Last month I learned about a movie-watching challenge called Noirvember that was founded by “cinema fanatic” Marya E. Gates. The goal is to watch one film noir movie a day during the month of November. It was a daunting prospect, but I’ve always been interested in the genre, and this month happened to be a mostly fallow period in my TV viewing schedule, so I jumped in by signing up for a 2-week trial of the Criterion Channel, which has many of these classic films in their catalog.
Next, I had to decide what films to watch. This led me to ponder: what is noir anyway? As with many questions of genre definition, there is no one “correct” answer. But for me, it is not limited to an era, format, or subject. The essential element is a focus on the seedy underbelly of life: criminals, those who chase the criminals (and might be corrupt themselves), the broken promises of society, the perilous allure of romance and what happens when it goes wrong, the difficulty of trusting anyone in the larger scheme of things. There is often an investigation that takes place in a noir film, and this investigation is not limited to a legal question of whodunnit, how, or why; it can be interpersonal in nature and may reveal shocking truths the main characters could not see coming, whether because of their own naivete or the double-crossing acts of those they did not think to suspect.
Occasionally there is a sense of things being put right by the end, but often the perps end up doing themselves in, or their shady associates do, and everyone comes away feeling depressed and dirty. Sometimes there is no justice at all, and we are left gazing at a harsh landscape empty of ethics and fairness, “a hard world for little things” (to quote Lillian Gish’s character in The Night of the Hunter).
That all sounds pretty depressing, but something I appreciate about noir is its angry, idealistic heart. “People ought to be better! WHY aren’t they better? Goddammit, I need a drink…” Occasionally this sense of outrage is very pointed and topical: wealth inequality is a frequent plot element, as is the limbo many war veterans experience after the fight is over. (Most of the films I watched this Noirvember were made in the 10 years after World War Two.) Racism and antisemitism are forthrightly addressed in two of these films as well.
The place of women in film noir is complicated. No surprise, really: it reflects our larger society in that way. One of the most well-known tropes of the genre is the “femme fatale”, a sexy dame who bewitches the main character into helping her, then betrays him later. Several of these films present classic examples of that trope, but it is far from universal, and in some delightful cases there is not just one sympathetic woman character, there are several! And even when a femme turns out to be fatale, she’s usually formidable and entertaining to watch.
Key themes: The aftermath of World War 2. Anxiety about gender roles. Income inequality. The past catching up with you. Crime: prostitution, gambling, fraud, theft, extortion, kidnapping, murder. Crimefighting: private detectives, police officers, lawyers, judges, courtrooms. Miscarriage of justice. Love, usually tragic. Lots of smoking and drinking. Occasionally pills.
OK, on to the films, which I’ve grouped into tiers based on how much I liked them. I ended up watching 27 films in 30 days. Not one per day, but pretty close! I selected them mostly from Criterion’s list of Noirvember films, but also from IMDB’s top 50. Some notable noir films were not on my watchlist because I had previously seen them and wanted to focus on the unfamiliar. So if anyone is wondering why Sunset Boulevard, The Big Sleep, and Double Indemnity are not here, that’s why.
Cream of the Crop
The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
This was the one movie that I rewatched for this Noirvember since I already had it on DVD. (I’m a fan, see?) Humphrey Bogart plays one of his iconic roles as Sam Spade, private dick, who gets pulled in to what is initially billed as a missing persons case, but soon turns out to be something entirely different. And yes, there is a femme fatale involved. But also, there is a lot of clever quipping as well as some outrageously entertaining performances from Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet playing mistrustful partners who can’t wait to get their business over with and be rid of each other. Its cynical view of humanity is softened (to its detriment) at the end, but it is still a sharp and very entertaining film.
Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz)
One of the rare noirs told from a woman’s perspective, it chronicles the struggles of a hard-working mom who must support her daughter alone after her husband leaves her. Joan Crawford is utterly sympathetic as Mildred: strong, but not hard; worried, but not anxious; focused on getting the job done and making something of her business, but not because she’s prideful or greedy. She just wants her daughter Veda to be happy… what can be wrong with that? Well, a lot, it turns out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that depicts this sort of mother/daughter dynamic before. It’s fascinating, and a little gut-churning. And then there are the slimy men who turn the tables on the femme fatale trope. And to make up for it a bit, there is Mildred’s wise-cracking, ultra-competent right-hand woman, Ida. I love Ida!
Nightmare Alley (1947, Edmund Goulding)
A fascinating depiction of those who play mind games with unsuspecting marks for their own financial gain, it starts in a traveling carnival, then shifts to nightclub cons, and then a psychologist’s office. There is no romanticizing of the tricks these fraudsters use to ensnare people; the film is almost clinical in its portrayal of the nuts & bolts of chicanery. Some of the characters (notably Zeena and Molly, two of those sympathetic female characters I mentioned earlier) recognize that there is a limit to what they’re willing to do. Not Stan Carlisle (a phenomenal Tyrone Power). He wants it all, and he ends up paying a big price. A remarkable film that seems very modern in some ways. After I watched it, I was reminded that Guillermo del Toro was doing a remake. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining it can live up to the original, but I’ll have to check it out.
Drunken Angel (1948, Akira Kurosawa)
An early film from Akira Kurosawa, it marks one of the first appearances of Toshiro Mifune, who would become a huge movie star in Japan and the world. But for me this film is all about Takashi Shimura – the “drunken angel” of the title – a doctor who chooses to live in a slum and attend to poor people and criminals rather than taking a job at a reputable hospital. He burns with idealistic rage at every injustice in society, and is prone to saying things like, “You fool! Don’t think like a slave!” or “Drop the feudalistic loyalty crap. It makes me sick.” He lives on the edge of a bubbling, trash-filled mire and tries in vain to keep the local children from playing in it; a metaphor for the larger plot of his attempts to keep a young gangster from succumbing to tuberculosis and his life of crime. In some ways, the course of events seems obvious, but Shimura brings it to vivid life and makes the viewer face the existential questions head on.
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
A pulp novelist visits Vienna to see his old friend and arrives just in time for his funeral. He becomes obsessed with learning how he died and won’t let it go when he probably should. He also becomes infatuated with a woman who was in love with his friend. Great performances from Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, a chilling turn from Orson Welles, a gritty postwar rubble-strewn city as setting, some striking expressionistic cinematography, and more zither than you can shake a stick at. Very interesting. I expect I will be rewatching this one multiple times.
Zero Focus (1961, Yoshitaro Nomura)
Another noir featuring a woman as viewpoint character, this one is set in Japan in the early ‘60s. Like Mildred Pierce, the action kicks off when a husband goes missing, but the reasons are far more complicated and slowly revealed in this film, which has Teiko traveling back and forth on trains to different towns repeatedly to meet with people who might have clues about what happened to her husband. Progress is slow for a long time, which makes the series of revelations in the last half hour seem like an onrushing avalanche (snow metaphor intended; there is some amazing winter photography early in the film). There’s a Rashomon-like quality to the different perspectives and constructions of reality at the end, and each builds on what we’ve learned previously to reveal a heartbreaking ultimate truth.
Other Favorites (4 stars and above)
Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
A young police detective has his gun stolen while on the train and goes on a quest through all walks of society trying to get it back. This film has a number of similarities to Kurosawa’s later film High & Low, but I liked this one better, because it shows more sympathy toward the perpetrators of crime (even though his mentor tells the main character not to give in to that temptation), while also focusing more on the interpersonal dynamics of the detectives (Mifune and Shimura, reunited). A very human and textured drama.
No Way Out (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Sidney Poitier in his big screen debut, playing a doctor tasked with treating some virulent racists. It was eerie watching this movie about white supremacy and crime 70 years after it came out and seeing how little had changed in the interim. Yes, white conservatives are less willing to say racist words while laying out their agenda, but it’s still there in code and in the way behavior happens. Chilling.
Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)
Kirk Douglas’s ambitious news reporter happens across a scene of tragedy, and his only thought is how to make a buck out of the story. Disgusting ambulance chasing, press corruption, and indifference to human life and standards of conduct from several directions. Yet… so believable in many ways.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957, Billy Wilder)
More focused on a courtroom trial than most other noirs, this one turned out to be outrageously entertaining! The dramatic reversals near the end get to be a bit strained — I had to laugh at the voiceover over the end credits imploring viewers not to give away what happens (does the spoiler warning still apply 75 years later?) — but the acting by Laughton, Dietrich, and Power is top notch and juicy all the way through. Seeing Miss Plimsoll turn around is rewarding, too. (Yeah, I spoiled that.)
Not Tops, But Quite Good (3.5 stars)
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, Mervyn LeRoy)
A soldier returns from World War One and decides to strike out on his own, far from home. Soon he ends up in prison for something he didn’t do, and the gears of injustice keep on turning. This is a strange and grim movie. On the one hand, it presents a clear indictment of the prison industrial complex, but on the other it pushes the experience of Black people into the background in a strange way, given that they are the primary victims of this system. A lengthy montage of the main white character’s prison sentence is set to a musical backdrop of black prisoners singing negro work songs, and after he escapes, his new romantic interest explains that she doesn’t have any obligations because she is, “Free, white and 21.” Yes, the whole system is horrible, and that is made clear over the length of this movie, but it also seems to have a muddled consciousness about who most of the victims really are. Given some of the stylistic similarities between this movie and Barry Jenkins’s Underground Railroad, I wonder if the latter was a bit of a commentary on this?
Laura (1944, Otto Preminger)
Every plot summary of this movie that I’ve read has been outrageously inaccurate. I’m sorry, but I’m going to spoil it: the detective main character doesn’t “fall in love with a dead woman”, because it’s revealed not more than halfway through the movie that Laura is NOT DEAD. But someone wanted her dead and thinks the murder plot was successful. Who was it? Why? That’s the real mystery here. The machinations involved in getting at the truth (from both sides) are quite entertaining.
Crossfire (1947, Edward Dmytryk)
Several soldiers just back from the war spend the night drinking and talking, and a local civilian is shot and killed in their company. No one will admit to the crime, so it’s left to the police to do the legwork to find out what happened. For the first half there is some genuine suspense as a couple of characters deliver flashback stories from their own perspectives, but then the film turns into more of a straightforward drive to a conclusion that resolves its plot a little too neatly. Gotta respect the message, though.
The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin)
A woman is found dead in a bathtub, and the police must investigate what happened. Along the way, the bustle and energy of New York City is highlighted by quirky human interactions and lively on-location cinematography. The combination of hard-boiled crime and occasional humor works well (Muldoon is a hoot!), and the pace increases in an effective way. The voice over narration is distracting, however — especially as the narrator’s voice really reminds me of George from Seinfeld.
In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)
Humphrey Bogart plays a washed-up screenwriter. Gloria Grahame is his new neighbor from across the apartment complex. They are both interviewed at the start about a murder that happened nearby and become involved with each other. Things don’t go as expected. Disturbing all around.
Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin)
Another Dassin evocation of a major city and its criminals, in this case London. Despite the dodgy English accents, it’s positivity Dickensian! Lowlifes galore. And wrestling! Side note: after seeing Richard Widmark in this and “No Way Out”, I’ve developed a visceral dislike of him. Unfair, I know.
The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
Watching this movie, I suddenly realized where so many of the “evil Southern preacher” characters I’ve seen have come from. And the “women are sinful temptations” talking points they spew. And the “childhood trauma” that came from a brush with a predator early on. I put those quotation marks in there not because I don’t think those things are real, but because their depictions have been oddly standardized in some ways. I think this movie is a big reason why. Its influence is immense, and I’m not sure what to make of that when it is so over the top and theatrical in its presentation. But… it has one big thing going for it in my view: Robert Mitchum is far more entertaining in this film than he was in the other three I saw this Noirvember!
In the Cut (2003, Jane Campion)
The most recent of the films I watched, this one casts Meg Ryan against type as an English teacher who is fascinated with words, sex, and flirtations with death. She swims in danger constantly, and the way Campion films it, it’s not clear if that’s because she’s weird, or just the way the world forces her to be. It really gets at a state of mind that many women live in, where a walk down the street is a foray into dangerous terrain, and any man can turn out to be a murderous predator. There is no safe space here. Only a savage delirium of sex and death.
Just OK… and Below (3 stars and below)
The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)
It seemed like it was about people in totally over their heads and getting sucked into a world of crime… perfect noir territory. But then there was that coda which undid everything. Sigh!
Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer)
Voice-over mania from a sad sack who gets in a bunch of random trouble, including falling in with a woman I would describe more as a chiseling yeller than a femme fatale. Yucky all around, and not too realistic, either. On the plus side, it’s only 67 minutes long.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Tay Garnett)
Two unpleasant individuals conspire to murder the woman’s husband. Things don’t go according to plan because they’re dopes. Lacking in cleverness, charisma and atmosphere, this one went on way too long.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Lewis Milestone)
A common theme in noir (the past coming back to bite you) gets an unusual twist here: the titular character commits a crime as a child and gets away with it. She grows up. Then her past comes calling. There was a lot less Martha Ivers in this movie than I thought there would be, but what there was was almost archetypal femme fatale film noir material. Three for fidelity. Also, special recognition for Kirk Douglas, who does a great job playing a nervous, guilty, alcoholic being manipulated by his wife.
Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer as doomed lovers in another noir about the futility of trying to escape your past. Grim fate has its way with them. It’s effective in some ways, but not particularly involving emotionally (at least to me).
The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)
“I came to in the crazy house. And for a while there, I thought it was me that was crazy!” *crazy laugh* Well… it’s not an either/or proposition, Michael “fake Irish” O’Hara, now is it? Practically everyone in this “shark eat shark” movie is some kind of nuts, and occasionally it’s quite entertaining. Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders are standouts in their willingness to go big with the weirdness.
Angel Face (1953, Otto Preminger)
Robert Mitchum is sucked into the orbit of wealthy young woman who may have tried to kill her stepmother. All signs point to crazy, but he’s a bit light on brains. Bad things follow. There’s a strangely long interlude in this film where we learn about shift assemblies and cotter pins and how they relate to the functionality of automatic cars. That may sound boring, but it was more surprising than many of the other events in this film, which signals very early on the direction things are going to go in. That being said, it is well acted and interesting in the way that it depicts both the power and helplessness of women during the time frame the movie is set in.
Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway)
Despite the fact that it stars Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten, the seams really show on this one. Perfect lipstick while sleeping, what is supposed to be 5:00 a.m. looking like noon, lack of clear motivation for any of the characters… Yet, I did enjoy the performances and the fascination with nautical lore. “Scuttle it!”
High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)
It begins with a kidnapping, and the camera barely leaves the living room of Toshiro Mifune’s businessman for the first hour as he, his family, and the police desperately try to cope. A sense of claustrophobia and helplessness permeates. Then things open out, and the story transforms into a rescue/chase. The cinematography is masterful, and the case pushes forward with increasing pace in a gripping way, but the plot left me scratching my head. It sure seems like the movie is positing that simply being poor makes someone turn into an envious and nasty criminal type, which… yes, plenty of other movies have taken the same tack, but I don’t ever buy it. Or like it. The rest of the characters are not sympathetic enough to make up for the coldness that emanates.