use of lighting that conveyed much more than good vs. evil in it’s heightened black and white status.
L.A. Confidential perfectly captured the influence of film noir on the city of Los Angeles itself. From the vice detective who makes extra money by setting up and busting b-level celebrities to the publisher of pulp daily news that charts the fall from grace of movie stars, this public desire of tawdriness ran side-by-side to the respectable side of America that was represented by our police force, elected officials, and A-list movie stars. But everything is for sale and everyone is a potential suspect in L.A. Confidential because nothing is truly respectable and that’s something that film noir has always made its audience sniff.
Director Curtis Hanson won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for L.A. Confidential (which he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland), one of the biggest Oscar achievements for the genre. And crime. The film was based on a sprawling James Ellroy novel that was originally set for television before Hanson got the go ahead to make a movie at Warner Brothers. Under Hanson’s careful direction, Confidential was a resounding financial and critical success, which confirmed an immense gamble on the part of the studio when Hanson assembled an amazing group of character actors for a period detective genre that Hollywood had long ignored. The biggest “star” was Kevin Spacey, who was not yet widely known to the public (despite an Oscar win for The Usual Suspects). Hanson’s film was not only responsible for casting Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in their first major Hollywood roles, as detectives Bud White and Ed Exley, but the immensely textured story of corruption in the LAPD—and how it intersected with both Hollywood coverups and mobster drug trafficking—also revived Hollywood’s long dormant interest in the labyrinthine plotting of classic film noirs such as The Big Sleep.
Communication was a major theme in film noir, as detectives are following words from characters that put them in a situation to observe the truth while hiding. In L.A. Confidential it was the trail of information that various policemen find but need each other to fully put together, as the web of corruption is so large it stretched across both vice and homicide departments.
Personally, L.A. Confidential was my cinephile-molding movie. It was released when I was 15 years old. I’d never seen a story like it. It was released at a time that I was hungry for cinema, but Confidential did something amazing for me. It so enraptured me from the opening credit narration (by Danny DeVito) on the promise of Los Angeles— before Hanson revealed its ugly (but still glamorous) underbelly—that it made me look backward and watch the films that 1997’s leading critics very favorably compared it to. First to The Big Sleep and then to Chinatown and on to even more meticulously layered mysteries that were set amidst broken dreams, empty glasses of booze, and complex femme fatales. In essence, Hanson’s film was so rich, smoky and beguiling, he was able to push me to Fritz Lang, Roman Polanski, Humphrey Bogart, Otto Preminger, John Huston and the list goes on and on. What a gift to a young burgeoning cinephile.
In honor of Confidential becoming a gateway movie drug for myself—and many others—on its 20-year anniversary, we present 19 other film noirs that are necessary to see in order to better understand and love the genre. Dames, hats, cigarettes, and late hours. This is our beginner’s guide to film noir, kicked off by the modern classic of L.A. Confidential. And it’s a handy list we wish we had 20 years ago.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Don’t say there’s no such thing as a good remake. Dashiell Hammett‘s classic detective novel was first adapted in 1931, but the one we all remember is the 1941 version featuring Humphrey Bogart as jaded private investigator Sam Spade. John Huston‘s adaptation pretty much defined the P.I. noir, and although future directors would find ways to play with the rules, the melding of Huston’s sensibilities with Hammett’s incredible book made for a film that’s still as searing today as it was over 75 years ago.
The plot follows Sam Spade (Bogart), who begins investigating the death of his partner, which in turn becomes a hunt for a priceless artifact, the Maltese Falcon. Much like the Continental Op of Hammett’s Red Harvest who begins playing each side against each other to achieve his own goal, Spade comes into contact with a cast of colorful characters, all of whom are seeking the Falcon and will do anything to get it.
But where The Maltese Falcon really sinks its claws into you (if it hasn’t already with its crackling dialogue and electric performances) is the ending where we see the fatalistic code of noir heroes. One of the things I love about noir is that it isn’t afraid of bittersweet or downer endings. Not everyone gets what they want, and since the Hayes Code basically forced a universal morality onto pictures, smart noir was able to upend this requirement into tragedy that leaves you with “the stuff dreams are made of.” – Matt Goldberg
The Woman in the Window (1944)
When the film noir took off in the 1940s it seemed to be able to get away with more scandalous words, more seductive sleepwear and more hard drinking because usually those who’d done wrong were punished at the end. Fritz Lang pushed the noir envelope as far as he possibly could against the Hayes Production Code in The Woman in the Window. And when they rejected his ending for being immoral, he tacked on a 30-second over-the-top, gee-golly-I’m-glad-to-be-alive second ending (that would later be done with earnestness in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life). Despite ending in a tonally odd manor when viewed today, if Lang’s final decision was a cinematic “fuck you” to (what’s now) the MPAA then his film is among the best film noirs ever. Lang ratcheted up the tension, gave a dark ending and then tap-danced expletives at the censor board.
What’s also interesting about The Woman in the Window is that, instead of giving us another weary detective, Lang drops his anti-hero (Edward G. Robinson) into academia. Robinson plays a professor who opens the film by teaching the psychological acceptance of when murder is agreed to be just (in defense) and when it is viewed as immoral (for personal gain; again distinctions from the Production Code). Once he’s seduced by the titular “woman in the window” (Joan Bennett) he’ll soon find his theories put to the test.
With Woman in the Window (which was in the middle of four consecutive film noirs from the auteur who gifted many of the visual techniques that would become prevalent in Hollywood in his early German serial killer film, M), Lang took an academic approach to murder by including a main character who, despite being an everyday academic, can also easily be seduced by those same pulpy, “lower class” shenanigans. And then, unable to have the ending he wanted due to the Hayes Production Code, Lang films his desired darker ending and then flips off the censors by tacking on their desired happier ending. It’s jarring to watch now because the ending feels so out of place, but if you are aware of the Production Code rules it’s easy to forgive.
Woman in the Window was very far ahead of its time and now it’s been overlooked in the canons of the great original noirs, most likely because of its tacked on final minute. But the first 105 minutes still hold up as one of the most suspenseful, artful noirs ever made. Up until the final minute. Afterward, you should laugh. We’re sure that Lang did. — Brian Formo
As World War II was ramping up Hollywood was a refuge for many filmmakers who’d put a massive stamp on the US film industry (as evidenced by how many times Fritz Lang shows up on this list after he fled Germany a day after being asked by Joseph Goebbels to head Nazi Germany’s propaganda film machine; he couldn’t decline so he just straight up and left). Otto Preminger was a unique Hollywood filmmaker who left Austria-Hungary when war was breaking out and his career is dotted with films that stood up for the marginalized (Preminger updated Carmen Jones as an all-black cast musical and worked hard to make sure that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was credited with his real name on Exodus). And like many during this time period, Preminger got his biggest Hollywood break making a film noir.
Laura essentially takes a Daphne du Maurier premise—a detective (Dana Andrews) is working on a murder case and ends up falling in love with the dead woman he’s investigating—and acknowledges a limitation that film noir will forever have: that its women are mere canvases for men to project their desires upon. Gene Tierney is a stunning beauty and thus, for noir, her death is tragic and that tragedy becomes all consuming for a detective for how could such a fallen angel become embroiled in such deceit? Could the right man have saved her before her untimely fate?
Laura is an elegant whodunit that’s immensely forward thinking about gender and the hollowness of the genre in its infancy stages. And again, an extremely capable visualist, Preminger shows immense fluidity with the camera and how genre can push the medium into entirely new dream realms via pans, dollies, and push ins. — Brian Formo
Double Indemnity (1944)
Double Indemnity is an incredibly fun watch, especially if, like me, you first saw star Fred MacMurray on the wholesome My Three Sons on Nick at Nite. He plays a far different character here with director Billy Wilder adapting John M. Cain‘s novel (with a dialogue assist from Raymond Chandler) about a woman who teams up with an insurance salesman to murder her husband in order to collect big on his policy (the “double indemnity” clause is if her husband dies in accidental death).
The film works brilliantly on so many different levels. First, it’s got a crackerjack framing device with MacMurray’s salesman, Walter Neff, bleeding out in his own office, recording a confession to the agency’s adjustor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). In the first five minutes, we know it’s all gone horribly wrong for Neff, and now he’s going to tell us how. From there, we see a classic noir protagonist–a guy who’s jaded and cynical, but ends up getting duped just the same.
And then Barbara Stanwyck enters the picture as the nefarious, seductive, classic femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, and the movie is off to the races as the chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck sizzles, but it’s all cemented with the undertones of us knowing that either they get away with and they’ve done something horrible, or they don’t get away with it, and something horrible happens to them. Double Indemnity relishes the duplicity and cynicism of its characters, and it makes for one of Wilder’s best movies, which, looking at his filmography, is saying something. – Matt Goldberg
Scarlet Street (1945)
Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is a circus of dopes who are duped into doing extra dopey things all due to assumptions. It’s a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Woman in the Window in that three principal players are the same: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Robinson is a man who’s been neutered by his Victorian-styled marriage. When he rescues a beautiful young woman from an attack (Bennett) he feels a surge in his libido. However, he cannot ever recapture that feeling of being a man because the young woman and her (probable) pimp cohort start wanting things from him because they think he’s rich. In reality, his wife has all the money and his paintings are just a side diversion; although his paintings are for himself he’s still emasculated by his older wife by wearing a frilly apron for his smock. His impulse to save the young woman came from natural human awareness separate from the perceived duties of his gender to provide safety and to stimulate. Once he’s aware that he’s capable of being a man, he blunders every attempt to recapture that masculine stance that the younger woman is trying to manipulate, rendering himself impotent. Needless to say the middle-aged crisis blackmail does not go as planned.
Scarlet Street isn’t a comedy but it does feel like a satire of pulp. Lang adds immense plotting to emphasize the ludicrous expectations of an ordinary man within this genre.— Brian Formo
The Big Sleep (1946)
It’s been almost 20 years since I first saw The Big Sleep (I probably peddled my bike to the video store the day after seeing L.A. Confidential, for which the immense plot of deceit was originally compared). The plot is still a smashing zigzag that probably inspired the Coen brothers’ to include the line in The Big Lebowski (“I love your style: playing one side against the other, in bed with everybody”). Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe cannot rest on his case. A wealthy man’s youngest daughter tries to sit on his lap while he’s standing up, the oldest daughter (Lauren Bacall) is a gambling love interest, and his stakeout cohort at the bookstore closes shop for some off-screen hanky panky.
It’s easiest to focus on the sex of The Big Sleep because the plot seems to just exist as a fever dream in between all the various couplings. I love that Howard Hawks and co. ditched scenes of extra explanation in favor of Bogart and Bacall flirting scenes. Give the people what they want! Lap-sitting while standing up! I also loved the Dorothy Malone bookshop scene because she knows how to whistle alright (Bogart’s “hello there” is the gateway drug for her Oscar-winning performance in Written on the Wind).
It is imperative to do a double feature of The Big Sleep with The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman’s response to this and all 40s film noirs that features Marlowe. Philip Marlowe finally goes to bed and wakes for a three decade slumber to neighbors of bathing nude girls who ask him to pick up brownie mix for their pot. Hawks shields the Hayes Code 1940s audience from blatantly using words that’d reveal the obvious pornography and drug plot points in The Big Sleep and the 70s Marlowe just wakes up next to it on full giggling display in The Long Goodbye. — Brian Formo
Out of the Past (1947)
Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas star in the Battle of the Film Noir Chin Dimple! Mitchum plays the former mafia tough who’s reinvented himself as a gas station owner after Douglas’ mafioso has him tail a woman that he falls for.
Most film noirs start from the beginning and follows a case as the walls start to close in, but Out of the Past tells the story of a previous case that closed the walls in on Mitchum and picks up when it comes back to haunt him. I love that this noir is essentially Mitchum attempting to resist the femme fatale (Jane Greer) because she’s actually fatal (unlike other women men attempt to save in this genre or women who connive but never use violence, Greer is the most violent person in the film).
When we pick up with Mitchum in his new, less shadowy life he’s just trying to settle down and fish with the girl next door. The past comes back, though, and it’s shady as hell. Throw in a great opening scene at a fill station/cafe, some mountain vistas, a glow on Mitchum’s caterpillar eyelashes as his heart gets manipulated again and you’ve got an atypical noir that still fits in some great shadowy fistfights and Mexico hideouts.
For horror fans, Out of the Past should be of extra interest because it shows what Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) could do outside of his RKO horror work. Tourneur’s shadows remain but the meaning is so much more human and full of regret. — Brian Formo
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
I’m not sure if Ride the Pink Horse is great for a noir novice but for fans of noir it’s endlessly fascinating. Noir itself is frequently a critique of urban capitalism and what people do for money, particularly after WWII when more people seem to have it in America making those who don’t feel even more desperate. Border towns are frequent noir settings for obvious reasons of crossing over there grants magical immunity but being caught there is a separate plight. But in The Pink Horse the Mexicans are not saloon background characters but are major parts of the story.
Lucky (director and star Robert Montgomery) is foolishly thinking he’s showing loyalty to his dead friend by blackmailing his killer, but that only selfishly gives Lucky money and uses his friend. It’s the opposite of loyalty. When Pancho (Oscar nominee Thomas Gomez) shows loyalty to Lucky by taking a beating rather than speaking Lucky offers to give him a percent of the money. His humanity and ability to show gratitude is tied to money. There’s a great “small fry” monologue by the mobster tuff, in which he mocks Lucky for not asking for more money, which highlights the American disdain for those who don’t upsell. It’s Lucky’s immersion with the locals that make him more human because they show him humanity without charging for it (unless it’s drinks at the bar, that is!). — Brian Formo
The Third Man (1949)
Carol Reed’s masterpiece used the expressionist “Dutch angle” technique to reference how disoriented an American (Joseph Cotton) feels abroad in this post-WWII but pre-Cold War mystery. Supposedly, cinematographer Robert Krasker jokingly gifted Reed a level after filming so many titled scenes. The Academy gave Krasker an Oscar and Krasker thanked Reed.
The Third Man is the best film noir export, set in Vienna and made by the UK. Steven Soderbergh cheekily stated, “One of the amazing things about The Third Man is that it really is a great film, in spite of all the people who say it’s a great film.” It goes into the sewers for a pre-Vertigo chase scene and though it has spy elements it holds the noir ending: nothing goes as planned. Especially getting the girl.
Although it’s Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles) chase that’s most famous, the final shot is one of the best endings in all of cinema; in a static shot, a woman silently walking past the man who’s kept her in deception; willfully choosing to close a chapter in his life. The End. — Brian Formo
They Live by Night (1949)
Nicholas Ray is most fondly remembered for Rebel Without a Cause (and less fondly for seducing one of its young stars, Sal Mineo). So it comes as no surprise that the best teen noir came from Ray in his feature film debut, They Live By Night.
A majority of film noirs were set in Los Angeles due to the film industry’s presence but also to sell the City of Angels short of being angelic (check Los Angeles Plays Itself). But there are many great rural noirs about people attempting to escape their past. They Live By Night is a sleepy Texas noir that follows a young couple (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell) who are on the run from his past. The young boy was jailed at 16 for killing his father’s murderer and he escapes prison with some bank robbers. He joins them on their crime spree due to his youthful loyalty he feels he owes them for the escape—but being jailed so young has sentenced him to a life of hard times regardless of the route he takes.
Godard, the Greek Chorus of film noir champions, famously said “cinema is Nicholas Ray.” And Ray’s first film is a swelling heart. These kids make bad choices but it doesn’t come innately, there’s a pause an awareness of their wrongdoing, but they don’t know what else to do other than to try to just make it to the next day with each other. This is every Bruce Springsteen “born to lose” couples song, done up in black-and-white cinema. — Brian Formo
Night and the City (1950)
While it may not be a “big name” noir, Night and the City is one of my favorites of the genre. After renting the film, I immediately went out and brought the Criterion because it’s just that good. It’s one of the nastiest pieces of work the genre has to offer, with almost no redeeming characters, and yet all of them are instantly compelling and you want to see the dark disaster they’ll make together.
The story follows Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark at his slimiest), a con man and hustler who wants to set up a wrestling enterprise in London without interference from the local organizer, Kristo (the always brilliant Herbert Lom). But where the movie really comes alive is in Fabian’s relationship Mary (Gene Tierney), the film’s sole redeeming character, and then when he has to go on the run after Kristo puts a bounty on his head.
Jules Dassin‘s an outstanding director who absolutely sucks you in, and really plays up the use of light and shadow that’s one of the signatures of the genre. He turns London into a nightmarish hellscape for the desperate Fabian, and while we’re never exactly rooting for the garish hustler, we’re drawn into his panicked situation all the same. – Matt Goldberg
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
You can’t look at noir without looking at Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder, once again defining the genre, uses the conventions of the genre to tell a Hollywood story, seeing that while noir is usually the province of detectives and gangsters, it works just as well in telling the tragic story of faded stardom.
The film begins with an even bleaker beginning than Double Indemnity as protagonist Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats dead in a swimming pool and then through narration tells how he got there. It all begins with him being a struggling screenwriter who can’t catch and break, and then ends up in the employ of former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Their relationship takes some deeply twisted turns and Norma becomes more possessive and domineering and Joe, unable to find a way out, becomes twisted around her finger yet desperate to escape.
There’s so much brilliant stuff in Sunset Boulevard, not just in the standard noir tropes about failed ambition and tragic figures, but also specifically with regards to Hollywood and how it treats older actresses, the desperation to stay in the limelight, and the hermetically sealed bubbles that keep reality away. It’s a movie that really has it all, including a swimming pool. – Matt Goldberg
The Prowler (1951)
Joseph Losey (The Servant) could’ve led a sidebar cinematic revolution astride Nicholas Ray in Hollywood had he not been blacklisted. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was also blacklisted after this film, making The Prowler one of the most important reminders of how silly McCarthyism was and how it robbed the industry of some great filmmakers. Losey went to the UK to work and never returned to the US and the point of no return, to not be pushed around and go back to your abuser, is appropriate for both The Prowler, noir in general, and Losey’s response to Hollywood.
The Prowler is noir, but it has horror elements. You can see the influence of using the camera as a peeping tom that would come to influence Psycho and Peeping Tom almost a decade later. But there’s extra horror in the dual possessiveness of two men. One we hear on the radio as the disc jockey demands his wife (Evelyn Keyes) listen to it and not go out because he doesn’t trust her. He creepily signs off his broadcasts with the line, “I’ll be seeing you, Susan.” When she’s spied on in her shower she calls the police and one of the responding police officers (Van Heflin) starts dropping in on her since he knows her schedule. Susan’s time is not her own it’s spent hiding from her husband with another man who gets kicks out of the reliability of her aloneness and she’s trapped because her husband will ask her about the broadcast (and not her day, for what’s there to ask?).
When Officer Garland (Heflin) decides to stage a peeping tom scenario when her husband is home it’s a further attempt to gain full control of Susan by offing her husband. In Susan we have the early fingerprints of home invasion horror. And in Officer Garland, there’s a bit of paranoia that’d creep into Cold War films, the fear of being scapegoated/found out despite being “no worse than anyone else”; everyone cheats the system but needs one person to take the fall for all the other sins. And maniacs take those “everyone else” excuses even further. The talk about his failed college basketball career/education is key here, as America started educating classes who never had received a college degree, Garland’s overstepping with his coach takes him out of the New Deal system and it drives his fear of being left behind, cut out of the New Deal.
This peeping beginning pre-dated Rear Window, Psycho and Peeping Tom, but it’s a classic McGuffin. The creeper isn’t the prowler who gives us the POV of Susan showering, but it’s the man who knows a lonely woman’s schedule and can manipulate it to his advantage. — Brian Formo
The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang’s last masterwork was also his most furious. The Big Heat is a bloodhound sniff and hunt movie. It follows a policeman (Glenn Ford) whose wife was murdered and he doesn’t so much gather evidence as he gathers all of his assumptions into a fist and goes swinging at everyone. This is a fabulous precursor to Point Blank and not just because Lee Marvin is here throwing a coffee mug at a woman’s mug; it’s blazing fire with some deeply cutting spitfire dialogue.
In many ways you could say that film noir was moving to this, testing your conscience for pursuing these thrills. The Big Heat is a complete de-pantser as the police and mafia intertwine and our rogue enforcer is every bit as ruthless as those he seeks. Noir already focused on anti-heroes but The Big Heat might be our first neo-anti-hero that’d become commonplace in 60s and 70s exploitation films. — Brian Formo
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
If the best film noirs are a grotesque reflection of our anxieties, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is the most toxic 1950s movie ever made. Long before Pulp Fiction’s glowing 666 briefcase, Deadly took The Maltese Falcon McGuffin to the brink of annihilation with a suitcase that’s too hot to touch because it very might well contain the makings of an atomic bomb.
The movie opens with a frantic woman (Cloris Leachman) who’s on a remote highway wearing a trenchcoat and nothing on underneath and tells a tale of a massive mental health plot in the car of the smarmy detective (Ralph Meeker) who picks her up from the side of the road. When she is tortured to death while he’s unconscious the detective embarks to discover the truth of “the great whatsit.” Kiss Me Deadly is essentially the Repo Man of the 50s, totally in tune with the distrust of those who are supposed to protect us but could also just kill us all. The power to protect and the power to destroy are the same in Aldrich’s noir worldview. — Brian Formo
Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles opened Touch of Evil with the most elaborately complex shot of the time period. Russell Metty’s camera moves from a close up to a ticking bomb and then is slowly raised by a crane that locates Charlton Heston as he wanders a Mexican street, gets lost in the crowd and infrastructure and then emerges again to kiss Janet Leigh at the same time an explosion occurs. The crane movement is graceful and the production design is impeccable, but the magic of the shot is heightened showing the bomb first because it subconsciously forces the audience to follow and re-find Heston once he’s established after seeing the bomb. When we find him in his car with Leigh the crane shot impressively follows for a long period and seamlessly lowers to ground level as the lovebirds stop in town. There’s something voyeuristic about tracking him, too, there’s a suspicion that Welles wants you to feel but there’s no evidence. The kiss, of course, is the joy of life at the exact moment that death hits close by.
Touch of Evil is an impeccable film and it flexes, much like horror is now, that the genre is a fertile playing ground for new cinematic techniques. Welles of course did this prior with the hall of mirrors carnival scene in The Lady from Shanghai, but Touch of Evil is a more complete film outside of that famous shot explosion. — Brian Formo
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Robert Altman described his take on Philip Marlowe as being similar to “Rip Van Winkle”. It’s meant to take place right after the events of The Big Sleep, except Bogart’s Marlowe really got some much needed sleep and woke up nearly 30 years later as Elliott Gould, who drolly shambles through a strange new existence.
The Long Goodbye opens with a glorious tracking shot of Marlowe getting some shut eye, being awoken by his hungry cat, and going to the kitchen to feed it. The rascal looks at his bowl of food, and—totally unsatisfied—continues to meow to let him know that he’s not actually interested in that same old shit (spice it up, my man!). Marlowe exits his apartment to go to the supermarket for some new cat food, and he encounters nude yoga neighbors on their balcony who want some brownie mix from the grocery store, too. Marlowe slumbers past both cat and woman, but heeds their requests. At the store, they don’t have the brand his discerning kitty likes and the nearest employee tells Marlowe that all the cat food tastes the same. Marlowe’s response, “You don’t have a cat.” The shopkeep’s response? “What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.” Marlowe mumbles, “He’s got a girl, I got a cat.”
The cat is our introduction to Marlowe. It wakes him from his dream. Altman says the dream was of Chandler’s tough guy noir and the film business of yore. This Marlowe wakes up 30 years later, in a bizarre spot where lounging beauties are now nude yoga beauties who can be independent of men. Where birds don’t dictate things, cats do. And where people want lesser things from a detective: not, get me some pictures of a cheating husband, but get me some brownie mix, and some goddamn delicious cat food! The Long Goodbye is a deconstruction of film noir, it updates all the tropes for the 70s and it keeps that proper noir distance from societal norms. Philip Marlowe finally got some sleep and the times have changed—Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s there! — Brian Formo
Chinatown has been labeled by many as the best screenplay ever written. Much like Ellroy would do for his novels, Robert Towne included real historical events that noir never really did in order to place his mystery in a reality of paranoia. Towne’s script uses the Los Angeles water wars—a controversial decision to siphon water from a northern valley to feed into Los Angeles over tracts of land that wealthy individuals bought, all as a plot to grow and sustain Los Angeles astride the weakening of small farming communities who’d lose that water—as the backdrop for a 1940s mystery.
The real water war happened in 1913, but the 1940s setting not only sets Chinatown within the classic period of Hollywood’s most frequent film noirs, it also provides a setting of a time period when distrust of government officials was emerging. The war to end all wars had just been fought and the promise of America—and particularly Los Angeles—was being sold as an unsustainable postcard vista. That is very similar to L.A. Confidential’s “trouble in paradise” opening credit sequence, where it was openly stated, but it’s all subtext in Roman Polanski’s film.
Like many great film noirs, watching the film more than once is extremely rewarding. But Chinatown’s tragedy is more personal. The first time you see it, you marvel at Jack Nicholson’s new take on the Humphrey Bogart loner PI role. The second viewing is devastating because of Faye Dunaway. She has a secret that furthers the idea that the rich and powerful are too powerful that laws and decency don’t apply to them. And that ugly truth is the true “trouble in paradise.” — Brian Formo
Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen Brothers have reimagined noir many times but their impeccable film debut, Blood Simple, shares the most in common with classic noir. While Fargo involves a kidnapping scheme and detectives who can outsmart it and The Big Lebowski is a stoner-distanced riff on the genre (perhaps more in line with the early crime comedies of The Thin Man series, except with many more coitus jokes), Blood Simple is a deconstruction of the classic noir setup.
A man (Dan Hedaya) hires a gumshoe (M. Emmet Walsh) to find out if his wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him. When that’s confirmed, said gumshoe is supposed to kill her.
The manner in which the Coens update and break down the old genre is by making the private dick an actual dick. Or maybe better put, they essentially make him an old school Universal Studios monster. Walsh is beyond anti-hero, for he’s no hero. He’s a terminator who revels in chaos and dates underage women. His job is ugly and he makes it even more ugly. That’s why he does it, it seems. There is a siege upon McDormand that closes the film that feels like a horror film but is shot (by a pre-director Barry Sonenfeld) like a classic film noir. It’s all about smashing light bulbs and little pig, little pig, let me in. — Brian Formo
Inherent Vice (2014)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s immensely plotted Inherent Vice is a postcard of the sun going down on California. The hippie movement is dwindling, real estate moguls are pushing out black communities, and Reagan has closed all mental health institutions, paving the way for private high-end babysitting institutions to take their place. It’s the division of the haves from the have-nots.
Did I get this all from the first viewing of Inherent Vice? No. The first viewing, the mystery felt like a locomotive that eventually got away from me because I was trying to keep up with it. It was a contact high that wore off. Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is investigating a lead on a missing real estate mogul (Eric Roberts), it was given by his ex (Katherine Waterson), who’s now also missing.
Much like The Big Sleep, there’s so much plot here but Anderson is most interested in the moments that exist between the actual plot: the rock band pizza party, the coked out dentist (Martin Short), and all the excess modes of living that confound our simple private investigator. The second viewing felt like a majestic drift that took me out to sea. Follow the advice: let Vice wash over you. Warner Brothers (the same studio that released The Big Sleep nearly 70 years prior) will love me for saying this: see Inherent Vice twice. It’s a many splendored film. — Brian Formo