Nine Noir for November

This article expired 14-Nov-2012 -- it may contain outdated or superceded information
14-Nov-2012 Newsletter article

Film Noir (literally black film or cinema) was coined by French film critics who noticed how dark and downbeat many of the American post war movies had become. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair, and paranoia are readily evident in these films, many produced during WWII or in the early years of the Cold War. Many leading characters were often criminal, violent, hard-boiled, or greedy--reflecting the anti-hero more than the more heroic figure of earlier productions. Indeed, these films rarely had happy or optimistic endings.

Most viewers are familiar with some of the more famous of these movies, such as the Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), or Touch of Evil (1958). But there are many, many more that are equally chilling and disturbing. Below is just a quick sampling of some of these perhaps lesser known titles that will reward the adventurous viewer. All are available in the ISU Library Media Center.

Strangers on a Train (1951) [DVD 1091]

Two men, who meet by chance on a train, agree to swap murders of people they wish to get rid of, yet only one of them actually carries out the deed. Robert Walker, who gives a remarkably cool and sinister performance as a stone-cold killer, is sensational. (It is tragic that he died much too young at age 32 the same year this film was made). Alfred Hitchcock's daughter also has a role in this suspenseful tale whose climax takes place on an out-of-control merry-go-round. This film is not for the faint-hearted.

White Heat (1949)

Jimmy Cagney had made his original fame in Public Enemy in 1931, and nearly twenty years later returns to same type of role as a psychopathic criminal, who is intensely protective of his mother, even while carrying out numerous heists. Pursued by an undercover cop (played by Edmund O'Brien, a wonderful and often underappreciated noir actor) Cagney attempts to pull off yet another bold robbery. A violent shootout is the result, which ends not well for Cagney and his gang. This is a wonderful film with plenty of drama and action.

Night of the Hunter (1955) [DVD 409]

Robert Mitchum, who could be quite scary--see him terrorize Gregory Peck in Cape Fear (1962)--plays a psychopathic self-ordained preacher who believes two children have the secret to where some money is buried. Shelly Winters and Lillian Gish (towards the end of her long career) perform wonderfully in this suspenseful and truly chilling tale directed by Charles Laughton in the only film he ever directed.

The Killing (1956) [DVD 5633]

A later generation knows Sterling Hayden as the crooked cop who ends up dead in a café in The Godfather, but by that time he had already made dozens of films. In this 1956 movie, he plays a small-time crook who plans a racetrack robbery that will net him and his men a cool two million bucks. Of course, everything goes wrong in this tautly directed masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick. The Killing is an enjoyable and intense flick from start to finish.

Kiss of Death (1947) [DVD 5273]

This is the film that made Richard Widmark famous as the giggling psychopath and the unforgettable stairway scene with the wheelchair. Victor Mature is also impressive as the reformed hood who tries to go straight after serving time, but runs into all sorts of trouble with his past associates--especially Widmark. A complex movie with a surprising ending!

Out of the Past (1947) [DVD 1634]

Robert Mitchum is teamed with Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer in this well-acted and well-written tale of love and betrayal. The gangster Douglas hires Mitchum to track down his girlfriend (Greer) who shot Douglas and ran away with his money. Mitchum finds Greer but falls in love with her only to be spurned in the end and left with a murder rap. He escapes to a new locale, only to be discovered years later by one of Douglas' cronies. Another great noir performance by Mitchum and Douglas is convincing as a heartless crime boss.

In a Lonely Place (1950) [DVD 4127]

This may be Humphrey Bogart's most realistic role (it was one of his favorite movies) and may come closest to revealing his most personal side. He plays a screen-writer who is suspected of murdering a hat-check girl. His next door neighbor (a breathtakingly beautiful Gloria Grahame) takes a liking to him and provides Bogart with an alibi. Bogart's violent side appears often enough to persuade Grahame that he may indeed be guilty of the murder. The movie ends unhappily for both individuals as Grahame ultimately rejects Bogart who ends up continuing his lonely life. Bogart is riveting in his role, and Grahame is stunning in hers. This film is probably not as well-known as some of Bogies other ones, but it is well worth a look!

The Killers (1946) [DVD 583]

In his screen debut, Burt Lancaster plays a moody hoodlum who is murdered at the beginning of the film. The background to his killing is told in a series of flashbacks. Lancaster is paired with Ava Gardner, who is brilliant and strikingly beautiful as the femme-fatale. This movie made both Lancaster and Gardner overnight stars. Edgy and stylish, this film will keep you on the edge of your seat!

The Naked City (1948) [DVD 320]

Barry Fitzgerald, who is probably remembered best as the gentle priest who helps Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944), takes on a different role here as crusty homicide detective in this dark and delicious noir story about a murder and its resolution. Ted de Corsia, who was a veteran player of bad-guy parts, is effective as the ex-wrestler who kills easily because he can. Filmed on-location in black and white, Fitzgerald is wonderful as a jaded, yet quietly effective investigator. Directed by Jules Dassin, this is the movie that contains that memorable concluding line: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them".

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